Monday, December 12, 2005

Object Lesson

Mary and I discovered Kasia attempting to climb over the babygate that protects her from the stairs last night. Kasia had pushed a box up to the gate, and was using it to provide the height necessary to scale the gate, though it was unclear to us how she expected to get down the other side, which is not only a steep staircase, but tiled. We bought our home from a master builder who had used it to demo his tile technique, so there are 3600 square feet of tile in our house, which is great right up to the moment you drop your first glass on it and watch it turn to dust. Tile appears to be an even more unforgiving surface than straight cement, which we had not taken into account when choosing to move here when Kasia was born: baby safe it isn't.

So the thought of Kasia falling down our staircase is one to fill our hearts with dread, because it would be way worse than just falling down carpeted or even normal wood or linoleum stairs.

Mary, realizing that we had to convey the danger to Kasia in a way she could understand, decided on an object lesson. She took an egg out of the fridge, carried it to the top of the stairs, and explained to Kasia the similarities between the egg and Kasia's noggin. Satisfied that Kasia got the analogy, Mary proceeded to toss the egg over the babygate and we watched as it went "splat" on the stairs. "Do you understand now?" Mary asked. Kasia nodded gravely.

Then Kasia solemnly proceeded to the fridge to get another egg so that she might participate in the apparently very serious, albeit mysterious, 'Egg over the Stairs' ceremony. Which was not exactly where we were going with this....

Kasia is a much more cautious child than Tigana ever was, but far more tenacious, so is sometimes harder to dissuade from dangerous course of action than was Tigana. This same demo worked successfully with Tigana at that age -- she totally got that if you fell from the stairs you died. Of course, in Tigana's case we found her hanging off the banister over the atrium (of our previous house) two days later, and when I asked had she not understood the danger, she somewhat cavalierly explained that even if she fell, she had two more lives to go. Shocked at this reply, I inquired what gave her that idea, and she explained how on the videogames at Daycare you always had three lives, more if you did well.... "So if I die, I'll just start over as a baby again, right?" Fortunately, Mary pointed out that althougth that may well be true, there was no guarantee that she would be coming back as our baby... that she only got one shot at being 'Tigana' and next time round she would be someone else's kid, probably in another part of the world.... Tigana has been more respectful of heights ever since...

Corn Pops and Pickles

…is what Tigana had for breakfast again this morning (though not, I hasten to add, in the same bowl). This demonstrates two phenomenon of interest to me as father and researcher: First, that the Venn diagram of “Foods Tigana is willing to eat” and “Foods Tigana’s parents are willing to feed her” have almost no remaining overlap. Indeed, I’m not even sure ‘Corn Pops” makes Mom’s list. When one adds the circle of “Foods readily available for breakfast when we are already running 10 minutes late”, we’re pretty much down to our title items….

The second phenomenon I’m interest in here is tracking how long it takes Google to add entries from my blog to its search results. Currently, “Corn Pops and Pickles” is a phrase for which there are zero search results, so it’s a pretty easy test… Feel free to add the phrase to your own blog so we can track whether Google indexes blogger blogs faster than say Moveable Type blogs. So far I’ve found that Google is able to find my blog entries in about 10 days, but I wanted to do an actual test case before starting my cybercourse next term so I could talk about the phenomenon and its implications….

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Sibling Rivalry

Kasia has, as many toddlers are wont to do, gotten into the habit of taking a doll to bed with her at night.

Now when I say ‘a doll’ I actually mean that she takes two to bed with her – currently a plastic baby almost as tall as her and a soft cuddly one-eared bunny rabbit. She would, for preference, take three or four or forty teddies to bed with her, but my wife and I have drawn the line at two. (Besides the obvious problems of overcrowding, any additional dolls would quickly find themselves incorporated into an escape ladder, and I’d be coming back to an empty crib.) The word ‘doll’ is also something of a misnomer, because she has on an equal number of occasions chosen to go to sleep cuddling one of her beloved books, her raincoat, or whatever other object happened to be the focus of her attention immediately prior to bedtime (though we again drew the line at the wire trash can from our home office she had been pushing around the house one evening).

Her typical nightly routine, after bath, fresh diaper, PJs and nursing, is to lay down in the crib for about 10 seconds, then sit up again so that she can put her dolls to sleep. She will carefully cover the baby with a blanket, then pat its back while saying “night night”. Once she has ‘settled’ the first doll, she turns her attention to the second, similarly covering it with the blanket, stroking its back, and then, if all is well, laying down herself to receive the same treatment from Dad. Unfortunately, it is as likely that in covering the second doll with the blanket, that she will have uncovered the first, causing her to turn back to that ‘baby’ with a scolding for its having gotten out from under the covers. She will then restart the routine to ‘resettle’ the first baby, only to find that the second has ‘gotten out of bed’ while she was again attending to the first. And so on, for as long as my patience will stand it.

I generally intervene after the second or third iteration, to settle a blanket across all three of my charges, and get them all settled at once. Kasia usually goes along, provided that the blankets are just so, and everyone is exactly in the proper places, etc. For the most part, the routine is harmless, touching, and only notably peculiar when that evening’s objects are books or raincoats, rather than dolls.

This week’s favorites have been, as I mentioned, a largish baby doll and a soft bunny. Sunday night, having satisfactorily settled both her dolls, Kasia lay down to sleep, but banged her head into the protruding arm of the large plastic baby. Sitting up in bed, Kasia indignantly denounced her bedmate for poking her in the eye. “Baby not nice! Mean baby!” Being in something of a hurry to get Kasia to go to sleep, I simply laid her down in the crib again, though this time somewhat removed from the doll on that side. Kasia obligingly curled up to go to sleep, but reached out to cuddle her doll, which -- unfortunately -- again resulted in Kasia getting a poke in the eye. Before I could react, Kasia had struck out at her erstwhile sibling, and knocked the protruding arm away. Which -- being in fact a large inanimate object -- slowly, majestically, but inevitably swung back to strike Kasia another blow on the head. There followed a frenzied three-way brawl as the two combatants quickly ended up standing on, and so falling off, the poor rabbit.

A less sleep-deprived father might have been able to intervene more quickly to end the havoc, but I confess I was too taken aback, and well, choking back the laughter, to be much use. Kasia, of course, failed to see the humour in the situation, and was very put out that I did not take her side, but made both her and the doll promise to stop fighting. Carefully tucking the offending arm in under the doll, I eventually restored order and got everyone to sleep.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Lost in Space -- in Interpretive Dance!

Took Tigana to see Alberta Dance Theater / Children in Dance Association's production of Lost in Space yesterday. It was....strange.

I mean, Lost in Space didn't make a lot of sense when it was a TV series (my teenage friends and I used to watch the original series to play 'rationalize the science', the object of which was to plausibly explain away whatever scientific illiteracy was currently on display, e.g., the scene in the opening episode in which the caste cry out, "Oh gosh, we're burning up from the heat of that comet!"), and when that campy weirdness gets translated into interpretive dance 30 years later, well, it raises the bar on oddness for the SF genre a whole 'nother notch.

But I have to say that I really enjoyed the performance. Campy nostalgia aside, it was artistically successful theming of dance routines, and gave an awfully large caste of kids a great variety of material through which to strut their stuff.

The performance opens with the spaceship (portrayed by the family Robinson dancers squatting mid-stage) going through a meteor storm (portrayed by dozens of dancers swirling past in black leotards). It actually kind of works! Subsequent dances provide interpretations of inside a black hole, lost in time, encounters with hostile aliens, robots to the rescue, space walks, mysterious comet (much more interesting than anything from original series!), dance of the galaxies, nebula, plant life, space junk, and astropolis, among several others. It was all pretty impressive! And I say that as someone who doesn’t even have a kid up there on stage.

Dancing performances ranged from ‘solid’ to ‘ready for professional’, and I kept thinking that someone knew what they were doing training these kids. Nice choreography executed well by a large caste. The occasional miscue came from the theatre’s lighting / video technician, not the dancers, and may be excused on the grounds that I was attending the first performance.

The acid test has to be Tigana's reaction, and it must be said that the dancing held Tigana's attention throughout, which is saying a lot for a 90 minute dance performance given my daughter's usual attention span.

So, if you happen to be in a position to see this in Calgary later this week, I'd recommend it.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Kasia and Tigana

close up of Kasia in red riding hood

Kasia on her 2nd Birthday, Nov 13, 2005.

Tigana Hiding

Tigana Hiding

So I turned around in our Calgary hotel, and Tigana had vanished.... This is what I saw. She is behind the chair, and has lifted her feet up onto the heat register to keep them out of sight off the floor.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Dissertation Defense

Mary successfully defended her dissertation Thursday morning. It was not, I take it, a particularly pleasant experience.

Ph.D. defenses come in two flavours: the celebration of the completion of a significant project (wherein the candidate gets to occupy two hours of their favorite professor's time discussing the research that has preoccupied the candidate for the last four years); or a brutal hazing ritual, the point of which seems to be that if one survives it, one is supposed to feel like that is in itself an accomplishment that renders one worthy of membership in some elite group.

To give some idea of the range here, we have the experience of my colleague in the Education faculty who also defended last week, who related how the major topic of the defense was which publisher she should approach to publish the dissertation. In her case the advisor and committee members had already told her going in that she had passed, and the toughest question asked was, "would you consider applying for a job on our campus?" At the conclusion of the session, the committee 'debated' the outcome for less than a minute, and recalled the candidate to shake her hand and address her as "Dr."

