Union Math

Them Unicorns looked up from the rocks and they cried
And the waters came down and sort of floated them away
And that’s why you’ll never seen a Unicorn… to this very day.


I’m showing my age here but there you go.  That song came out two years before I was born and it was played in our Norfolk sea-side house regularly when I was very little.  It was playing in my head as I read an astonishing email from our local union executive this week where they repeatedly congratulated themselves on the system they now claim to have had a hand in creating in response to the pandemic.  This is suprising as earlier they claimed that things were happening without their input or consent, but historical hind-sight lets you rewrite the narrative to make it look like you did something, I suppose.


This self congratulatiory email went on to state that teachers should be assigned a maximum of 225 minutes of student instruction daily, and 75 mins of preparation time.  Having never been provided with these things I’m at a loss to explain the rhetoric in any rational terms.  So deaf has been our union that I’ve quit as our local CBC representative after numerous emails and calls for clarification and support went unanswered, even when I was advocating for other members.  I’m pro-union because I know what would happen if One Percenters had dictatorial control, but our union isn’t particularly egalitarian either, though it likes to make noises like it is.  The longer I look at OSSTF the more classist it seems, so I shouldn’t be surprised that their support only appears to apply to certain members. 

Our president says we’re lucky we don’t teach in other boards, which isn’t very ‘help one another’ of him, but I’ve found that a sense of comraderie isn’t very resonant in our small, white, privaleged district.  From throwing other districts under the bus while pandering to provinicial liberal bias to fighting for clear and transparent communication with members, I’ve found our local a difficult beast to deal with.  And this from a guy who was once mentoring under the district president and attended many weekend trainings.  A guy who regularly shows up to policial protests, tries to present our profession in an honest and postiive light to the public and has volunteered at the school and district level for over a decade in a number of roles.


The problem with the district’s current belief in this fantastic schedule is that it conveniently ignores specific situations where the board doesn’t have the resources it needs to make it happen.  I think the board made a good decision under no direction or leadership from a broken ministry of education in setting things up as they did, but we then needed a local union ready to work to protect its members when the specifics of the plan could not be met.  What we have instead are a group of self contratulatory district types with a strangle hold on control of our local who are more interested in putting out emails that sound like they were written by our employer than they are in making sure all of their members have access to the same plan in terms of work expected.

What we need, unless qualifications don’t matter, is to agree that any teacher working in a classroom should be familiar with the curriculum and qualified to teach the subject they’re teaching.  Ironically, in the same email we were told not to do any writing jobs for TVO’s upcoming elearning program because there is no guarrantee that a qualified teacher will teach that material – that’s exactly what’s happening now in our district and we are waving a victory flag about it.
I did some maths this morning to try and work out who exactly is teaching 225 minutes a day as per our local cohorted covid teaching plan:

Someone ignorant to the job might read this as teachers only working 225 mintues a day, but that’s 225 minutes of instruction.  You can’t just walk in and do that.  You have to prepare what you’re doing and also mark the results.  Teaching is more like presenting in media as a DJ or TV presenter – the part you see is only a small part of the job as a whole.  When you see radical differences in instructional time the ‘under the water iceberg’ part of the job is also magnified.  I’m having trouble sleeping and I’m often up at 4am marking or prepping for my red-all-year schedule because it’s the only time available to do it.

You have to fall into a very specific catagory to luck out and get the union advertised 225 minutes of instruction.  The tricky thing about equity is that it needs to be equally distributed.  Having said that, even the 225 minutes of instruction is no cakewalk as you’ve got to create two sets of material (one remote and one face to face) and then deliver them in two places at once all day every day.  Re-writing and splitting the curriculum into a never-before-taught format on the fly is difficult enough but there are other political factors diminishing the effectiveness of that remote elearning half of our curriculum.


As you might guess, I’ve been given 6 double cohort sections this year and have never once been given a qualified face to face relief teacher.  Teaching technology means you need to have a tech qualified teacher or students have to stop hands on work for safety and liability reasons.  Hands-on work in class is at such a premium this year (we only have 52.5 hours of it compared to 110 hours in a regular class), that tech teachers are simply staying in class in order to protect what little tactile time students have – of course most tech teachers have small, single-cohort class sizes, but not me.  I get capped the same as a university bound calculus class.  Before this all kicked off admin said to us that they expected we’d all wave off relief support anyway in order to ‘let our kids keep on learning’.  The worst thing you want to be in a pandemic is a unicorn, just as in the song, you can expect to get ignored, left behind and drown in the indifference shown to you by your union.

I’m the only person in my building qualified to teach what I teach and this isn’t an academic subject that might be taught out of a text book.  Technology, like French or other skills based subjects, needs to be taught by people who know how to do the thing they’re teaching; you can’t fake it.  Usually the union is all over this, but they’re evidently blind to it this year – unless you want to try and escape this nastiness by writing elearning courses for TVO (yes, I’ve applied).

The union has a long term hatred of elearning and have been dismissive of it outright.  Elearning is a challenge, and I’ve been involved it in since its germination, but if done right it could offer a differentiated approach to learning that could serve some student needs (that’s what we’re here for right?).  What you don’t want to do (that this government is intent on) is Walmarting elearing into a cheap and pedagogically ineffective wedge that weakens the entire education system.  You don’t stop that mean-spirited, self-serving narcisism (the Ontaro PC party has donors who are ready to leap in with charter school options) by refusing to participate in it.  What we need is a union researching best pedagogical practices in elearning including which students it actually works for, and then advocating for that.  The ‘keep everything analogue’ approach is dangerously out of touch and a sure way to make both the educaiton system and the union itself irrelevant.


Union footdragging on elearing pedagogical effectiveness has made a mess of half our ‘class time’ with our students.  Double cohorted teachers don’t get to support their own class in elearning.  If you’re one of the lucky ones you’ve got a collaborative, technically savvy, qualified colleague who is helping you manage that, though you’re still responsible for all the planning, prep and review of work – though that gets hazzy too as we keep turning down exectations (no new content, no assessment and now no attendance) in our online cohorts.

We aren’t turning off all these aspects of learning in elearning for pedagogical reasons, we’re doing it to lessen the load on remote learning support teachers as per union direction.  This means we’re now trying to pack a 110 hour course in 52.5 hours of face to face classroom learning in a dramatically accelerated schedule with little chance for review or differentiation.  This is difficult in any course but in tech courses that rely almost exclusively on tactile, hands-on learning and which have been instructed to allow NO HANDS ON WORK remotely for liability and safety reasons, it reduces pedagogical effectiveness to well under 50% just based on time alone, I won’t get into how difficult it has been to get parts in as the pandemic has worn on.

Eleaarning could have been leveraged make this time-crunch work better from a pedagogical perspective.  The first (obvious) step would be to ensure that all tech classes or other specialist taught courses are single cohort in order to ensure both teacher familiarity but also provide qualifiied and meaningful remote support, but that would neccessitate a local union that is fighting for all members, even the ones who teach specialist courses.  It would also require a provincial union that isn’t intent on belittling elearning as a tool in Ontario education’s toolbox.  We’ve got dozens of teachers not teaching and providing toilet breaks for people in the building so the money and teaching talent was there, it has just lacked focus.

The result of this game of smoke and mirrors is a steady deterioration of remote learning expectations since this year of pandemic teaching began.  Every time we go fully remote we seem to lose leverage in the remote half of our regular in-school day.


