Saturday, December 11, 2004

Reflex Anoxic Seizures

Wednesday morning I had just entered my office before setting out for my 10:00 AM class when the phone rang: Kasia, our 1 year old, had stopped breathing at day care and was being rushed to the hospital.

Mary and I raced to the car; Mary used her cell to call around to various colleagues to arrange coverage for my class, mostly to distract herself while I drove. I had gone into standard male denial mode, so I was okay to drive: Kasia had previously been diagnosed with Cyanotic Breath-Holding, so I assumed this was more of the same, though there was the nagging doubt that the day care workers had dealt with that before and not freaked, so perhaps this was something else.

The Breath-holding incidents were scary enough: something would upset Kasia (a bump or poke; taking something she was trying to put into her mouth away from her; sometimes nothing at all that we could recognize as the initiating stimulus) and her crying would quickly escalate to the point where she would be unable to catch her breath between screams, would hyperventilate, and then suddenly she had stop breathing, turned blue, and passed out. On other occasions she would skip the crying stage altogether, and simply stop breathing, turn blue, and pass out – a process indistinguishable from a child choking to death.

Indeed, we now realize that Kasia's first spell was one we had initially interpreted as a chocking incident one weekend in Costco's food court, in which it appeared that Kasia had only survived thanks to the timely intervention of a nurse seated at the next table. I remember having been appalled at how fast Kasia had started to turn blue – I had just started to say, "I think there is something wrong with Kasia", when a woman at the next table called out, "She's choking!" For the first time ever, Mary froze as Kasia's eyes started to roll up; when a another woman stepped forward, identifying herself as a nurse, Mary thrust Kasia into her arms. The woman whacked Kasia on the back a couple of times as she yelled to her husband to call 911. I had a sinking feeling it was too late to call for an ambulance, as Kasia was already blue, and we were a long way from the hospital. But suddenly Kasia was crying, and the woman was pointing to a piece of chicken that had popped out of Kasia that looked about choking size. In retrospect, it now seems more likely that this was her first full blown Cyanotic spell, rather than choking, but we spend the next month breaking Kasia's food into microscopic crumbs before putting them on her plate…..

The next incident a couple of weeks later sent us rushing to the hospital, where the doctor diagnosed a Cyanotic Breath-holding Spell. The doctor emphasized that this was a genetically determined physiological response, and not willfulness. Mary immediately researched the syndrome through the internet and discovered that these spells occur in a small number of children after 6 months of age, peak at two, and are gone by age 6. Although terrifying for parents and bystanders, they are essentially harmless. After reading through the literature, I came to see it as a kind of "reboot" mechanism -- having reached a level of hysteria from which Kasia could not regain control, the system shuts down, reboots, and returns the child to normal crying.

After our experiences with these initial episodes, we had briefed the day care staff, and a few days later, Kasia had inserted her finger in the mouth of another daycare baby, who had promptly clamped down on Kasia's finger with her new teeth, and Kasia had had a spell. The day care staff told us that they now appreciated what we had been talking about / going through, but basically they had too coped.

Wednesday was different. One of the workers had taken a toy away from Kasia, which Kasia had coped with, if somewhat grumpily. A second staffer, however, had taken a second toy away when she spotted a piece of tinsel wrapped around it. This had proved too much for Kasia. She had become hysterical, held her breath, gone rigid, and passed out. The staffer was prepared for this... except Kasia did not come round. Instead of starting to cry, she remained non-responsive, and did not resume breathing. The worker called for, Jan, the head of the day care, who immediately decided to transport Kasia to hospital. Jan made the conscious decision not to speed and to wait for traffic lights, on the reasonable grounds that an accident would not help. (She did, she said, use the horn.) She drove while the other staffer held Kasia...who by this time was limp, her eyes rolled up into her head, for all appearances dead. Fortunately, the day care is not far from the hospital, and they made it to Emergency in literally 2 minutes.

One thing we will say for Lethbridge is that we have always found the Emergency room staff to be very responsive. When the day care staff came through the doors carrying a limp baby, a group of doctors and nurses immediately took her to the back and began undressing her and attaching her to every device known to modern medicine. Total elapsed time since start of the incident: 4 minutes. At which point, Kasia began to cry.

Mary and I arrived about two minutes after that. I dropped Mary at the door, and parked the car. I followed less than a minute later, running into the day care workers, coming out. They stopped and briefed me in detail, so I could tell the doctors later. (They had of course also told the triage nurse everything.) I was immensely impressed with how well they had coped with the emergency. I have the greatest respect for the head of this day care, a professional of the first order, and a take-charge personality if ever there was one. I can think of no one I would rather have in an emergency such as this. Just the fact that she had the presence of mind to note the times at each step so she could tell the doctors, was indicative of her calm and efficient response.

I then went in to join my wife and daughter, having been listening to the reassuring sound of Kasia screaming her lungs out the entire time I was debriefing the day care staff. While Mary reassured me that the doctors had said Kasia would be okay, and my briefing her on what the day care staff had told me, the day care owner's twin sister showed up. I confess I hadn't realized at first that it was the sister, since they are identical twins, but it eventually penetrated that she had left her day care to come and support her sister, Jan, in what everyone had supposed was the death of a child in her care.

Eventually the doctor showed up and after speaking with us, arranging for a follow-up appointment with our pediatrician (no mean feat in a city where there are too few pediatricians for the population), he sent us home with the diagnosis that this had likely been an extended breath-holding incident, and implied that the day care workers had perhaps over-reacted. "You probably wouldn't have brought her in had it happened when she was with you." I personally doubted this, knowing my own levels of terror and the calm professionalism of the day care people, and especially given the strong sense from the staff that this had been something new and different.

As an aside, the doctor mentioned that the blood tests had come back showing Kasia had anemia. When Mary got on line, it became immediately obvious that anemia is highly correlated with both the Cyanotic Spells and with a rarer second Pallid form. The more we read about the Pallid form, the more obvious that was what Kasia had had. Including the inconsolable crying that lasted for hours afterwards....reading the symptoms on these sites was like listening to a replay of the Day care staff debrief....

The next development came when Mary phoned her folks with the news...and they talked about her attacks when she was a child. Of course, in those days people assumed that the spells were the result of willful behavior and sibling rivalry (her sister being born when Mary was 18 months) or, eventually, of epilepsy. Mary's attacks had been frequent enough to label her a "difficult child" but not so frequent that the family ever got used to them… This is somewhat reassuring, since it suggest Kasia's spells might also be relatively infrequent, say, once every couple of months. In contrast, the websites report that some children have Cyanotic spells four or five times a day; and some children with the rarer and far more frightening pallid form suffer episodes as often as twice a day.

When Mary read out the description of pallid form to me, my "oh-well,-they-are-just harmless-spells" attitude collapsed. Apparently, the heart actually stops, the lungs and brain shut down, and it is only when the fail safe mechanism kicks in to restart the heart that the child comes out of it -- to cry for hours and then sleep....

"The heart stops?!" I demand.

"That's what leads to the paleness…there is no blood circulating."

A knot formed in the middle of my stomach that hasn't yet dissolved. I am definitely not okay with my daughter's heart stopping, albeit briefly….

We haven't seen the pediatrician yet, so our self-diagnosis is necessarily tentative --- hopefully, we are not dealing with something worse! But the symptoms match very closely, including the genetic component. And of course, it is all very frightening. The fact that Mary suffered from the same condition as a child and is a here as an adult validates the various websites insistence that the condition is not fatal, poses no threat to, or strain on, heart, brain, or lungs, etc., but such rational considerations do not hold much weight in the face of one's child turning blue or remaining unresponsive for minutes at a time, as you wait to find out if it is just another spell or whether you've just sat there while you child choked to death on a piece of broccoli. The spells may not place any strain on the child's heart, but let me tell you, it sure as hell strains the parents'.

References: tipdergi/eng/03_2002ing/03_01ing..pdf

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Big Fat Obnoxious Boss

I have just watched the second episode of this bonzo series and fallen off the couch laughing. I had a lot of problems with the previous series, "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance" because it messed with family relations and people's lives; but somehow it doesn't bother me to see a group of greedy suits getting conned.

The series is a hilarious take off of the Apprentice. The actor portraying the billionaire mentor dispenses completely random and ridiculous advice and assigns completely pointless tasks to the competing teams. The series cuts right to the heart of what is wrong with Trump's series...his sexism, his lack of ethics, his pretentious business advice that represents all that is wrong with rapacious American capitalism. Above all, watching these supposedly top candidates perform like a group of monkeys that any of my undergrads could have out performed. All of these elements are crucified in this satire.

