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Litter

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My last blog of September 23, 2015 concerned the challenges of bringing up our new puppy, and I am inspired at last to continue the saga since Maddie is now nearly eight months old. davis_maddie2

She weighs about 50 pounds and continues to be just as wonderful, athletic, and ferociously affectionate. She undertakes her official puppy role (which is to be naughty) very seriously. She is so fast and agile; and a two-second lapse of attention in the kitchen will see the end of your lunch if you leave it within a foot of the edge of the counter.

Her pedigree is that of a working dog (Golden Labrador/Australian Shepherd), and so she needs to be exercised and kept very busy. She also needs to be trained, but the department in our household responsible for organizing the dog training tells me we are still only in the research phase. And since that aforesaid department is currently on the injured list, the serious dog walking devolves to me.

I use the term “walking” loosely since it is more like a full body workout, with every muscle of mine used to keep Maddie to some approximation of forward movement at a human pace. Likewise, every one of her muscles is directed at attempting to chase and herd every car that goes by, leap on any other pedestrian, and be completely unpredictable towards other dogs (sometimes friendly, sometimes not).

But the hardest challenge is to stop her from vacuuming every hint of litter left by unhelpful others.

I live in the lovely city of White Rock, which is quite posh in places, with multi-million dollar houses going up all the time, and it is by any standard one of the cleanest and nicest places to live on the planet. I have travelled a lot and the extent to which litter and various forms of rubbish are tolerated on streets around the world varies widely.

In Singapore, you’d better be careful not to drop anything. In other places it is almost part of the charm: after a while you don’t notice it. On the spectrum of littering habits White Rock is thus much closer to Singapore, which somehow makes Maddie’s enthusiasm for what gets dropped (by accident or through laziness or with malice) so annoying.

Firstly, I have to pull Maddie away from it all with some force.  And there is lot more to be vacuumed (especially if you include the gum) than first meets the eye. She has already been to the vet twice to be “evacuated” in some way. I resent spending the money and of course I am concerned with her having any serious injury from a plastic coffee cup lid or bottle cap or ketchup pouch or a metal soda can tab, and so on.

Secondly, since I go the same route each day, it is amazing how long this litter and other garbage stays on the street. Does no one clean the streets anymore? As I boy in the UK there were plenty of workers with well-equipped carts who would sweep and clean the streets regularly: it was a noble calling.

Then some form of mechanization occurred, but it just seemed to push the dirt from the gutter into the roadway in support of the storm water system.  Picking up all the types of litter in diverse locations is much more complicated, and there doesn’t seem to be much of it happening at all now except once or twice a year on certain highway verges.

OK, so no one likes to pay the taxes to maintain a rubbish-free community, and that would be fine if we were all then responsible for our own habits. Sadly of course, that is not the case: a certain fraction of the population doesn’t see a problem with just dropping at their convenience their leftover bags, tissues, butts, and drink containers of all types, even if they are just a few feet from a refuse container.

Vehicular littering is especially annoying. I lived in a house in Chilliwack for many years which was exactly the right distance from the drive-through fast food joint to allow the passengers to finish their burger, fries and soda and fling the trash out the window. Every morning saw another deposit on the road outside.

Stop lights seem like particularly convenient places for coffee drinkers to get rid of their cups and lids.

davis_maddie1But (getting back to my dog theme) the most disgusting habit is that of people who use a bag to pick up their pooch’s poo, only then to leave the bag right there on the sidewalk or nearby. I try to be generous: maybe they were going to pick it up on the way home and forgot, or maybe they think (as some have told me) that the bag will decompose along with the contents, though based on my unscientific observation, that’s about a two-year wait.

Here’s the deal: when you acquired your dog, you assumed the responsibility of picking up and carrying its poo and ensuring that it was dealt with according to whatever bylaws pertain. By leaving it, you are breaking the law and offending pretty well everyone else who cares, and giving all dog owners a bad name. Or am I missing something? Someone help me out here.

I was in England last year walking in the South Downs with my friend and saw the same behaviour: the beautiful countryside defiled by poo-bags, duly filled. I was hoping my friend would have a logical explanation for all this: some municipal service comes by all the trails to pick up the bags, or there is a volunteer system in place (“this mile of the Canterbury Trail kept dog-poo-free by the Davis family”), but he was also at a loss.

People seem to understand the first step in the proposition (clean up after your dog), but not the second step (don’t then leave it for some schmuck to pick up after you).