This politically motivated intentional ignoring of remote elearning has resulted in many classes (I’m told by students) who have little or no remote elearning work at all.  There are single cohort teachers doing 120 minutes (2 hours) of face to face instruction in the morning and then simply walking away from the remote half of the course.  Students in that class are earning credits and grades based on less than half the normal class work and can’t possibly be coming anywhere close to regular curriculum expectations, but when it suits the political angle the union wants to take on elearning, it’s all good.

The other result of this wildly uneven scheduling of work is that some members are being waterboarded by a brutal workload that can include more than twice the instructional time (along with all the prep, marking and logitistical time required for it).  When I pointed this out after my first double cohort double class quadmester and suggested I should have lightened remote support expectations in the quadmester where my prep period resided (something we could have worked around with a more evenly distrubuted schedule instead of clinging to the old one), I was told by admin that wouldn’t be fair and everyone has to do the same duties.  That’s exactly the moment my union should have stepped in and shown how much extra work I’d already done, but they’d rather pat themselves on the back for a job well-done for a small percentage of their members.  The equity must be great if you’re lucky enough to have it.

I don’t think the current situation is a failure of the school board.  I think they made difficult choices as well as they could with no support or leadership from the ministry.  What we needed was our local union to show up and help mould that plan into something that is actually fair for everyone involved and differentiates based on availablity of qualifications.  More supported, credible and consistent elearning expectations should also have been developed and evolved over the course of this year, but our union’s poltiics can’t get out of its own way when it comes to elearning, even when it results in members being hurt by wildly unfair and inequitable work expectations.

I look forward to the next email that looks like an advertisement for my employer and shows no awareness or concern for member circumstances.  It’s probably sitting in my inbox right now.  I’m pretty sure I pay the same dues as everyone else, too bad the support isn’t equal.

You’ll see green alligators and long necked geese
Some humpy-back camels and some chimpanzees
Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you’re born
You’re never gonna see no Unicorn.

This unicorn with his rare teaching qualifications isn’t just dealing with another double cohort double class quadmester.  This time around it’s double cohort double classes with stacked multi-grade senior classes, which means even more prep (grade 11 face to face work, grade 12 face to face work, grade 11 remote work, grade 12 remote work), and all packed into a single class capped at 31 students – like a university bound academic class, except my class of 31 includes 10% essential students, 35% applied students and over 50% of the class has an IEP (tech tends to attact students with special needs because it doesn’t expect them to sit in rows reading out of the same textbook).  The unicorning going on here is starting to feel less like benign neglect and more like systemic bias intent on extinction, which any technology teacher in Ontario education can tell you is nothing new.

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Apps For Education That Aren’t

Facebook, Google, whatever…

As we’ve been forced to shift online during the pandemic we’ve been placing demands on
Google Apps for Education that it simply isn’t capable of.  GAFE is, at best, a bunch of cheap software cobbled together by an advertising company in order to collect user data so they can sell things.

Trying to be productive in this environment is infuriating.  This cobbled together suite of software has atrocious UI (user interfaces) that my grade 11s could do a better job with.  Google has a rep as a software company but they’re really an advertising company that buys software companies and then twists them to feed their primary business.

The other day I likened using GAFE as a productivity tool to trying to do the Tour de France on a bicycle made out of soap.  Anyone who tells you GAFE is great has probably capped their professional teaching designations with an advertising company’s logo and is more interested in selling that than they are in providing you with a working edtech solution.  I’m willing to bet none of them have ever used other business based productivity suites and don’t know what they’re missing. 

***

Our edtech ecosystems aren’t designed with pedagogy in mind and are entirely predicated on liability management at the cheapest possible price, even though they aren’t particularly good at protecting privacy or providing a secure environment either.

While chasing this freemium software, education has tied itself to these questionable systems delivered by dodgy advertising companies that aren’t designed for productivity.  This makes one of the greatest expenses in education (the professionals who provide it) less efficient than they otherwise could be.  How we got to this point where we hand teachers software that actually gets in the way of teaching is beyond me.

An example of how non-educational the apps-for-edu suite is can be found in the evolution of Google Sites.  What was once a relatively modifiable system that even let you write your own HTML has evolved into a drag and drop toy that lets people ‘develop’ websites without any understanding of what’s going on behind the curtain.  As a means of teaching web development or even just graphic design, it’s about as useful as a slideshow.  Google loves to automate things for you to make life easy, but it doesn’t do much for you educationally or productively.

If we treated digital fluency, which is a system wide expectation in all aspects of education since the pandemic, in the same way that we treat literacy and numeracy (also expected in all aspects of education), we wouldn’t be selecting tools that do things for us to replace our understanding.  We don’t use tools in literacy and numeracy that just take the hard work out of your hands and do it for you – if we did no one would be able to read, write or do maths.

Our technology stance with digital fluency is the equivalent of teaching spelling by giving all students a word-processor that reads and writes for them while we pat ourselves on the back for a 100% literacy rate.  This laziness with digital fluency seeps into all aspects of education where automated digital tools are quickly coming to replace fundamental student skills instead of supporting their development.  There are neurologically tested negative results to this kind of digitization, like the inability to recall details when entering new learning digitally.  Of course, Google has no interest in you hand writing notes because they can’t monetize that.  Reconsidering our educational digital technology would not only mean we could teach digital literacy like it mattered, but we’d also protect pedagogy throughout the system from companies that have no interest in it.

I still dream of a day where we don’t line up to spend tax payer’s money on inefficient and questionable educational technology that has no interest in providing the best possible pedagogical experience for our students while maximising teacher productivity and focus on teaching.  Working from a credible basis like that, we could build our own open source educational technology (both hardware and software) and develop the kind of deep understanding of digital tools that would make our classrooms relevant and our students world leaders in terms of technology understanding and use.

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Trudgery: teaching in COVID at the brittle edge

 I’ve been struggling to reflect my way out of another double cohorted double class semester with no breaks to plan, mark or otherwise manage a radical change in time tabling.  In the face of this I’m trying to describe the situation in the hopes that verbalizing it more clearly defines it for me and helps me figure out a way to survive another quadmester of maximum COVID-classroomness.

In order to keep face to face class sizes below 21 students we are running a split day where half the class is face to face and the other half is remote, then they switch.  This exhausting system has me trying to respond to remote student questions while teaching face to face all day every day.  It has all the challenges of a face to face technology classroom with all the headaches of remote teaching.

The term for it when you have two double cohort classes in a single quadmester is a double-double (ala Tim Hortons).  It basically means you’re teaching in two places at once all day every day.

All of my classes this year are double cohort classes.  I appear to be a minority in this even though I’m one of few teachers in the school who has unique qualifications that no one else has or can teach.  This means any ‘online support’ teacher I get has no facility with what we’re teaching, leaving me with the job of managing both cohorts simultaneously.  Piling on this lack of equity in the workplace are the covering teachers we’re supplied with in class.  They are supposed to free us from the classroom so we have some prep time to completely re-write the curriculum to suit this new format, but none of those teachers are tech qualified which means if I leave students should be taken off hands-on work (only tech teachers are qualified to cover tech safety requirements in class).  Further cutting hands-on work in a year where we’ve already cut instructional time in half is problematic.

Because that’s not enough, I’m also teaching a double-double with a senior stacked class of two different grades (a double-double-double?).  I’m currently unable to sleep very well and I’m frequently up at 3am, which is when I’m doing all my planning and marking because I have no other time to do it when I’m at work.