In the opening episode, for example, the group of apprentices is taken to an impressive venue and given what appears to be a banquet fit for the billionaires they aspire to become, but the food in fact is cheap crap -- the paté is baloney ground in a blender, the champaign is the cheapest rubbish they could buy, but of course they are told it is $100 an ounce and $1000 a bottle, and they of course totally bought it. Every working class stiff watching who believes that the rich really have no taste and that upper class food is about pretention not food, has their beliefs confirmed by this series. Watching these apprentices buying into the patent nonsense spouted by the actors playing the bosses is abosultely hilarious, and a shot at Trump and the entire upper class. Having the actors gloating off camera how they managed to get these supposedly top business people not only believe that the game is real, but manipulate them into ridiculous behaviours without ever questionning whatis going on... it is absolutely priceless.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Take Your Daughter to Work Day

Yesterday was take your child to work day in Alberta. Strictly speaking, it is supposed to be for Grade 9 students, because the Grade 9 curriculum deals with career choice, but we dislike such careerism... Tigana had been asking about what we actually do at work, so we wanted to afford her the opportunity to observe Mary lecturing. This quickly evolved, however, to her providing a 'guest lecture'. Mary is doing her dissertation on work-family balance, and has often told Tigana that Tigana has taught her everything she knows about the importance of family. Consequently, Tigana volunteered to teach Mary's class on Social Responsibility about "why kids are more important than work."

Photo of Kasia in bathroom cabinet

Tigana spent several evenings writing her report, which she read out to Mary's class:

Why Kids Are More Important Than Work

by Tigana Runté

  1. When your kids are sick, stay home and help them feel better.

  2. When someone is mean to your kids, help them learn what to say and stand up for themselves.

  3. We would rather have you spend time with us than have lots of money for toys.

This report was well recieved by Mary's two classes; Mary and I were extremely proud of how Tigana was able to overcome her nervousness and read out her report to a room full of adult strangers. I'd have to say that her presentation was as clear and coherent as about half of those by my student teachers.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Problem with Comments

I've have a number of posts half finished and stored as drafts, but I've been ill off and on the last few weeks and have just been able to keep up with the day job, so no time to do any serious blogging. But I have noticed a problem with my blog, which is that the comment buttons insist on reading "zero" comments, even when there are half a dozen comments. I'n not sure where the glitch in my html is -- the code all looks good to me-- but I'm afraid to tamper too much to try to fix it, because the last time I upgraded the comment function, it erased all the comments accumulated to that point. It is a quandary.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Stupid Questions

As an educator, I have often told students that there is no such thing as a stupid question; that if they are wondering about something or don't understand something, there are probably others in the class with the same question. Even if there is not, I would rather they asked, even if they feel a bit foolish, than miss some fundamental concept that would thereby undermine their learning. Most of the time, their embarrassed questions often brings up a key point, and I am glad of it.

On the other hand, it has occured to me lately that there are indeed stupid questions -- questions that ought never be asked of one's prof. A couple of my favorite examples are (a) the student who emailed my wife asking what the textbook for her course was the night before the final examination (so much for having done the readings for each class, eh?) or even better, (b)the student who emailed the classlist the night before the group project (worth 45% of the course grade, and the subject of group worksessions every class for the whole of the semester) "Hi, my name is Doug. Does anyone know what group I'm in?" At the UofL, signing your name to a project to which you have not contributed equally constitutes academic dishonesty, punishable by expulsion from the program, but this idiot thought he could show up the night before and get "his" group to add his name. Astoundingly, the group went for it! Needless to say, my wife struck his name off, gave him the boot, and put the fear of god into the rest of the group, since allowing his name on the report also constituted academic dishonesty on their part.

My absolute favorite, though was the series of emails my wife received over the course of a weekend from an increasingly angry and desparate student. Friday evening, 9PM, the student emails a question about an upcoming assignment. An hour later, she sends a second email saying, "I haven't received a reply from you yet and I can't start working on my paper until I hear from you, so can you PLEASE answer my question?" I'm not sure what astounded me more, that she thought my wife should be online ready to answer student questions, 24/7, or the completely unprofessional tone of a follow up email less than an hour later. The student emailed again at midnight, then several times the following morning. By the Saturday afternoon, she was nearly hysterical in her demands for an answer to her question, pointing out that she only had one evening and a day to do a heavily weight assignment -- as if it were my wife's fault that she had not started the paper earlier. My wife hadn't answered initially because she hadn't been on-line, and by the time she did check her email, she was quite put off by the series of rude and demanding missives from this student. Particularly since my wife had addressed these very points in several classes, which this student had elected not to attend. Finally, sunday morning, she gets an email from the student which said, in effect, "Oh never mind, I looked the answer up in the course outline."

Okay, is it just me, or is there something wrong with this picture? In my day, we would never think of bothering a professor outside of class time for information that we could obtain any other way, and certainly not information readily available from the course outline. Email has made it too easy for students, sitting at the computer as they work on an assignment, to shoot off a rapid fire set of questions to their instructor as ideas pop into their brains. There is often no attempt to look anything up themselves or to think something through for themselves first. Why bother, when you can just ask? I get the same thing from my six year old who finds it easier to ask "what does this say" or "how do you spell..." rather than bother to sound it out. And just like I always say, 'sound it out" to my daughter so that she will learn, I am not interested in answering hundreds of emails from students about questions already answered in the outline or class discussion.

My wife encounters many more of these sorts of stupid question than I do, since the education faculty here is an after degree or codegree program, so my students are in their third or fourth year of university, which means they are both more experienced with academia, and that they are the survivors of the screening process -- I only get my wife's successful graduates. By contrast, my wife teaches more students straight out of high school or transfer students from the local college program, which is in some ways worse for this. A latent dysfunction of the high levels of support that college students receive from their instructors (it is routine, for example, for LCC instructors to devote classtime to working on assignments, much like high school, and these college instructors have no research requirements, so are available to students whenever they are not in another class) is that these students expect the same level of handholding at university and are shocked to discover that they are supposed to be able to work more independently. (The university instructors for these transfer students often suffer on their course evaluations as these students crucify them for "not being available outside of class tome" because the instructor hasn't answered an email at 3AM the night before an assignment was due.... My wife has had the experience of students trashing her on the eval and then coming back a year or so later to apologize for ever thinking her unsupportive, once they realize what university norms are.)

So I am thinking of doing a stupid questions web site that would have advice to students about things never to say to your prof. Like the student who complained to my wife about her 'unrealistic' workload for her course: "This was supposed to be my fluff course, but this would be as much work as a real course." Or, that common loser query: "I skipped class last Friday because I was just way too hung over. Did I miss anything?" (See Tom Wayman's answer to that one.) I would start by pointing out that teaching is only 40% of the average professor's workload (considerably less for the Big Name researchers); that the average prof at UoL teaches five courses; that if your look around the class you are in and count the number of your fellow students and figure that marking and class preparation (lesson planning, powerpoint prep, etc,) takes about an hour for every hour of classtime, then they have enough information to do the math for how much time a prof has for their questions:

(40% of 40 hour work week) minus (9 hours of teaching plus 9 hours of marking/prep) divided by x number of students per class times number of classes = a number far below zero for advising

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Bathroom Cabinets

Well, we had the baby gates installed on our various stairs a mere week before Kasia started to crawl; I got the toilet locks in place the day Kasia discovered she could reach the flush handle and I found her poised over the bowl holding her hated bottle of baby Advil; didn't quite get to the bathroom cabinet locks in time....

Photo of Kasia in bathroom cabinet

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

kraft ride quartz teach deprivation 

Although I cannot know for sure, short of coming out and asking the chief suspects, I'm pretty sure today's title illustrates a conspiracy.

In a previous post, I had described my attempts to analyze visitors to this site and what was bringing them to me through use of extreme tracker. I was particularly fascinated (okay, appalled) by the Google and other engine searches that resulted in "unique" (i.e., one-time visitors) to my blog. People would type "boring" and "family photos" into Google, and somehow end up at my site. (Well, I have "boring" in the title, and "family photo" in one entry, so...)

Then things got weird.

I started seeing these really strange search terms turning up -- things like today's title -- that made my brain hurt. What possible interest could cause someone to come up with that list of terms? Were these people with really bad search skills, or was I somehow attracting a lunatic fringe interested in ... well, what the hell would "kraft", "ride", "quartz" "teach" and "deprivation" have in common?

Turns out, Neo-Opsis editor and practical joker, Karl Johanson, had taken it upon himself to organize a conspiracy of about half a dozen people to read my blog, pull out random words, then do a google search on them. Of course, the result was dozens of totally bizarre word combinations that defied analysis.

Fortunately, Karl confessed before I went completely nuts.

But now, I'm thinking, this has got to be a reusable practical joke. Who do I know who regularly looks through their tracker's to analyze search engine referrals?

