On the stormy seas of schooling

November 29, 2005 at 8:23 pm | In yulelogStories | 4 Comments

Looking at my referer log yesterday, I experienced my personal equivalent of getting slash-dotted: Daryl Cobranchi, who writes a homeschooling blog, linked to my cocktail-party-piece, and I was inundated by hits from his site. They continued today — and after reading around in his blog, I can believe that he has a large and loyal following, for he has plenty of timely links to pending legislation; information on how homeschooling is evolving in tandem with (or should that read: is besieged by?) the growth in internet services; as well as other good pointers to around the US.

From my perspective, I found this Schooled in Streaming article fascinating, especially p.2, which quotes Jeffrey Jones, founder of YourOtherTeacher.com:

“I’ve been involved in education since 1990 and can say that the last three years have seen a marked uptick in the use of streaming for homeschooling,” said Jones. “We currently have 12,000 users but expect to grow dramatically within the next year based on several key relationships we formed.”

Prices range from $10 per month for unlimited access to pre-recorded streams to $40 per hour for one-on-one online tutoring via streaming audio and shared whiteboards.

“Many of our classes are taught by instructors that teach at a high school or college, so the material is constantly being updated to suit questions that arise in their classes,” said Jones.

When asked about the benefits of online supplemental learning, Jones explained his belief that he can provide 2-3 times more information in an online class as he can in a traditional classroom.

“As teachers we are always watching the clock and trying to get as much material into that period as possible,” Jones said. “That means we have to go faster, skip steps, and not present as many examples as we would like. On the Web we don’t have those constraints, we can take our time, explain every step, and do as many problems as we want. I tell my students to keep watching the lessons one after another until they get it.”

Since its inception, YourOtherTeacher.com has used Real’s SMIL technology to deliver synchronized content to its users, but is currently developing its own delivery tools.

“We are in the process of converting over most of our classes from Real Player format to our own Flash-based format called LectureMate,” said Jones. “Since the new lessons are vector-based, the lessons are perfectly clear and require less bandwidth. In the new version, to be released next month, teachers will also be able to conduct live office hours.” [More...]

Canada (and my home province of British Columbia) has far fewer lines drawn in the sand (between truly free home- and unschoolers on the one hand, and those who subscribe to some form of state regulation on the other). Even so-called independent schools aren’t really independent, for example, because they have to hire BC certified teachers and they receive subsidies from the government. (To whit, the average bloc-funding for BC students is $5753, and private or independent schools get roughly $3000 per student from that public tax-funded pot… My taxes, in other words, help fund another child’s private school education, whether British-style blazer & tie uniformed or fundie xian. No one here seems to find this strange. Go figure.) This also results in more homeschoolers willing to embrace a hybrid system whereby they fulfill high school requirements via distance education — BC has a consortium of nine distance education schools, some of which are loosy-goosy, some of which are academically rigid. All nine offer a BC Ministry of Education approved curriculum, and the “hoops” can be onerous indeed: in its wisdom, our government has strung together a new “graduation program” that involves more high school testing and a particularly bad example of bureaucratic portfolio management. We are considering Option-B, which is to tell the Ministry to shove it.

But let’s not forget Option-C, which is negotiate, negotiate, negotiate.

Furthermore, their courses are free (in the sense of not costing money) and my kids can take Advanced Placement courses as part of their public cyber education. This isn’t something I could offer them out of my own resources, nor would it be free if it weren’t part of public education. Every once in a while, there’s even a worthwhile online course or some offering that’s not a waste of time, but there are always Ministry-mandated tests and hoops, hoops, hoops. But at some point kids have matured enough to realise that they can have a non-herd mentality and a critical attitude toward these things, even as they negotiate their way through requirements — once they go to university (which my kids will be doing), they will have to deal with ongoing tests and evaluation anyway. It’s not a bad thing to learn about negotiation beforehand: we negotiate alternatives with the distance ed school about curriculum we feel is crappy (and there is lots of it) or inadequate teacher feedback/ support. I’m a thorn in their side, and I get a far better response from them than I would from a bricks-and-mortar school, and I feel that I’m doing something to improve the lot of the students who come after.