We’re not given any data on our students so I dig it all up myself.  I’ve started this double-double-double with a stacked to maximum capacity of 31 students in two grades (20 in the maxed out morning cohort and the other 11 in the afternoon) senior class.  This is an ‘M’ level senior technology class.  In other places these are capped much lower, but my hands-on technology class is capped the same as a grade 12 university bound calculus or English class even though we’re hands on with live electricity, power tools and 400 degree soldering irons.  Out of those 31 students, 26% are applied level students and 10% are essential level.  52% of students in the class have an individual education plan that demands differentiation of instruction (both online and f2f – simultaneously).

Ontario high school classes are supposed to be 110 hours long.  I only get 52.5 hours of face to face instruction with my students in our pandemic quadmesters.  The other 52.5 hours I’m unable to support them online because I’m face to face with the other cohort of the same class.  I suggested we use the empty room next door and spread out across two classes.  My non-shop regular classroom packed with technology makes six foot separation even in cohorts of 20 impossible, but spreading out across two classrooms would allow us to maintain social distancing while also providing a qualified instructor for online learning since we’d be a single cohort class (all 31 students in but spread across two classrooms means smaller cohorts in each room than with the class cut into morning and afternoon cohorts), and I’d be supporting my own students in the afternoon online.

This seemed like a reasonable ask but I got a hard “no” from above.  Evidently what I teach is too dangerous for  me to be able to manage students in two rooms at the same time.  Not too dangerous to stuff 31 students of every skill level into a stacked class, but too dangerous to work in two rooms at the same time.

Our media arts room and even our metal shop full of lathes and other metal cutting tools that can chop your fingers off operate in two spaces walled off into two separate rooms where the teachers have to be in two places at once, but evidently I’m a special case.  My students don’t warrant qualified teachers for the remote half of their class, or a safely distanced space to work in.

While I was trying to sort out a pedagogically sensible and safer solution for my senior students I’m also juggling another double cohort of grade 9s in the other week.  That class is more academically leaning than my previous two classes but still rocks a 26% applied, 9% essential mix (including one DD student who is occupying almost all our in-class and remote support).  Over a quarter of that class has IEPs as well.

I’m trying to keep the hands-on aspects of the course alive but finding parts in a pandemic isn’t getting any easier as we stagger through another quadmester.  I have only a few PCs left for grade 9s to learn building on and what I do have is in rough shape.  When I’m up at 4am I’m also contacting my usual suppliers to see if I can get any more parts in.  They’re moving mountains for me but I’ll have to drive down to Brampton to pick them up because I’m not allowed to charge for shipping suddenly.  Not sure when I’m going to do that.

I’m still left wearing the same mask as everyone else.  The other morning I was walking down the hallway with two colleagues.  If you put both of them together I’m still bigger, but we’re all handed the same mask, though I half swallow mine because it’s much too small for me.  Every day I finish with a cracking sinus headache from the constant pressure.  I offered to bring in my own PPE but I’m not allowed.

While all that’s all going on I also helped a science teacher get the cables she needed to run her smartboard in class, helped another with speakers so they could play things out loud in class, explained to multiple people how to get tech working online and helped yet another whose VR pc we’d previous built for them stopped working.  It had stopped working because someone had gone into the PC and taken one of the memory sticks out of it – the other one was half hanging out of the motherboard (likely in the process of being stolen when someone walked in).  So I’m helping that teacher get the RAM they need to get the machine working again.

I’ve also got a coop student this semester, but I can’t get her out into the school doing the usual IT repairs we do because there’s a pandemic.  She’s actually a life saver in terms of being an extra set of hands in the classroom because we’ve had a number of technical issues with our DIY lab because many of the grade 9s have never used a desktop computer before and have caused many intermittent crashes that we’re trying to diagnose on the fly.

I’m one of the only teachers in the school to keep extracurriculars alive as many students depend on them, and I’m still trying to chase down awards and monetary support for our poor graduates who are trying to navigate this deepening crisis at a critical point in their lives.  Even that has come back to bite me.

Last Friday I discovered that my support of female students pushing back against sexism in technology pathways was so wrong that the higher ups who said no to a more socially distanced and qualified teacher supported classroom wanted me reprimanded.  Only local administration’s focus on rebuilding relationships in our school prevented that from happening.  I guess I should be happy for the little things.

Last Tuesday we had a blizzard that shut down the area and caused a number of blackouts.  We don’t live in an place with public transit or timely road clearing; weather can still stop things here, but that doesn’t stop the always-more treadmill we seem to be running on.  Online the message was, “All students are to shift to remote learning for the day. Staff are not to report to their workplace and are to work remotely.”  Meanwhile the telephone message from school said, ” school is closed and all buses are cancelled. Students and staff should not report to school, thanks and have a great day.”  This mixed messaging resulted in low online engagement.

I got to spend a day I would usually be catching up on the two weeks of marking I’m behind on or trying to recreate entire courses to suit a never-before-seen timetable babysitting students with the socio-economic advantage (who are predominantly ‘academic’ level students because we stream as much by privilege as we do intellectual ability) online.  The kids who didn’t have the tech or connectivity or home life conducive to online learning, or were just unlucky enough to live in the parts of town where infrastructure failed all got to come to school Wednesday already a day behind.  I’m going to be the hammer for that kind of inequity any more.

I keep trying to find ways to make this work but the answer always seems to involve disrespecting the ever deepening difficulties we’re drowning in.  I’ve quit being the school CBC rep because our local OSSTF district won’t reply to any questions about working conditions, even when I’m asking on behalf of other members.  It’s difficult to not take this personally and I know everyone is struggling to make things work under difficult circumstances, but I’d love to know just how much of a minority I am in terms of teaching load when I’m the only one in the building qualified to teach what I teach.  I’m beginning to see why unicorns died out; it’s not easy being unique.

Talking to super-students who at any other time are the epitome of initiative and drive, they tell me that they are exhausted and just don’t care any more.  If the go-getters are feeling that way then I’m sure the students without that resilience and drive are in tatters.  Parents of students with IEPs are asking me why their child’s grades are falling in all their classes, but saying anything about systemic inequity got me a reprimand.  I’m no longer willing to be the hammer that grinds children into paste so that a broken system can pretend everything is business as usual.

If you’re a teacher and you’re reading this, everyone is exhausted.  Keeping up the fiction that schools are running as usual is hurting people.  Consider rewiring your classes so that you preserve and protect the children in your care.  You can’t possibly expect to cover what you normally do in courses that are half the usual face to face instructional time, especially when that half is full of COVID paperwork, muzzled, frightened faces and demoralized, socially distanced lack of collaboration.  The people who claim that kids need to be face to face in class haven’t been in a COVID classroom, no one is face to face.  Getting students through this is now my focus.  It’s also how I’ll get myself through this without ending up in hospital.

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A Psychological/Metaphysical One-Two Punch

I’m still working my way through The Science of Well Being, an online psychology course done by Doctor Laurie Santos out of Yale.  This week she got into some neuroscience around how our minds work.  I originally experienced this during my philosophy degree thirty years ago when I was introduced to Bertand Russell’s Analysis of the Mind, which laid bare the mythology we erect around our thinking.  By the end of Russell’s book I no longer believed in a consistent sense of self because such a thing is a social construct; we don’t inhabit our own being in anything like a consistent, always-on way.  Most of our lives are run out of habitual reflex with little conscious direction.  We only experience moments of conscious direction before falling back into habit, some more than others.