In contrast is my own experience of the defense, in which one of the committee members (a well known and respected researcher) started with the question, "What's with all this Marxist crap, then?" After two years of my submitting chapters to this individual, I did not feel that the defense was the appropriate time to raise fundamental objections to the theoretical frame, but there it was. And the conversation went rapidly downhill from there. By the time the more sympathetic committee members got their turns to ask me questions, I was so punchy that I was unable to marshal anything coherent at all. I was then left waiting for what seemed like hours while the committee deliberated my fate, and when they finally informed me that I had passed, I was left with the strong impression I had just barely squeaked past. Indeed, my ego was so badly damaged in this process that I made little effort to publish from my dissertation, and suffered a severe case of 'impostor syndrome' for a decade after.

(The devastating effects of this defense were somewhat mitigated ten years later when one of the committee members finally told me what had happened when I'd left the room. The external -- a 'Great Man' of the field -- had turned to my antagonist and told him that he was the biggest ass he'd ever encountered, that he was clearly feeling threatened by my work, and that his attack on me was the most shameful display the external had ever witnessed in his lengthy career. He then turned to the Chair of the session (not my advisor; a departmental appointee), and told him that he was an ass for allowing the defense to degenerate in that way, Since the external was speaking with the authority of both the role of external auditor and his own considerable reputation as the Grand Old Man of the Field, his view -- that mine was one of the most significant dissertations he had had the opportunity to review -- carried the day. But I dearly wish that I had known this ten years earlier so that I might have had more initial self-confidence as a researcher...)

Judging by my wife's description, I have now met someone whose defense experience was worse even than mine. Her defense was staged in front of an audience, and was so brutalizing that several of the audience broke down into tears. After the fact, the committee apparently told members of the audience, mostly Mary's fellow Ph.D. students come to see how it was done, that Mary's was an exemplary presentation and even more exemplary defense, and that they would do well to emulate her. Although complimentary to Mary, it is difficult to see how this would be reassuring to an audience that had just watched this 'exemplary' candidate being publicly savaged. Instead, the exhibition left many of them questioning whether they wished to continue in the program if it meant placing themselves in the same position -- especially since Mary is widely acknowledged to be the best qualitative researcher of the group. (I understand that the program chair subsequently called a meeting of the PhD students to 'debrief' the experience in order to address the widespread panic generated by this public hazing.)

At the traditional dinner following the defense, the harshest of Mary's committee assured her that this hazing was a necessary part of the process, that she had attacked Mary out of a sense of duty to the field to demonstrate that Mary 'could take it', and that Mary, as one of the first graduates of this new PhD program and the first qualitative researcher in the field, was 'up to standard'. In other words, she and others of the committee subscribed to the view that the point of the defense is to see whether they can break down the candidate, and were pleased that Mary was able to endure the process and remain outwardly calm and effectively defend her work. That, in their view, is how it is supposed to go.

Of course, one contributing factor here might be Mary's quick wit and poker face which, I would wager, gave no hint of how she was actually reacting to the questions posed by the committee. Had they realized that she was taking their attacks personally, they might well have eased up, or at least phrased their questions more civilly. As it was, I can imagine them thinking, "Well, she took that in stride -- let's up the ante a bit!" But still, PhD students openly sobbing in the audience should be a hint that one has crossed the line from 'spirited defence' into 'bloodsport'.

In the end, the actual revisions required of Mary amount to adding about a dozen paragraphs and the removal of a single chart -- not exactly extensive. But the actual defense was so brutal that it has drained all the joy out of the accomplishment for Mary and made her start to question what are in my view her fundamental gifts. I find Mary now second guessing her writing skills because two of these positivists complained that her writing was 'too poetic'. Oh yeah, there is a devastating critique -- it is too well written! This is a problem?! I keep thinking I want to write a novel based on my experiences in academia, but who would believe stuff like this?

The sociological function of hazing is well understood in establishing group solidarity in, say, elite military units -- the hazing standing in for and condensing the extended periods of combat that forged the existing unit into which the recruit is being inducted. It is less clear to me what purpose it serves in academia, other than to allow its victims to get their own back on the next generation. As an evaluation expert, however, I have to question the educational value of such hazing. How is this appropriate to academia?

The answer that it is tradtional -- that the defence emerged in the 1600s as part of the process wherein the student now proved himself equal to the master -- does not staisfy me, since the intervening 400 years have yielded a good deal of educational research that suggest there are better ways of doing things. By all means let us have rigor and high standards, and an oral component to the defense, but hazing... I do not see the point.

Life Goals

A quote from a Dave Barry column (which I found on Life After York):

    "So I visited my son at college on Parents Weekend, which is a nice event that colleges hold so that parents will have a chance to feel old.

    I started feeling old the moment I got to my son's housing unit and saw a sign on the door that said: END WORLD HUNGER TODAY. This reminded me that there was a time in my life, decades ago, when I was so full of energy that I was going to not only END WORLD HUNGER, but also STOP WAR and ELIMINATE RACISM. Whereas today my life goals, to judge from the notes I leave myself, tend to be along the lines of BUY DETERGENT."

As my wife successfully completes her doctorate and launches her academic career, and I am coming up on yet another birthday, I can't help noticing that I'm less than a decade from retirement, and I have yet to start on, let alone achieve, most of my career goals. My self image is still that of the 'young turk', new to the faculty, about to start -- real soon now -- on one of my many major projects. So it is increasingly distressing to me that so many of my colleagues now seem to be considerably younger than I, and keep referrng to me as 'a senior member of the faculty'. When the hell did that happen?

So I keep looking at the various projects that I'm supposed to be working on and asking myself, is this what I really want to be known for? And the answer usually is, 'Not so much'. I mean, there is a tension between doing something because the opportunity to do it is there, and it will play well on one's annual report because it means a quick and easy publication credit; versus doing what I really am interested in, for which there is generally no market or career payoff. And the way life is, one thinks, "I'll just knock off this quick project to satisfy the annual report requirements, and then get on with the good stuff" but what really happens is that you're lucky if you have the time and energy to finish the 'quicky' and end up never doing the 'important' stuff....

It's obvious, of course, that academia is structured to prevent any of us from really making a difference. The annual report structure means one has to come up with a couple of publications a year, which are necessarily shallow because journal articles are too short to present any argument longer than 8000 words; are too specialized to be read by more than a handfull of other academics; and are controlled by a peer review process that rejects anything that challenges the paradigmatic status quo. So you can't get another Das Capital, because who has a lifetime to write one book? But I bet if you looked at who has an influence on our society, who actually changes the world and how we see it, it is the people who are writing books or movies, not the authors of research buried in overly specialized journals.

Hmm, sounds like an interesting study.....but I can't even consider doing it because there won't be time to get it done before my next annual report.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Blackhole in the Center of the Galaxy

Excellent video of a virtual trip to the black hole at the centre of the galaxy, courtesy of Andrew J. Hanson of the University of Indiana (and forwarded by Edward Willett, Science Columnist extraordinare...)

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

43 Things, Starting with Drumming

I stumbled onto the 43 Things site by accident, while reading Michelle's blog. I followed a 'read more' link in her blog, and then made a comment on her post. The host software asked me to register before commenting, not unlike the software, so I signed up, but then discovered I was no longer on Michelle's blog site at all, but had in fact just joined 43 Things: What do you want to do with your life? Looking around, I was rather impressed with what I saw. It is a fascinating site!

Basically, people list one or more current significant goals in their life, and blog about how they are doing towards achieving it. The site automatically links you to everybody else who has either set that goal, is currently working towards that goal, or has achieved that goal. Instant support group. The software allows you to cheer each other on (and keeps track of how many 'cheers' you've received) and to watch each other's struggles and successes etc. Having recently been greatly cheered by the discovery that everyone else in my Wednesday evening drumming class was struggling nearly as much as I, I can see how this could be a very useful site.

So I set up my own 43 Things page, and listed world drumming as my first goal. Read my entry on drumming here.

I like this site a lot. So now, do I dare list "writing great Canadian SF novel" or would that be premature, retirement still being 12 years away?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Science Fiction Magazine Covers

Okay, this is the coolest site I've seen this month! Thousands of science fiction magazine covers...arranged both chronologically and by average hue. Nostalgic and fascinating to analyze trends.

Besides the actual content, this is a very interesting interface.

Tip of the hat to Michael Hall for pointing me to this site.

Friday, October 14, 2005

This and That

Not a lot to report lately, just nose to the grindstone kind of month. Mary got sick with a bad cold (the kind that puts you into bed) at the start of the semester, but I managed to escape relatively symptom free, thanks to copious amounts of ColdFX. The stuff does seem to work; I did get the cold, but too mild a version to really notice. Two more viruses have passed through the house since, and each time I seem to have gotten off scott free, whereas Mary has been suffering.

The date for Mary’s dissertation defense has been set for the morning of November 10th. She will have to fly out to Halifax the day before, and back the following morning, leaving me with Kasia for two nights for the first time without nursing at night before bedtime. We’ll see how this goes. Kasia is certainly old enough to be weaned, but there is a certain irony in weaning one’s daughter in order to present a dissertation on the importance of not letting one’s career interfere with childrearing…. But I think Kasia and I will manage okay for two days and then back to the current routine. Oddly, Kasia has become more interested in nursing the older she gets.