Or, is there a company out there we want to mess with? Some company that deserves a boycott? Instead of stop buying stuff off their web site, we could just organize a couple of hundred people to scan the site for a combination of words that when strung together out of context, would make their CEO nervous: say, "international" from their marketing page, "criminal" from their ad saying, "prices so low it's criminal" and "organization" from their description of their organizational chart, and then some fairly unique word from their site, say, "Kumquat" that would put the whole combination high in a google search to make it easy for the conspirators to find it quickly when scanning the search engine results page. So at the end of the month when marketing has to report what the number one search engine result was for their storefront, the report goes to the CEO that folks are hitting on the site looking for "international criminal organization Kumquat". Would make for an interesting board meeting with the guys from marketing, eh?

Just a thought...

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Slightly Surreal Weekend

Attended an academic conference in Kananaskis this weekend, where my wife and I presented a paper & poster session (on an analysis of the functions of stakeholder advisory committees in government). The venue was a smart move on the part of the UofL organizers, because the locale attracted delegates from as far away as India and Australia and the Canary Islands, where I somehow doubt that Lethbridge would have had the same drawing power.

Unfortunately, the scenery was largely wasted on my wife and I, since our ten month old is still too young (i.e., still nursing) to be left behind, so we had our kids with us. Consequently, aside from our own presentation, when we arranged for a sitter, and one or two presentations we desperately wanted to take in and had the other parent cover for us, we basically had to spend all our time parenting. While our colleagues were out hiking the trails or horseback riding or etc., we were dealing with a sick baby (third virus since starting day care three weeks ago) and a bored six year old.

Coping with a crying baby in a single hotel room at 3 AM is not fun. At home, we often switch off responsibilities, with one parent sleeping soundly in the spare room while the other takes a shift on duty pacing with the baby. But what do you do in a hotel room when the baby is keeping the whole floor awake, let alone both parents and her older sister?

So I found myself walking with Kasia through the halls late Saturday night, trying to give my wife time to get the six year old settled and asleep. As I stood window shopping in the hotel's mall, a tiny, aging Japanese woman walked down the hall, so stooped over that I wondered how she could manage without a cane. But she took one look at Kasia in my arms, and came over and began bowing deeply to her while speaking to me in Japanese.

Now, I am fairly use to strangers complimenting us on our baby, and I certainly agree that Kasia is pretty adorable (see photos in previous postings) but this woman was really bowing. I know enough about Japanese culture to know that the deeper the bow, the greater the respect being shown, and this was way beyond "your baby is cute" adorable, to "your child is the second coming" adorable. You know? I kept thinking of that case where a group of monks showed up on the lawn of an unsuspecting couple in California and told them their child was the next incarnation of some revered religious figure. Nice and flattering and kind of surreal at the same time...

Once the elderly woman had moved on, a second group of Japanese tourists came by, and immediately came over and politely asked if they could have their picture taken with Kasia. They seemed a nice enough family group, so okay, but as they are madly clicking away, I am bemused by the celebrity status Kasia and I have suddenly acquired that everyone wants their picture taken with us. The experience is repeated again and again as (I presume) a busload or two of Japanese settle into the hotel for the night.

When I get back to our room and relate the experience to my wife, her first response is, "But you're in you're in your pajamas!" But that doesn't really bother me in this context, because in Japan, it is not only acceptable but actually expected that patrons wear pjs in the hotel lobby -- the hotels provide robes for this purpose (as did ours, obviously used to dealing with Japanese.) So to the folks back home viewing their friend's slides, the guy in pjs makes perfect sense. But it is still a bit surreal to think of all those folks admiring my baby as one of the wonders of their trip...

Friday, September 17, 2004

Collapse of Charter Schools

Interesting story in NY Times on collapse of Charter Schools. Of course, as any sociologist could have told you, publicly funded but privately run schools represent the importation of private sector logic into the public sector and is therefore essentially inherently contradictory. So no surprises here! But it is validating, if slightly depressing, to have my predictions proved correct once again. Too bad no one ever listens to us before the disaster hits....

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Self-sustaining Robots

Here is a story link that has some interesting long term implications... Once robots become self-sustaining, they come close to being their own lifeform.

My students are trying to learn how to teach today's kids, but by the time my daughter (grade 1) is in high school, the world we are in will be significantly different. What prepares my students to be teachers in that world? Preoccupied with mastering the skills necessary to be successful teachers today, how can they even begin to keep track of how the world is changing, to prepare themselves for the future world their career will span?

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Waffle on a Stick

Took the family to the local Exhibition today. My wife always complains how cheesy it is compared to say the PNE or the Calgary Stampede, but I grew up in Edmonton when the population was not much larger than Lethbridge is today, and I find the small scale, slightly grubby rides of the second string exhibitors oddly comfortable.

Tigana (my six year old) was obviously thrilled to have the opportunity to spend $4 for the 60 seconds ot took to walk through "the Crystal Palace Hall of Mirrors"; or to slide down the two story slide of "Raiders" (repainted in a Spiderman motif to update a reference the current generation of kids could no longer related to, though the jungle walkways and cave decorations and the lights all still say "Raiders"); or to twirl around in a giant berry as it makes her nearly dizzy enough to throw up. I had not appreciated previously how nostalgic it is for parents to not only watch their kids scream on rides they themselves used to ride (before age and gravity got the upper hand), but to watch the child's disillusionment and disappointment as the realization that one has just spent a week's allowance on a really lame exhibit suddenly sinks in. Oh, to be young and naive again...!

But the highlight of the exhibition for me this year was the new and unique concession of "Stick with Waffles". (The original slogan, the owner/inventor told me, was to have been, "Forget pancakes, stick with waffles" but he had to shorten it for the van/T-Shirt logo.) The concept is frightenly simple and innovative: bake a waffle with a popsicle stick sticking out the side, provide a choice of maple or strawberry butter (to avoid that whole sticky issue of how to handle the syrup) and voila, the perfect midway snack. It is so dumb, it's brilliant, and Tigana ate her's up with great relish, voting it her favorite food of the midway. Sadly, there seemed few other takers for the three hours we were there, and the proprietor told us he was plagued by the general perception that waffles are just for breakfast, but once that prejudice is overcome (as is certainly the case whenever we give Tigana the choice, waffles being her idea of a staple food equalled only by Kraft Dinner) the franchise is obviously going to take off!

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Ask your Mamma!

This is a new one on me, but looks promising: A meta-search engine called Mamma.

Kasia is now fully I discovered when I took her with me to the washroom and watched her crawl away under the stalls...

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Word Count

Word Count ( is a fascinating site. It lists the 86,000 most popular words in the English language in rank order. (See if you can guess, say, the top ten, before visiting the site.) You can follow the list from #1 using the "next word", or type in a word to find where it ranks.

I figure this site a useful resource for language teachers...if I'm going to help my six year old learn to read, I should probably teach her the top 25 or 50 words by sight, eh? Spelling, too. And it is probably a useful resource for writers, too, especially if their audience is new readers or second language learners.

Speaking of language learning, my 9 month old has started calling "Dada" when I am out of sight, and "Mama" when Mom can't be seen, and both emerged the same week. She is also signing for "hungry", "thirsty", and "up" (as in "lift me up out of this high chair") since we are teaching her baby sign language. So that's five words she knows for sure.

Sleep deprivation continues for my wife and I. My wife forgot pans on the stove long enough to burn, almost long enough to catch fire. (That was my stick with our first child...almost set the house on fire three times in first two months from forgetting bottles sterilizing on the stove...) And I am so tired I keep forgetting where I am supposed to be driving and end up taking the wrong turn. And I can'tremember what I am saying to my students half the time. I'll start saying something, then go blank as I forget the word or name I was going to say next: "guy with a beard? Studied with Hegal? Lived in Germany? Oh, I can see his face so clearly..."

"Do you mean Marx, Sir?"

"Yeah, that's it. So anyway, what Marx said was..."

As with our first child, I figure I lose a word for every word my kid learns one. Keeps the balance in the universe somehow, I guess.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Blogging and Readership

I installed Extreme tracker in May to see how many people were actually reading my blog and why they came.

At first I was very pleased to find that over 700 (to give the current figure) different readers have come to my blog. I thought, "Hey, I'm doing pretty good for a new and infrequent blog!" Then I went to the breakdown for a friend's blog and discovered that he had had over 20,000 unique visitors. Okay I'm still in the minor leagues, I thought, but 700 people! That's still good!

Then I started looking a little closer at those figures and realized that most of those people (80%) were one time visitors coming in response to a particular entry or google search and not regular readers at all. Ok, but that means 20% are reloads, or returning readers, so that's about 180, so that's still okay!

But then I realize that the reloads include each time the person comes 'round, so divide 180 by the number of weeks I've been doing the blog and...well it looks like I might have eight to ten regular readers. *Sigh*

But wait, there are still 700 people who dropped by to read a particular entry, right? Other bloggers must have recommended some insight or comment I'd made that others were dropping by to check out. So I've still reached 700 readers with at least one entry, eh? That's still good!