My dilemma is this: do I increase my sense of self-righteousness by picking up any litter and dog poo bags I come across (thus perhaps enabling the perpetrators), or do I just “tut” loudly and write blogs like this and so continue my decline into pointless grumpiness?

I once had an elderly landlord in Vancouver who would clean up litter and all manner of vile deposits around the building and down the alley. His routine seemed to me then to eccentric and rather sad; now I think of him as a hero of a sort, like all the people and groups who go out and keep stretches of roadways free of trash.

We are lucky at KPU to have very clean facilities, but we are not perfect. I probably embarrass people as I bend down in my suit and tie to pick up any litter I find.

Taking the few steps needed to go to one of many trash and recycling bins, or to deal with your cigarette butt properly and not leave it for someone else to clean up is not much to ask.

Enough for now: I have to go home and walk the holy terror.

Maddie

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I have not blogged for about 18 months: since my dog Max died in March 2014. I am not sure why. It was my most widely read blog and the comments were very nice, but after that, I guess my heart just wasn’t in it.

Anyway, without any real due diligence, a puppy arrived in our home recently. I was hoping for an older rescue dog that wouldn’t need the intense training and attention from me or from Charlie the cat. But arrive she did and no doubt you want the “Awww!” pictures:

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Yes, she is chewing on an empty plastic container from a Barrett’s Sherbert Fountain, which is what I always get when anyone in my family returns from a trip to the UK. It is penchant I have, nothing more. Anyway, the tube turns out to be just the right size for a small teething dog.

The chewing is of course a major issue, and anything that I deem not to matter too much is hers to attack, but she has her own penchant, which is for human flesh. I must be just the right texture for a good chew, despite all the toys that have been purchased. There’s that problem, plus the ferocious use she makes of her bladder and bowels.

She’s a golden retriever/Australian shepherd cross, which to me means “mutt” but apparently there are all sorts of accidental mixed breeds now that are offered for sale for what once would be a down payment on a Porsche.

Pete and Max were border collie crosses from Calling Lake, Alberta, and they were free (which is why I got two). Times have changed.

Despite all this, Maddie is astonishingly lovable and very smart and even Charlie the Cat is getting used to her: he enjoys following along uninvited when she is taken out for a walk.

You are probably wondering what deep meaning I can extract from this development in my domestic bliss, and I suppose I could wax on about the new academic year, and the thrill of seeing thousands of new students arrive. I just hope they don’t bite.

It also triggers lots of memories of Pete and Max, and some sadness from the fact that I can’t actually remember everything about them: how exactly did I deal with two puppies then, while now I am lumbering about trying to keep up with one?

There is probably a name for the sad feeling you get (well, I get) when big chunks of your life seem to fade from memory. It is a probably a good thing to forget all the trials, tribulations and tragedies that beset us: it is how we manage to carry on. But time also seems to blur all the fun and the productive stages of our lives.

I caught up with some old friends this summer, and listened to them reminisce about various foggy incidents, but not in the way I remembered them at all. This can be unsettling.

My summer reading included Aislinn Hunter’s award winning book “The World Before Us” which was so good I did not want it to end, and I am not sure I grasped it all. I e-mailed Aislinn (one of the perks of my job is I can be chummy with KPU faculty) to explain some bits for me, but she was not letting on. Like the good teacher she is, she expects me to develop my own interpretation.

Anyway, the novel is about the past and the present and how they are connected and how we should try to foster those connections across time (I think).  A “melancholic book”, one reviewer said, and I would agree, but exciting too: there are several mysteries, not all of which are resolved.

I also read Ali Smith’s “There but for the” which is so funny and yet poignant too. I am working on DFW’s “The Pale King” and that will take a while: a page a day at best, since the discretionary time for reading that I enjoyed during our lovely summer here on the coast is now severely reduced as all manner of activities start up again.

It is time to put my head down and soldier forward for a packed Fall semester. There are so many important and exciting initiatives coming up: I just hope I can be mindful enough to remember at least some of the interesting people and events I will encounter.

KPU ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

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Today at the KPU Surrey campus, President and Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Alan Davis, and Marlyn Graziano, Director of External and Government Affairs, completed the #IceBucketChallenge to raise awareness for ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis).

More information on ALS Canada can be found at www.als.ca.

Max

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I write this on March 8th as an obituary for our dog Max, knowing that on the day he dies it will be too difficult to do.

In October 2012, we had confirmation that he had a tumor on his thyroid which was aggressive and malignant and inoperable, with the only treatments being radiation (available far away at huge expense), chemo (with low chance of success) and growth-inhibiting drugs that may stall or even shrink the tumor a bit (which we chose). The vet said Max had a few months at best, but he managed another 18, most of them still alert and interested in life (food, walks, smells, pats).