Kasia is a strange kid. She hardly ever speaks, beyond ‘Daddy’, ‘Mommy’, ‘Gana’ (for Tigana), puppy’, ‘duck’, and a few other animals. (Mary was taking Kasia through an animal picture book and she correctly identified ‘cow’, ‘puppy’, ‘duck’, etc., but when we got to the pig, Kasia identified it as an “E-I-E-I-O”.) But the thing is, she can speak when motivated to do so. Like, she was in the bathtub the other night and whining inarticulately, pointing at I-didn’t-know-what and making the “gimme” sign with her hand, when I finally said in frustration, “I don’t know what you want, Kasia. Just tell me what you want and I’ll get it for you.” And clear as a bell, albeit in an exasperated tone, she says, “Give me the towel, Dad.” I look at her astonished. “That was a five word sentence! Since when can you talk in sentences?” “Towel!” she demands again. I give her the towel, muttering. “I didn’t even know you knew what a ‘towel’ was…”

This sort of thing happens all the time. She will look her mom, and say something perfectly clearly like, “I love you mamma!” and yet when Mary rushes with Kasia to show me what she can say, she will completely clam up. It’s as if, having said something once, she is now done with that sentence, and looking to move on to new pastures, will never say it again. So when we come to the health care nurse who wants to assess Kasia’s language skills, and the nurse asks, “how many words does she say?” we’re at a bit of loss. We’ve heard her use over 50 different words, but like “towel” only the once, and never in front of witnesses. Kasia will certainly not say anything to said nurse. We see other kids Kasia’s age blathering away -- and Tigana at this age was accepting legal briefs from other kids at Montessori to plead their cases with their parents -- yet Kasia will never speak if a gesture will communicate her needs. We’re beginning to suspect that she is just really lazy, and have started to insist on her verbalizing. “No, Kasia, you are not getting out of the high chair until you say ‘up’, not just hold your arms up and whine.” Seems to be working a bit, but the contrast with Tigana at this age is pretty profound.

On the other hand, Kasia is amazingly persistent and a clever tool user. If I take something away from her, she will keep after until she gets it again. When Tigana was this age, it was easy to distract her from something dangerous by giving her something else interesting. Not Kasia. I put a dangerous toy out of reach on top of the dresser in her room, and over a period of days, she kept bringing things into her room until she had gathered sufficient materials to build a ladder to climb up and get it. That persistence impresses me almost as much it terrifies me that nothing is safe from her little tool using brain…

Lately, Kasia has adopted the habit of bringing me dead bugs, and proudly depositing them in my open hand. “Dead bug!” she will say excitedly. I’m never sure how to react to this sort of thing. On the one hand, there is the hygienically-responsible-parent in me who wants to say “Ugh! Dead bug! Dirty!” so she will stop picking up dead bugs; on the other hand, there is the parent-as-educator who thinks I should be encouraging her obvious interest in entomology by dissecting the cadaver. Tough call!


Tigana got her ears pierced over the Thanksgiving Weekend. We had previously agreed that she could have her ears done when she turned 10, but we couldn’t take her asking us “How much does it hurt to have your ears pierced?” one more time. “It’s three years away”, we would say, “Why are you asking us this now?” But it had become some kind of obsession, where she felt she apparently needed the whole three years to psych herself up for it. The deciding factor, however, was when her best friend Zoe broke her arm on Friday, and Zoe’s mother related to us how her younger sister, Maya, was so envious of Zoe’s cast she tried to break her own arm so she could get one like her older sister. Mary did the calculations, and realized that if we waited until Tigana was 10 to get earrings, Kasia would be 4 &1/2 and would demand earrings too, whereas if we did it now, Kasia would be too young for it to register, and by the time she was old enough to ask for earrings, we could relate the precedent was you had to wait until Thanksgiving when you’re seven….

Tigana reading to Kasia Sept 06
Tigana reading bedtime story to Kasia

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Slip of the Tongue

Guest Anecdote

I received this email earlier this week from an alumnus, thought it well worth sharing:

I was teaching approximately 30 students and we were working in a computer lab.  At the end of the session, I reminded them to log off the computer so that another learner could use the machine.  Unfortunately, 'learner' and 'use' sort of blended together in my mouth and I ended up telling the class to log off so that another group of 'losers' could use the machines!!  Now, I must say that I don't remember this sort of moment being covered in my B.Ed program as to how to handle such things gracefully?!?  Fortunately the class had a good sense of humour and thought it was hilarious - I was mortified but managed to recover and laugh about it - and I'm sure that they'll remember that particular class!!

I hope that you're both well and enjoying the start of a new semester!

Theresa Bell

College Instructor

(Reprinted with permission)

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

English Usage

Interesting essay on language usage by David Foster Wallace, "Democracy, English and the Wars Over Usage" originally published in Harper's Magazine, 2001 (sent to me by Thomas Phinney ealier this week).

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

More Flowers

ice cream flowersMary is (a) sick, and (b) struggling to finish the final draft of her dissertation for Friday, so I once again felt she deserved some flowers, so back to Fraches for another 'ice cream'!

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Leaving Earth

Okay, this is pretty cool: a movie of MESSENGER spacecraft leaving Earth put together from 24 hours worth of still shots. (from Boing Boing via Cold Ground).

I don't know why it never occured to me (or 20,000 hollywood & TV SF directors) before that Earth and or other planets would appear as a crescent from space, rather than a complete sphere.

I want one!

Found this mobile phoneaccessory mentioned on Cold Ground

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Excuses, excuses

"Please excuse Jennifer for missing school yesterday. We forgot to get the Sunday paper off the porch, and when we found it Monday, we thought it was Sunday."

from "actual excuse notes from parents (including spelling)" from the Office of Educational Assessment at the University of Washington, cited on
"Strangeplaces", which I found referenced on Life Weirder than Fiction

Your love better than Ice Cream

Given the week we've had, I figured Mary could use some flowers.

These are from Fraches, a local florist I like to patronize because they have a refreshing creative streak -- for important occasions I like Mary to know her flowers aren't just a bunch I picked up at Safeway or Costco along with the groceries. Usually, though, I have to special order a week or more ahead, since the Lethbridge market tends towards the conservative, so walking in off the street I don't usually see anything I like. (They love when I come in because they know they get to do something really different. I now generally trust them to do something eye catching, so I just say, 'give me something different in X price range', and stand back. For Mary's 40th I they delivered a spectacular arrangement featuring limes to the restaurant where we went for dinner. Everyone in the place kept looking at the arrangement because it was fabulous, and because, did I mention the limes? The two strangest were private jokes back when I was dating Mary, where I had them do an arrangement out of broccoli and another one out of doggie biscuits.) And usually Tigana and I have to do a fair bit of negotiating when we go to get something for Mom, as Tigana's tastes run to colorful rather than, um, strange sophisticated. But when we saw this one in the display case, we both agreed instantly that this one was the one! Tigana burst out laughing the second she saw it, and I knew we had to have it. Exactly what the week called for....

Monday, August 29, 2005

Did I mention the mouse?

Oh, and about 10 days ago, a mouse ran across Mary's foot as she was nursing Kasia to sleep, with predictable results. Not having seen the mouse myself , I'm afraid my reaction was somewhat ineffectual: I got a soup bowl in which to capture it and stared intently at baseboards. "You've never actually seen a mouse, have you?" my wife asked. Well, no, I've never had to deal with this problem before. This went on for several days, and then yesterday, I saw the mouse (well, a mouse) leaving via the backdoor. It was huge. I mean, I could no more have captured it in a soup bowl than Godzilla. So I switched to one of those giant salad mixing bowls.

Mary was not impressed. She did not share my optimism that since I had seen a mouse leaving, that the problem was solved. She pointed out that the mouse I had described was the wrong color, and that there was no reason to assume that we were dealing with a lone mouse. In any event, when I came down this morning, the back door had been left wide open all night (a problem with the latch, so yet another required repair) so no doubt any number of addtional mice could have wandered in. Sure enough, a/the mouse ran across the floor in front of Mary again this evening, and I was directed to go to Home Depot and buy mouse traps. I am extremely squeamish about hurting fellow mammals, and protested that traps were inhumane. Mary, grumbling about people who can't kill mice but have no problem eating steak and porkchops at the same sitting, got out Tigana's butterfly net and started stalking the mouse for a capture and release program. She complained that everything she'd read said that if you released the mice too close to the house they would just come back the next day. I suggested that we take it with us on our trip to Kananaskis and relase it there, where it could never find us. She gave me one of those "is it time to have him committed already?" looks, until I explained that if it got loose in the hotel,we could call the manager, and maybe they'd comp our room.

In the end, it became obvious that capture and release was unrealistic, since we were not doing so well with the 'capture' portion of the program. (Particularly annoying here was the sighting of the mouse walking past the dogs, whose only reaction was to move so as not to be in the mouse's way.) So Mary set out a couple of traps, on the understanding that I woull retrieve these when Kasia first wakes (around 5:AM), before our toddler can be allowed to wander down stairs, lest we hear a 'snap' followed by howls of pain; and to avoid too many penetrating questions from our vegan 7 year old (Lisa Simpson having nothing on Tigana). About an hour later, the first trap had caught a mouse. Mary took one look and said, "Okay, now I feel guilty." This one looked much smaller than the one I had seen earlier, and may or may not be the same one that has been driving Mary crazy, since they probably look much bigger when in motion. But darn it looked cute. No wonder there are some may storybooks featuring mice. But not so many with the dead mouse in the trap illustration. I keep thinking of the Gaham Wilson cartoon with a certain hollywood mouse caught dead with suit and brief case in a giant mouse trap.