As the “streaming” article (cited above) would indicate, today’s sexed-up bits aren’t, in my opinion, about the freedoms of homeschoolers (because the option of leaving the system is still there), but about the profits to be made in developing curricula in partnership with industry, and which can be used by industry — used by industry to produce useful workers (which, according to Gatto and others, has always been the point of public education anyway: producing cannon fodder and/or industry fodder). Just like hot-talk about Web-two-dot-oh!, it’s really about profits and making money and being there at the right time. In other words, it’s not about you. It’s about the money to be made, and the ideologies of P3 approaches to services. (More pro-P3 propaganda here.)

This is both depressing as well as liberating. Even if “it” is not about me (us), I can however try to extract from whatever “it” is that which will serve my (our) interests best. Right now, what serves our interests best is that weird hybrid of using Ministry-approved distance courses, even though I want to think that we are still homeschoolers (in the oppositional “we’re not anybody’s fodder” manner). As soon as the crappy courses outweigh the good courses, though, we’ll be out of there. And to keep the bad courses at bay, we continue to needle and dig and prod and poke. Bad systems aren’t staffed up and down by bad people — we meet plenty of allies and helpers along the way who are only too happy to do their bit to subvert the institutions they work in. That can be quite gratifying, something to restore faith in human nature — or at least help get one over the bad patches when yet another money-making “privateer” (isn’t that an old word for pirate?) blocks one’s path.

A cock’s tale

November 27, 2005 at 9:22 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off

I was invited to a cocktail party on Friday night, and readily accepted the invitation (because I like the hosts and their invitation featured a picture of Nick and Nora Charles), despite the two facts that 1) I don’t own a cocktail dress and 2) I don’t like martinis, whether Manhattans, Gibsons, or whatever else a concoction of gin and/or vermouth and/or vodka might be called. In that regard, I’m a quantity-over-quality girl: after years of serious study, I feel that copious quantities of wine result in fewer hangovers than equal amounts (litre-to-litre) of high-octane cocktails, and being of a sensitive nature (yet generally thirsty), I’m all for fewer hangovers and more wine. Decked out in my ankle-length velvet gown (definitely not a cocktail dress) and with Kir Royale in hand, Yours Truly was ready for something less lethal than a party at the Thin Man’s…

I hadn’t counted on the guests…

The party was studded with mathematicians from the local university, and in the majority (despite the fact that said university department has a number of female professors), they were male while their partners were female. Suddenly, I was faced with a double whammy: at first glance, I had little to talk about with the male mathematicians, while the faculty wives regarded me as a weirdo who, hovering between retirement (not quite) and nubility (not quite any longer), didn’t entirely fit any easy ideas about what a woman of my age should be doing. So, my responses to their question, “and what do you do?”, seemed to lack the satisfying mouthfeel that allows conversationalists to digest the proffered answers… I was left to feel like a bit of gristle or otherwise unmentionable indigestible, discreetly coughed up into a hankie, surreptitiously placed on a plate of cast-offs. When I confessed to two of them that I homeschool, I could feel the guillotine blade descending on my lovely and terribly exposed neck. “Uh-oh,” I thought, “Why did you say a stupid thing like that? You could see from across the room that this would be the kiss of death? Why? Why? Why did you tell them this?”

One’s mind goes into overdrive, and gets all silly in the process — there’s nothing like a gaggle of ladies in real cocktail dresses, holding real cocktails (why the hell can they hold their liquor like that?) — to make one lose all sense of self-esteem. It’s like being across the table from your mom, or barring that, your old highschool friend’s mom. Your brain starts spouting gibberish, like this: Well, dear ladies, let me explain in a way that will make your mathematician husbands seem like club-scene castrati or armchair marxists: homeschooling is all about the system — subverting it, standing up against what’s wrong with the system. (At this point, one builds an almost insane head of steam, like so:) Yeah, yeah, it’s all about freedom, and freedom of speech, and free thinking, and not being a cog in the machine, not being a f*cking brick in the wall, man, yeah, and besides, did I tell you I have a PhD from Harvard? Yeah? Yeah! It’s true! So there!