But then I looked closer and saw that most of my traffic has been arriving by mistake! There were only 84 people referred by other bloggers, the rest came from Google (and similar) searches. For example, one guy typed in "Boring Family Photos" and my site came up because it has "boring" in the title and I have a "Family Photo" in one entry. I mean, maybe he did find what he was looking for, but it's not exactly about reading what I wrote, you know? I get a lot of searches with "Not boring" in them. (Someone needs to be teaching the public better search skills.) So it's not even like people are interested in my topics. Not really.

But it gets worse. When I actually looked at what words were most frequently pulling Google referals, it was "torture", "rape", "castration" and etc. I eventually figured out that these words were coming up in Dem's excellent guest editorial on the Iraq photos, but do I really want the people interested in these topics coming to my site? I mean, if they were looking for an editorial on the Iraq photos, all well and good, but I suspect most of these guys were looking for "rape photos" and got here by mistake. Eek, I suddenly feel creepy and need a shower.

Oh well, new term starts in a couple of weeks and I will get another batch of students, at least some of whom will figure out that reading my blog might give them some insight into where I'm coming from, thus driving up my readership figures....

...always assuming of course that universdity students still read any more...

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Testing Meme Propagation In Blogspace: Add Your Blog!

This posting is a community experiment that tests how a meme, represented by this blog posting, spreads across blogspace, physical space and time. It will help to show how ideas travel across blogs in space and time and how blogs are connected. It may also help to show which blogs (and aggregation sites) are most influential in the propagation of memes. The dataset from this experiment will be public, and can be located via Google (or Technorati) by doing a search for the GUID for this meme (below).

The original posting for this experiment is located at: Minding the Planet. (Permalink: --- results and comments about the experiment appear at that location.

Please join the test by adding your blog (see instructions, below) and inviting your friends to participate -- the more the better. The data from this test will be public and open; others may use it to visualize and study the connectedness of blogspace and the propagation of memes across blogs.

The GUID for this experiment is: as098398298250swg9e (Note: this replaces the longer, original GUID -- listed below -- which didn't format nicely in narrow column layouts. Those sites still using the longer GUID will still be found in the data set).

The above GUID enables anyone to easily search Google or other search engines for all blogs that participate in this experiment, once they have indexed the sites that participate, which may take several days or weeks. To locate the full data set, just search for the any sites that contain either the short GUID (above) or the long GUID (for your reference, the long GUID is a single 72 character string comprised of the following segments put together with the white-spaces removed:
as098398298250swg9e 98929872525389t9987 898tq98wteqtgaq6201 0920352598gawst -- they are listed here as different segments so that they will format better in narrow column layouts.)

Anyone is free to analyze the data of this experiment. Please publicize your analysis of the data, and/or any comments by adding comments onto the original post (see URL above). (Note: it would be interesting to see a geographic map or a temporal animation, as well as a social network map of the propagation of this meme.)


To add your blog to this experiment, copy this entire posting to your blog, and then answer the questions below, substituting your own information, below, where appropriate. Other than answering the questions below, please do not alter the information, layout or format of this post in order to preserve the integrity of the data in this experiment (this will make it easier for searchers and automated bots to find and analyze the results later).

REQUIRED FIELDS (Note: Replace the answers below with your own answers)

(1) I found this experiment at URL:

(2) I found it via "Newsreader Software" or "Browsing the Web" or "Searching the Web" or "An E-Mail Message": Browsing the Web

(3) I posted this experiment at URL: http://runte/

(4) I posted this on date (day/month/year): 03/09/04

(5) I posted this at time (24 hour time): 04:35

(6) My posting location is (city, state, country): Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada

OPTIONAL SURVEY FIELDS (Replace the answers below with your own answers):

(7) My blog is hosted by: Blogger

(8) My age is: 52

(9) My gender is: Male

(10) My occupation is: Associate Professor

(11) I use the following RSS/Atom reader software: none

(12) I use the following software to post to my blog: Blogger

(13) I have been blogging since (day, month, year): 15/01/2003

(14) My web browser is: IE 5.2 for the Mac

(15) My operating system is: MacOS 10.2

Monday, August 02, 2004

I Robot

Guest Review by Den Valdron

My impression of 'I Robot' is that I began to forget it as I was watching it.   It was a teflon coated, industrial robotic production film, so refined and economical, that there was no place for an original idea, or for that matter, an idea of any sort to attach itself.
It's plot and pace functioned with metronomic precision, every beat dictated by formula.  Instead of a heart, it simply had a clockwork mechanism powered by quartz crystal.
What were we talking about again?

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

The Status of TV Writers

Caught a rerun of the last episode of Friends the other night, and was struck by an ominous omission. Amid all the self-congratulatory goodbyes and "thank you"s to fellow cast memers, the crew, and of course the viewing audience, there was absolutely no mention of the writers. As far as the viewing audience was concerned, the actors who played the Friends must have been ad libbing the whole time. The discussion was about how these beloeved characters over time, but it was as if the actors were responsible for the characer development. There did not seem to be any recognition that somewhere in the backroom there was a team of writers building characters, developing plots, and writing the gags. I mean, if they are going to thank the camera man, should there be at least a tip of the hat to the contributio of the writers?

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Off to SCOS conference

I'm off to Halifax for the SCOS (Standing Conference on Organizational Symbolism), followed by a couple of weeks holiday so may not be able to blog for a bit, depending on whether conference has internet facilities available.

In the meantime, here is a photo of our seven-month-old, with whom we are travelling -- should make for an interesting conference!

Monday, June 28, 2004

Wednesday, June 23, 2004


Followed the instructions on Blogger (This Old Blog) only to discover that updating the code that names each post meant erasing all the comments my blog had accumulated so far (since the comments were attached to the old names.) Well, duh! My apologies to everyone who commented, and hopefully it won't deter you from commenting again. (Hope the "Comments 0" line after each post won't give the impression that no one else is reading this... :-)

Generational Knowledge

When I started teaching at UofL only 5% of my students (or anyone else for that matter) had even heard of the Internet. One of the things I used to like to do to shake up my student teachers was to show them a picture of my 2-month old playing on the computer (literarlly before she could walk or even sit by herself) and suggest that if they wanted to keep up with the students they would be teaching, they had better start becoming computer literate now. Well, that 2-month-old is now a six-year-old entering Grade 1 with an easy familiarity with computers that many senior teachers have still yet to master, and computer literacy has become a defacto entrance requirement to the faculty. But I found a new item to get my student teachers' attention: a Discovery toy DNA sequencer.

I have to admit, this one even makes my brain hurt. But it shows you that the next generation of kids will come into our classrooms taking for granted knowledge and skills that barely existed when we were in school.... Consequently, it is not enough to equip teachers with the latest current skill set; they have to be able to anticipate and start preparing to teach the next generation of kids skills that don't even exist yet-- which means the teachers we graduate have to be lifelong learners and willing to retool every few years.

Comment by P. Freeman, High School Physics Teacher
(Comment was too long to fit in comment function.)
What strikes me as strange is that this DNA sequencer is being offered at
the same time that it has become effectively impossible to buy, say, a
chemistry or mechano set.

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that this works against there is an
implicit assumption in the demonstrations you refer to (whether
computer-baby or DNA sequencer) that the alteration in background is a
progressive or intensifying one. I'm not convinced that there is significant
alteration in DEGREE of learning (or in the kind of world) here... I think
that this (quite remarkable) toy is another point on a random walk in

What knowledge and approaches kids are presented with changes over time, but
is driven by trends in the perception of science and by fear of same -- not
by any progressive trend in society (or science itself), or any plan by
toy-makers. If something bad happens to create a negative emotional
association with DNA (and we can all think of several possibilitiesl) then
this toy will vanish, to be replaced by something else that will press the
"cool science" buttons of parents without triggering the "evil science"

Thus the tools for learning which a child is exposed to will randomly change
with time, but not in a predictable way. It does not, therefore, follow that
kids in the future will have "knowledge and skills that barely existed", but
rather that they may have a randomly different set of knowledge and skills
than we do (or the students we think we will teach have).

This does not void the requirement for flexibility (For instance I'm already
having to look for a replacement for the "pikachu functions" I've been using
to teach quantum the past few years -- as pokemon fall from grace). What a
'random walk' means is that we cannot say simply "you must be lifelong
learners" but rather "you must learn *what your students have learned*". It
means that you cannot "anticipate and start preparing to teach", it means
you have to 'participate and keep winging it!'

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Hitchhikers Return & Father's Day Revisited

New BBC Radio 4 production of Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy is under production. Now all I have to do is convince my wife to watch the series. (She is understandably prejudiced against it on the grounds that so many fan boys tried to push it on her oh those many years ago when it first came out. But imagine never having seen, read or heard it! Why, nothing that is happening would make sense....)