And the boiler is still not fixed -- though they are supposedly coming to finish tomorrow, along with the locksmith for the doors.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

A Train Wreck Week

So last week we had the dog into the vet for bladder problems. He'd recently taken to relieving himself on the frontroom carpet, next to the picture window. He's getting old, 14 years, so there is some concern that it may be time for him to 'move to the farm', but he is a key family member who has saved my wife's life on at least two occasions, so we are anxious to keep him around for as long as he has any quality of life. (Besides, as I am so much older than my wife, I am not keen to set any precedents about what one should do when incontinence starts to become an issue....) So we fork over the $450 in vets bills to check for bladder problems and hope for the best.

Monday night I'm running a bath for Kasia, and there is no hot water. I go down to the boiler room and find an inch of water on the floor and no burners on -- the boiler is kaput and leaking. I phone our contractor, and first thing Tuesday morning it takes Joe only three minutes to pronounce the boiler dead at the scene. We haven't had the nerve to ask what this is likely to cost, but neighbours gestimate the $3500 range. Monday and Tuesday are the coldest days all summer, and with no boiler, we not only have no hot water, but no central heating.

The replacement boiler and a pair of plumbers and an electrician arrive Wednesday morning along with the heaviest rain storm of the year...and we discover problem #2. The rain is coming in through leaks round the front room window (well, it's the window if we're lucky, the roof if we are not...) The contractor doing the boiler work promises to look at the leak the next day. In the meantime, we're left apologizing to the dog as it now obvious that the spots in the front room were from the leaks all along -- we just never get enough rain to correctly diagnose the problem before.

Wednesday night there's more bad news (#3)-- when the plumbers went to connect the boiler to the water heater, they've discovered the heater is broken. Indeed, it now appears that it was the ruptured water heater that resulted in a five fold increase in pressure within the boiler, blowing it out. And the contractor breaks the bad news that this kind of heater costs $1000 wholesale before he adds on his retail and labour.

Thursday I wait around for the plumbers to show up but about 5 the contractor tells us the specialized heater tank we required is being shipped in from Edmonton, and there is no hope for hot water before Monday.

Saturday, I go out to the deep freeze in the garage to get a loaf of bread, and notice it is not frozen. The door was left open, all our frozen food is gone. Bill, probably another $600 down the tubes. So much for savings through bulk buying.

We drive out to the store to pick up a few groceries. We get back to the car, and Mary asks, "What's that puddle under the car?" Well, judging by the smoke coming out from under the hood... So, towed the car to the garage, a week after paying $375 for tune up and check etc. So hopefully it will turn out to be a hose, not the radiator, but... well, weekend without the car. and waiting for the other shoe to drop -- what next?

And the hell of it is, I know what lead to this run of expensive bad luck -- about a week ago, I turned to Mary and said, "You know, another month, and we'll have cleared off our credit cards....." One should never say something like that out loud, lest the gods take it as a challenge.

But shrug, the kids and Mary are okay, so it's really not anything to get depressed about. No one likes taking that many financial hits in a row, but I'll take a busted boiler over something wrong with one of the kids any day.

Who Needs the Education Faculty?

A guest editorial by teaching activist, Richard Hake (Emeritus Professor of Physics, Indiana University)

Date: Wed, 24 Aug 2005 21:18:45 -0700

Anemona Hartocollis (2005), in her provocative New York Times article
"Teaching for Teachers: Who Needs Education Schools?" [Hartocollis
(2005)] wrote in part [my CAPS]:

. . . .If Emporia State is a throwback to an earlier time, when
preparing teachers for the classroom was a high calling, it is also a
reminder of how many teachers' colleges have strayed from the central
mission of the normal school. For decades, education schools have
gravitated from the practical side of teaching, seduced by large
ideas like "building a caring learning community and culture" and
"advocating for social justice," to borrow from the literature of the
Hunter College School of Education, part of the City University of
New York. With the ambition of producing educators rather than
technicians, in the words of Hunter's acting dean, Shirley Cohen,
schools have embraced a theoretical approach. But critics say that
ill prepares teachers to function effectively in the classroom.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Just what do education schools teach? In a report published last year
that put many educators on the defensive, researchers found that top
education schools were not equipping their students to deal with the
standards movement - nor giving them an understanding, going back to
classical sources like Plato and Aristotle, of what constitutes an
educated person.

David M. Steiner, co-author of the report, is director of arts
education at the National Endowment for the Arts and on leave as
department chairman in educational administration, training and
policy studies at Boston University. With his associate Susan D.
Rozen, he reviewed the curriculums of 16 teachers' colleges, 14 of
them among the nation's best, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

Since there is little data on which educational approach translates
into effective teaching, they looked for a balance in material.
Instead, they found little effort to present opposing schools of
thought. The general posture of education schools, they concluded,
was countercultural, instilling mistrust of the system that teachers
work in. Among the texts most often assigned were Jonathan Kozol's
"Savage Inequalities," an indictment of schooling in poor urban
neighborhoods, and writings by Paulo Freire, who advocates education
to achieve political liberation. Theories of how children learn, like
the multiple learning styles advocated by Howard Gardner of Harvard,
were more likely to be taught than what children should learn, like
the Core Knowledge curriculum advanced by E. D. Hirsch, a professor
emeritus at the University of Virginia.

TAUGHT METHODS THAT WOULD HELP THEIR STUDENTS DO WELL ON STANDARDIZED TESTS. Most texts used to teach reading had been written by proponents of whole language methods, and there was only fleeting exposure to the kinds of scripted, phonics-based curriculums, like Open Court, that are increasingly being adopted in the nation's schools.

"There is a vision here," Dr. Steiner said in an interview, "and it's all just one vision. IT IS A SYNTHESIS OF WHAT WE CALL THE PROGRESSIVIST VISION AND THE CONSTRUCTIVIST VISION" - that is, the theory that it is better for children to construct knowledge than to
receive it. But, he added, "The counterview has an equal and much
longer tradition - the responsibility to engage the student, but to
engage the student as the authority." To suggestions that his report
was itself ideological, and conservative, Dr. Steiner says he's
actually an old-fashioned liberal.

On Aug. 15, Dr. Steiner will step directly into the fray, as new dean
of education at Hunter College. At Hunter, he says, he hopes to
prepare teachers who "are scholars of their craft," both proficient
in methods and curriculum and able to think in a sophisticated way.

Given all the sound and fury, there is surprisingly little
disagreement with that.

"One of the biggest dangers we face is preparing teachers who know
theory and know nothing about practice," acknowledges Arthur Levine president of Teachers College at Columbia, one of the leading
avatars of progressive education. Historians note that Dewey himself
had such concerns in the 1920's. But, Dr. Levine says, that is not
what happens at strong - and philosophically diverse - education
schools like Stanford, the University of Virginia, Alverno College in
Milwaukee and Emporia State.

"They have a clarity of mission," says Dr. Levine, who is conducting
a two-year study on the quality of education schools that will be
published in November. "They know what they're trying to do. THEIR

(end quote)

See the complete version.

There is no indication that Hartocollis or any of those she quotes is
aware of education research *outside* schools of education [e.g.
Heron & Meltzer (2005)] that is devoted to the assessment of student
learning deemed so important by Arthur Levine.

Richard Hake, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Indiana Universit

See homepage at Hake or see physics


Hartocollis, A. 2005. "Teaching for Teachers: Who Needs Education
Schools?" New York Times , 31 July 2005; freely available online (probably only for a short period)

See also Steiner (2005).

Heron, P.R.L. & D. Meltzer. 2005. "The future of physics education research:
Intellectual challenges and practical concerns," Amer. J. Phys.
73(5): 390-394; online
here, scroll down
to "invited papers," or
download directly(56kB).

Steiner, D. 2004. "Skewed Perspective," Education Next, Winter 2005;
online here Education
Next is a publication of the Hoover Institution

Reprinted with Richard's kind permission

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Blogger and Explorer

I am a bit annoyed with Blogger lately. It suddenly stopped letting me log on with Explorer, insisting that I had to enable cookies and java (both of which are actually set correctly). When I went to the blogger help files, the info on Explorer settings only applied to Window's version or older versions of Mac, so that was no help. When I emailed support, they emailed back the exact same text from their help files, even though I had specifically pointed out in my email question that the help files did not apply to the version of Explorer I was running and that in any event, my software settings were the ones they said they needed. So their only suggestion was to dump Explorer in favour of Safari.

Yeah, all well and good, I can do that, but what about my 300 students, most of whom only have access to whatever software is available in the computer lab? I've been specifying for my blog assignments so that we can all be using the same software, but I may have to rethink that decision. It was clear that whoever answered my queries at Blogger could care less that I was using blogger as a class assignment and that this one glitch could affect hundreds of users. I was a bit disappointed, to say the least.