Well, it wasn’t that bad, entirely. Low self-esteem forbids me from brandishing my academic credentials in real life (let me brandish them here: they are impressive, take my word for it). But it did underscore for me that I’m in danger of running off the rails, as far as conventional sociability goes. It was a relief to overhear one person talk about their disastrous personal life, because finally I felt that something I could relate to was up for discussion. Give me a serious, a real problem to discuss, and chances are that I can leap in, like a surgeon’s knife (one hopes with a surgeon’s hand to guide it, hold the martinis). But put me in a chit-chat situation, with the usual “and what do you do”-type questions, and I feel transported back to toddlerhood. Quite embarassing, nearly pathetic.

I had a longer conversation with one of the two people present who I knew — a writer who seems intent on assuming that I’m in the middle of a book. We’ve met like ships in the night several times, and each time her question to me is about the book she thinks I’m writing, despite the fact that I bow and scrape and say I’m not writing a book at all. She has me so unnerved that I’m afraid to probe whether she thinks it’s a book I’m writing, or a book she’s reading (ok, ok, I know it’s the former), and therefore I’m always afraid to shout at her to say, “Nononono!, I’m not writing a book at all. I’m a boring nobody who is doing boring nothing at all!”, because (A) she seems so ethereal and unworldly, I would hate to disturb any book she is reading, and (B) it seems so validating to have her think that I’m writing a book, which makes it seem like she might be my personal Sibyl who knows something about the me I might be if I were the me that I could be (i.e., …writing a book), even though I am very careful to state (and I say the words slowly and clearly) that I am not writing a book at this time. I finally did get through to her that I’m not writing a book (although, yes, of course I’d like to be writing a book). In the process we actually talked about what I am terribly, terribly good at (namely research and synthesis) and she told me in no uncertain terms that I should get off my ass to market those skills. But it’s really difficult to get paid for one’s ass, if, that is, one is one of those people who don’t own a cocktail dress, don’t drink martinis, and do feel like bolting to the door when the question, “and what do you do?” is casually floated across the Sobranie-scented air…

Rough draft for a Black Friday Rag

November 25, 2005 at 1:07 pm | In guerilla_politics, homelessness, ideas, justice, local_not_global, offspring, politics, scandal, scenes_victoria, social_critique, street_life, victoria, writing, yulelogStories | Comments Off

This morning I read an interesting article about a singing iceberg, but more importantly, I heard the iceberg (link follows, to audiofile). Combined with the general level of continuing insanity, I was inspired to get the following rough draft onto paper (and now, inter-textually, onto the blog). Yeah, yeah, I know it’s not exactly Howl, I’m not a poet, but that don’t mean I don’t feel like howling along with singing icebergs, either….

The Sound of An Iceberg Singing

I heard the trash-trawler’s purloined shopping cart
Rattling past my house at eight.
The man pushing by, one of
A thousand in Victoria, drug-addicted,
Mentally ill, or simply
“Hard to house,”
One of the thousand
Homeless, he collects refundables
To trade for cash at the Bottle Depot recycling place.

Workers with earplugs, protection
Against the constant crash of breaking
Glass shattering, the empty wine bottles,
The softer thud
Of extruded plastic, now empty, once fruitjuice-full,
Tossed by earplugged workers into appropriately sorted bins.
But mostly it’s the hard, hard sound
Of glass — bottles of beer, bottles of beer,
Rivetting noise
Recycled into new bottles.

My son has been listening to the radio,
A Seattle station –
He comes to my room to spread the fantastical news
Police were called when earlybird “Black Friday” shoppers,
Mobbing a Renton, WA-Walmart’s electronic section,
Caused major damage to the aisles,
Crashing shelves, fragmenting TVs stereos computers,
Assembled in China
Where city centres relocate
To newly-paved-over farmland
The ageing infrastructure of the old centres
Abandoned to further decay.

