Packing It In

Life has changed a lot in the last 50 years. Technologically, we’ve gone from hard-wired telephones and physical communication modes to an unlimited universe of advanced electronic, mobile, and Internet devices. Despite all those technological changes in our lives, perhaps our societal attitudes have evolved even more.

Think of how dramatically our thoughts about gay rights, abortion, drinking and driving, privacy, climate change, public safety and other big ticket issues have been altered over that time.

If you’ve ever watched the television show Mad Men before, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Set in the early 1960s, almost every scene in the program involves someone either a) drinking alcohol b) cheating on their spouses or c) smoking in a venue where it would be prohibited today.

What brought the last point to mind this week was a photo I noticed of a diplomat sitting in the White House with then-President John F. Kennedy back in 1962. Tucked in the very corner of the photo, sitting inconspicuously on a coffee table, is a fancy glass case loaded with cigarettes.

To anyone born in the last 20-30 years, the thought of being able to smoke in the White House, let alone an airplane, movie theatre, doctors’ office, hospital or restaurant, is something totally foreign.

Today, it is not just illegal, it’s also socially unacceptable in many circles. Ostensibly, JFK was a cigar smoker in private and his wife Jackie was a heavy cigarette smoker but, even in 1962, this was not something generally acknowledged in public. However, that certainly didn’t stop the rest of North Americans puffing away wherever they pleased.

According to a 2013 University of Waterloo report on smoking, in 1965, over 62% of Canadian men were smokers and about 50% of all adults in this country smoked, the all-time peak in tobacco usage. Today, just 16% of Canadians are regular smokers and the number continues to fall every single year.

That’s a phenomenal change in less than half a century. Pressure by The Canadian Cancer Society, the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association and a variety of other public and private organizations has led to more and more restrictions on where people can smoke and what age you can buy cigarettes, along with packaging changes and warning notices, plus a whole bunch of other deterrents.

Health concerns have become better known. Workplaces have banned smoking. Governments have systematically bumped up “sin” taxes. The list of hindrances has grown to the point where smokers are not just a tiny minority, they’re ostracized for taking part in an activity that, in addition to being perfectly legal, continues to be a massive source of revenue for government, accounting for over $7 billion in tax revenue annually.

Most politicians wouldn’t be caught dead smoking a cigarette in public, partly because they know their political careers would likely be dead, too. In July 1984, I was working in the Press Gallery on Parliament Hill and found myself at a picnic one Sunday afternoon, chowing down next to Brian Mulroney, who would become Canada’s Prime Minister just two months later. Seeing the writing on the wall, he told me how he’d quit smoking a short time before that, as he realized how difficult being a smoker would be while holding the highest office in the country.

Barack Obama made a similar decision in February 2011 after 30 years of being addicted to the weed. And I’m sure thousands of other politicians made the same commitment, partly for their health, but mostly because it’s become a habit the majority of people not only don’t participate in, but actually frown upon, especially when it comes to the people they elect.

There’s an interesting article in the November 2014 issue of The Walrus by longtime magazine writer Lynn Cunningham about her lifelong attempt to quit smoking, part of which details her spending time in the Mayo Clinic’s Nicotine Dependence Centre.

After 50 years and numerous attempts to rid herself of the habit, nicotine had become a vice she knew she couldn’t overcome without serious help. Serious enough to travel to Rochester, Minnesota and pay $5,500 U.S. for the Mayo’s eight-day cessation program.

Cunningham talks about the lack of residential treatment options for those who simply cannot quit on their own – and the similar lack of public sympathy for cigarette addicts. Unlike other addictions for which there are numerous support groups available, she says reformed smokers rarely have such avenues.

She comments on the fact that many recovering addicts, especially alcoholics, are often chain smokers who don’t even consider smoking an addiction.

And she even talks about how many popular movies have been made about the struggles of quitting alcohol or drugs – when nobody would even think of making a blockbuster about someone who quit smoking.

“Popular culture basically doesn’t acknowledge smoking as a dangerous addiction, nor does it lend it the patina of romantic dissolution that might garner users more sympathy – or better treatment options,” writes Cunningham.

Last week, the Canadian Cancer Society said it is taking the “next logical step” by urging Health Canada to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes, according to a Canadian Press article.

It’s already the law in Australia, where cigarettes have been packaged in plain olive brown wrapping since late December 2012 and cigarette use has fallen sharply since.