The other annoyance really isn't their fault, so I'm just whining about my luck, not really complaining. Having launched a fairly large scale study of blogs using the "Next Blog" button as the basis of my sampling, damned if they don't go and change the software to include a new "Flag this" button. I understand the need for such a button, which allows people who are cruising the "Next Blog" network to complain about obscene or offensive material -- not everyone appreciates coming across nude pictures or porn fiction or hate literature as they browse at random. Once flagged, Blogger staff look at the post, and if it is potentially offensive, they delist it from the "Next Blog" button (though leaving it on the web -- people are free to go there through search engines or through knowing the author or through direct links, but won't now stumble across it accidentally when "Nexting".) Okay, well and good, this seems to me an appropriate compromise to ensure that the average blogger/reader has a good experience, but it does screw up my sampling by introducing the bias that 'potentially offensive' blogs will be under-represented in my sample. Since the whole point of the study was to identify characteristics of typical blog, this is kind of a problem!

I also wonder what qualifies for the "flag this" compliant department. What offends me the most is not the occasional porn site or hate literature (all gist for the sociologist's mill) but the endless fake and commercial blogs. Some days as much as 75% of the "Next Blog" sample I collect consists of blogs with nonsense text (random words or letters) between search terms and links to a commercial site. I'm guessing that the purpose of these sites is not to be read, but to be indexed by google bots -- a 'black hat' trick unscrupulous webmasters use to raise the link ratings for the commercial site to which the fake blog links, since sites move higher in the search engines the more other sites link to it, and the more recently updated those links are. Creating free blogger sites is so easy, some of these guys can knock off and/or update fake blogs almost as fast as I can hit the next blog button (well, it takes me a couple of minutes to record the info into my study database), so that I often get three or four of these sites in a row, all obviously by the same guy (Blogger user name 'Phone1', next blog, it's 'Phone2', next blog it's 'Phone3', etc.) linking to the same mobile phone sales site, or whatever. I'd like to flag these bad boys so the Blogger staff could take them down (blogger is owned by Google, and Google naturally does not want the 'black hat' tricksters using its own free site to defeat it's ratings software.)

Of course, in terms of my study, the existence of these blogs is a significant and heretofore overlooked factor in estimating blog usage. All the studies of blog usage so far have looked at how many blogs are started on various hosting services (like, and maybe look at how many are abandoned vs frequently updated – but these fake blogs may be significantly inflating the numbers, since a single 'black hatter' might create dozens of fake blogs in support of one commercial site; and they would show up as 'frequently updated', as the evil genius goes in once a day and drops another chunk of nonsense boilerplate into each of his fake blogs and moves on to the next one as fast as his browser can rotate windows -- as I say, I often find ten or twelve of these fake sites in a row, the result of their being the most recently updated blogs when I happen to be doing my browsing.

Which brings up another frustration with Blogger. I can't actually find the analog for the "Next Blog" function described anywhere on the Blogger site. Most people assume that it is completely "random" (using that term in its popular, rather than technical sense) or that it represents the most recently updated blogs, but I can't seem to find any specific information, which I really need if I am going to be using this as the basis of my study sample. And I can't find an email address to which I can send my queries, though I'm sure those in the know would be happy to tell me what I need for my study, if not giving away any industry secrets. But given my disappointing previous contact with support, I won't be contacting them for answers. Well, I'll continue to poke around until I find someone suitable to ask.


Am revising my cyberculture course for delivery in the Spring (i.e., January-April) 2006 term and am open to suggestions for possible new directions, or new readings, etc. I think the basic thrust of my course, which is how to tell when a trend or emergent technology is significant or just bandwagon hype, remains valid, but I can't help feeling I might be missing something.

I was interested to see, googling around for ideas, that "cyberculture" seems to have fallen out of favour in recent years: most cyberculture references are in pages four or more years old. I wonder if this is because the field has expanded sufficiently for people to be narrowing their focus to more specific subtopics, or if the whole concept of a cyberculture has fallen into disrepute?

There is a certain sense I get googling around that some of the initial excitement/panic over the internet has settled down. Perhaps the bursting of the commercial bubble a few years back reigned in some of the more exaggerated hype, and internet usage has reached a sufficient critical mass that there is no longer as much anxiety over one being caught on the wrong side of the digital divide. But part of it may be the whole cycle of academic publishing: as new technology or social implications emerge, there is a rush to be the first to publish, leading to a spate of books and articles on that topic; then the market is quickly satutated as everyone gets their 2 cents worth out, and the topic becomes passé then the topic drops off the radar because no academic wants to try writing on a topic that has already been fully covered/documented in the last five years, and yet students won't read anything more than three or four years old -- so whole issues simply drop off the curriculum under "its been done", yet may remain real and pressing social issues for all that no one is paying attention any longer.

For example, five years ago there were a whole series of books addressing privacy issues in the digital age, but I can't seem to get students interested any more. Yet various data bases continue to track every purchase we make, every Dr. visit, every site we link to; google maps helps stalkers find the closest Starbucks to the stalkee to improve their chances of 'running into you'; and Microsoft makes you sign a contract that says they can use spyware to authenticate your copy of any of their software, and so on. But there is very little currently being addressed to these issues, and students consider anything written in the 1990s as hopelessly out of date. (Well, I guess it probably is, because things are MUCH worse now!)

And whatever happened to virtual reality? When I went to VikingCon ten years ago, it was set to be the next big thing, and was the key example of an emergent technology we analyzed in class for its impact on education. But here it is a decade later, and nothing.

I'll probably use podcasting as the current example of a significant emergent technology, and mobile phones as a current technology now intruding into the classroom (mobile bullying, text messaging for cheating, phones as a general distraction, changed social expectations and interchanges, etc.) but these lack some of the oomph of the bigger issues I was tackling last time I taught this course. No one seems to see the Internet as a new thing any more -- for my current students, it is just there, like TV, and trying to talk about the impact the Internet has/ is having is like trying to get them to notice the air they breath -- i.e., they only think of the net when they are temporairly cut off.

Anyway, open to suggestions of trends or etc. that I might be overlooking.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

On Trust...

Quote of the day:

Of vocations, Bricker & Wright, (2005) report firefighters, pharmacists, nurses, and doctors, in that order, as most trustworthy. Chiropractors ranked 15th, two spots below the judicial system and environmentalists were 17th just two places ahead of religious figures. Politicians were rock bottom among the 31 vocations named. In a parallel list measuring distrust or “most likely to lie”, politicians topped the list, followed by lawyers, corporate executives, and union leaders. Amazingly, “more Canadians believe in the Loch Ness monster than believe in their politicians”. Bricker, D. & Wright, J. (2005). What Canadians think about almost everything. Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada., cited by Lissa Howes.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

How Not to Write an Inquiry

Received a letter to day from Michelle (last name withheld for obvious reasons) which was addressed to my old address, with the name of my former publication mispelled and the following brief note:

"I have a symopsis of the Story Alien Nation : Who Will Rule? written for an alternative sereies , a miniseries , a sinoff serie s, a cindema movie or a direct to video movie. May I pelase have a list of names, addresses and telephone numbers of Canadian SCI FI film companies . Could you also send me over your magazine too. The date is July 29, 2005 A.D. My telephone number is 1-(***)-***-****. could you please write back to me by August 15, 2005 A.D. They you very much alot."

*Sigh* Typos and spelling errors in original, of course, though I could not reproduce the many typeovers (It was produced on a typewriter by someone obviously lacking typing skills and desparately in need of a new ribbon). It was accompanied by a one page (!) synopsis, half of which is a character list, the other half a completely incomprehensible summary:

"The story is about four stories in one. The first story is about Bucks, confrontation with Marlon over his Old Gang members, support of Marlon in which Mathew teams up with Buck to get Vessa back from them. The Second story is about Byron wifes, dissappearence..."

And so on. Mind you, Buck and Mathew don't actually appear in the provided character list, and I frankly have no idea to what any of this refers. Are these characters in someone else's TV series?

So let's see, how many errors do we have here? Besides the obvious errors in the text, we have a demand for a free copy of my magazine (why would a publisher send out a freebie?) a demand for an address list (why would I be motivated to compile and mail at my expense such information? Why would they think I know? Why does this person not look it up for themselves at the public library or online?) for Canadian SF film companies (well, I could probably stretch a point and claim the producers of "White Skin" a 'Canadian SF film company', but I mean reallly) so he can send a one page treatment (absurdly incomplete) to the studios (NO studio accepts unsolicited treatments -- precisely to avoid these sorts of letters) for a series whose copyright is owned by somebody else (pretty much a non-starter all by itself) and then gives me a deadline!

Amazing. But not altogether atypical.

So what do you think? Is this an ambitious 8 year old, or a mental case? Should I write back, or trash it?

Comments Please

I believe that I have fixed the problem with the "comments" code and that it should be working properly now... Please let me know by email if you still encounter problems.

Some of the comments from before were saved on the holoscan site, even though they were not showing up on my blog. I have attempted to go back and reinsert them, so thanks to those of you who made comments even though you couldn't see them....

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Podcasting in Education

Evo Terra at Podcasting panel at WesterCon 58, July 3, 2005.

