I came across an ad in The New Yorker for a book called spark joy, an extended rumination on tidying. In the introduction the author summarizes her philosophy:

If you are confident that something brings you joy, keep it, regardless of what anyone else might say. Even if it isn’t perfect, no matter how mundane it might be, when you use it with care and respect, you transform it into something priceless. As you repeat this selection process, you increase your sensitivity to joy.

I thought of this today when looking for something in my filing cabinet: I came across a file folder labeled “Eatons Account” containing statements for an Eatons store credit card I had during the chain’s brief resurrection, under Sears’ ownership, in 2000.

The credit card stopped working when Sears shut down Eatons in 2002, and so the file folder contains 14 year old statements that I haven’t consulted since then.

Not only does the file folder not “spark joy” in me now, it didn’t back then (although that epic aubergine commercial the relaunched Eatons aired admittedly did).

I suspect that 95% of the stuff in my office and home falls into a similar category: kept around by its own inertia or by a vague promise of eventual usefulness (what if I want to find out how much that coat cost me at Eatons!?).

Given that it’s essentially spring outside, it might be time for some serious spring tidying.

22 Degrees of Separation

Thursday is shaping up to be an interesting weather day.

A low of temperature of -11°C and a high temperature of 11°C (it doesn’t get much better than that if you like things like that).

And every single weather condition in my weather app (the excellent Forecaster for Android): rain, snow, cloudy, partly cloudy and clear.

Seeing Yourself Differently with a Wide Angle Webcam

I bought myself a Logitech C930E USB webcam yesterday at Best Buy; my friend and colleague Ton Zijlstra is joining my Philosophy 105 class tomorrow via Skype, and I needed a way for him to be able to see the classroom and its students that was better than the built-in webcam on my MacBook Air, which has a field of view of only 38 degrees.

The C930E has a field of view of 90 degrees, and, because it’s an external camera, I can move it into the best position, mount it on a tripod (it has a built-in tripod mount) and hook it up to my Mac with a long USB extension cable.

I’ve been testing the camera for the last 24 hours to get used to it, and this has resulted in some interesting still photos (taken using the Photo Booth app that comes with every Mac).

First, this photo of Oliver and I taken yesterday afternoon in our living room.

I hung the webcam from the top of the curtains at the front of the room. Oliver’s standing on a footstool, which is why he seems so much taller than I am. You can see Ethan in the background skulking away before he’s called to appear in the photo. And, most importantly, you can see almost our entire living room and dining room. The photo weirds me out every time I look at it because it’s a view I never see otherwise (both because it’s from an unusual perspective, and also because when Oliver and I are in photos together it’s either because Catherine has taken them, or they are close-range selfies).

Living Room with new Webcam

Here in the office, this afternoon, I moved the camera, on a tripod, as far from my desk as possible, in front of the window looking back, and took a photo of myself in front of my workstation (a MacBook Air connected to an Apple Cinema Display on a Humanscale M8 monitor arm. You get a good sense from this photo of the digital (left) and analog (right) sides of the Reinventorium. Computers on the left; metal type on the right. 

The Office

I sent someone an email about ergonomics this week and in it I wrote, in part:

I highly recommend seeking outside support, especially regarding more general workstation-setup issues, as it’s almost impossible to diagnose and solve these yourself, mostly because you can’t see yourself working.

It turns out that, with an external webcam like this, that isn’t entirely true.

For example, here’s two photos a snapped with the camera a little closer to my workstation.

In the first one I realized (because I’d overcome the problem of not being able to see myself working) that I’m craning my neck a couple of inches forward when I’m working in my “natural” position:

Hunched Peter

If I adjust my posture slightly, and stack my head on top of my spine, I immediately notice a relief of pressure in my typing hands (because I’m not subtlety leaning on them), and a decrease of tension in my neck and shoulders:

Upright Peter

This revelation causes me to wonder whether I should have a live view of my workstation beamed to my screen so that I’m always more conscious of my ergonomics. If I beamed it to the web, in fact, I could ask my ergonomics person to pop in every now and then for a spot check.

I’ll report back tomorrow afternoon after class as to how the webcam works in a classroom environment.

The One Where My Weaknesses as a Teacher Emerge

As the terrain we covered in Monday’s Philosophy 105 class was teaching, learning, and the “university as a technology,” I started today’s class by showing the students the 1967 National Film Board film Summerhill, a DVD copy of which, by happy chance, arrived in my mailbox yesterday after I ordered it last week, not particularly thinking of this as the venue.

The film is a brief overview of the British school of the same name, a school where student-run democracy is at the core, and living trumps formal learning. 

I showed the film to emphasize the point that the way we teach and the way we learn are — or can be — under our control: if the university is a technology, it is a technology over which we have some dominion, even if we don’t realize it. Watching Summerhill was among the very few parts of my year at university that I remember in any detail: the film had a profound effect on me, and changed the way that I viewed my role as a student.