Assembled in China where a factory explosion
(Would the trash-trawlers on the Pacific Rim have heard it?)
Pumped benzene into the Songhua River.
Harbin the city and its 4 million residents have
No clean water now rushing by.
The loud injection of chemicals into the river
Silently kills anyone who drinks from it.

In other news (still incredulous),
He tells me that a one-hundred pound woman
The twelve-minute, ten-pound turkey eating competition
By gorging four pounds three-plus ounces of flesh.
This was news-worthy — previous winners
(As well as this year’s runners-up)
Were invariably heavy-weighted, veritable behemoths
Embodying the outsized rapaciousness
Of The Very Large.

A one-hundred pound woman seems anomalous,
A shifting centre, perhaps
A blurring line between the very fat
And those more slim.
AP News leads the news like this:
“It’s a question just begging to be asked: How much turkey can a person gobble down in 12 minutes?
But two hundred people die in twelve minutes
Of starvation. Every twelve minutes of everyday
(Did you think that was a question just begging to be asked?
Victoria, too, is full of beggars…)
…Even when Black Friday shoppers cause
Walmart shelves to crash and
Chinese manufacturers relocate entire cities
Poisoned by water, or not,
To paved-over farmlands where
Food no longer grows,
Even when the International Federation of Competitive Eating
Registers yet another Thanksgiving Day Triumph,
Even when the actually slim are able to join
The ranks of the utterly unbalanced,
Even when it all comes crashing down,
Unbalanced as it is.

A bit of fast-flowing water,
Perhaps the Songhua River’s,
Adds its sound to all the world’s sounds,
And that hell freezes over in Antarctica,
Although it will all thaw out soon enough,
And that’s what the iceberg’s singing.

(If you made it to here, that last link is to the audiofile of the singing iceberg. Make sure you listen to the whole thing, it’s interesting.)

Thinking with my lungs: mnemonics takes a deep breath

November 21, 2005 at 1:33 pm | In yulelogStories | 3 Comments

I subscribe to MIT’s Technology Review and have enjoyed many articles and reviews thus far. But today’s issue brought a couple of howlers in two utterly unrelated articles, which, when read together, fit perfectly. First, Finding Podcasts Faster is a review of three new products that help users find specific audio material online. The reviewer points to a couple of flaws, however, whereby the search engines transcribe the spoken material in whacky ways:

To be sure, none of these sites has mastered audio recognition, a notoriously tricky beast. Computers still cannot consistently understand all the innumerable accents, mispronunciations and other nonstandard diction that colors human speech.


Blinkx made a geopolitical gaffe by transcribing the following snippet from a Fox News broadcast about a political murder in Lebanon:

“… pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, citing a cell phone call Lahoud received minutes before the murder.”


“… pro-Syrian President Emile of food citing a cell phone colic who received minutes before the murder.”


By itself that was already pretty funny (at least if you’re easily amused), but taken with the other article in today’s Technology Review, it’s a gem. The second article is called Exercising the Brain; Innovative training software could turn back the clock on aging brains, which reviews a company that has been designing brain exercise software. (Yeah, “ugh!” — that’s what I thought, too!) The reviewer also must have been swallowing hard, because, describing the program’s shortcomings in how it focusses on “tricks,” he wrote:

Today, a typical training program focuses on memory tricks, such as pneumonics. [More...]

Ahhhh-hee-hee-heee! That made my day!