The CP story says similar plans are in the works in Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and France. “Plain packaging is an important and logical next step for Canada to curb tobacco marketing, reduce smoking and save lives,” says Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst at the Cancer Society.

As more and more pressure is inflicted on Canada’s remaining smokers to quit the killer weed, it’s amazing to look back at the changes that have taken place since the 1960s. When the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association (NSRA) was formed in 1974, its founders had very modest goals. They hoped to convince a few people that smoking was bad for their health and, in doing so, make them consider the idea of quitting.

As Canada gets closer and closer to being a non-smoking society, the NSRA must look back and marvel at how boldly life has changed in their 40 years of existence. It’s just one example of the ways our lives in this country have evolved, but it’s a profound one.

It’s All In Your Head

(The following was written and originally published prior to the tragic August 9th shooting in Ferguson, Missouri and is not intended to reference that incident in any way)

Nuts. Psycho. Two sandwiches short of a picnic. What’s your attitude when you hear that someone is suffering from mental illness? The three examples above were among many given in a U.S. police training exercise about dealing with people who may be emotionally disturbed. The officers were asked to come up with pejorative terms for mentally ill people. Although initially uncomfortable, it didn’t take long for them to rhyme off the above examples.

Later in the exercise, the officers were asked for similar adjectives to describe people with cancer. About the worst they could come up with were “sick,” “brave” and “courageous.” Looking at the two lists side-by-side on a blackboard, the officers realized how distorted their viewpoints were about mental illness.

This is just one example of the problems police and other first responders have in trying to deal with those who may have mental disorders. They’re part of an absorbing article called, ‘Stand Down’ by John Lorinc, which appears in the July/August 2014 edition of The Walrus.

One focus of the wide-ranging article concerns the unique approach developed by the Memphis Police Department in dealing with incidents involving emotionally disturbed suspects. In response to a tragic shooting nearly 30 years ago, the MPD created the Memphis Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), a specially trained group of officers who are dispatched to emergency scenes and given over-reaching powers when a potential incident occurs involving a suspected mentally ill individual.

Lorinc describes the CIT model as “a progressive approach to de-escalate high-tension confrontations, improve police attitudes toward those suffering from mental illness, and divert them from the criminal justice system.”

Since its creation, similar programs have been developed in 2,700 regions in the U.S., including Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as in Vancouver and Hamilton. Almost across the board, there have been vast improvements made in the way police departments deal with such incidents, many of which can be prevented from escalating just by having trained people on-scene who know how to deal with mentally ill people.

With so many departments adopting such programs, one notable exception stands out from the list: Toronto. This is particularly disturbing given the number of high profile shootings in recent years involving Toronto Police Services and mentally ill individuals.

The most notorious happened just over a year ago when teenager Sammy Yatim was shot to death on a Toronto streetcar by Constable James Forcillo, who fired three times at Yatim, paused, then took six more shots at close range. Forcillo has since been charged with second-degree murder in the incident.

According to Lorinc’s article, between seven and 40 percent of people who police come in contact with may have some form of emotional disturbance. And there are often additional factors such as homelessness, addiction or people suffering some kind of emotional crisis.

Lorinc indicates that Toronto police deal with about 19,000 calls per year involving someone who’s emotionally disturbed. That’s less than one percent of all police contacts with residents in Toronto, far from the estimated seven to 40 percent quoted above. Lorinc surmises that, possibly due to inadequate training, Toronto police simply are unable to recognize signs of mental illness when they see them.

Based on numerous examples given in the article, it would certainly seem so. Rather than talking rationally and calmly to emotionally disturbed suspects, many of the noted incidents involve officers screaming and shouting commands at the people, often the worst possible approach.

At the end of July, Toronto police Chief Bill Blair had his contract turned down for renewal by the city’s Police Services Board. According to reports by the CBC, Board chair Alok Mukherjee said it was time for a change and there was a need for renewal.

The CBC said Mukherjee indicated what some of the changes might be when that “renewal” happens: “They will include the way that the police interact with the community; the way officers interact with emotionally disturbed persons and the mentally ill; and the need to transform the police service in a way that ensures it is effective and sustainable in the long term.”

In a not-too-subtle way, Toronto’s Police Services Board has confirmed what Lorinc and many others already believe – that the city’s police force is ill-equipped and poorly trained to deal with incidents involving those with emotional disturbances.