I know it is self-indulgent of me to get moony about a pet, but…well… it is my blog, and please feel free to skip the rest, which is my homage to a great dog, and to his brother Pete, who passed away unexpectedly in August 2012.

The picture of Max above and the one below were taken by my son Alex one afternoon in our garden in St. Catharines in about 2005. They are the best pictures of “the boys” in their prime.

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Pete was the punk-rocker, always in trouble, and Max was the quiet, obedient and loving sort: he would have been wonderful for pet therapy, but, much as he loved people, he hated sharp noises or loud conversation, or even loud TV or radio. Even as a pup, when I took them for a walk up into the bush in northern Alberta, we had to pass an outdoor hockey rink where the noise of pucks being slapped about was enough for Max to insist on a very wide berth. Pete couldn’t care less.

Even when guests came to the house, Max would be friendly and welcoming, but once the chattering started, he’d find a quiet spot.

Pete’s song was clearly from Neil Young (“It’s better to burn out than to fade away”), while Bill Frisell’s “Good Dog, Happy Man” might well have been written for Max.

This is my Lord-of-the-Manor shot taken in Saratoga Springs in 2008, with Max posing nicely (as always) and Pete staring down squirrels (as always).

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I have written before about the trek across the US to come back to BC that August. Max, having lost his brother, watched as strange men emptied the house. He slept beside our airbed for a few days in an empty house, drove with me 8 or 9 hours a day for a week, staying in a different motel every night. He stopped eating, and I was worried that he wouldn’t make it, and that all the grief and disruption was just too much. In the end, I think it was the teeth-cleaning he’d had at the vet before we left that caused his gums to be sore, and only very wet food was manageable. Here was the set-up as we left Saratoga Springs…

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…and here we are in Ellensburg, Washington having a break during the trip:

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This was when I started to notice new noises from him: he and Pete had always constantly snored and sniffled during the night, but now he occasionally took deep gulps, and often made a deep grumbling sound. He’d never barked much, and with Pete not around to wind him up, we were not surprised that he was quiet. He barked only twice in the last 18 months: once when we deliberately incited him, and once out of the blue when we were in the back yard. Obviously the growing tumor was affecting his larynx and his oesophagus, and although he always loved to eat, it became more difficult.

He made it to 13 years and 8 months: a good age for a dog, and he had a great life. We promised Alex a dog when he moved to Alberta in 2000 and a notice in the local paper for free Border Collie-cross puppies seemed about the right price.

Max was chosen from the cardboard box that the lady brought round, but when I got home and heard that there was only one puppy left, we called the lady back. Pete was the runt of the original litter, but increasingly he asserted himself as the alpha male, and Max was happy to tag along. Max was no pushover, however, and knew how to stand his ground. He did this with Charlie the cat, and they co-existed very well, but Pete was forever curious, and received several cat-swats as a result, to the point where he was fearful of being attacked in his own house. At feeding time of course, a truce was called…

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Max had his share of odd habits:  we had a floor-length mirror by the front door, and Max would always stop and take a good look at himself every time he passed by. He would fetch a ball as long as someone was willing to throw it, and he was a champion swimmer, fetching sticks thrown a long way into deep water. Here they both are at Moraine Lake State Park, New York, during Easter 2012…

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March 11

Max passed away quietly today with the help of the vet, and his ashes will join Pete’s in a nice spot on Mayne Island, with a few grams scattered in a quiet corner of Burgoyne Woods in St. Catharines, where, during their active years,  they chased squirrels and ran free almost every morning.

This is the last picture taken of the both of them together in 2012, heading off to some new adventure.

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Happy trails.

SkyTrain

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Whenever I need to go to downtown Vancouver as part of my work, I use the SkyTrain from Scott Road, where there is plenty of parking for $3 a day, and that is where I found myself last Thursday.

I joined the long queue to buy a parking ticket at one of the 3 machines, one of which, it seems, always fails to read your credit card, and who carries cash anymore?

One elderly gentleman was tying up a machine with his struggles to understand what to do and how to get his card read, and a nice young woman was tying up the next machine while she looked over to help him. She ended up buying him his ticket, since the machines do not read debit cards. Rather than getting crabby and impatient, people in the queue seemed genuinely interested in the little scene ahead, and were equally as impressed as me by the generosity of the young woman.