Michael Mennenga at the Podcasting panel

Tee Morris at the same panel

I recently attended a conference (Westercon 58 in Calgary) where I met Tee Morris and Evo Terra (co-authors of the forthcoming Podcasting for Dummies manual), and Michael Mennenga (Terra's co-host on their weekly radio /podcast show). I spent about four hours pumping Terra in particular for anecdotes and insights, and we both were intrigued by the educational potential of this new medium. Evo pointed out that the main barrier for the average citizen to podcasting was the bandwidth requirements, but that these do not apply to educational institutions which generally speaking have much greater bandwidth than they are currently utilizing. (When I asked my own IT people about this, they immediately assured me that university policy was to purchase memory as needed, and that I could access as much bandwidth as required to produce learning objects, such as course-related podcasts.) Evo gave the example of his wife, a jr. high English teacher who had for several years been buying, reviewing, and then presenting young adult books to her students in hopes that some of them would borrow and read one or more of the books. Evo had essentially said to her, "Look, you're doing this presentation on a book every week to your 30 students anyway, why not podcast it as a weekly show and allow other English teachers across the country to benefit from your work?" Sounds like a brilliant idea to me, and one that will quickly revolutionize how teachers access resources, and therefore something for which I need to prep my student teachers.

What I got from Evo was how podcasting is catching on with millions of American commuters who are stuck in their cars for hours at a time and growing bored with just listening to music. Podcasting therefore represents the rebirth of radio, because it provides specific programming on demand. Radio mystery, comedy, drama, etc. is suddenly back in because podcasting technology allows anyone to produce their own shows cheaply and to deliver them directly to their own niche market. Tee Morris, for example, produced 26 weekly podcasts of an abridged version of his fantasy novel, Morevi in hopes of attracting potential readers/buyers.

Michael Mennenga reviewed some of the technology available to produce professional radio quality podcasts and it is astonishingly affordable. The bottom line is that $35US buys one a USB compatible microphone, which is sufficient for acceptable quality 'talk radio' or most educational applications; $150US buys one a mixing console to facilitate more sophisticated integration of music etc.; and $350US buys a complete package that integrates the hardware with dedicated software controls for high end podcasts. If $350 gets one's garageband on air and lets the local SF club produce its own professional quality SF drama, well then hello 500,000 channel universe. (The sociological implications here are very intriguing since media analysts are still trying to come to terms with the 500 channel universe.)

Advantages of podcasting over videoconferencing for distance learning

First, audio may represent a better use of student time. Many of my target audience are rural teachers -- that is why they are taking the courses at a distance, after all -- and the most common pattern is for these teachers to live in one small rural community, and to teach in another...leaving them with a daily commute. For these graduate students, the daily commute is mostly 'deadtime', and providing a weekly podcast of their course lecture is likely to be greeted as an improvement because it allows them to multitask -- two birds with one stone is a deal in anyone's books. In contrast, videoconferencing is generally ineffective because it requires the student to forego other activities to attend class without the actual benefit of being in the classroom with the instructor. Even if we use streaming video so the student can access the video at their convenience, we're dealing with the painful exercise of trying to attend to a talking head for three hours -- not possible. Thus, "less is more" here: audio wins over video because the video component is not carrying its weight in information and ties the viewer up whereas audio frees the listener to drive, walk the dog or do other chores.

Second, audio is easier for the instructor. To produce an audio lecture from my existing lesson scripts requires only as many hours as it would to deliver the lectures in person. In contrast, video conferencing requires additional technical staff or technical know-how and effort on the part of the instructor. Attempts to make the videos more effective (inserting other visuals into the taped lecture, for example) require an expenditure of effort on the part of the instructor out of all proportion to standard face-to-face delivery, and so is a major disincentive to innovative teaching. Thus video demands too much from both lecturer and listener.

Third, podcasting allows for greater Individualized instruction. Supplementing the core lectures is similarly easy. For example, in my graduate methodology course, half my students have already taken three or four methods courses in their undergraduate program, whereas the other half have had nothing previously. If I include the lecture on hypotheses for those without any background in research, those with previous courses become bored out of their minds; but if I skip it, those without the background are quickly left behind, lost and terrified. Making the lecture on hypotheses available online as a supplementary resource means that those students who need the lecture can get it, while those who do not need not trouble themselves.

Similarly, our introductory research course is designed as a survey class that lays out the range of research methodologies and orientations available and so cannot provide much depth for any one approach. With the ease with which additional lectures can be made available as online podcasts, one could easily allow students to select a 'custom made' course that would allow them, for example, to choose to focus on either qualitative methodologies or quantitative methodologies in much greater depth.

Fourth, Weekly podcasts may encourage the development of learning objects. Not only could one do a 13 week course via podcasts with no more effort than the usual face to face lectures (especially if one is primarily a 'chalk and talk' style lecturer like myself), but one could continue the weekly episodes to build up supplementary materials. For example, I propose to phone up various methodological theorists and interview them for my course -- doing one one hour phone interview a week would probably not be particularly onerous for either myself nor my potential interview subjects, but over the course of a year yield an additional 40-50 learning objects students could access.

Fifth, podcasting can be easily integrated with other pedagogical techniques. Michael, for example, assured me that PowerPoint presentations could be keyed to podcasts, such that the slides would progress on screen as the podcast provided the associated audio. Of course, this reduces advantage #1 above, but does mean that PowerPoint lectures can be deliver as effectively at a distance as in a face-to-face situation.

Sixth, podcasting could off load lectures from class time If students in a regular (as opposed to distance ed) situation can access lectures outside of class time (perhaps in lieu of equivalent reading hours), then classroom time could be devoted to workshop and hands on style applications. This may not be useful in all classes, but I can think of several situations where I would love to free up class time for direct consultation/interaction with and between students, while still being assured students have the opportunity to hear me cover the key curricular concepts.

Seventh, podcasting can reach a broad audience. This one is still open to discussion, but I'm thinking of making my podcasts broadly available through the Internet, rather than just to my own students. It seems to me that some student in Illinois might well benefit from hearing my lectures as a supplement to his/her own instructor -- I often find it useful to get two or three different takes when trying to master new concepts. On the other hand, as Mary pointed out to me, interview subjects may balk at a permanent universally available recording....They may be only prepared to participate if the podcast are secured behind WebCT logins and up only for the duration of the course. Though personally, I am fine with having my ideas out there as broadly as possible. So we'll see how that one works out.

Eighth, Podcasts open the way to innovative teaching Speaking of interviews, one way to break up the lecture might be to include phone interviews with key speakers. I can't get big names to drop into my class easily, but a phone interview might well be possible...Students should love hearing it from the horses mouth, and talk radio is probably more dynamic than straight lecture. And that is only the beginning. I think one problem with videoconferencing and other distance learning tools is that we are too preoccupied with recreating the face-to-face classroom. But the effectiveness of face-to-face instruction is something of a myth and our preoccupation with recreating that format as closely as possible in distance learning contexts may have more to do with functional fixedness than with effective pedagogy. Let's give talk radio a chance to evolve as its own unique educational tool, with different advantages (and undoubtedly, problems) and figure out which content is best suited to which formats.

Ninth, well, I'm still thinking this through and experimenting, but I'm pretty sure there will be other latent functions here. Of course, I'm sure there may be latent dysfunctions that will turn up too, but we'll have to see.

One question that Jim Henry suggested to me is whether instructors can talk into a microphone as fluently as to a class...without the body language feedback from the students one depends on to pace lessons, to decide what needs to be clarified, and what needs to be skipped over. An issue raised by colleague George Bedard is whether podcasts address the issues of peer learning adequately -- cohorts like getting together for class for reasons of moral as much as for direct learning opportunities; and it is not clear how podcasting can provide some of the support for students who require reassurance about how they are doing. But perhaps a phone in question and answer session could be a start?

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Are English Canadians more violent?

So, I have to ask...are English Canadian children brought up in a more violent popular culture than French Canadian kids? Because my 7 year old's Dairyland "extreme shake" (part of the 'milk to go' single serving line) bills itself as "vicious vanilla" in English, but the Frappé à L'extrême" on the other side is "Vanille sublime".

Real Androids

Japanese scientist makes robot that can pass for human. So my question is, hasn't this guy read any SF? Star Trek reruns?

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Glenbow Museum

I had originally intended to return to Lethbridge Monday afternoon, but got the bus schedule wrong and missed the afternoon bus. Consequently, I ended up with a couple of hours to kill in Calgary so went to the Glenbow.

The museum has several excellent permanent exhibits, but I've seen those several times before, so was primarily interested in seeing what was new. I thus divided my time between an exhibit of West African symbols, one on modern Vietnam, and one on the life stories of seven immigrants to Calgary. One of the stories featured the bhuddist inspired art of Loatian immigrant Thep Thavonsouk. Thep Thavonsoukpaintings are among the most pleasing and thought provoking I've seen in recent years. He paints tiny human figures dwarfed by the landscapes confronting them. In my favorite, a party of bhuddist monks can just be made out in the bottom middle-left of the painting, strolling along a beach with traditional Loatian orange
and red umbrella's unfurled, while the majority of the canvas is dominated by a vast storm brewing overhead. Thep Thavonsouk asks, are the umbrella’s really going to help? It is a great bhuddist moment!

I was very pleased with the West African exhibit, partly because I can only take so much cowboy art and prefer to see a variety of exhibits, and partly because West Africa is one of the 'holes' in my knowledge. Even today, school history tends to focus on European history and leave Africa and Asia largely untouched. As an undergraduate I chose to fill as much of that vacuum as I could, taking courses in the history of Southeast Asia, for example, even becoming something of an armchair expert on the politics of Indonesia, but I could not cover everything and West Africa was one of those blanks. The exhibit was small (just as well given my limited time frame) but of fairly high caliber. The majority of exhibited items were collected by the Glenbow's founder back in the 1930s, and have never been exhibited until now. Well worth the trip.