I can’t tell you much about the way the students felt about this film, because when it was over I ran head-on into one of my weaknesses as a teacher: I am no good at Socratic dialogue.

I’m not entirely sure why this is the case. It might be simply a general conversational-skills deficit. It might be an inability to feign interest. It might be that I’m not quick enough on my feet, and too uncomfortable with pregnant pauses. It may be a misunderstanding of the power relationship of Socrates to his students. It may be that Socratic dialogue isn’t all it’s cracked up to be anyway.

But it’s not my strong suit, and my post-film execution of it felt sort of like a bad date: other than a weakly ejected “how does the education at Summerhill compare the education you experienced,” the downbeat fell flat.

So we forged on, leaving the students to reflect on the film in their own quiet moments, unfettered by my Socractic fumbling. At least I didn’t prolong the agony.

For the second act, I presented, in relatively straight-out-of-the-boardroom Powerpointy fashion, a brief rumination on open data, my research interest du jour.

I led the students through a cut-down version of the “Cook’s Tour of Open Data” presentation I’ve made to everyone from Chief Electoral Officers to the Open Data Book Club, focusing on the story of PEI wind energy data and its possible uses.

I wanted to give them both a bird’s eye view of open data, and also an understanding of the importance of three of its core tenets: no copyright (I can do what I want with the data), no control (you can’t decide to give me the data or not based on what I propose to do with it) and no cost (the data must be freely available to all).

Open Data

With about 30 minutes left after this introduction, I split the class into three groups — using the representations they made of their own university experiences that they drew on Monday as both a guide to likely-good colleagues and markers for them to coalesce around — and tasked them with working together to come up with a way of taking an open data set of PEI electricity data (provincial load, % from wind energy, % from local fossil fuel) and representing it to the general public in a way that would positively modify consumer behaviour (lower consumption and shift it to times when the electricity was “greener”).

After 10 minutes of discussion amongst themselves, I asked them to represent their inventions on the whiteboard, and here’s what they came up with:





Each was novel, and an impressive feat given that they developed them collaboratively in such a short time.

I finished up with a reminder that none of their inventions would be practical if they couldn’t be backstopped by open data, something that, I hope, drove home the benefits of the open data approach.

As a final exercise, on their way out the door, I asked them to take a piece of paper and drop it in one of three piles to guide me in my approach to the next two lectures: on the left was a vote for “more of Peter,” on the right was “more of Us” and in the middle was “the balance so far is pretty good.” I told them the voting was anonymous, and I did, indeed, avert my gaze while they were filing out. All but one student left their sheet in the middle “the balance so far is pretty good” pile, which I will, indeed, use to calibrate my final two classes next week.


Watching Summerhill

To start off the second of my Philosophy 105 lectures today, we’re watching Summerhill.

Directed by Tessa Blake

I told a friend, at lunch the other day, of my sudden realization that it is my peers who are running the world now.

As if to reinforce this, our friend Tessa Blake directed this week’s episode of NCIS New Orleans.

Megalomaniacs & Magic Circles: The University as a Technology

Today was lecture number one of the four that I’m teaching this winter in Philosophy 105: Technology, Values and Science at the University of Prince Edward Island. Here’s how it played out.

I spent the afternoon yesterday – and a good part of the evening – developing a complex Powerpoint presentation wherein I laid out the terrain in front of us (open data, open source, open government, open society), provided something of a personal history for context, and ended with an assignment.

And then this happened:

Screen shot of Twitter exchange with Bonnie Stewart.

To which my visceral (self-directed) reaction was: 

Covering!? Oh my, what am I doing? I don’t even know these students and I’m already covering something?

This was, in a sense, a conversation with my 17 year old self, for whom the very idea of “covering the material” was anathema.

So I jettisoned the Powerpoint and, over 2 hours this morning, in the Atlantic Vet College cafeteria, I came up with a reworked set of slides, much shorter and with space for real dialogue with the students after the scene was set.

Which was a terrifying prospect.

I don’t know how to have a real dialogue with the students!”, I worried to myself. “What if they don’t say anything?”

Fortunately I had two allies in working through this terror.

First, 17-year-old-me reassured 49-year-old-me that, in the right environment and with the right setup, the students would rise to the challenge.

Second, I re-watched Johanna Koljonen’s introduction to the 2013 Alibis for Interaction conference and remembered that I, as the designer of the experience, had tremendous latitude in setting a situation where this would be more likely to happen than not. In Johanna’s terms, I could create a magic circle.

So here’s what I did.

I went to the UPEI Bookstore and bought 2 boxes of dry erase markers, reasoning that I could hand one to each student and, therein doing, welcome them, make eye contact, and share a sort of totem with them.

I titled my lecture Megalomaniacs & Magic Circles: The University as a Technology, positing that Philosophy 105, and the university that cradles it, are a complex technological system that we, students and teacher, are part of, affected by, both beneficiaries and victims of.