November 18, 2005 at 2:14 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off

Tomorrow approximately 30% (maybe 33%) of eligible voters in Victoria will complete casting their ballots for the city’s mayor and councillors. (I write “complete” because voters could vote early, from Nov.14th on.) That’s a sadly anemic projection, but consider that our City-of-Victoria-the-Legal-Entity (not counting the Greater Victoria area or the entire Capital Regional District) is less than 75,000 people strong, yet there are 28 candidates running for 8 council seats, and 5 running for the mayor’s seat. I’ve gone to 3 all-candidates meetings (in Fernwood, Vic West, and Fairfield), and if one is a fan of Monty Python, these meetings have had their moments, thanks to some of the candidates. Even if the voters aren’t galloping to the polls, many of the candidates more than make up for the voters’ lack of enthusiasm by espousing strongly held opinion and reducing complex issues to the point where they’ll fit into the kitchen sink.

As an aside: It occured to me that while this is not a chiasmus (scroll down to “C”), there is an interesting kind of “crossing parallelism” in campaigning. In one approach you’ll find everything and the kitchen sink pressed into rhetorical service, while in another you’ll find a populist kitchen sink (single issue “Big Idea”) serving as a kind of demogogic hold-all for everything. …Not that either approach does justice to the complexities facing today’s cities.

One would think that some of the candidates would be ideal blogger-types (ahem!), but curiously, many of them display a seemingly profound disinterest in creating for themselves an online presence. There are two interesting sites that provide a central collection point for candidates’s positions. One is the City of Victoria Youth Council (CVYC), which started shaping up in earnest last year (see their About page) and began its first concerted public recruitment efforts just a few months ago. CVYC asked the candidates “to respond to the following questions: how would you support youth should you be elected, what issues do you identify as ‘youth issues,’ and how would you define a youth friendly city?” This is a very serious question in Victoria, which is projected to face a drastic decline in its under-20 population (shrinking to less than 10% within the next decade, or something like that), and it would seem like a good idea to think about policies that can attract and retain youth as well as families with young children. The responses, by the very few candidates who bothered to respond (a mere 13, plus a blanket statement by the Victoria Civic Electors slate, which is fielding 6 candidates), are on this page.

The other site that Victorians should look at, whether they vote by tomorrow or not, is PlanVictoria, which asked the candidates to respond to very specific questions around urban planning and development. PlanVictoria’s The Issues page lists candidates in the order that they responded. Twenty-two candidates responded, some to all questions, others selectively to a few, while eleven candidates haven’t responded at all. The Issues page is very useful because the top of every column states a topic, which is clickable. Follow the topic link (“Built Vision” or “Public Consultation,” for example) and you’ll find a clearly articulated explanation of what policy or policies are involved in this area, as well as a question to the candidates. Thus, for the question “What is your philosophy of planning?” we learn the following:

We already live in a city that was created by the combined efforts of people who came before us. The future of our city now relies on our efforts as citizens to understand what the city is, how it works, what it could become and take the actions needed to ensure its finest livability. We want future generations to live in a city they are proud to belong to and be inspired to continue to plan for the future. Ray Spaxman

There are different ways planning can be approached: we can plan ahead according to our vision of the city in the future, or we can react to present market forces within a planned context. An extreme would be to respond specifically to individual requests. We can leave planning to the professionals, or we can include the citizens.

British Columbia municipalities are required, by legislation, to have an Official Community Plan (OCP). In Victoria, we also have neighbourhood plans which inform the interpretation of the OCP.

Every rezoning results in a change to the OCP.

If you want to plan ahead, updates of the vision and the OCP will be necessary. There are various ways to do this.

After everyone (elected councillors, planning department and the public) go through a huge effort to prepare plans, these plans can then be used in different ways. They can be fully enforced, or they can be changed by simple bylaw. Enforcement can be spotty or broad.

What is your philosophy of land use planning? How do you see the planning process happening? If you are a serving Mayor or Councillor, what specific actions have you taken in the past to implement your philosophy of land use planning? If future planning is done, what do you think about enforcement of the plans? [see this page]

It’s a great resource. There’s also a helpful Links page, and I hope the entire site stays up for a long time after the election is over.