The Viennese exhibit was also interesting, though I didn't have much time left by the point I got to it. I particularly appreciated the video segments, which showed scenes from daily life, because I'm afraid I had not updated my mental picture since the Vietnam war, at which point the Americans had pretty much bombed the northern half of the country into a Saskatween lookalike -- i.e., unpaved parking lot. So it was reassuring and life affirming to see modern (kind of) city scenes and to be reminded that that was 30 years ago, and life goes on.

My favorite exhibit was the story of Calgary immigrants, since we are all natural voyeurs interested in the lives of other people. The exhibit was nicely balanced between those who had 'made it' (the artist, __, mentioned above, and two successful businessmen) and those who were doing just okay (e.g., a janitor, a housewife); and between those who had come as refugees, come for love (woman who married a tourist), and who made a conscious choice to emigrate to Canada. I also liked that although several of the statements talked about the opportunities and freedoms in Canada, it was not as if once they got here their lives were perfect...the refugee family still lost one of their son's in a car accident, another had a sister who dreamed of having her own restaurant, but was working in Wal-Mart, etc. Being so balanced, it seemed pretty real.

The local bhuddist group had set up a bhuddist altar as part of this exhibit, and asked people to leave something of themselves -- the result was a highly electric collection of Eastern spirituality and Western materialism. Many of the kids who had taken advantage of the crafts room next door had left their art on the multi-platformed altar; other visitors had left postcards, a comb, sunglasses, etc. Pretty nifty piece of conceptual art.

The museum closed at 4:45, but the giftshop stayed open until 5:30 so I spent the next 45 minutes browsing it shelves and particularly its extensive bookshelves. In the end, I had to forego any of the books, several of which appeared very tempting, because I was already carrying too great a weight of books in my bag from the convention, but I noted some titles for later reference. I did buy a tie and a couple of handmade bookmarks. But the giftshop is highly recommended for its own sake as a decent bookstore and art jewelry etc.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Thinking Outside the Box

sorter toy

So I take out the sorter toy and place it in front of Kasia. I demonstrate how the red cube goes in the red square opening, the green triangle goes in the green triangular opening, the yellow cylinder goes in the yellow circle opening, and so on. I repeat the demonstration, open the sorter up and dump the blocks out on the floor, close it up, and hand it over for her to do.

Kasia gives me one of those "You're an idiot, Dad" looks, reaches over, opens the back of the sorter, and stuffs all the blocks in all at once, closes the toy, and hands it back to me.

What can I say? Apparently there was an easier way to do it....

This kind of thing happens a lot. We buy toys for kids that make sense to us as adults, but mean something completely different to the kids. Take Kasia's pirate ship bath toy. To me, it is a cool pirate ship. To Kasia, it is a convenient holder for her bathwater drinking cup. Now, I hadn't actually wanted Kasia to drink from the bath tub, and was pretty sure that was a rowboat attached to the pirate ship, but apparently it is the perfect drinking cup. The only other thing she uses the pirate ship for is to step on to help her climb out of the tub while I am trying to wash her hair.
But, when I stop to think of it, what experience of pirates does the typical toddler have? I mean, if they had met pirates, they probably would not subsequently want to be reminded of the experience by bath toys.

So why do we choose the themes we do for toys? Why is it we fill toddler's rooms with toys of farm animals and teach them the words for 'cow' and 'pig' and teach them to go 'moo' and 'oink' as four of the first twenty words they learn? This might have been essential vocabulary for kids a hundred years ago, but the closest my urban kids are likely to come to cows or pigs these days are the styrofoam packages in the Safeway meat counter. You know?

So who decided that Kasia's pjs should have ducks on them? "Quack" was literally her first 'word' after 'mama'. Is this essential learning?
Or is that the whole point, to pick easy and comfortably irrelevant content? I guess ducks are less political than having, say, pictures of Marx.
Okay, Marx wasn't all that cuddly, but you take my point.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

You Read It Here First

In my current article/book chapter on the research implications of blogs and blogging, I make the point that since blogs automatically date stamp and archive each post, researchers can establish who had a particular idea first by simply mentioning it in their blog. So, let me take my own advice and mention a couple of neologisms regarding blogging and data collection that I coin in my article:

The sustained asynchronous focus group': researchers initiate their own topical blog to solicit postings or comments; the researchers direct the resulting 'conversation' as they would a focus group.

directed journal entries: researchers identify a sample population and request that they keep a topical on-line diary. (Getting people to keep diaries is a fairly common research technique, but only a couple of done this on line so far, but online provides all sorts of logistical advantages....)

Found data: pre-existing material created for other purposes that the researcher is able to access and analyze as data (in this case, blogs) The spontaneous commentary of a blogger is 'found data', in contrast to the 'created data' of the survey or interview where the subject's responses exist only because they were asked the question. We cannot know whether the issues we are asking the respondent about would be sufficiently salient in their lives that they would have spontaneously raised them outside the interview context; with found data, the subjects are more likely to write about issues that are salient to them -ie., less leading of the witness because there is no question asked....

Okay, those are mine now! Oh, feel free to use them. In fact, I'd appreciate you dropping those phrases into conversation whereever you can, so that they spread and come widely into use. Then once everyone is using my terms, I can prove that I said them first, and everyone will have to cite me whenever they want to use them in an article.

Okay, it lacks the money making potential of Trump copywriting "You're Fired", but same basic principle.

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Feminist Mystique for the 21th Century


Mary had submitted her draft dissertation to her advisor last month, and been waiting on pins and needles to see how extensive the revisions required by her advisor would be. To her (and my) great relief, his suggestions have been very very minor clarifications. Instead, he has been exceedingly positive about the work, saying in part:

"This is wonderful stuff. I think that you have a book on your hands (post defence). It reads so well. I laughed my way through chapter 3 -- black comedy, but funny nonetheless. You tell a great (and intellectually sharp) story. ... What you have done with anecdotes was sheer poetry as well inspired."

And again on another chapter: "Simply brilliant."

Re, methodology chapter: "You should be teaching critical methods, you are so good at it. "

"I really enjoyed this. I see it as ready."

And my personal favorite:

"When the book is published and, hopefully, they ask me for a comment (or anyone else for that matter) I/they will call it the feminist mystique for the 21th century."

I knew the dissertation was great when she sent it off, but it is really validating to have her advisor be so enthusastic too. Considering how fast Mary did this work, and that she did it while having a baby and teaching full time and that she did it entirely on her own (with the exception of one chapter that was the basis for an article in Human Relations, this is the first time her advisor has seen any of it.)

And, she is still a major babe!

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Fire Me Please

Actually, I'm pretty happy where I work, so the title here refers to the new CBS show, Fire Me Please which I saw for the first time last night. I had in fact wanted to crawl into bed early to deal with the terrible cold from which I am currently suffering, but my Business Prof wife insisted that I watch this with her. And it is hilarious....I literally fell off the couch laughing at one point.

Two people start jobs at two different stores/pizza/coffee shops/ etc and the one to get fired closest to 3PM wins $25,000. The trick of course is to lay the groundwork for getting fired by 3 without being so obnoxious as to get fired before the other guy; or to build so slowly that 3PM comes and goes without getting fired.

Watching bosses and coworkers react to the wrong behaviours of the new hire is totally absorbing; and fascinating to see how much it takes to actually get fired on your first day. Bosses and coworkers are willing to give the new person an awful lot of chances, even when it becomes painfully evident that they are not going to "fit in". The four bosses we watched last night were really decent -- I was particularly impressed by the very young boss of a pizza store who not only gave our insane new worker every opportunity to get it right (always talking to her in private rather than in front of the other workers, always with a fairly positive tone, even being polite as he fires her, though obviously very frustrated) he was fanatic about cleanliness and maintaining proper standards for the customer. That's what I like to see! I'd eat there now!

Indeed, the weakest boss was the one in the sporting goods store who didn't want to fire the lunatic even though the rest of his staff had come to hate the new hire. The boss kept telling our contestant that he "still had a good chance at the job", which perhaps shows a certain weakness, since getting rid of the dysfunctional worker is clearly a management responsibility and something he owed his other workers.

Considering that these people were all being filmed with hidden cameras, it is amazing that we didn't see worse behaviour. We've all had terrible bosses, at one time or another, so how come none of them showed up on camera?

But it is a great show! I highly recommend it. Forget reality TV, this is an extended Candid Camera episode, but with quite interesting insights for business and sociology... I love how it is often the little things -- the breaking of tiny tiny unwritten rules -- that convince people you're crazy. (Like, when you get into an elevator, face the wrong way. No law against it, nothing overtly scary, but the elevator will empty out rather than travel another couple of floors with you.)

I'm very tempted to try to figure out how to use this in my next class... I'd love to show my student teachers excerpts, and then ask them what it would take to 'get fired' from the practicum. I think it would help a lot of them relax to see how crazy you have to get before you actually get canned -- and I think it is important for them to see there is more to doing the job then just the job. I'll have to give this some thought....

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Aurora Awards (2005)

Robert Sawyer
My initial reactions walking into the auditorium was a concern that the awards ceremony was slipping a bit: the room was not crowded and everyone there was just sitting around in their day clothes - in contrast to the gala setting of some other years.