And a different and compelling take on Father's Day by my current favorite blogger, cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, author of "The Long Interview" (classic methodological text) and "Big Hair" (classic pop cultural anthropology.)

Monday, June 21, 2004

Father's Day Debriefed

I had a great father's day, the first with two daughters. I managed to avoid doing anything on the computer or chores, and spent the day doing family stuff.

Mary and I were struck, however, by the opposing interpretations of father's day among our colleagues. The majority of our friends appear to view father's day as "Father's day off" from the kids. For example, one of our closest friends celebrated father's day by taking the kids to the local equivalent of Chuckie Cheese to give Dad some quality alone time where he could do his own thing. Couples choosing this approach appeared to pair this with the presentation of expensive gifts; e.g., the same dad got a $1000 read and record DVD player.

In contrast, Mary and I view Father and Mother's day as a "spend time with the kids" day. Couples who adopt this approach tend to go for inexpensive "made by the kids" gifts. E.g., I got one of those Star Buck's travel mugs (I'm guessing under $12) but where the bottom screws off and you can insert your own pictures. Tigana drew me a beautiful picture with mermaids, stars and lots of hearts, and wrote "I love mi dad becuse he is mi dad and he helps me. He is the bast." She even "helped" 7 month old Kasia draw a vaguely heart shaped figure on the glass. Believe me, given the choice between that mug and a $1000 DVD recorder, I'm choosing the travel mug every time!

I am not saying that the "holiday from the kids" approach is wrong, just noting the difference in approaches. I certainly get why stay at home mom's might need to escape chores and kids once a year and get out to the Ball; but it is a little hard to see how that works for Dads (stay at home dad's the exception) since they mostly get to escape kids five days a week, but I confess it would be nice to get a day to myself somewhere where maybe I could just read all day or go to an SF convention or something. But I'm not sure that father's day is the day to do that. I'd rather celebrate father's day by being a father.

At 6 years old, Father's Day was a big deal to my daughter. Her kindergarten class designed a minature golf course in their class, drew pictures, painted paintings, organized a tea, and wrote poems ("What I would do if I were Dad for a day") for the day, and invited the dad's over for Friday afternoon golf. I went and had a blast playing golf and watching Tigana wolf down my share of the cookies and reading her poems and viewing her paintings. But the sociologist in me was also fascinated watching the other dads. Half of them seemed to be having as good a time as I was, goofing through the kid's golf range, but the other half seemed either lost ("Are any of the other dad's watching me? Did they notice I missed that putt?") or in a hurry ("Oh this is great honey. Okay, get your coat and let's...oh you want me to play golf with you? Gee, maybe next week, but let's get your coat..oh it's only today? Okay, I guess if I have to...there I hit the ball. Now let's grab your jacket and...") You know?

Mary, on the other hand, couldn't help observing that Mother's Day had consisted of a Mother's day tea and a single picture/writing project, while Father's Day preparations seemed much more elaborate: the mini-golf course was a massive project with six foot high teddy bear traps and lego greens; there were three different art projects and two writing projects, all designed to engage Dad's attention, perhpas in the hope that they would spend an hour with their kid at the school before whisking the kids off home. So is this sexist favourtism, or is it the teacher's experience that they need a more elaborate lure to get and keep the Dads' attention?

Well, other people can do as they see fit. For me, waking up to my wife and daughters coming in saying "Happy Father's Day" made it one of the best day's of my life!

Friday, June 18, 2004

Gender & the Web

Came across an interesting site on gender & the web this evening: Stanford Women in Computer Science" Includes a list of resources on gender and technology -- good resource for undergrad term papers here.

Other potentially interesting sites include this thesis on the chilly climate for women on the web and this new blog.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Blogs as APAs

The parallels between Amateur Press Associations (apas) and the emergent blogosphere have been much on my mind of late. The interactions are essentially the same, with the difference being that blogs usually have a daily turnaround, whereas the most frequent apas were monthly, and the norm was quarterly mailings. The greater posting frequency of blogs obviously changes the dynamic to at least a degree, since the blog provides greater immediacy but therefore requires a correspondingly greater commitment on the part of the reader who chooses to keep up; and of course, the blog carries less formal productivity requirements, though some of the indexes require that member blogs remain current or risk being delisted, which I suppose amounts to the same thing. But the blog provides a much closer parallel to apas then say the chatroom or list serve, because the blog provides a much higher degree of ownership, editorial control, and creative expression. Like the apazine, the blog belongs to the originator, and commentary on other blogs (including commentary on others’ commentary) is contained within one’s own editorializing rather than as part of a shared forum. Consequently, unlike the list serve where one has to put up with the intrusion of idiots and flame wars over which one has no control, in the blogosphere, one can simply ignore any discussion one considers a waste of time and any writer with whom one disagrees. The signal to noise ratio is therefore considerably higher than in chat rooms or list serves, since readers can follow link referrals from bloggers one admires to other similar –minded bloggers without ever encountering those who are less simpatico.

I had thought that chat rooms and list serves would spell the end of apas, and while participation in apas did decline rapidly during this period, the major apas survived. But the greater editorial control and creative expression available in the blog seems likely to displace the print apa. A few, like the original National Amateur Press Association (NAPA) and the Fantasy Amateur Press Association (FAPA) may continue to attract individuals who are interested in the print format per se, since (especially in NAPA) there were always a percentage who were primarily into printing (often using antique presses) as an art form; but for the majority, like myself, who simply used print as a medium through which reach an audience, the greater flexibility of the WWW (wider, cheaper distribution; free color; the potential for audio / visual / animation etc where required) pretty much displaces the earlier technology. But I see this as an evolution of the apa rather than its demise.

I was fairly active in the apa movement for much of the ‘80s and 90s, and learned a number of lessons which appear to carry over to blogs. One trend I am fairly confident in predicting is that blogs, like apas before them, are likely to drift off topic after an initial foundational period. Although many blogs serve a key networking function in allowing like-minded individuals to find and keep each other informed, once these individuals become comfortable within their circle of self-referential links, the original topic which brought them together is likely to become secondary to their personal interactions. The ease with which blogs can be initiated and maintained may mitigate this tendency to some extent, since many people keep both a topic specific blog and a separate personal blog, but as multiple entries in multiple blogs becomes onerous, the temptation to merge them into one commentary may increase over time. In any event, since these separate blogs often refer to each other, and since the topic blog is generally the primary source of recruitment of readers to the personal blog, they may be considered analytically part of the same output. And what I am observing is that the key words that classified and indexed particular blogs originally often do not accurately describe the content by the time I or others find them through the blog list & indexing services to which they subscribed.

This is, I must admit, also true of my own blog. I may have started this blog as part of my Social Context course, but even before the term was over, I was often a long way off the issues of popular culture and education, though simply by being who I am, those topics are more likely to crop up than some others. We’ll see what happens here once the fall term starts up again and I have another class

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Blog Listings

Been busy submitting my blog to various indexes and listings, and adding their links to my blog. I worry that this will detract somewhat from my blog’s image, as I know I tend to view others who list their blog in every available index as a bit too desperate for an audience. But I am building a blog assignment for my fall classes, and I want my students to list their blog on at least one index outside of class, so that they can get the feel of “going public”. Consequently, I need to provide a fairly extensive list of available options, easy links to those sites, and I need to be familiar with these services myself. So, I figure I have to do it myself first.

I have found reading through the listings very enlightening, and I think my first informal (i.e., non-graded) homework assignment will be for my students to browse a few listings. One of the things I would like my students to do is decide what makes an interesting, arresting blog description (most under 300 words) and what causes them to skip immediately to the next entry, before they attempt to write one themselves. I know that for myself, 85% of the descriptions are an immediate turn off. “The daily musings of a frustrated teen”, for example, or “The boring diary of a boring average guy” pretty much tells me that these people have nothing original to say. We take people at their own assessment, at least initially, so a blog description is not the place to be self-deprecating. The last class in which I used a blog assignment often billed their blogs as “a class assignment for ED 3603” which is not only too self-referential for those outside the campus context, but an obvious kiss of death to any public readership. I shall insist on something more engaging this term.

I know my own description is probably too pompous to attract many readers (and the title strikes many people as either arrogant or self-deprecating, depending on how its read) so I am probably in no position to criticize, but I have to be a bit careful what I say in a course context. And the title is from my former FAPA zine (of which more later) so I like the continuity even if it is perhaps a bit off putting in a blog context. But probably not the best role modeling.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

One Man Band

Caught interesting act at Calgary's Children Fesitval last weekend: Dan the one man band; website's worth a look. I'd book him as my company's Christmas entertainment, if I worked for a company.