For an interesting look at the municipal election from the point of view of pro-highrise development fans (who seem overwhelmingly rightwing-libertarian), check out this Skyscraperpage forum (and while you’re at it, see “Victoria Construction,” on the same forum). It’s an amusing read — populist, often smart, usually smart-alecky, sometimes painfully dumb, and over-confidently full of itself. After reading what they’ve written about the candidates, I thank my lucky stars that I’m not running for office…. And after reading what they’ve written, I don’t think any of them will ever run for public office, either. They may write anonymously, but it’s pretty easy to figure out who many of the key contributors are, and the web is almost like diamonds, which are themselves almost forever…

n.b.: “click-think-vote”© is PlanVictoria‘s motto. I like it.

Let’s DISH

November 17, 2005 at 5:53 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off

The Conference Board of Canada‘s annual report tells Canadians that we’re slipping in status: from being in the club of the top five world-wide (out of 24) in 2001, we’ve fallen, due to various economic factors impacting the measure of our productivity, to 12th place in 2005. Our middle class isn’t growing at the same exponential rate as China’s (d’uh), nor might there be enough middle class jobs around if policies (taxation) and infrastructure investment and diversification aren’t put on the front burner.

Maybe we can all get rebranded and make some cash or get some perqs that way? I read today that a 125-person town in Texas renamed itself DISH. That’s the stock ticker name for EchoStar Communications Corporation, the US’s 2nd-largest satellite television provider. The Texas town changed its name in exchange for free TV services.

Question: how does something like that get factored into productivity measurements? If the good people of DISH, TX can now, due to saving money on satellite TV bills, use more of their discretionary income to purchase the durable goods advertised on TV, doesn’t that affect productivity measures (or, if they’re all manufactured overseas, the trade gap)? Jeepers… it’s a strange new world.

And just think, if we were still at the stage where people are given surnames based on origin or residence, we could have a whole clan of Dishlanders, Dishmans, Dishtons, and Dishkins.

Ah yes, the Dishtons of Texas — they came over on satellite…

Ain’t No Saint

November 16, 2005 at 11:09 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off

Two people recently observed, after we first chatted about the weather and dogs and the cost of living, that I haven’t been blogging lately, and then this morning Stu Savory sent an email with the same observation…

Hi Yule,
long time no write.

Unlike yours truly, Stu is a man of few words, which he, however, manages to crank out at an even clip, accented in full Scots, no doubt. I, on the other hand, am usually wordy. When I get the way I have been lately, though, I seize up entirely.

Making up for the terse comment, Stu sent along a very cool map by Timothy Stotz, which diagrams influences in European art. Thus:

Thank you, Stu, for checking in and for sending that great diagram!

Funny getting that link sent to me today, though, for I had been trying to remember a somewhat similar (if simplified) diagram showing modern art connections, which I had concocted while at UBC. I was inspired by other (still simpler) diagrams that tried to explain a “genealogy” of art, but my diagram was far more complex than those (if less complex than Stotz’s). I remember the backroom study-carrell section of the Fine Arts Library, and I remember carefully unrolling what was essentially an oversized scroll to show my friends, who were thrilled by it. I remember, too, that it was drawn like a tree with roots and branches going out in various directions, but with many connections and influences implicated through the various leaves and twigs — and fruits on top, worms and critters below!

But I can’t remember the actual content, except that it was focussed on 19th and 20th century art.

So… I called this entry “Ain’t No Saint” for a reason: I haven’t been writing because I have been getting too angry to write anything without sounding like a creep. I’m having one of those Dorothy Parker or Karl Kraus moments (“I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand” — something along those lines), except that this is threatening to turn into more than a moment. I’m so angry at someone I deal with, for example, that I’ve developed nearly chronic lower back pain, which I attribute perhaps to poor ergonomics, but more particularly to pure hatred. Let’s call said individual “X.” If X were a simpleton, X would be forgiven, for I am not unkind. But X is a very gifted individual, possessed of great intelligence, yet X is manipulative and devious and unnecessarily cagey, and so I hate X. X is not a dumb animal, but a political one. X is best avoided, but due to various commitments, I cannot avoid X. I am so chagrined by X that it only takes a slight trigger — an email, some reminder — to set me off and have my free mental disk space whirring and humming with thoughts of mayhem.

