Archive for May, 2011

A number of years ago, as part of my job, I spoke to classes in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta about environmental education. I had the opportunity to speak to both science and non-science majors in 4th year Education. So, these were students who were on the cusp of advancing into the real world of teaching high school students.

My colleagues and I would use actual examples of environmental issues to demonstrate techniques to bring the environment debate into the classroom. In a number of our sessions, I spoke about climate change and the challenge of engaging students on this important topic.

At one of the sessions, after 10 or 15 minutes of discussion, a girl asked the question, “this Kyoto Protocol – what is it?”

I explained it was an international agreement to limit emissions of greenhouse gases.

Her next question was, “and why it is called the Kyoto Protocol?”

I answered that the protocol was named after the city in which the meetings had been held.

Which led to the next question; “and this Kyoto, where is it?”

(virtual face palm) “It is in Japan”, I replied.

“Oh” was her answer. I was now at the point of fearing she might ask where Japan was.

For me, as a geographer, this was horrific. I could almost understand not knowing about the Kyoto Protocol, but being unaware of the location of one of the most important cities in Japan was almost unthinkable. I didn’t say anything else in the class but this led me to consider what had happened.

Now I have to confess I have always been fascinated by geography and the natural sciences. To the point where in Grade 8 when I had not taken a book out from the school library during our weekly visit, my teacher demanded to know why. I replied that I had read all the books that I was interested in. In hindsight, that was probably not the most politically astute response but it was true – I had read all the science books that were of interest. The punishment was that a copy of Dickens’ David Copperfield was thrust into my hands and I was told to go away and read it. I dutifully took it home and left it on my bedside table until it was due.

So back to the Kyoto incident. On reflection I think there were a couple of issues at play here. The girl in the class is a member of the internet generation where information is easily accessible and in great quantities. But how do you filter all the information coming in? And everything is current and in real-time. So even before social networking, with just the internet, people had to deal with the speed of information being thrust at them and well as the quantity. As a friend once put it; “drinking from the fire hose”.

As a member of the baby boom generation, I was part of a revolution in communication called television. As far as I can remember, we always had a television in the house because my dad started fixing them as a hobby in the early 50s. In those days, owning a television was a big deal. Of course, it was black and white and the only signals you could get were through an antenna. And there were very few stations. But Toronto was in a unique position and I recall reading that in the 50s and 60s, the best television reception in North America was found in the Toronto area. We got the Toronto stations of course, but we also could pick up Hamilton and all the American network channels from Buffalo. And in special circumstances, when the atmosphere was just right, we could get stations from Rochester, New York and Peterborough, Ontario.

Me, my elephant and our TV (c.1955)

So I was in the first generation that grew up with television. When we moved to the suburbs, dad installed a 40 foot tower with a rotating antenna for even better reception. To watch a particular channel, you first had to rotate the antenna head (with a remote control unit that sat on top of the television set) until it lined with the station you wanted to watch. Rain or snow in the signal path could affect the quality of the reception but it was still very cool to have that much choice in terms of programming. And you have to remember we had channels 2 through 13 – that was it.

With television in its infancy, there wasn’t a whole lot of programming available in the early days. So a lot of what we saw, especially in the 50s, was movies, cartoons and shorts from the 30s and 40s. We were privileged not only to see what was going on in our current world, but we had an amazing window into the previous generation. We could watch movies from the dawn of ‘talkies’, the Saturday morning serials – short chapter-based films that originally ran in front of the main feature in theatres, and lots of cartoons.

And given that the Second World War was only seven years in the past when I was born, we got a very different view of history than we see now. I vividly remember cartoons that were made during the war picturing the enemy as grotesque stereotypes in ways that would be extremely politically incorrect today. But that was the context of the time – the war was still fresh in many people’s minds. Television gave us a broad view back in time whereas today, for many young folks, the 90s seems terribly far away.

I think the other issue at work here is when I was growing up we had television (with 12 channels), radio, newspapers and magazines as sources of information. Now with the net and apps such as Twitter, you can experience events almost in real time. But our capacity to absorb and process information hasn’t increased – it is the sheer volume of information that we have access to that presents problems. It may even boil down to a question of what is “basic information” today. In my youth, facts such as knowing that Kyoto was a city in Japan were basic information and taught as such. Now, I am not sure what qualifies as basic anymore.

Maybe the real “basic” skill we need is how to handle all this information in a way that makes sense and allows for informed decisions. Maybe knowing that Kyoto is in Japan isn’t that important but having the ability to decide if a fact is important is more valuable. We will see.


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It was a little busier than I thought it was going to be this weekend. On Friday, Jim got a call from the publicity director of the Heart of the City Festival who asked if we would be interested in doing an interview on the University of Alberta radio station – CJSR – to help promote the festival. So, on Saturday we headed over to the U of A campus to do the interview live. We were joined by the musical director of the festival. It was a very pleasant experience, made even more as they prefaced the interview by playing one of Jim’s songs; Sittin’ Here. One of Jim’s sons captured the interview and Jim has it over on his blog if you would like to take a listen.

Now, I had to chuckle when Jim explained that his son (with all the technology around us) recorded the interview by holding up a mike to the radio speaker. That takes me back 50 years when I had a tiny reel-to-reel tape recorder and used to grab music off the air so I could play it back later. In some ways, that was the dinosaur equivalent of an iPod – not real convenient, but it worked. Somethings just don’t change. But in fairness, we would not have a copy of the interview without it so thanks to Jim’s son for the quick thinking.

Don is out on the left coast for a couple of weeks. Jim asked if I would like to do the Carrot as a duo, which is something we had never done before. So we headed over to the Carrot on Saturday night. There were not that many people there given it was the long weekend. But many of the many regulars were there including the world’s biggest Neil Diamond fan, Rene. He plays a big Takamine 12-string and is a great entertainer. There were also a few solo artists. It was nice because there were just enough performers that we could do a second set if we wanted to.

Now I have a question here. Why do most solo singer-songwriters write and sing about the saddest things? It is like this inner pain that needs to flow forth and inflict the audience. As Bleeding Gums Murphy from the Simpsons once said, “The blues isn’t about feelin’ better. It’s about makin’ other people feel worse and makin’ a few bucks while you’re at it” (one of my all-time favourite Simpsons’ quotes).

Jim and I played, Sittin’ Here, Green Valley Monsters and Blueberry Pie. All this is pretty new to me because if Don is with us, I play bass on the first and last songs. Plus, Jim has asked me to sing Blueberry Pie so that was a first time for me on stage. For the second go-round, we did two more of Jim’s songs; Dream Automobile and Johnson Brown. I think we did pretty well and as Jim reported on his blog; his wife Wanda said our songs were the ones that people were tapping their feet to. I think that is pretty high praise.

Me and Jim at the Carrot

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From my one of my favourite web comics – xkcd

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We, as in the Magpies, got word that we have made the lineup for the 2011 Heart of the City Festival. We will be playing at 5:10 pm on Sunday June 5 in Giovanni Caboto Park. We are quite pleased that we have been given a 35 minute set. So if you are around on Sunday afternoon, we would happy to have you come down and have a listen.

In the meantime, I have been working on the audio from our extravaganza that we held in March.

This is a song by Don called Mousey. I am playing bass and Brian L is on drums. As has happened before, Brian the drummer had never heard the song before or was even aware of what was to come. Under the circumstances, I think he did pretty well. And it is not your standard love song.

Brian L, Don and me playing Mousey at the Magpie Extravaganza


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