Santos describes this in neuro-scientific terms in The Science of Well Being as a kind of default neurological network that lights up in our brains when we’re not consciously doing something.  The parts of the mind that activate during these non-conscious moments are the same parts that light up when we’re thinking about the past and/or future.  Amazingly, we typically spend almost half our time in this state of reverie, out of touch with the world around us.

She goes on to describe this evolutionary process that appears to be unique to our species as a cognitive achievement, but one that comes at a great emotional cost.  Research into this process has demonstrated again and again that living out of the moment makes us sad; a uniquely human melancholy that we all pay for if we want to be able to think beyond cause and effect, which has obvious benefits, though we still seem exceptionally bad at it.

Santos then explains how mediation and mindfulness can decrease the impact of that default reverie thinking process that makes us so unhappy while also providing all sorts of benefits like improved academic performance and mood.  Mindfulness brain exercises proved more effective than nutrition or even sleep in improving cognitive performance, which raises some interesting questions around how we’ve arranged school to be almost intentionally non-meditative.

People who haven’t had a lot of experience with mindfulness and meditation often fall into the belief that mediation is just wallowing in that default thinking reverie, but it isn’t that at all.  This was emphasized for me in a strange media-mix-up last week.  My son Max and I have been working our way through The Midnight Gospel on Netflix, a surrealistically animated series of podcast interviews by animator Pendleton Ward and comedian Duncan Trussell.

If you’re willing to do the mental gymnastics necessary, The Midnight Gospel will introduce you to a truly meta piece of 21st Century media.  The main character, voiced by Trussell, is a “space caster” who uses a universe simulator (he sticks his head into a giant vagina to activate it) to pop in to various realities where he interviews people.  The interviews are the podcasts re-jigged to fit this new format.

We’ve watched episodes on everything from Buddhism and karmic rebirth to Aleister Crowley style occultism to an explanation of the bizarre nature of North American death rituals in the 20th Century, so other than a complex subject being unpacked by smart people, you don’t really know what’s coming at you next.  This all happens while Yellow Submarine level psychedelic animation sometimes describes and sometimes does everything it can to distract you from what’s being said.  We got to the season finale of The Midnight Gospel not knowing what’s coming (because it makes it clear that you can’t), but looking forward to it.

The Silver Mouse is a breathtakingly personal finale where the animation suddenly clicks into gear with the story telling in the interview and amplifies it to such a degree that it left us speechless.

Duncan made this interview with his mother, Deneen Fendig, just before she passed of terminal cancer in 2013, and it describes her coming to peace with her mortality through meditation.  Duncan had always struggled with the idea of mediation, and Deneen’s honest, unpretentious guided meditation practice not only worked for him in the interview, but it also resonated with me on many levels.

https://strawd0gs.blogspot.com/2017/11/suicide-how-to-steer-past-staring-into.html

The animation begins with Duncan as a young man and his mother as an older woman, but through the course of the episode she grows old and dies, only be reborn by Duncan himself so they can continue their conversation.  As she grows up, Duncan grows into an old man and dies himself; it’s a beautiful representation of the circle of life, carefully crafted and delivered.  For a man who lost his mother in difficult circumstances at around the same time Duncan lost his mum, it rocked me.  I’m in tears now as I write this.  I wish I could have had this conversation with my mum before she passed, but mental illness took her away from me long before she died.

Deneen’s wisdom in finding her way to a meditative awareness of not only her own being, but also to a sense of how it hangs in the firmament of the universe was told humbly, honestly and without pretense.  That she found a tangible way of escaping the non-present ruminating mind wandering we all tend to fall back into was also inspiring.  She doesn’t hang a lot of superstitious nonsense around the radical sense of self awareness that she uncovers in herself.  Many people seem to cling to belief when facing the end that comes for us all, but not Deneen.  Her bravery is inspiring and underscored for me the fact that we don’t have to believe in miracles and other historical fictions to realize our place in the universe and find peace in the face of death.

Between the psychology and science of The Science of Well Being course and the magical realism and stark emotional honesty of The Midnight Gospel, it has been a rich week of media empowered reflection that puts everything else that’s going on in perspective.  To top it all off, Max and I got to watch a spectacular, once in a lifetime lightning storm blow over us the other day.  My life feels unexpectedly rich at the moment.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/smqSdUzvn8E2ePc49

Notes:

Science of Well Being, Mind Control:  https://www.coursera.org/learn/the-science-of-well-being/lecture/58VUO/mind-control

The Midnight Gospels:  Mouse of Silver:
original podcast:  http://www.duncantrussell.com/episodes/2016/7/18/my-mom-part-2
Netflix animated series:  https://www.netflix.com/title/80987903


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Leadership is Exhausting #1: headships & heirarchies

Some people make leadership their life’s work, but I’m not one of them.  I find managing other people tiresome and tedious.  The only time I pursue leadership is if I feel it’s the only way to get things done.  Getting things done is what I’m all about and with a few exceptions I prefer to do it without management hierarchy.  I greatly enjoy collaborating and find few things more satisfying than a team working well together, but those teams are best when populated with experts pursuing their expertise, not when dictated to by a hands-off management expert.


I just completed a two year term as co-head of technology at my school.  The only thing worse than leading is having to go to committee every time a decision has to be made, which is what the co-head structure was designed to do.  Rather than get tangled up in that nonsense I focused on the things my co-head wasn’t conversant in, like communication and encouraging department improving extracurriculars.  At no point was I embroiled in co-head who’s-the-boss arguments (as others were) or telling anyone what to do, though this approached baffled many of the other people on the leadership team.  My co-head took care of safety and hard-tech shop requirements, I did the other things.  We collaborated on things like sectioning, though even here there was sometimes friction.  I wouldn’t recommend co-headships.  At their best they are a compromise.


At the end of my tenure our department had re-established itself as one of the leaders in the board in Skills Canada participation, re-connected with board funding for technology and had become used to actually knowing what happens in leadership team meetings thanks to my detailed, live and often colourful note taking.  I think I left the department in a more aware and positively engaged extracurricular place than I found it.


I’ve been a drill sergeant, I know how to bark orders and expect them to be obeyed.  It is only in very hierarchical situations that a dominating leader can operate effectively.  The punishments have to be immediate and the focus razor sharp.  Everybody involved is usually willing to do this because you’re training for a life and death situation so you need to have your shit together.  I enjoyed operating in an environment like that because expectations were clear and the efficiencies were obvious, but leadership in education is anything but clear on objectives and expectations (it’s managed by politicians).


It is such a relief to put that headship down.  The lack of focus or clarity of purpose makes for a very murky operating environment.  Everyone’s opinion is carefully listened to and then decisions happen seemingly of their own accord.  Having to listen to people who think everyone should do what they tell them for hours at a time in Head’s meetings is one of my least favourite things to do.  Trying to find quorum in a crowded room of conflicting self interests led to never ending discussions that never produced conclusions.  A room where less was said for longer amounts of time I don’t think I’ve ever sat in.

Now that I’m free from the yoke of leadership I’m doing what I do best and doubling down my energy on research and development.  I voluntarily took on too many sections of teaching again just to give my students opportunities to explore the technology they want to make their life’s work.  We’re taking a run at cyber-security competition for the first time with ICTC’s Cyber Titan program.  We’ve already put together a powerful roster of Skills Ontario competitors, and I’m pursuing half a dozen emerging technology initiatives.  My seniors are building VR ready computers for schools across the board and we’re developing ipad based software for DD students to better understand emotional expression.  We’ve repaired dozens of Chromebooks and other school hardware, installed software and enabled technology across the school.  We’re also in the process of working out how to create immersive 360° video as an introduction to the school so that students can become familiar with the layout before they arrive.  All that’s happening while I’m teaching five sections in three classes.