In addition, there is so much going on right now — and with my murderous designs on X oversaturating my mind, that “so much going on” looks increasingly vicious, as though it were a mirror reflecting my imbalances back to me. I should be meditating and tinking happy tawts, but instead I’m building a kiln in my backyard to fire the bricks that will raise my prison higher.

The particular way this has infected my blogging is to make me realise that even my critical writings here (not to mention my rants or wide-eyed “gosh!” type musings) were all based on what essentially is a kind of optimism, or at least a confidence in myself, and that my X-ed out joy has diminished my ability to feel confident in any sphere whatsoever. It’s as though the colour has gone from things, and everything is gray on gray, which is very strange because just before my path was crossed by X, I felt very confident about extending connections between what I do online and what I do in my immediate world. I had even begun communicating (virtually, via email) with someone nearby, a person associated with an organisation I’m associated with, about building online communities and what it means to link them to real people and projects “on the ground,” having those communities overlap. But I feel now that very often the online world is the “saintly” one where you have virtually pure relationships with people, while in the real world, real people’s baleful will to power, fixed on real objects, intervenes in a way that can’t compare to what happens virtually. Bad things do happen online, too, but there’s nothing virtual to compare with real breath breathing down your real neck.

At least that’s how it feels right now. Perhaps all that time in the UBC Fine Arts Library — not to mention the endless hours in all the Harvard Libraries (Fogg, Houghton, Widener, etc.) — has rendered me unfit for the “real” world. I’m happier with ideas, and diagrams of influence, with books and all those other trappings of virtual reality (of which books and art are prime examples).

And so, while saints don’t wear socks, but we non-saints do, I shall try to pull myself up by my socks, put my runners on, and hightail it back to all things virtual. Maybe that’ll help me to snap out of my “crossed” X-ish mood.

Running out of time

November 8, 2005 at 12:18 pm | In yulelogStories | 8 Comments

From the Forum for the Future, a pointer to a new book edited by Tim Aldrich, About Time. It sounds like they’re on to something:

Despite the burgeoning army of machines designed to save us time – from cars and aeroplanes to dishwashers and microwaves – we don’t seem to have any more of it on our hands. We simply fill the space we clear with more things to do – consuming more, spending more – and then look around for new ways of saving time.

The fallout from a society hooked on speed is everywhere. It’s affecting our health – sixty per cent of the adult population in the UK report that they suffer from stress, and more than half of these say that this has worsened over the last 12 months. It’s affecting our family-life, with a quarter of British families sharing a meal together only once a month. And it affects our environment too: air travel is a major source of carbon dioxide emissions, accelerating climate change as we speed around the world.

The faster we live, the faster we consume, the faster we waste energy and the faster we pollute the planet. The faster we seem to be running out of time.

Forum for the Future’s new book, edited by Tim Aldrich, features essays using the idea of time to take a different view of sustainable development. Contributors include the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees, ethicist Baroness Mary Warnock, author Jay Griffiths and Will Hutton, CEO of the Work Foundation, as well as Jonathon Porritt.

All argue for a reassessment of how time is perceived and used in modern society.

The breakdown in our relationship with time is a root cause of the crisis of unsustainability. “About Time” investigates why and, with many practical suggestions, shows us a new way through. [from here]

…And (ahem), that’s all I have time for today…

World Usability Day

November 6, 2005 at 5:31 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off

I had no idea that last Thursday (Nov.3) was World Usability Day. Hopping around on del.icio.us (comparing who links to what I link to), I found the Nov.1 BBC article that alerted me to this startling tid-bit.

Belatedly (in honour of the day), let me quote from Donald Norman’s brilliant The Design of Everyday Things, which articulates all that is wrong with every crappy curriculum I’ve ever come across, either as a student or as a parent of kids who are dealing with crappy curricula (particularly math-based curricula). Norman is at pains (just like the World Usability Day) to make people understand that if something doesn’t work for you, it isn’t necessarily your fault. It might be bad user-interface and shitty design. Can’t figure out how to use that “hold” button on the phone? Ran into the door because it was unclear which way it was supposed to open? Crashed your computer? It might not be the case that you are inherently klutzy. It’s equally likely that you’ve smacked up into poor design.