Last Thursday started with quite a lot of fog, but by the time I was on the train it was lifting along the Fraser River and as we traveled west through the suburbs.

There was something about the day: it wasn’t raining for starters, and was shaping up to be bright and sunny and warm. It was a time of day when most of the passengers were clearly heading into work in the city: they were all freshly scrubbed, quiet, polite, immersed in books and mobile devices, but also aware of others, stepping out of the way as needed etc. Many people had headphones on, but none so loud that you get that bothersome tinny racket that spills out, so it really was quite peaceful and…well…civilized.

As the train wound its way through New West, Burnaby and East Vancouver, I got a good view of the variety of neighbourhoods, commercial and residential, some richer than others, but all (it seemed on this day) to be at peace, and although even the nicest gardens can look a bit scruffy at this time of year, everywhere seemed to be in order, and calm.

It reminded of Japan, or Germany, and I would imagine Scandinavia: countries where the culture and circumstances always seem to lean towards higher expectations for order and a personal sense of responsibility for looking after what you have. “Conservative” in the original sense of the word, a sense now sadly lost.

(I don’t often think of Canada as being neat and tidy: there is so much space that things spread and sprawl so easily, and city planning has been non-existent until quite recently. I always chuckle when Americans talk fondly about Canada as being so clean and safe and well-organized, even when they have only been to Toronto! And when the planners do get involved you can end up with contrived and sterile spaces like much of Coal Harbour, though not so much at False Creek, where more of a balance has been achieved. In East Vancouver, if you are looking out of the right hand window travelling west, there is a neat cob shed in one of the back yards: quintessentially East Van, scruffy but purposeful.)

With the mountains revealing themselves and the great vistas to the south of the Fraser River estuary, I was reminded that most other cities pale in comparison with Metro Vancouver, and on this day, quite out of the blue, it seemed to me to be magical. A wave of contentment came over me: I felt blessed, in the way that W.B. Yeats put it in Vacillation:

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

That such lasts about 20 minutes is about right, because, in sharp contrast to that mood, my mind drifted to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and the astonishing opening sequence where, between the blades of grass in the perfectly manicured lawns of the nicest of neighbourhoods, there exists a continuous life and death struggle in the insect world.

Likewise, when flying into Metro Vancouver, you look down and everything in miniature looks civilized and wonderful, but you know there are heinous crimes and injustices going on between the “blades of grass”: some individual, some societal; some we like to talk about (and which inspire us to dress in gaily-coloured T-shirts as we run for the cause), and some we do not like to dwell upon too much.

The sense of contentment was also dashed by reading a few sensationalist headlines of murders and other local crimes in the free daily rag they hand out at stations closer to the city, and when I arrived at my meeting, I found out that others who were driving in would be late because of a pedestrian fatality at a key intersection.

Still, those moments on the SkyTrain, of happiness and of a sense of community with my fellow passengers and with the region we live in, are what I will remember: the dark stuff we will always have with us.

Shortbread

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This is a somewhat recycled blog from New York in 2010, but, like many holiday traditions, it is still all true even on the West Coast, where fitness and yoga pants are obligatory. Here goes….

There was a great Leon Russell song, “Sliding into Christmas”, that was one of my favorites; it was a sad song about being alone for the season, and seemed to sum up my ambivalence about this time of the year. High expectations tinged with the sadness that they will never be met.

I don’t need to reiterate all the issues and stresses about how this holiday amplifies and brings into focus the joys and sadness that we experience all the year, but one can easily get a bit weepy and/or silly. For those who have lost loved ones this past year, it is especially difficult, and for those with new arrivals and new friends, it will also be very special.

After this weekend on Mayne Island with 2 daughters (the other is in Sochi, so lots of Skype-ing), I am off to Ontario to visit my son, who is finishing (very slowly) at Brock. It is his turn to stay there with GF Jessica in St. Catherines, so, I must burn a few Aeroplan points, or miss out. There are lots of old friends in Niagara too, and so far I have 5 holiday dinners lined up between December 23 and December 27.

I’ll be back in time to curse the neighbours’ fireworks on New Year’s Eve (because they upset the animals, plus I will be in bed right after 9 pm after watching 2014 come in in New York on a  time-shift TV channel).

In 2010, the CBC asked Canadian celebrities to describe what Christmas means to them, and one just talked about her “annual Christmas canker sore.” I missed the context, but I know what she means: It arises from the intense period of stress coupled with eating really badly, all for the sake of “tradition.”