It’s my kind of work; it’s wide ranging, there are no right answers, there are no instructions because no one really knows how to do a lot of it, and it demands a real sense of discovery.  Isn’t this just another form of leadership you ask?  I’m certainly managing a lot of activity, but I’m back to my flat hierarchy where I work to develop expertise in my students so that they can self-govern their work (an expert is defined by how they design their work space in order to display their expertise).  I don’t want a production line, or even submission to hierarchy, I want experts I can collaborate with in pursuing solutions to challenging, non-linear, real-world engineering problems.  That might be the worst definition of leadership ever devised, but it’s what I value, and it’s the opposite of exhausting.

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Playing To Win

Last year we were stunned to get an email saying we’d made it through to the Canadian national finals for the first ever CyberTitan student cybersecurity contest.  We knew, on the face of things, that we weren’t up at the pointy end of things, though we had made big improvements as we came to see what the competition wanted from us.  We couldn’t really understand how we’d finished top two other than the fact that there really weren’t many teams in the eastern division.


CyberTitan is the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) of Canada’s national competition for Canadian students interested in developing skills in cyber security.  We’ve become so dependant on ICT infrastructure that it underpins many other critical systems like our food delivery, energy and finance sectors.  Yet this critical infrastructure is taught as an afterthought in Ontario’s education system (even as it becomes instrumental in delivering curriculum in all other areas of learning).  Being able to secure and maintain ICT infrastructure isn’t a nice idea, it’s increasingly a life and death one.


ICTC’s creation of the CyberTitan program is a forward thinking move.  With one of the largest job vacancy rates of any field and while other countries create military and civilian agencies to develop this new expression of ill intent, cyber security is being ignored at our own peril, but ICTC is trying to do something about it.


We went to last year’s nationals in Fredericton and had a fantastic experience.  Three of our team had never left the province or been on a plane before.  The competition took a radical turn from the Cyberpatriot rounds we’d done previously, but we did our best and managed a fifth place finish being beaten only by teams who have been doing this for years through the American Cyberpatriot competition.


This year we hit the ground running in September.  I’d already arranged a senior team and an all female team, but interest was so high I took the hit before I discovering my department budget had been eviscerated and paid the late fee for another team of interested junior students.  Those students named themselves the Cybears and stunned everyone by topping our scores in the first two rounds of Cyberpatriot, the US run competition that CyberTitan follows in the early rounds.  Cyberpatriot tiers the teams after the two opening rounds and then pitches challenges to each tier depending on their ability.  Platinum teams are still in the hunt for the world wide title but lower tiers still get to compete for top of tier prizes.


Since this was our first time seeing platinum level challenges, the State Round was a rough ride for our Cybears. They didn’t manage to finish in the top 25% of platinum teams worldwide and as a result they are out of the semi-final round coming up next week.  Having to tell our strongest team that they are out wasn’t easy, but it did shed light on how we got to nationals last year and how the competition is organized.


Last year we struggled at the beginning but got better and better each round.  We ended up Gold tiered and in the State Round had our best run yet, which is what got us to the Canadian Nationals – CyberTitan only looks at State Round results and doesn’t take tiering into account.  Platinum teams trying to climb Everest are considered on equal footing with Gold and Silver teams climbing Blue Mountain.  It would be like having some students write a 4C exam and others a 4U exam and then saying the grades are equivalent.


This led to an interesting conversation with the frustrated Cybears who, had they backed off on points in the early rounds would have landed in an easier tier and had a direct run to a top score in the State Round.  Do we play dumb and get an easier tier to get higher scores at the end?  That’s the path we unknowingly took to the national finals last year.


In talking it through we all eventually came around to the same conclusion:  we go full bore the whole time even if it means a tougher time later on in the competition.  The goal should be to go Platinum and then qualify for the national semifinals and get through the hard way.  This puts us in the best possible place to actually win Nationals.  We could be cunning and play this to our advantage and get easier points to game our way into the Nationals, but getting to Nationals isn’t the point, improving our skills and being competitive in it is.


Next year we’re aiming to build an all-star team out of the strongest contenders in this year’s three teams.  That team isn’t going to try and game its way into a National finalist spot.  We’re going the long way around, or not at all.


Meanwhile, our senior team got strong in Windows security management and thanks mainly to the scores of those Windows boys ended up finishing 2nd in Canada in the Gold tier.  Their Cisco networking and Linux results, while slowly improving, are way out of line with other teams around them, so they have an uphill battle to get the points they need to survive the semi-final round.  Since they’re in the Gold tier the images won’t be as hard as they might be, so points should be findable.  They’ve gotten better in each round, so a strong national finish is in the cards.


Our junior team is actually our girls’ team. Most of them were grade 9s last year with only two in grade 11.  The contest stressed them early but they showed incredible resilience and adaptability, pulling themselves up into the Gold tier and finishing right behind the senior Cybeavers, 3rd in Canada in their tier.


Last year’s nationals was a very male centric contest.  This doesn’t surprise me as finding females willing to stick with digital technologies has been an ongoing struggle at my conservative, rural school.  The all-female staff of ICTC people at the Nationals noted the lack of female competitors.  Getting women into technology is an ongoing battle, but more than a wildcard entry, I’d love to see the Terabytches win their way into the National finals and be the first all female team to do it.  I’d then like to see them take a serious run at winning it.


Unlike last year when we built a team of graduating seniors who all left us for university, this year we only have one or two graduating seniors.  We have already seen a significant step forward in terms of raising our skills and knowledge of cybersecurity (all three teams beat last year’s team’s State Round score).  By being able to cultivate talent and build experience year over year, our future teams in this competition look promising indeed.

Two Gold Tier finishes in the 2019 State Round – nice to see!

The Cyberpatriot competition does a lot of things that align with Ontario’s computer technology curriculum.  Joining it gives you access to Cisco’s Netacademy while also encouraging focus on what to get better at quickly.  The maintenance work we do in Windows 8.1, 10 and Server aligns with Skills Ontario’s IT & Networking scope, acting as a great review for our Skills competitors.  We struggle with Linux, but understanding Unix based operating systems is vital for web development, another Skills Ontario scope we’re chasing, so getting better there is no bad thing.

With so much student interest, our successes to date, and how complementary CyberTitan is with our other activities, I don’t see us dropping it any time soon, though it was mighty difficult to tell the hardest working, most focused and most successful team that they are out because they qualified too well.  Spending the $400 on registration and then another couple of hundred feeding my CyberTitans while they were battling in this cyber-marathon is also hurting now that I’m looking at an eviscerated department budget.


Friday, February 1st, while everyone writing day four exams thanks to some nasty winter weather, I’ve arranged to have all my competitors’ exams bumped to Monday and we’ll be in a six hour battle to see if we can win our way to the National Finals for the second year in a row.  I hope both teams show up ready to do their best work.  As long as we’re running at 100% of our capacity, the results don’t really matter, though when we’re this close, it’d be nice to win!



It looks like at least two eastern division teams are ahead of us
on points, so it looks like our 2018-19 CyberTitan drive is at an end.