Having trouble comprehending the theories in your math course? Gee… are you really that stupid, or might it be the case that your teacher is a dork who is using a totally poor excuse of a curriculum?

Extrapolating from technology, Norman’s “declaration of usability” also has some interesting things to say about curricula and how we blame ourselves when we fail to learn the professed outcomes:

Earlier I suggested that people have a tendency to blame themselves for difficulties with technology. (…) [Norman fleshes out the complexities that actually underlie this tendency, then continues:]

It seems natural for people to blame their own misfortunes on the environment [i.e., their surroundings]. It seems equally natural to blame other people’s misfortunes on their personalities. Just the opposite attribution, by the way, is made when things go well. When things go right, people credit their own forceful personalities and intelligence: “I really did a good job today; no wonder we finished the project so well.” The onlookers do the reverse. When they see things going well for somene else, they credit the environment: “Joan really was lucky today; she just happened to be standing there when the boss came by, so she got all the credit for the project work. Some people have all the luck.”

In all cases, whether a person is inappropriately accepting blame for the inability to work simple ojects or attributing behavior to environment or personality, a faulty mental model is at work. [From pp.40-42]

Norman then elaborates that the phenomenon of learned helplessness could explain the self-blame, but he goes on to emphasise that taught helplessness is the driving force, which, in turn, is driven by bad design:

Do the common technology and mathematics phobias result from a kind of learned helplessness? Could a few instances of failure in what appear to be straightforward situations generalize to every technological object, every mathematics problem? Perhaps. In fact, the design of everyday things (and the design of mathematics courses) seems almost guaranteed to cause this. We could call this phenomenon taught helplessness.

With badly designed objects — constructed to as to lead to misunderstanding — faulty mental models, and poor feedback, no wonder people feel guilty when they have trouble using objects, especially when they perceive (even if incorrectly) that nobody else is having the same problems.

[Norman here refers again to the fact that most people silently blame themselves and don't complain loudly if they don't get something, which in turn leads to the perception that no one is actually having trouble, i.e., that others are "getting" it...]

Or consider the normal mathematics curriculum, which continues relentlessly on its way, each new lesson assuming full knowledge and understanding of all that has passed before. Even though each point may be simple, once you fall behind it is hard to catch up. The result: mathematics phobia. Not because the material is difficult, but because it is taught so that difficulty in one stage hinders further progress. The problem is that once failure starts, it soon generalizes by self-blame to all of mathematics. Similar processes are at work with technology. The vicious cycle starts: if you fail at something, you think it is your fault. Therefore you think you can’t do that task. As a result, next time you have to do that task, you believe you can’t so you don’t even try. The result is that you can’t, just as you thought. You’re trapped in a self-fulfilling prophecy. [from pp. 42-43]

That analysis can be applied to certain badly designed math-based physics courses, as well. I just convinced my son to drop a Physics 11 course he had enrolled in because it was badly designed and taught by a “teacher” who seems convinced that meaningful feedback consists of “Wrong,” or if he felt particularly loquacious, of “Nope! Try again!” (These bits of non-response on an assignment were shared by another parent of a student in the same course.) The course is so hideously designed and the teacher so astonishingly absent (in terms of not being there, as a teacher capable of giving constructive feedback) that it was a clear case of “drop the course and pray you don’t run across this guy again.”

Usability. It’s an idea that should be extended to teachers, to what they do, and whether they do what they do well. Quite a few of them don’t, and would flunk Norman’s “usability” criteria, particularly given that they are the interface between the object (the curriculum) and the end-user (the student). It would be a kindness if they would deign to read this book (or even just think about usability), and adjust accordingly what heretofore they considered their teaching.

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