I am not sure what drives people to dig out recipes that require, as far as I can tell, only three main ingredients: flour, sugar and fat. Sometimes, there’s some chocolate or some flavor added. This is very bad news for me: I am a celiac (so, no wheat flour), a borderline Type 2 diabetic (so, no sugar) and, at my age, concerned about cholesterol (so, no fat). Despite that, I have an obligation to contribute to the general bonhomie and the quality control of all the baked goodies, so I cheat on my diet, put on weight, avoid going to the doctor for a few months (and thus hide from his recrimination), and often get a canker sore from the stress of such worries, and from the lack of enough fresh vegetables.

Interestingly, this need to bake fundamentally unhealthy food at Christmas bears no relation to people’s size or shape. Even the slimmest and trimmest of my friends cook dozens of cookies for the inevitable cookie swaps, and all manner of sweet bars and pies. I have noticed that these compulsive but skinny bakers don’t actually eat anything – they nibble the corners of a few items and then leave the rest on their plates. Have you seen how much food ends up in the waste bin at Christmas parties by those hoping to impress people like me with their patisserie skills, but who don’t actually indulge themselves?

One very slim colleague has given me a bar of chocolate which weighs, I am not kidding, about 5 lbs. And in the School of Business office (which I have to pass through every day) there is a tradition of faculty members bringing in chocolates or some sort of holiday treat for the staff, so the kitchen looks like a display at Walmart. I of course do my best to help out in keeping the pile down. (For those faculty who don’t deliver any goodies, now you know why you always get timetabled with the early morning or late evening classes.)

This “tradition” of unhealthy food manifests itself in its fullest glory with shortbread. Some people brag about their SUVs, or their power boats, or they intensely support their favorite football or hockey teams, and often can’t keep quiet about their children’s achievements, but even the most modest and restrained of my friends cannot resist not only offering me their shortbread, but also will unashamedly insist that it is the best they have ever made, and – implied or plainly stated – it is therefore the best I will have ever tasted.

I am cornered. With that introduction, what am I to say? Denise is part of this blood sport among shortbread artists, so it can be awkward when I am offered some else’s product in front of her.

And I have to say, and maybe I just have a very dull palate, they all taste the same! How special can shortbread possibly taste when the bakers have only three ingredients to play with? Sure, you can burn or undercook them, but aside from that, it’s hard to tell much difference. (I know I’ll get angry responses to this from the shortbread enthusiasts.)

Having got that off my chest, I can now relax and slide into the season somewhat less stressed, and maybe even with some vegetables.

Can someone pass the (chocolate dipped) broccoli please?

Happy holidays.

Asia

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I have been travelling with the BC Government’s Trade Mission to Asia over the last ten days. While ostensibly promoting BC’s natural gas exports, there have been lots of discussions about many aspects of our relationships with China, South Korea and Japan (the 3 countries of focus on this mission).

This is the first such trip I’ve been on and, aside from the obvious benefit of meeting with potential international partners and investors; it is a good opportunity to get some serious face time with government, industry, union and educational colleagues from BC. It is amazing how much work you can get done at a networking event, and I have a long list of people and ideas to follow up on when I get back this week.

It started in Chengdu, which is the last big city going west before you hit the Himalayas.  I visited South West University for Nationalities, which has a mandate to primarily serve 55 minority nations in China (the most well-known to us being the Mongolian, Tibetan, Manchurian and Yi). A lot of effort is being made to preserve cultures and remove barriers to full participation in Chinese society, though I have friends who scoff at any such effort for the Tibetans, declaring it to be tokenism. One does wonder, when visiting the magnificent Tibetan museum on campus, where the sacred texts and artifacts came from and how.

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The faculty in Sociology and Psychology were very engaging, and would not be out of place at KPU where we also work hard to understand and support our many diverse populations.

The food of course is always amazing:

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Then by train to Chongqing, which is huge, and where the mission put on a great show. Here is a shot of old China in front of the 1950s’ style, which in in front of the new China: there are more construction cranes in the skies above the cities than you can count.

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From Chongqing to Beijing, this is where most of the signing of agreements occurred. We signed two agreements.  The first one with the Beijing University for Chinese Medicine, a very large and serious place, and there are lots of opportunities for collaboration in research and programming with them. The second agreement was with Taiyuan University of Technology, where we can see all sorts of possibilities.

From there to Zhengzhou and about an hour outside is a new polytechnic university in Xinxiang, where we shared a draft MOU on professional development for Xinxiang faculty and staff.

The last stop in China was Shanghai, where I stayed in the older, very European influenced area in a former English concession.