Ella Enchantged

Took my six year old to Ella Enchanted this afternoon, and she rated it a 10/10. I give it 8.5. One part Cinderella, one part Lizzy McGuire, one part Mean Girls, one part Monty Python. Much more enjoyable than I would have predicted, this retelling of Cinderella is premised on Ella being blessed /cursed by her fairy god mother at birth with an enchantment that makes her obey any order she is given. So she ends up taking directions like "Bite me" literally. What makes the movie funny for adults is the Pythonesque bits which transpose modern institutions (malls, valley girls, etc) into fairy tale terms. Nice twists on the evil step sisters (Mean Girls) and the Cinderella fable (now its clear why she had to put up with all those stupid orders) and nice anti-racism undercurrent. All in all, a painless outing for parents and a good movie for kids.

I also lend my seal of approval to Shrek II, which similarly transposes modern elements (police pepper spray, union activities, organized crime, etc.) into a fairy tale setting. In this case my six year old only got about 1/4 of the jokes/references, but that was still enough to allow her to enjoy the movie; I suspect even most teenagers won't get everything since many of the in-jokes are references to scenes from movies they will never have seen.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Star Trek, Flames, & the Election

Here's a fascinating eBay link passed on from Randy Reichardt:

Star Trek Apartment

In other stupid fan phenomenon, I find the "Flames Fever" currently manifest in Alberta slightly embarrassing. I would understand all of the flag flying and hype were the Flames in anyway related to Calgary. I mean, if the guys on the team were my local butcher and the high school principal and the cable guy, then okay, I'd get out and cheer them on. I could even see putting the $14.95 flame flag on my car had any of the players been born and raised and learned to play in Calgary. I might even be able to get it if the players like, you know, lived in Calgary once the seasons was over. But as far as I can make it out, its just a bunch of mercenaries hired by some guy in Calgary to play against a bunch of other guys who aren't from and don't live in their city either, and I'm having trouble seeing a connection to me and mine. I mean, I love listening to a bunch of guys who make me look athletic running out of a bar where they have just consumed their own body weight in alcohol screaming "We won, we won!" Someone explain to me where the "We" comes from. You paid $14.95 for the flag ($30.00 for the pair) for your car, and suddenly you're a team member with an equal share of the glory of winning?

It's even more embarrassing living here in Lethbridge, which is not, last I checked, a Calgary suburb...every times the Flames win another game, the number of Flame banners and car flags in Lethbridge doubles. If the couch potatoes who think "they won" because they watched a game in a sports bar are pathetic, then what can you say about somebody who 'joins the team" two games short of the end of the series. The stampede to join the winning team defines 'loser' in my book.

Which brings us to election signs. It depresses me to think that more Canadians vote in Canadian Idol than in the national election, but it depresses me even more to see people voting who are too stupid to figure out where they stand on any of the issues, but simply try to find out which candiate is ahead so they can vote for, and so be part of, the winning side. I mean, what is the point of putting up election signs, if not simply to demonstrate how many supporters one has, in hopes of convincing others to vote on the winning side? Its not like the election posters actually say anything or have any information on them; just the candidate's name and party affiliation. I just need one of those per candidate to figure out whose running, and the rest serve no purpose, but the intensity of campaigning to get more signs out reveals that the numbers game is life and death, especially in a close race as the Lethbridge riding is rumoured to be. But who are these voters who wait to see who has the most signs, and then signs on with that party? Are these the people we want chosing our government?

The CBC ran a skit the other morning where a reporter pretends to do a man in the street interview, and asks, "Who are you going to vote for" and the woman answers, "I just wait until I see which side has the most signs, and then I vote for that side."
"Oh, who did you vote for last time, then?"

Friday, May 21, 2004

Two Best Lines

Two best lines I've read this week:

"The part of my brain that processes poetry was stolen by gypsies who left a universal remote in its place." --Den Valeron

"Time Travel is so last year." --David Kirkpatrick

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Two links

Couple of amusing links, this time.

First, a news item on a robot race in the desert. The results were not, at this stage, particularly impressive! (Thanks to Sara J. Gottlieb for sending this one.)

Second, from Daniel J. Simons at the University of Illinois, a video clips demonstrating that people do not pay much attention to each other; may not even know to whom they are speaking, in fact. This is a nice mixture of social science research and candid camera. See a second clip, too. (Thanks to the Sidebar newsletter for these!)

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Iraq Photos

Guest editorial by Den Valdron

I feel compelled to make a comment or two about the pictures and reports of torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

Very, very, very important things are being missed here. Think about it: *Who took these photos?* *Why were these photos taken?* *What were the people who took these photos thinking?*

All we are doing is looking at and reacting to the photos, and assuming that the photos are the single accurate barometer of what is going on. This is like looking at an arrow, instead of the direction it points.

One observation I have to make about these photos is the humour and the complete lack of shame to be found in them. The Americans and the jailers, when appearing, are grinning, laughing, giving thumbs up. They are completely unaware and innocent of any idea that what they are doing is wrong or offensive.

Think about that. There is a bunch of people whose moral compass has broken down so completely, that they have no concept that scenes like the ones they're capturing are wrong. Instead, its cool, its funny, its great, they've got to take a picture. Its a kodak moment!

The depiction of prisoners is also fascinating. There's a recurrent theme of sexual degradation here. Forced nudity, forced poses of homosexual coupling. Hooded nudity. Arrangement of bodies. This is serial killer pathology, presented without a trace of self consciousness or guilt and played for laughs. There is a very weird kind of distancing going on, the prisoners are being visually emasculated and dehumanized, hooding them, posing them suggests that on critical levels the jailers are not regarding them as human beings. Now, its played for fun in the pictures, but it suggests that underneath the 'fun' there is a real pathology going on, a fundamental inhumanity.

The electrodes picture is heavily laden with bizarre religious subtext - overtones of both Christian martydrom and the KKK. Given the religious and racial issues at work in Iraq, the apparent subtexts cannot possibly be accidental. Either they were deliberately imposed, or they were accidental but so powerful and easily perceived that the picture had to be taken and kept. Nobody takes pictures that aren't meaningful to them on some level, and if they do, they don't keep them. This one seems to have circulated.

But just because their moral compass has broken down, doesn't mean they don't have one. Now, if they're completely cool with this... what about the parts of their job, of what they do, that they think are not so funny. That they think are unpleasant or morally questionable... but still part of their duty. What about the parts that they would never take a picture of, and would never want to be in a picture of? Do you see where I am going?

These pictures are of the 'happy, wacky aspect of torture.' They are pictures by people who clearly think that there is a 'happy wacky aspect of torture.' Which suggests that they're also comfortable with other aspects of torture. Does this create any crushing sense of visceral horror?

What we've got here is a heady mixture of symbolic dehumanization with nudity and hoods, sexual emasculation and castration pathologies apparent in the posing of bodies, a complete lack of any sense or perception of humanity, and images of racial and religious derangement, all accompanied by images of laughing, happy, thumbs up jailers.

I keep coming back to this: They had no concept that their conduct was unacceptable. In fact, this was the fun part. This was the part that they were willing and happy to record with pictures, willing and happy to be in those pictures. This is the ceiling... after this, we go down.

So ask yourselves: What would they have found unacceptable to photograph? What acts would they have said 'wow, we can't take a picture of this, or we'll get in trouble some day.' What acts would provoke a moral recognition? What acts would provoke guilt? What acts would provoke a reluctance to record, or be recorded as a part of?

It strikes me that people will do unpleasant things for a while before they quit and say 'this is not acceptable. This is immoral and offensive, and I just can't do it.'
Think of it as the rule that: 'There's only so much shit a person will take.'

Well, these people have established a moral barometer for what they think is acceptable and fun. We're looking at it in the pictures. Somewhere further along, there is a hellscape that they find intolerable, a line that they won't or wouldn't cross. If what is in these pictures is just fine, then where the hell is the line they won't cross, if there is one?

What frightens me is that potentialy vast horrible ground between the line where they think pictures are fine, and the line they won't cross. What were they prepared to do? How far were they prepared to go? Consider the pathological subtexts, the dehumanization, sexual attack and emasculation, the contempt for religious standards, the invoking of a Klan image.

We cannot assume that just because there are no pictures or records of summary execution, or of electricity running through wired genitals, or of women being raped by dogs, or of men being doused with gasoline and burned alive that these things are not happening or not out of the question. We can only assume that the jailers would not find these things funny enough to take pictures of, and would not want to be held accountable and responsible. We can no longer assume that it is not happening, and we certainly cannot assume that it is beyond the boundaries of possibility. We cannot assume that it cannot happen in the future. What we see in the pictures is a culture of pathological thinking and inhumanity.

The quotes from jailers are just as disturbing if you read between the lines. People seldom acknowledge guilt or wrongdoing. What people mostly do is minimize guilt or accountability, they admit to minor things but deny the big ones, they seek to externalize responsibility. All of these things are on display here.