My goal was for the students to start to feel agency over their educational experiences, and to reflect upon their own power as actors in the education mechanism. As such it was an attempt to both explore some of the terrain of Technology, Values and Science while, at the same time, to begin to build a magic circle in which we could go on to dwell together in the days to come.

Megalomaniacs & Magic Circles: The University as a Technology

To begin, I talked a little bit about two formative educational experiences from my past: my semester at the Ontario Science Centre Science School (which essentially ruined me for formal education, so unusually participatory as it was):

Ontario Science Centre

And the year I spent at Trent University which, although bucolic:

Trent University

saw me ending up far too often in rooms like this (the Wenjack Theatre), listening to 50 year old professors droning on about something that didn’t particularly interest me:

Wenjack Theatre at Trent University

I then noted the irony that, 30 years on, I was now a 50 year old professor at the front of a similar lecture theatre in danger of droning on about something of no interest to them:

NRC Lecture Theatre at UPEI

I then referenced the tweet from the day before, the Robin Williams vs. John Houseman one:

John Houseman vs. Robin Williams tweet

By way of putting the Tweet in context I showed two film clips.

First, the scene from the 1973 movie The Paper Chase, the scene where Professor Kingsfield first encounters Mr. Hart:

And, second, the scene from the 1989 film Dead Poet’s Society where Robin Williams first encounters his class:

After watching each, I suggested that, while the two professors might be seen to be polar opposites, they are also of a kind: megalomaniacal educators convinced firmly in the rightness of their world view. I talked about the sad irony of almost everything else changing in the last 30 years except the tradition of the “megalomaniac educator” standing in front of their students, imparting their wisdom. 

This led, in my thinking this morning and in the lecture itself, to this follow-up Tweet, where I replied to myself:

Megalomaniacs vs. Magic Circle

But what of this “magic circle.” For that, I turned to Johanna’s explanation, as I could find no better:

That was a valuable 20 minutes of our time to spend, but I felt it worthwhile, as it set the scene so well for what came next: I invited the students to use their totemic dry erase markers to come up to the whiteboard, carve out a space for themselves, and try to represent, in words or image, their own experience of university education so far (for most of them they’ve been at it only since last September).

The Challenge of the Whiteboard

I am happy – and somewhat relieved – to report that they all rose to the challenge. Some eagerly and immediately, some after a few minutes to think and somewhat timidly. But everyone.

Philosophy 105 Students in Action

Their representations brought joy to my heart:

Philosophy 105 Student Work

Philosophy 105 Student Work

Philosophy 105 Student Work

Philosophy 105 Student Work

Philosophy 105 Student Work

Philosophy 105 Student Work

Philosophy 105 Student Work

Philosophy 105 Student Work

Philosophy 105 Student Work

Philosophy 105 Student Work

Philosophy 105 Student Work

Philosophy 105 Student Work

I asked each student to speak to their representation.

And they did!

Thoughtfully. Emotionally. With tremendous insight. 

My faith in them was established. And my worries that they would not fully participate, with the right setup, was for naught.

Using their work as a jumping off point, we finished up the session returning to the notion of the magic circle and, for example, the rules, implicit and explicit, that exist in the university lecture theatre.

We talked about how professors relate (or don’t relate) to students. How university education appears to cater to a subset of students who “get it.” About how, in the ideal, professors learn as much – or more – as students. I talked about my hope – referencing a graphic in Johanna’s slides – that in our short time together we would both emerge from our own magic circle transformed. All of our discussion was rooted in the concepts they surfaced on the whiteboard: that is what we “covered” and we could not have covered it without them.

We’re back into the circle on Wednesday afternoon.

Step One: All students get their own dry erase marker

If only the professor can write on the whiteboard, how can you have a true dialogue?

As a bonus, I discovered that there’s a 20% “staff discount” at the UPEI bookstore!

I also bought a bottle of dry erase cleaning fluid, because there’s no way we’re starting out with grungy whiteboards.

John Dale and the Small Island

The Guardian - Page B6 - February 20, 2016I got a call on Thursday afternoon from Dave Stewart, a reporter at The Guardian. He was writing a story for the business section about John Dale’s Breadworks and, knowing I was a satisfied customer, wanted a customer’s-eye view of the business. I happily complied.

The story ran in yesterday’s paper, and when Oliver and I stopped by Taylor’s Taters at the Charlottetown Farmer’s Market to pick up potatoes, carrots and cabbage, Garth and Peggy pointed it out to us. I asked them if I could borrow their paper, and I got my first chance to read the final story.

Toward the end of the story I’m quoted talking about why I like buying my bread from John:

I buy my potatoes at the farmers market every week. I like the fact that I can talk to farmers about the fact there is more than one type of potato, for example. I feel the same way about John. If I can have that relationship with all my food I think I’m in a pretty good place.

Ironically, it was Garth himself I was referring to there as the farmer from whom I buy my potatoes; he didn’t realize that when he read the story.

It is a small Island.