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I also sampled a very new, sparkling and rich area of the city on the other side of the Yangtze River: this is the part that everyone focuses on these days, and the wealth and the luxury are overwhelming.

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Finally, for me at any rate, we departed Shanghai and headed to Tokyo, which I love. Despite the doom and gloom we hear a lot about for Japan post-Fukushima Daiichi, things looked pretty good.

Everything works in Japan, and the investment in infrastructure (transportation, education, health, etc.) is evident everywhere. Of course, Japan carries the largest public debt anywhere too, but the debt is its own, and the Japanese certainly get a lot for it.

Aside from the trade mission events, I visited Toyo University, with which we have an agreement for the exchange of students, and the first two students from Toyo joined KPU this year. Here I am with some of the international students in the “English only” zone.

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And with Dr.Takemura, president of Toyo University.

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Every town has a shrine, and here I am with my guide, Mr. Nishimura outside the Hakusan Shrine, where people come to pray for good luck when writing exams,etc. We’ll work on one for KPU……

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Rain

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I am praying for rain this coming weekend. I hope it isn’t just me who has noted that there are 2 sweet spots in the year when pretty well all the major leagues are playing, which means that TV (depending on your cable or dish subscription package) is saturated with options for couch potatoes. The rain will ensure that my viewing is not interrupted by the call to rake leaves or to go for a long walk on Crescent Beach.

The fall sweet spot is best for me because it is in late October, when I can officially test the Halloween candy before we start handing it out, along with the usual salty snacks and my preferred beverage – a good quality cider.

So, assuming the world series doesn’t wrap up in 4 games, by October 29 we’ll have the MLB, NHL, NFL, MSL playoffs, CFL ,PGA,  NBA  plus all that college football. All we are missing of course are any women’s sports (the Women’s MSL finished in September) and college basketball. I am not a basketball fan anyway because it frustrated me so much as a boy (too slow and too short) and I was penalized whenever I bumped into anyone, but never the reverse.

I had a friend from Kentucky who lived in northern Alberta and he had one of those big satellite dishes, and with the right subscriptions, he could basically watch every college and NBA game at almost any time of day or night. He probably still does, but now with a smaller dish and in HD. It really can be an obsession.

By way of justification, I like to think that what I am watching is real: people really are, in real time, doing all they can to achieve something. Almost nowhere else on TV is this true. Games are (despite the occasional odd calls by referees) decided by pure skill and strategy or by some extraordinary fateful stroke of luck. Well, and technology now of course. The ability to review each contentious play in football has, I think, improved the game, although there are some serious calls that are not reviewable, presumably because they are purely based on the ref’s judgement.

Then there is the other technology: in football there are headsets, constant communication between those watching from above, those on the sidelines and those playing. There is also the constant evolution of footwear and padding and gloves and athletic wear etc. Do these all make a difference? If they do, is this fair? Malcolm Gladwell has written about some of the hypocrisies in our finger wagging over the use of performance enhancing drugs: should there not also be a level playing field for the equipment and other technological and non-human assets?

Did I tell you about the time I was at a Buffalo Bills game and a transformer blew up, leaving no electricity (luckily it was an afternoon game in an open stadium, and the beer taps still worked)? It was eerie watching the game with no announcements, no replay screen, no stupid music and ads, and no technology on the field to aid the players. It was like the old days I suppose, and people in the stands had to start explaining what was going on to each other.

Anyway, despite all this, and the rare cases of game fixing, I do believe that I am watching very skillful and highly trained athletes engaged in real struggles, and, by and large, this is some of the best entertainment you can get either live or on TV. Yes, I know I have written before about the occasional discomfort I feel when team sports seems like a proxy for war, and when the behaviours of athletes and their supporters are aggressive and nasty and inappropriate, but the overall value outweighs the misgivings, for me at least.

There is also the matter of those who have the skills, and those who talk about them. Anyone can parody the NHL player who is interviewed between periods on “Hockey Night in Canada” or after the game in the CFL or NHL. They have a series of clichés they blurt out which are entirely predictable because the questions are also predictable and inane: “You just scored the first hat trick of your career: how does that make you feel?”, so I usually skip those parts and top up the cider and snacks.

And the pre- and post-game analyses are not terribly engaging either. There are not many athletes who can speak intelligently and creatively about the game, so I don’t know why they end up being commentators and pundits. Ken Dryden was an exception, and Denis Potvin was always articulate, so why do we end up with the likes of Don Cherry, or (in the NFL) Bradshaw et al.?