If a man says, "I accidentally broke a few tables putting the fear into someone... but I didn't really hurt anyone," what we are seeing is a pattern of confession/evasion recognizeable to any seasoned police officer. What we have here is a confession of violent assault, in which the speaker is displacing the acknowledgement of violence into objects, which he sees as acceptable, and away from humans, which he knows is not acceptable. He's playing a game with himself and with us. The reality is that we may be looking at a man who has repeatedly beaten people halfway to death. Who may have actually beaten people to death. A man who is engaged in minimizing and evading his conduct.

Another jailer notes that they were not given 'geneva convention' protocols or information. Essentially, he has committed horrible acts, he tells us, because no one has told him that he should not. Yet this is insupportable. If no one told him that he couldn't, then surely, he wouldn't have known he was doing anything wrong, could not have concealed or minimized his actions, and he would have been caught and nipped in the bud. So either he's lying and he is simply evading blame. Or he was swimming in a culture where his conduct was completely acceptable to everyone around him, including his superiors and supervisors. Again, any seasoned police officer interrogating a suspect has heard this kind of thing many times before. Frightening?

Another jailer, or possibly the same one, notes that he believed he had the tacit approval of intelligence or interrogation agencies. 'Military intelligence loves us, they let us watch.' What he is saying is that his actions and activities were perfectly acceptable to the establishment, his culture of torture was condoned and accepted, even encouraged.

Finally, consider the gloating involved. "We broke them in a few hours," one jailer brags. This is very close to the culture of bragging one found in Nazi camp guards. When dealing with profoundly immoral acts, the Nazi's engaged in emotional transference. They refused to deal with the morality or humanity of their acts, rather they shifted the emotional focus of their acts to aspects in which they could take pride in... such as efficiency. Thus, you could have bureaucrats congratulating themselves on the assembly line speed of the gas chambers, or camp guards bragging about their ability to keep prisoners in line with hideous brutality. They were refusing to think about what they were doing... there was a physical refusal here that is almost on the level of repressed memory... rather they were choosing to think very hard instead about the quality or the efficiency with which they were doing it. "I'm doing horrible things, yes. But that's not important. The important part is that I am doing it extremely well!"

What does it take to break a prisoner in a few hours? How far will you go to break a prisoner in a few hours? How offensive, how much of a challenge, how much of a threat to ones own efficiency and competence is a prisoner who refuses to break in a few hours? And what's the outer limit that you'll go to get that job done right, to make sure that prisoner is broken in a few hours?

What we are seeing with this quote is evidence of a classic and very dangerous pathology.

To simply look at the pictures and the quotes and say 'okay, this is really bad. But it's not as bad as it could be or as bad as other things we've heard about...' really misses the point.

There will never be pictures of men and women being tortured to death. There will never be pictures of women raped by dogs in torture chambers, of bodies mutilated, genitals removed, of electric needles, strangulation, suffocation or savage beatings. Saddam's own security forces, safe in their private prisons and torture chambers never took those pictures. No one takes those pictures. No one ever admits to doing those things, at least not in public. There are things that are not talked about, that are concealed, hidden, evaded. There are acts and the potentials and capacities to act that are buried...

...except through occasional glimpses, where the perpetrators have so completely lost their moral compass that they reveal themselves or reveal their pathology without understanding or admitting what they are slipping out.

This is one of those revelations. Ladies and gentlemen, we are now officially in free fall.

Den Valdron is a lawyer, author, and frequent commentator on social and policing issues.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Family Photo

Assuming picture is worth a thousand words, here is a current family photo

and a close up of 5 month old daughter Kasia:

Monday, March 29, 2004

Instinctive Fear of...

My wife and I were big fans of the original Baby Einstein video with our first child, both because it was one of the few ways to calm our colicky child, and because we liked the premise that playing recorded speeches in different languages might help our child retain the full range of phonemes that are usually lost as babies hardwire their brains strictly for the limited subset of sounds they hear in their mother tongue...only time will tell if the brief taped speech samples contained on the Baby Einstein tape are sufficient to help our daughter's generation hear and so learn other languages more easily.

[I remember only too well the trauma of my own school experiences with a French instructor screaming at me, "Not 'r' you imbecile, 'r'!", with neither of us knowing (because the research came 20 years later) that there really was no way for me to 'hear' a French phoneme to which my developing brain had not been exposed in the first six months of life. The difference may have been painfully obvious to the instructor, just as the Chinese inability to distinguish between 'l' and 'r' seems impossibly odd to Anglophones, but it?s fundamentally a hardware problem, and no amount of shouting and repetition is capable of fixing it.]

So, even before the arrival of our new baby we had purchased the boxed set of Baby Einstein videos, including our current favorite, Baby Bach. The tape displays a series of wonderful toys (I have spent many hours on the internet trying to track down some of them for our own purchase) more or less synchronized with various pieces of classical or other music. The 20 minute tape, in combination with her vibrating bouncy chair, helps Kasia fall asleep when she is otherwise too tired and unusually fussy.

Early on, however, we noticed an inexplicable phenomenon?although our Kasia was turning into a Baby Bach junky, she always exploded into terrified tears during one particular sequence. At first we thought that it was simply a matter that she had reached the limit of her attention span, since no newborn can watch a 20 minute tape all the way through. But this turned out not to be the case, because we would get the same reaction even if we happened to start the tape with that sequence; and as Kasia grew older, she can watch for much longer, even watching attentively as the tape cycles through more than once, provided we hit "skip" on the DVD whenever that particular sequence appears. Then my wife insisted it was the particular musical selection that our daughter was reacting to, but no; when just playing the music track (the DVD has a music only option) there is no reaction. No, as unlikely as it seems, it is demonstrably this one set of visuals that fills our baby with terror.

The sequence in question simply shows three tin toy robots marching peacefully, if somewhat stiffly, to a selection of Bach music. So someone please explain to me how a newborn can have an instinctual fear of robots? I mean, lizards and snakes I can get ? the collective unconscious might well have evolved a very sensible collection of innate fears with which to protect babies. Babies that failed to fear spiders and rats and snakes might well be deprived of the subsequent opportunity to contribute genes to the next generation. But robots? I mean, can you be reincarnated from the future into the present?

Makes my brain hurt.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Spaghetti Harvest

Ooh, ooh, ooh! J. Brian Clarke brought this one to my attention: log on to the
BBC's history site at
click on the 1950's, then click on Panorama's sample video of a 'Spaghetti Harvest'.

This is one of my all time favorite hoaxes, but I had no idea this gem was available on the net...well worth viewing.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Typical Day of Parental Leave

Being on parental leave, my primary responsibility these days is to take care of my three month old. I nevertheless find myself on campus quite frequently because my wife Mary is still teaching, and since Kasia refuses to take a bottle -- hysterical screaming at the mere sight of a plastic nipple or sippy cup -- I can't be more than two hours away from Mom. Mary nurses Kasia just before teaching a class, and I hang around so she can do another feed on break, if necessary, or immediately after class. If Kasia is sleeping, I can run up to my office and do email; if, as is more commonly the case, Kasia is awake, I struggle to keep her entertained with the small number of toys that are suitable for this age. (Of course, Mom, Dad, and big sister are the primary play objects.) On occasion, however, Kasia begins to cry and I end up walking the corridors to calm her.

The UofL is a great location for walking babies.

First, the aptly-named University Hall has the longest continuous hallways in North America (approximately 1/4 mile). I have now paced these corridors so often that I can describe the cartoons posted on each professor's door from one end of the hallway to the other, on all 8 floors. (Note to colleagues: time to cycle those cartoons! Once the paper turns yellow, it has been up long enough! Get some new material, for pity's sake.)

Second, there are large number of colleagues and alumni to stop me in the hallways to admire Kasia. Walking with a new baby garners far more glances, smiles, and interactions than one would normally experience taking the same route. Talk about positive reinforcement for an exercise routine. And of course, all those smiling adults engaging Kasia significantly adds to my supply of "toys".

Third, I have discovered the game of "Who is a keeper?", a marvelous voyeuristic pastime. One merely carries a baby through a crowd of adolescent couples, as found on campus, and observe the reactions. As Kasia is carried past crowds of female students, three quarters respond with, "Oh, look at the baby! Isn't she adorable?", while approximately a quarter turn away, or cross to the other side of the hallway, apparently fearful that having babies is contagious. Carrying Kasia through crowds of males leads to the same response, but in reverse proportions. What is highly fascinating, however, is watching how couples respond. Given the base statistics reported above, it should not be surprising that three quarters of couples respond with the female at least smiling at the baby, while the male ignores her or looks away. Often the exchange involves the female trying to stop to interact with the baby, while the male exhibits obvious resentment at the delay-- or worse yet-- at the interruption in his date's attention, should he have been talking at the point we come into view. On the other hand, there are about a quarter of the couples where the female goes, "Ooooh, look at the baby!" and the male actually smiles and interacts with the baby with equal interest, then looks at said female with a certain look that tempts me to tell her, "Hey, this one's a keeper!"