I needn't have worried. MC was Robert J. Sawyer, a consummate showman if there ever was one. Sawyer quickly established just the right balance of fannish informality and award night energy, delivering an upbeat line of patter that kept everyone interested and involved throughout. I particularly appreciated the way he broke up the necessary discussion of the history of the awards, balloting procedures, category descriptions, eligibilities, and so on into brief segments smoothly delivered between the introduction of presenters. Most impressive of all was the way Sawyer smoothly filled the gaps when there was no one present to accept an award, as happened several times: in such cases he just stepped forward and ad libbed a brief biography of the winner which felt like an acceptance speech.
Edo acceptance speech

Highlights of the Awards were: Edo van Belkom's acceptance speech (for Wolf Pack, Tundra Books, 2004), which began by thanking Sawyer for not having an entry in the Long Form category this year, and Sawyer looking genuinely surprised to win in the English Other category for Relativity: Essays and Stories (I subsequently found and purchased a copy in the dealer's room at the convention. I've seen most of this stuff before, but Sawyer's is a significant voice in Canadian SF criticism, so it was convenient to have all this bundled in one package.)

2005 Award Winners (Abridged):

Long-form English: Wolf Pack, Edo van Belkom

Short-form English: When the Morning Stars Sang Together, Isaac Szpindel

English other: Relativity: Essays and Stories, Robert J. Sawyer

Artistic achievement: Martin Springett

Fan publication: Opuntia, Dale Speirs

Friday, July 01, 2005

Canada Day Celebrations

Drove up to Calgary yesterday (June 30) to attend WesterCon 58 conference, and for family to take in Canada Day celebrations in Calgary.

The Canada Day festivities were a bit of a disappointment. We arrived at Noon, but were ready to pack it in around 1:30, having seen everything there was to see.

Kasia eats ice cream       Tigana has face painted
I'm not sure whether the problem was that the celebrations had had to be moved from Prince's Island (closed due to the flooding the previous week) or because there just wasn't enough funding provided, but there was little indication that this was Alberta's Centennial. A local arts paper headline complained that "The Party's next door", arguing that Saskatewan had budgeted much more for centennial celebrations than had Alberta.

So we basically wandered around downtown Calgary...going down Stephan Mall, swimming in the hotel pool, and having supper at Old Spaghetti Factory. Then Mary put the kids to bed while I went to the Aurora Awards ceremony…

Monday, June 27, 2005

The Social Uses of Photographs

I'm still struggling to complete my article on blogs as a research methodology, but one of the side benefits is my looking around for examples to include, and coming across some really nifty studies. Here is a pretty nifty site: Professor Nancy Van House, School of information Management Systems, University of California, Berkeley is working on The Social Uses of Photographs and trust, credibility, and the internet. Here is her paper on Weblogs: Credibility and Collaboration in an Online World

Friday, June 24, 2005

Blank Page Syndrome

This week I've been struggling with writing a chapter on blogs for a research methodology textbook. It's frustrating because I have a pretty good idea of what I want to say, and even how I want to say it, but I'm still finding it difficult to get past the blank page and get down the initial paragraphs. I have made several false starts -- the first too informal, the second too boring, the third too obsolete (I realized that by the time the chapter saw print, and especially after it had been in print for a while -- since textbooks of this type hang around for a long time -- explaining what blogs are and how they work would be as redundant as explaining the benefits of word processing or of using a search engines to find journal articles) and I am finding it difficult to motivate myself to go back for try number 4. Thankfully, I'm up against a deadline, so motivated or not, I'll get it done sometime in the next week.

Writer's block is pretty normal, of course. I've only met four or five people who do not suffer from at least that initial blockage as they face the first blank page, and I know a lot of academics and professional writers. But it is not part of the writing process that anyone sees or talks about. Most academics would like you to believe that they sit down at the keyboard and simply hammer out the finished product that you see in journals or books first draft. In reality, the material that sees print has usually gone through 5 to 10 major revisions; by which I mean, torn up and start over kind of rewriting, not just copy editing.

The problem with the pretense that we 'just write up our findings' without sweating over it, is that students or new faculty who are struggling to get something down on paper and failing, often feel like there must be something wrong with them, and believing that no one else is experiencing this level of angst, gives it up. I have on innumerable occasions seen thesis supervisors provide detailed guidance and support to their student in the formulation of the research question, the search for relevant research literature, data collection and data analysis, but once the student has their data ready to write up, they say, "well, go to it!" as if the writing process were not in fact as difficult or more difficult than all the other stages. We assume that because students have been writing papers for years as undergraduates, they should have no problem writing up their thesis, but the research I've seen suggests that it is at this stage that approximately 50% of graduate students in thesis or dissertation programs drop the ball and disappear from the program.

I am very grateful to Howard Becker's book, Writing for the Social Sciences in which he explains that the writing strategies necessary for the successful completion of a thesis, dissertation or published piece of research are almost the exact opposite strategies necessary to efficiently completing an undergraduate paper. To be successful thesis writers, students have to unlearn everything they think they know about writing. But since hardly anyone every tells them that, when their successful strategies from their undergraduate years fail them, they view it as their personal failure, and thinking they have lost it somehow, announce "I can't do this!" and throw in the towel.

I once had the opportunity of shadowing SF writer Candas Jane Dorsey for a couple of days to see how writers actually write. This was back when I was struggling to finish my dissertation, and I was working 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, yet found myself repeatedly bogged down in writer's block. So here I was following Candas around for the day, waiting for her to start writing, and waiting and waiting. First we had breakfast. Then she did some errands. No problem, I’m imposing on her time, I can wait. Then we go for lunch with friends. This takes half a day. Then we go to a movie. Then coffee with other acquaintances. Then supper…which turned into a bit of an impromptu party as other writers in the neighbourhood (Candas then lived in an artists’ co-op) dropped in. Finally, at about 8PM, Candas announces she has to go upstairs for a few minutes. She comes down maybe 80 minutes later and says, “Phew…that was a long slog!” I ask her to what she is referring, and she says, “Oh I felt it was time to get some writing out of the way. I did about four and a half pages of finished copy just then, That’s a lot for one day.” And went back to the party.

Considering that I was getting only one to two pages out per day, this was a bit of a revelation. “How can you spend all your time goofing and still be more productive than me!” I asked. (Okay, “wailed” might be a better adjective there.) And Candas explained to me that she had been working all day -- that for a writer, going to a party, listening to conversations, picking up ideas from peers, and so on, qualifies as her research. “You can’t have output without input, you know!”

The party/luncheon/movie research may not apply too directly to my writing (though as a sociologist, listening is a pretty useful skill), but I now certainly get the “no output without input” line. So if my brain has shut down the last couple of days on this article, instead of sweating it, I’ve learned that it is more productive in the long run to just take a day off. (*Went to see The Interpreter which I would recommend as a nice little thriller.*)

Of course, the trick is knowing when to take the day off to recharge, get a fresh perspective, and start over; and when to stop procrastinating and to exercise some self-discipline. My favorite NFB short is Getting Started, a painfully funny cartoon that hits way too close to home…

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Hitchhiker Disappoints

Saw Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy this week, and was disappointed.

I confess that I often have trouble seeing the point in remaking something that has already been done, and expect that if someone is tackling a classic they do so in the belief that they can do it better. I'll reluctantly concede that there may be a certain logic in remaking classic B&W films since modern audiences are often impatient with B&W and have difficulty relating to the styles and issues of other times with which they are unfamiliar, though I feel this reflects badly on the media literacy of our graduates. But where is the purpose in remaking a recent TV series?

Of course I am perfectly aware that the answer is "to make money". The producers have cast around for some popular product and then asked themselves how they can carve out a piece of that pie for themselves, regardless of the relative merits of the proposed remake. But hope springs eternal, and so I had opted for optimistic explanation that the producers loved the original books, and after seeing the cheesy production values of the original BBC series, decide to invest in Star Wars level special effects to 'do it right'.

The reality, needless to say, did not live up to this expectation.

There were some nice elements here and there, including decent casting. Alan Rickman is perfect for the voice of Marvin, for example, though I hated the new robot itself -- which looks like the annoyingly enthusiastic robot from Power Rangers -- a bad piece of 'casting' rendered even more distracting by the appearance of the original Marvin as an 'extra' in the waiting line in the Vogan bureau...

But the fundamental problem was the slobby abridgement of the original scripts... it often seemed like the producer /director just didn't 'get it.' Many of the memorable lines were there, but with all of the lines that build up to the punch line absent, the jokes fall flat. This was even more the case with the lack of character development -- Hitchhiker may never have been great literature, but it did develop a certain movie two-dimensionality through the repetition of predictable characteristics, e.g., Dent’s search for a cup of tea, or his resentful, whining, pessimistic “this is it, we’re all going to die” or Marvin’s “brain the size of a planet” theme or whatever. Instead, the abridgement left almost nothing to hang on to… By trying to cram in too many of the original scenes, each individual scene was necessarily so abbreviated as to lose its coherence and significance, with the result that the whole movie is reduced to pointless silliness.

Worst of all, the Guide itself only puts in a few random appearances; without the guide narration tying the pieces together, the whole premise of the movie is undermined.

My recommendation: get the original BBC production on DVD and watch that over again instead.