As a quick follow up, it looks like we’re finally out of the competition after the semi-finals.  The Terabytches did great work in Windows and Cisco, but struggled in Linux and fell short in the semi-finals.  Doing this round we’ve never seen before in the middle of exams made it very difficult for the everyone, but especially the juniors, to focus on preparing for semis.  The Terabytches (for the first time in the contest) seemed ruffled, making mistakes they hadn’t previously when managing images and working within the competition framework.  The penalties received were all good experience though and will only make for a more resilient team next year.  Now we’ve seen what can go wrong, we know how to avoid it in the future.


The Cybeavers were as strong as ever in Windows, where they were consistently near or at the top of the country.  They struggled in Linux but came in at about the State Round average number of points in that category, so held their own.  The Cisco networking once again stumped them, causing us to lose places and ultimately fall short or at least two other eastern division teams, which means we’re probably finished.

Creating senior teams that are strong across all sectors of the competition (Windows OS and Linux OS security management and Cisco networking) is going to be the goal for next year, and looking at our two junior teams, we’re spoiled for choice.  Up until last year I was still getting bumped into teaching English and wasn’t even a full time ICT teacher.  Computer science at our school is only a couple of sections and digital technologies in general struggle to reach a sustainable level in our building.  That our peripheral program in our rural school is able to produce results like we do is very satisfying and shows my students what they can do if they work together and apply themselves.  We’ll keep doing that, one way or another, even if it means winning the hard way.  Next year we’ll be doing it with our first ever veteran teams.

If you’re trying to drum up interest in ICT in your school, this is a good way to do it!


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Archive: 1999: Bloodsport, the gore of experience (points)

Piles of corpses and rivers of blood…

I’m currently swinging my way through Never Winter Nights and last night, after clearing out a room of guards, I paused for a moment. Bodies lay scattered around me and the blood was thick on the floor. In my character’s head came the thought, “I just murdered eight men.”

The bodies just fade away in NWN, it’s all very antiseptic and clean (and I imagine it makes life easier for the graphics card). Bodies don’t really fade away though do they? In a more realistic world guards and investigators would be swarming around that house shortly after the guards on shift change found their slaughtered companions. People who saw me enter and leave with heavy pockets would have been questioned, the bodies would not have disappeared, my life would have been forever changed by that action.

I think about the mountains of corpses I’ve made in this game (which I’m enjoying otherwise – it is quite beautifully rendered), and I’m only on Chapter 2! This isn’t slagging against NWN specifically, all computer based role playing games do this. I think they do it because the people who design and make the games aren’t role-players, they’re programmers and marketing types; people who think linearly and modularly. I know it’s easy for game makers to make experience = killing because it’s mechanical, and simple and it satisfies an innate human need for violence, but if graphics are getting as good as they are (almost movie quality at times), then perhaps this lazy approach to game design should finally be put aside. I don’t think it does anyone any good to control a mass murderer, especially when this usually happens for the greater good in the context of the game.

Why can’t my opponents see that I can easily kill them and surrender? Why couldn’t I earn experience by taking it away from people I subdue (that even makes sense in a balance of nature sort of way). Imagine a young fighter who gains experience and loses it too when he is subdued by a powerful foe. If he ever got knocked back down to zero experience I’m sure he’d be rethinking his career choice. It would also help in a game situation where developers wouldn’t have to worry about linear design so much. With lethality as a rare occurrence, but being subdued having an immediate effect on experience, I imagine most characters would be more careful especially if this system also took away or greatly minimized the ‘save game’ crutch. I take many more risks knowing that I’m 10 seconds of hard drive access away from trying it again. Continuity would help players develop real connection to their characters instead of using them as tools to attack a linear plot.

Why does it have to be about gallons of blood and piles of corpses? … and why does violence have to be mechanical?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a hockey player, a kendo practicioner and I’ve had a go at half a dozen martial arts; violence isn’t a stranger to me, but maybe that’s why I’ve got respect for it, because I’m familiar with it.

I enjoy a good fight more than most people, but what’s happening in NWN (and every other computer RPG I’ve played) is not a good fight, it’s a dumbed down fight against dimensionless opponents. Do you know how hard it is to find an opponent who won’t cut and run at the first injury? 99% of opponents are not commited to the fight, they are commited to their own well being (as they should be). I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of people that you meet will do anything to avoid a physical confrontation and the most dangerous opponents are those who willingly consider a physical confrontation but avoid it if circumstances aren’t to their liking. In a more lawless society that might mean they’ll try and get you later when you’re busy, asleep or otherwise indisposed. That would only enrich the experience more. Having repeat encounters with a character who you first think is a coward and later learn is a vendeta ridden lunatic bent on revenge at all costs might make you reconsider being a jackass in the first place. People aren’t always what they appear at first blush; it’s part of their charm.

Have you ever been in a fist fight? Can you remember the adrenaline? That was only a fist fight! Can you imagine what it would feel like with a real sword in your hand and an opponent facing you with a lethal weapon? Wouldn’t you think twice about it if the person/monster you were facing had a hungry gleam in their eye? If you submit early perhaps you can escape intact, without losing any equipment and with a minimal experience point loss. If you mouth off and get in over your head, your teacher will certainly take more of your valuables as well as skim off more experience. You’d have to gamble to rise quickly. If you’re third level and you want to face off against a fifth level character you will probably lose, but if you win by luck or skill you would take more experience suddenly and find yourself levelling up. Wouldn’t they think twice if they saw that same look in your eye?

I’d like my role-playing battles to approach the intensity (are rarity) of the real thing. It should never be mechanical, it should never be done without thought and it should almost never end in a mortal wound. Having to submit and then being sold into slavery would greatly enrich a character’s background and provide a solid source of motivation to get better with that damn sword.

There are so many ways that a role playing world can become encompassing, but the game makers don’t seem to want to take that step. If it sells as it is why tamper with it I guess. Well here’s another angle: build it and they will come. If a designer out there can come up with a role playing game that incorporates a respect for violence and concentrates on developing a stronger tie between player and character, I’ll be the first to sign up.

Just some thoughts while standing ankle deep in the blood of guards who were just doing their jobs.

Like a Fish in Water

1) Setup Anxiety 

We just finished the final round of this year’s Cyberpatriot / CyberTitan Canadian Student Cybersecurity Competition.  To say this year has been a challenge would be a gross understatement.  We lost half our teams immediately thanks to COVID restrictions.  The cancelled teams were both the junior teams who have missed a vital year of apprenticing with the seniors as we prepare for competition.  Thanks to this break in our process we’ll be seeing a reduction in the skills we’ve systemically developed over the past three years.  

With our two senior teams we limped through two rounds of the competition mask socially distanced to mask (because no one is face to face anymore) in our nerd lab at school.

The first round was shaky, especially on our senior co-ed team where our most experienced, senior students didn’t show up mentally on competition day.  Some careful coaching and focusing got them on track for round two where both teams scored more like they’re able.

We just completed the final round of competition last Friday, and (because things weren’t already hard enough) this time it was fully remote thanks to Ontario’s systemic mishandling of COVID19.  This had me up nights worrying about connectivity and tech at home for eleven competitors on two teams in eleven different home locations.  Our student built DIY lab means I can take care of the complex setup needed to do Cyberpatriot and let the students focus on the material itself, but not this time.