It leads to the matter of “skills”, which is the topic du jour in the politics of education these days. I write this in between meetings of the national college, institute and polytechnic association and the national university association here in Ottawa. The colleges have hosted a national skills summit, with representatives of various employer groups, and with speeches by government and party leaders. There is a general swing of the pendulum towards supporting programs and institutions where you are taught skills: how to do stuff, as opposed to institutions where you are taught how to talk about doing stuff. (This is my very crude distinction, and the truth is much more complex, but this is blog, not an encyclopedia, so bear with me).

Interestingly, the meeting offered by the college group reflected the institutions’ focus on “doing”: start early, crash through multiple sessions, stay on time and on message, and have a well-organized onslaught onto the Hill to spread the good word to our MPs and Ministers. The university group, on the other hand, starts (mercifully) not at the crack of dawn, and has fewer but longer sessions with much discourse (ie “talk”) and voluminous background readings.

Luckily, both groups realize that skills do not just include manual abilities, but also the skills of creating and communicating and collaborating, which are also ways of “doing”, and are important in any career or indeed, in any life. And then there is thinking, which is a tricky one because often you can’t see it happening until the result of the thinking is evident.

One reason I shifted to chemical education from research was that I could only think in reciprocal space very slowly and deliberately, whereas I was surrounded by those who could switch from reciprocal space to real space on a dime, and that sort of intellectual agility is often essential in order to solve very tricky problems. Doing it as methodically as I can manage simply does not get you to the answer: you need some capacity and speed in your thinking in order to get over the intellectual hump. (Luckily I think I can do this in other areas that are important to my current work). Only when a solution appears do you realize that a colleague has been thinking so well.

This is why the rhetoric about “useless degrees” versus skills training is saddening. The competencies that a person needs to be a successful at work and as a citizen are well documented, and they would be a unique blend of doing and thinking and talking for each person, each of whom has natural abilities which we in education should identify and complement by nurturing the others that are needed.

Of course, none of this necessarily addresses issues of a person’s values or character, which we in education only impact accidentally. I’ll think more about this during the commercial breaks this weekend, though the forecast is for sunny skies throughout. Darn.

Reality

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I hate reality TV: it is obviously contrived and scripted in so many ways, and after a long day of actual reality in all its beauty and horror, the last thing I need in the evening or weekend is more of it, contrived or not.

The one type of show I do like is when a family agrees to live as if in another era: as crofters in 19th century Scotland for instance, without power or transportation. Everything has to be done by hand including the raising of food and providing your own entertainment.

(Of course there has to be a camera and sound people and continuity and “best boy” and a gaffer and all the other mysterious roles that you read in the credits. No doubt they take shifts by living at a nice hotel with all modern conveniences nearby. I assume the same is true of any Survivor show. It must create some awkward moments and lots of temptation for bribery to smuggle in candy bars etc.)

This came to mind as I read the “Diary” feature in a recent London Review of Books by Rebecca Solnit. She wasn’t comparing life of today with such extremes as Scotland in the 19th century or some uninhabited island in the South Seas: she was comparing life today with life as it was pre-1995.

This is the first time I have found someone who has the same date in mind as I think about the impact on my own life of the digital age. In the 1980s I was using computers a lot during my research at SFU, but it was all so big and clumsy compared to systems today and very specific to the institution and to my research. The idea of easily accessible and personalized computing was not at all widespread. We worked with a colleague in New Zealand in the 1980s, and all the communication was by snail mail even though we were using one of the biggest computers in Canada to analyze data.

In my case, the realization that the internet was not just a tool for researchers and governments and large organizations came in 1995 when the World Wide Web interface started being used widely enough to create a tipping point. There was no going back, and the progress in the less than 20 years since then has been astonishing.

But what ­was life like when we relied largely on snail mail and the telephone? Well, Solnit believes that, despite all the affordances of modern communications technologies, life has become much faster and much more fragmented, especially because time itself is increasingly chopped up. When there are no large blocks of time left to devote oneself to reading and thinking and engaging, life itself can be poorer in certain ways.

The idea of the weekend has disappeared for me, despite all the struggles of my fore bearers in the 20th century to create time for family and other non-work interests. I have to work at least the equivalent of one day each weekend, and in between I check 3 e-mail accounts and Twitter etc. regularly to keep up. I had 2 colleagues on holiday recently, one in Morocco and one in Florida: no matter, they were on e-mail if I needed them.