Bored with the hallways today, however, I wandered into the Fine Arts Center and the campus art gallery. UofL boasts an art collection far superior to what one would expect on any other similarly sized campus, and whoever runs the gallery actually has some taste ? I usually really enjoy the shows. Wandering around the gallery exhibits today was fun, because having Kasia in my arms gave me an opportunity to muse aloud about the art without looking completely crazy. Okay, commenting on art to a three month old may seem a bit redundant, but babies like to hear the sound of your voice, and it doesn't really matter what you're saying, so might as well be stream of consciousness about art appreciation.

But as I carried Kasia about, it became obvious that some works attracted and held her attention far more than others, and these were usually also the works to which I was drawn. The basis for this selection was not immediately obvious to me, since Kasia seemed equally drawn to abstract and representational works, bright and subtle compositions, and so on. So you have to wonder, is there something deep in our hardwiring or collective unconscious that these more successful works were triggering in both Kasia and I, or do daughters inherit their Dad's tastes, or was I simply unconsciously directing Kasia's attention? Well, there were a few pieces she liked more than me (or at least attended to more than I ? I suppose she might have been looking at them and thinking, "gee, what is it about that one I hate so much", but somehow that seems less likely with babies), so her taste was not identical to mine, but still. So I was thinking, there's probably a research project or two there? Bring babies into a gallery, watch what they look at, identify archetypes?

Saturday, January 24, 2004

The Case of the Shattered Bowl

Middle of the night, there's a "pop", followed by a crash, from the kitchen. My wife and I investigate and discover that my wife's favorite glass bowl (about 10 inches across) has apparently shattered spontaneously. What we find is half the bowl (a literal, precise half) sitting on top of the counter, as if it had been sliced by a lazer. The other half has dropped off the counter and shattered into two dozen large fragments; a couple of hundred tiny shards; and a quarter million nearly microscopic dust flakes. I have seen glasses shatter into 'a million pieces' before, but I have never seen anything like these dust flakes. Instead of the usual random shards in a variety of jagged shapes, this dust consists of nearly flat, impossibly thin flakes of glass that are nearly impossible to see. The kitchen floor consists of a pattern of square tiles, so I use the grid to systematically clear each tile, and the surrounding grout so as not to miss anything. It takes four passes to wipe each tile: first a wet cloth to pull up glass, then a dry towel to wipe up the water and remaining glass fragments; then repeat because there are still a hundred flakes glinting up at me; then repeat again because while I can no longer see anything on the floor, I can hear and feel the grit under the wet towel, and see the glass glinting off the dry towel, even though I have already cleaned this individual title twice; and a fourth pass to make sure, which comes up with more glass more often than not. Working methodically, it takes me an hour and a half to clean the kitchen floor, and another 20 minutes to clean the counter just to be sure, though I only see a single shard on the counter other than the surviving half. (My conclusion is that the bowl broke cleanly in half, and the single minute shard has splashed back up onto the counter from the floor when the other half fell and shattered.) I have to discard my socks because they have picked up glass flakes even though I am only walking on the 'clean' tiles; I elect to wash my pants in the laundry room sink, and wash the sink, then run the pants throw the washer on their own, followed by an empty cycle, rather than throw those out, but I admit to being a bit nervous about the glass contamination spreading. I am keenly aware that if any of these flakes make it into our food, they would slowly slice one open as the piece traveled through the digestive system and be essentially undetectable. (The perfect murder weapon, I'm thinking.) Or if a piece sticks to my hands and I pick up my baby… I spend a long time washing up.

So can someone explain the physics of this to me? I have to admit that it has shaken my faith in the universe to have a glass bowl we have used for years suddenly up and explode. There was no one in the kitchen, and while I can imagine a scenario where an improperly stacked bowl could fall unexpectedly after everyone had left the room, this was clearly not the case here: My wife had left the bowl sitting empty by itself on the counter, where half of it remained perfectly preserved – nothing I know of could slice it so evenly in half, and there was nothing within a meter of the bowl anyway. It is just bizarre and unsettling.


The baby is now ten weeks old, and smiling regularly, and clearly working her way up to a laugh. This is excellent timing, as it coincides with the worst of colic and the start of extended awake times, so without the reward of the occasional smile, a lot of parents might find babies sufficiently annoying that not smiling became a significant factor in natural selection… But for us Kasia is a pure joy, and worth the total disruption of our lives. Were Kasia our first child, I would no doubt be complaining here about the horrors of colic, but compared to Tigana's constant 24/7 screaming at that age, Kasia's colic seems pretty mild. Indeed, we were starting to worry that Kasia is too lethargic, since she seems to sleep quite a bit and lie around quietly a lot of the time she is awake, until we actually kept track and were able to reassure ourselves that she was falling within normal parameters. But even when Kasia does cry, we can often settle her fairly quickly, once the initial problem (hungry, wet, bored, sleepy) has been dealt with – she has an "off" switch, which Tigana lacked. With Tigana, once she started crying it would just keep escalating until she passed out. With Kasia, if she doesn't get fed immediately when she starts crying, she will often stop, look around, and not seeing mom, say "okay, I'll call back in 15 minutes." The call backs become increasingly desperate on those rare occasions I haven't been able to come up with an appropriate response, but the fact that a baby could pause at all between requests was a major revelation to us.

Kasia's biggest problems currently are gas pains (forcing Mary to stop eating 90% of her favorite foods, since everything apparently causes gas in babies –e.g., chocolate) and a second case of the sniffles. She seems to breath normally all day, but between 4AM and 6AM she is so sniffly that she has trouble breathing and we have to stand in the shower with her. It is fascinating how excited one gets from finally pulling a load of mucus out of a baby's nose. "Hey, I got more snot!" is now a commonly shouted joyous exclamation in our house.

I fortunately am on parental leave until late March, so it is relatively easy for me to cope. Mary is finding it harder, having to continue to teach, though she is down to teaching a single course a couple of times a week. Tigana, (coming up on her 6th birthday), is taking the intrusion of her younger sister into her previously self-centered universe far better than we could have hoped. Tigana never complains about Kasia's screaming, is gentle and caring with Kasia, and seems genuinely pleased to have a little sister.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Baby Back in Hospital

My newborn has been sick with a cold. This is significantly worse than it sounds. Babies under two months old don't know they can breath through their mouths, so when their noses block up, they simply stop breathing. I thought Mary and I were coping reasonably well by taking the baby in shifts and pumping saline solution up her nose as required, but when we took her in for her six week checkup, the doctor immediately sent Kasia to hospital.

Seeing one's infant connected to various monitors is unsettling, even when the doctors confirm that the RSV virus (a more serious condition that often masquerades as a cold) is not present. My daughter is so tiny, she seems completely dwarfed by the monitors. The pulse/oxygen level reader, for example, that normally hooks over the end of an adult's finger, completely covers my daughter's foot. And the readings themselves are both more reassuring (when the readings are what they should be) and more terrifying (whenever they aren't) than simply watching the baby snuffling at home. The monitors are alarmed to go off if the levels reach scary highs or lows, summoning the nurses, but the parent's are supposed to stay with their baby to keep track of pre-alarm trends and to administer the saline drops as appropriate. Naturally, my wife ended up with the more brutal night shift, since she had to breast feed every two hours, while I got to go home with my older daughter to a more or less normal night's sleep; but I did what I could with a single bottle feed to give my wife at least one four hour complete break mid-day.

So here I am on shift one afternoon, pacing with Kasia in my arms, when Kasia's readings start to show distress: her breathing starts to be too rapid, indicating a problem getting air in, and her pulse rate starts to shoot up, indicating either panic over oxygen deprivation, or a reaction to the drug they were giving her to open her airways. The trend is slow enough, and common enough, that at first I do not react, beyond trying to calm Kasia by pacing a bit faster, adding a bit of a jiggle to my hold on her, and patting her on her back, all of which usually sends her back to sleep. Instead, she starts to cry louder, and the monitors reveal a rapidly worsening trend. I redouble my efforts, but within seconds Kasia reaches crisis levels – the alarms go off, the nurse rushes in, and my heart stops in sudden dread as my daughter's pulse exceeds 220/minute.

The nurse takes one look at me, and starts to leave. I sputter something incoherent about the readings along the lines of "Do something!" and thrust my dying baby in her general direction. The nurse pauses, and with professional politeness says, "I take it your wife didn't explain to you that the monitors work by detecting sound and movement – your baby's reading's are fine; you're just making them go off the scale by pacing, jiggling and patting…"

Well, duh!

But for a minute there, I was one panicked Dad as my daughter's life flashed before my eyes.