The competition uses virtual images (computers simulated inside a window) that give students hands on experience with infected and compromised computers.  When you open a virtual image and start working on it a timer starts and you’ve got six straight hours to maximize points by fixing the image.  If one of your images doesn’t open or a student is having technical issues, you’re still on the clock and losing time.  Doing IT support in a live environment with harsh consequences like that is very stressful, which is why I’d been anxious.

I delivered technology to students at home and did everything I could to ensure that they had what they needed.  I said repeatedly, “don’t talk about what you’re going to do, rehearse it!”  This was finally heard (after repeating it several times – teens don’t like to practice things) and students didn’t just think they were ready for Friday, they knew.

They sent me photos of their home setups, most of which were home made/DIY computers that we either made in our lab at school or they built at home using the skills they learned at school.  That produced a level of satisfaction I hadn’t considered; this final round students were competing on technology they built themselves that they’d also done all the software setup on so they could then demonstrate advanced digital skills well beyond what Ontario’s atrophied digital skills curriculum asks.

Put another way, I’ve been presenting on Cyberpatriot/CyberTitan for several years and a number of teachers have told me they’d do it but the technical setup is too complicated.  It wasn’t for the grade 10s, 11s and 12s at home last week.  Maybe it’s time to integrate digital fluency into Ontario’s Teacher’s Colleges if we’re expecting every teacher in the province to be proficient in the medium.

2. Swimming with the Digital Fishes

I’ve talked about the power of authorship in understanding and developing a meaningful pedagogy around technology use many times, but this time we took things to a place where few dare to tread.  As we prepared for this seemingly insurmountable challenge I didn’t tighten things into rote demands for compliance, I gave these students agency, and doing so gave me a peak into a world few teachers ever get to see.

Thanks to Heidi Siwak’s suggestion, I watched My Octopus Teacher last week.  What I saw on Friday in competition is much like what Craig Foster saw when getting to know his octopus: a wild animal being brilliant in its native habitat.

When you see students operating in the restrictive, overly prescribed walled garden of your corporately provided educational technology you’re seeing (in the ones that are actually digitally fluent because most aren’t) a wild animal in a restrictive, unfamiliar and domesticated environment.  This produces a kind of reticence in the digitally fluent student that means you’re not seeing them as they really are when they operate in digital spaces.  Even teachers with digitally literate students don’t often get to see this natural behaviour, which is expressive, efficient and astonishingly rich.

One of the ways we came to terms with managing the many challenges of trying to compete in a technically challenging international cybersecurity competition while stuck at home in a lockdown was by letting the students self-select the tools they would need to do the job.  This started with making sure they were on technology that gave them the administrative privileges they needed to move freely.  Nothing we’ve ever been handed at school was that.  The other side of the equation is selecting the software we needed to be able to communicate quickly, privately and efficiently.

The students selected Discord as their communications medium of choice.  I’ve had a passing acquaintance with this software but hadn’t been on it recently.  One of my jobs as Cyberpatriot Coach is to proctor the teams and ensure compliance with the rules; I’m judge as well as coach.  Cyberpatriot’s minimum requirements for fully remote competition only asked for a single check in with competitors but considering the circumstances (worldwide health emergency, remember?) I thought a bit more contact was in order.

The teams each set up private Discord chats focused on various areas of the competition.  They couldn’t see each other, but I could quickly move between both groups and connect to live voice and video chats as well as screen sharing.  This was vital in our approach to the competition as we encourage and depend on collaborative team interaction when problem solving.  Other teams may like to do the loner hacker in a room by themselves, but we’ve never approached it that way.

One of the reasons for this is that I’m trying to raise digital skills in cybersecurity in a place where we started with nothing.  To do that senior students work with the juniors when we’re practicing for competition (teams are physically and virtually contained during competition rounds).  Collaboration isn’t just how we compete, it’s also how we learn the material.

Discord’s fluid and efficient communications environment not only allowed me to proctor the competition by easily moving between teams, it also let the teams design their own internal communications structures and then leverage them with astonishing effectiveness.  Because they are all fluent in the medium their use of it is emotive and staggeringly fast.

While we were waiting for the email from CPOC to start round three (it never arrived, I had to contact Maryland directly to get access – my best guess is it got blocked by my work email – sigh), I watched memes appear and morph in the group chat.  This was happening beneath continuous voice chats and screen shares.

Once competition began I was moving between the specialists on each team and then between the teams.  I would drop into an ongoing discussion about how to solve a problem and immediately get a, ‘hey, King’ from the people in the chat.  Discord has a little chime that goes off when you join a chat and the students are keyed to it.  There is a misconception that teens aren’t engaged online but it’s because of how we situate them in educational technology, not because they are incapable of rich, interactive online engagement.

Over the course of the six hour competition I was flitting between discussions, but Discord doesn’t just make those discussions fluid and natural, it also lets you know what’s going on in them.  At one point three students were in the senior team’s Linux chat and our two operators were both sharing their screens so that all three people could see them.  This is precisely the kind of collaboration I feared we’d lose in a fully remote environment, but Discord made it possible for us to do what we normally do in a very difficult situation.

What made this potential disaster a success was DIY technology at home on self-selected communications platforms.  We started and ended the day in a Google Meet on our board system and it managed to be both laggy and disengaging after Discord.  Students never turned on webcams in Discord but because they could quickly and easily screenshare and emote in written chat while verbally communicating, they created an immersive and powerful online communications experience.  On our stilted video chat at the end of the day I was left wondering why video chats are seen as the future.  Like telephone calls, they’re the fixation of a generation, but not the future.  If we weren’t spending all our time pressing students faces into their webcams on that limited video platform we’d be able to see how they actually swim in their digital sea and meet them there instead.

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Absurdities

 I came across this article by Yuval Noah Harari called  “Are we living in a post-truth era? Yes, but that’s because we’re a post-truth species.”  It’s not often that I’m rocked by something that I read, but this did that.  He has a particular line in it that explains the dissonance I feel with the world at the moment: 

“…truth has never been high on the agenda of Homo sapiens. If you stick to unalloyed reality, few people will follow you. False stories have an intrinsic advantage over the truth when it comes to uniting people. If you want to gauge group loyalty, requiring people to believe an absurdity is a far better test than asking them to believe the truth. “

This happens with people so often that it’s one of the main reasons I find them so taxing.  Supporting other people’s fictions isn’t something that comes naturally to me.  I understand the social advantage of forcing compliance to untruths in order to establish loyalty between people, I’m just terrible at it.

In the last post talking about how to move forward in the morass of misinformation and negativity surrounding us, I mentioned that if I wanted to give up my idealism I’d go into management.  Management is one of those jobs that demands a facility for moving in post-truth ways.

A few years ago we had a poorly planned grade 8 day happen where an unexpected influx of students from the Catholic system resulted in over fifty children in one of the groups moving around the school seeing what’s on offer.  After half a dozen groups of 25 or so students accompanied by their teacher came through our program, this horde of fifty plus unaccompanied by an adult (because the second school system in Ontario won’t acknowledge the public one) burst into my shop and proceeded to do hundreds of dollars in damage before leaving.

I was livid.  I emailed admin and guidance and said (truthfully) that this was a dangerous situation that never should have been allowed to happen.  This upset our new head of guidance who was a good friend of our new principal.  His solution was to walk up to my room (very angry that I’d made his friend cry) and demand that I apologize for saying that this dangerous situation was dangerous.  I was teaching a class at the time but he wouldn’t let me leave the hallway he’d hauled me out into until I’d apologised.  It was a brutally honest moment of human hierarchical interaction where compliance to a lie was demanded and the usual niceties that we cloak our fictions in were swept aside.