Solnit sees hope in the “slow” movement, where people are taking a new interest in the ancient crafts of growing your own food and making stuff from scratch. She sees such movements in the context of the overwhelming forces of governments and corporations as “laughable, but heroic” and “they articulate the value of that world outside electronic chatter and inside a more stately sense of time”.  She could have balanced that with the fact that there are now plenty of examples of ethical and sustainable businesses that do quite well, reflecting a wider interest in getting back to basics. Of course there are still those smug people who will use their large SUVs to pick up their grain-fed, organic turkeys this Thanksgiving…

I did a quick tally of some of the losses and gains of my life before and after 1995. The gains:

  • Being able to Skype with my kids as they work around the world
  • Shopping and banking on-line, both of which I hate in person
  • The jokes: I have one on my office wall of a man at a party with one of those plastic collars you put on dogs to stop them licking their surgical stitches, with the line: “It keeps me from looking at my phone every 2 seconds.”
  • The way technology can initiate what Solnit calls those “dances of democracy” we see breaking out across the world
  • Linking way back in time to lost friends through social media, though there is also emptiness afterwards: if you can’t attend the reunions and actually spend a decent amount of time reconnecting with them in person, what’s the point?

The losses:

  • Spam
  • Serious distress when it doesn’t work

(Example: I wanted to renew a prescription, but my pharmacist told me that I had to register for BC Pharmacare in order for my private provider to cover the cost, even though my earnings disqualify me from any BC Pharmacare benefit. “All you have to do is go online and register and then give your provider your registration number.” OK. Whatever.

So, Sunday morning, 5 am, I am in the mood. I go on to the Pharmacare site and find the right page and there is a checklist: they want my health number (fair enough), my SIN (well, OK), my net taxable income for (wait for it) 2011, and all the same information for my wife. So there I am at 5 am, padding around trying not to wake people, searching through file boxes for our tax returns from 2 years ago, then rummaging through my wife’s purse to get her health card etc…finally, I get it all together and fill in the form online: the usual 2 or 3 error notices because I am hopeless at getting all the boxes filled in correctly and then….SUBMIT!  10 seconds later (it is about 6 am by now and the dog is staring at me, cross-legged, hoping I will let him out) I get the message that the system is down due to routine maintenance….well, of course it is: every IT department does its routine maintenance very early on Sunday morning, specifically to minimize disruption for everyone except me. There was no ability to save all I had input, so I had the whole business to do again later in the day. Do you agree with me that the digital age has introduced all sorts of new levels of complexity that we never had? Not only was life slower before 1995, it was much simpler I am sure. But I digress…back to my list.)

  • Addiction and attention spans: Solnit cites a Boston Globe article on Carnegie Mellon research that students who took exams with their phones on, and were interrupted with texts from the researchers, scored 20% less than those who turned their phones off. Even more shocking is the fact that adults in the work force can only make it to about 11 minutes before checking their phones. And here’s me thinking…11 minutes, who can last that long?
  • Privacy: well, that’s shot
  • Concerts: it’s a nightmare trying to see the stage when all these phone screens are waving about trying to capture the moment, while actually missing it completely of course.
  • People with headphones on, all the time: “an IV drip for noise”, as Solnit calls it. It is spooky walking about with zombies who are aurally out of it.
  • Being less well informed: this may just be me, but  despite being wired and wireless in every possible way, the variety of choices I have allow me not to actually listen to, watch, or read the daily news. I have had it with pretty well any new stream – radio, TV, print or online: it has become a sound nibble world with only expanded headlines for content and the addiction to market share driving everyone to the lowest common denominator. The news is often depressing and numbing, and the way it is presented makes it more so. I’d rather wait 2 or 3 weeks for the often more thoughtful analysis of the “better” magazines.

So, I have weaned myself off of having to know the latest developments. I rise at 5am, and do not turn on the radio: I have about an hour of silence while I eat and read, then my iPod is on shuffle while I exercise, another iPod (also on shuffle) in the car, and then Apple TV at home, so I avoid all advertising and news.

So, why am I listing this as a loss, you ask? Well, because then I have to listen to people who (realizing I am uninformed and am thus an empty vessel longing to be filled) get great satisfaction from haranguing me at length about what they find interesting and newsworthy.

  • (fill in your own)

I write this in between the Fall convocation ceremonies at KPU, and feel silly and petty, having listened to some of the stories of students who have struggled to succeed: my annoyances and mild nostalgia pale in comparison to their issues. But I shall work on my pitch for a new reality TV show:  a family trying to figure out how to live well in the conditions of pre-1995 Canada.