More recently, as we switched to fully remote learning again following the mid-winter break, we were told “no one saw this coming” by admin.  Other than every doctor and epidemiologist in the province?  Other than anyone who had ready a credible news story in the past week?  How big a crane do I need to suspend my disbelief?  The only people who ‘didn’t see this coming’ were the politicians who caused it, and evidently education system managers who are so focused on making the wishes of what is perhaps the most malignant minister of education in Ontario’s history a reality that they’ve lost sight of reality.

One of the reasons I like working with machines is because they are honest in a way that human beings seem to find nearly impossible.  Reality continues to exist beyond the fictions people dress themselves in and will always ultimately win.  I find aligning myself with that reality is an opportunity for enlightenment in a way that the socially lubricating, self-serving human fictions are not.

Shakespeare has Hamlet tell Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth,
Horatio,Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, and that’s a good touchstone.  Reality is indeed more vast and complex than the lies we wrap each other up in.  I only wish more people would get as excited about the truth of the world as they do about the self-serving fictions we demand of each other.


In the midst of this chaos a wise colleague suggested the Netflix film, My Octopus Teacher, which tells the story of a man miserably lost in the fictions we all chose to live in finding his way back to reality.  It’s a beautiful story, and one we find hard to hold onto when we’re in the churn of Ontario COVID mis-management.

Rationalism will never have the following that reductionist demagogues find because the one is hard work while the other is slight-of-hand salesmanship, though the sleazy salesmen don’t always get it their way.  Recent North American political change suggests that even the most persuasive demagogues get chased out of office when reality makes its presence felt.  Our political system isn’t perfect, but it does tend to self correct.  After years of abuse in Ontario public services and a year’s worth of fumbling the largest public health crisis in human history, that self correction sure feels a long time coming.

In the past week I’ve read articles about how doctors in Ontario & Quebec are working out protocols to decide who lives and who dies when they run out of capacity to treat pandemic patients.  On the same day an article came up talking about how flights are up to sunny destinations because many people are giving up on doing right by others and just want to satisfy themselves, consequences be damned until they need medical help and there are no beds available then they will be the ones crying loudest.  All while Ontario is experiencing a second wave of the pandemic that makes the first look like a hiccup.

So, we’re running out of hospital capacity to treat severe cases, testing has fallen away most likely as a way to make it look like the numbers are coming down.  The politicians who have mismanaged this crisis are looking for ways to spin fictions in their favour.  I drove in to school the other day and the line for testing at our local centre stretched around the hospital.  People want to get tested but the powers that be are more interested in spinning self-serving fictions.

Meanwhile, at the peak of the worst pandemic in modern history and with the emergence of a new even more transmittable variant of COVID, what are we doing in Ontario education?  We’re preparing to go back to face to face classes next Monday.  Then we too will get to play the ‘who-gets-treatment’ game with other front line workers while interacting with and giving the highest transmitting age groups a chance to drive another spike.  That’s why I’m awake at three in the morning wondering at the hypocrisy of human beings.

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Dairy of a Disenfranchised Coder

The first blog entry I ever wrote (about 18 months ago), spoke of risk aversion in students, but began with a brief ‘why I never pursued computers’.  This one opens that up a a bit and looks at how childhood interests never seem to fade away.

In the 1980s, I became interested in computers because my father wouldn’t buy me an Intellivision game console.  The Vic 20 we got instead became our gaming system, but it was much more.  I’ve carried a sense of intellectual superiority over game consoles ever since.  The Vic could plug in cartridges and play games, but where it really took off was with the datasette.  When we got our hands on that, we suddenly had the ability to save our work.  Before I knew it, I was begging my parents to drive to the only computer store in the area whenever a new COMPUTE! magazine came out so I could type out the basic programs in there.

None of this had anything to do with school.  Our junior high school had 3 Pets in the library, but it was typically a 2 week wait to get half an hour on one.  You had no chance of gaining any kind of familiarity with them.

It started all about video games, but quickly turned to coding.  Instead of buying the latest game (Cosmic Cruncher?), I was saving the paper route money for a 3k memory expander (I kept filling up the 3.5k of working RAM with code).  With more room to move, I began modifying those COMPUTE! programs, turning a road racing game into a Star Wars trench battle or the 8 key sound synthesizer into full keyboard synthesizer.

I’d shown friends what I was doing and soon Ataris and Apples began to appear in the neighborhood.  We’d dictate code while the fastest typer would hammer away at it, then we’d proof and run it.  Hours of speculation and experimentation about how changes might affect things followed.

There was no grade 9 computer course in high school, but I quickly leapt at the grade 10 one in 1985.  By then I had a Commodore 64 at home and we’d all discovered that if you had a good recording deck, you could sound record the cassettes that software came on.  There was a thriving pirating hub in high school with what looked like homemade mixed tapes.  A teacher once took one that was being passed in class and tried to listen to it, it wasn’t pretty.

That grade 10 class used a card reader.  We laboriously spent hours penciling in our lines of code, and would receive a printout off a dot matrix printer (which sounded like a machine gun tearing through silk).  I lasted about a month at this before I became determined to get a printer of my own.  No one else in the school had one, and the only place to find one was half way across the city.  Four bus transfers and a long night of travel got me back home with the printer, only to discover it was defective.  Another six hours on the bus and I was home again with the only dot matrix printer anyone had.

I coded at home, printed out my results and got to bypass the agony of the card reader.  Others begged me for access.  It became a nice sideline and paid for itself in short order.

Our grade 10 computer teacher was a young guy who got the job because he was the only one who could maintain the card reader without it jamming up all the time, he didn’t actually know much about coding (and why would he, he only had a card reader to figure it out on).  I did well in grade 10 intro to computers but was really excited to get into senior computer science.  The astronomer dream had been dashed in grade 10 physics when I discovered, to my horror, that physics was really just lots and lots of math, which I found tedious and unimaginative.  Anything that had only one way to a single solution seemed mind numbingly dull.  I was still hoping to find my niche in computer science though.

Finally able to get onto the senior computer science lab (first gen IBM x86s!), I was stunned to learn that our computer science teacher wanted us to program… math. I found the assignments linear and the teacher, who already knew the mathletes in the class, didn’t have time for anyone else or anything other than mathematical certainty in coding; the opposite of my experimental, hacking approach to programming.  Five years of passionate self-driven learning dissipated in a cloud of frustration and disinterest over that semester.

My parents went to the teacher conference confused at how a kid who spent hours and hours of his free time coding could be such an epic failure in this class.  My weakness in maths was sighted as the problem.  I’d signed up for the grade 12 class in semester two, but withdrew immediately when it started.  The teacher seemed surprised that I’d signed up for consecutive semesters of comp-sci.  I was surprised that he remembered my name.  And so ended my love affair with coding computers.

Of course I maintained an interest in computers, mainly around gaming and hardware, and eventually went on to get some I.T. certifications and even worked in software implementation in a few places, but getting knocked out of the holy grail of computing, the place where you author how a machine thinks, put the idea of working fully in the field beyond reach, and created a sense of self doubt that a teen is only too willing to embrace.

I’m getting computer certified this summer as a teacher.  When I walk into that class in the fall I’m hoping that I can support as many different approaches to coding as there are students in the room.  The last thing I want to do is knock a keen, self directed learner out of a woefully underdeveloped field of study in secondary schools.