Lorinc talks at length about a coroner’s jury in Toronto that held an inquest earlier this year into three police shootings. Its recommendations echo many of those from the Memphis CIT training manual. These include a better knowledge of mental health problems, more training in verbal de-escalation techniques, and an abandonment in certain instances of what’s referred to as the “twenty-one-foot-rule,” where police are often expected to subdue suspects forcibly who are closer than that arbitrary distance and are considered a potential threat.

The rules need to change. According to Lorinc, during the coroner’s inquest, one police officer said about the shooting he was involved in, “It’s textbook, and I wouldn’t change a thing.” But, if that “textbook” is outdated and incomplete, why is it still being used?

Lorinc indicates that in that same shooting, one police officer actually called on his comrades to use some sense of calm. The author wonders why and concludes: “He likely had enough life experience to think beyond the twenty-one-foot rule, and to recognize what was in front of him: a man in crisis, rather than a police killer brandishing a potentially fatal weapon.”

Ironically, a local resident, out for a jog the morning of the incident, saw the confrontation and instantly recognized the situation for what it was: “It’s a cold winter day. The guy is standing there in a hospital gown, with bare legs. My first thought: this guy is in a mental health crisis.”

If an average citizen with no training determined what was happening instantly, why couldn’t a group of ostensibly “trained” police officers? And why did it take all of 72 seconds for them to end the emotionally disturbed patient’s life with their guns?

The bottom line is that we all need to be better educated about mental illness. That education starts with our frontline police officers.

How Slow Can You Go?

When you’re out for a typical drive, how fast do you travel? Under the speed limit? At the speed limit? Or over the speed limit? I’d venture to guess that most Ontarians would choose the latter, especially for those who drive on the provincial and 400 series highways.

So, if most of us are already driving over the speed limit, why doesn’t the government recognize that fact and increase the maximums? Crazy talk, you say? Not at all.

According to an editorial in the July 21st edition of Maclean’s magazine, that’s exactly what’s happening in British Columbia. The story explains that the province’s Transportation and Infrastructure Minister recently announced a wide range of changes to B.C.’s highways, including raising the speed limit on dozens of them.

Maximums are being bumped up by as much as 20 km/h on certain highways, with some limits jumping to 120 km/h, the highest in Canada. The article notes that the increases have been opposed by several groups, including the RCMP, the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police and environmental agencies. Their reasons include everything from safety issues to environmental concerns.

However, according to the article, “In truth, there should be no appreciable impact on safety or the environment. The changes will simply allow people to get where they’re going in a lawful and timely manner.”

Maclean’s says there is plenty of evidence showing that most people’s speed is a reflection of driving conditions and road characteristics, not posted limits. As well, contrary to what you might think, “Raising limits doesn’t produce faster average speeds; it merely makes lawful what is already common behaviour.”

The article goes on to say that it isn’t the speed itself that causes accidents – it’s the difference between the fastest and slowest drivers. “A large gap between drivers’ speeds is most often found in situations with artificially low speed limits and this can lead to dangerous passing attempts, unpredictable behaviour and driver frustration: all of which most certainly cause collisions.”

As proof, the story notes that the last time B.C. raised its speed limits in 1997 serious collisions dropped by 18 percent over the next five years, despite traffic volumes increasing by about one-third during the same period.

In deciding to raise the limits again this year, the B.C. government used a background report that states, “Speed limits should be set so that they include the behaviour of the majority of drivers and provide an appropriate maximum speed.”

The guideline used to determine the new limits is the typical speed travelled by 85% of those using the highway. By that measure, it’s pretty obvious that speed limits in Ontario are completely out of whack.

In fact, transport trucks in this province are mechanically limited to a maximum speed of 110 km/h – ten clicks over the actual speed limit on the 400 series highways. And, unless I’m totally oblivious to everyone around me on the 401 or 402, most of the passenger vehicles are already driving faster than those transports.        So, what is the province accomplishing by keeping the limits artificially low?

The Maclean’s article says the changes in B.C. will allow law enforcers to put their efforts into combatting the truly reckless drivers amongst us and, thereby, making the roads safer for everyone: “The moves should free police to focus their efforts on stopping the 15 percent of drivers who exceed accepted norms and behave in ways that are obviously dangerous to themselves and others: driving drunk, distracted driving, racing, etc.”

British Columbia and Maclean’s magazine are certainly not the only two proponents of an increased speed limit. A website called http://www.stop100.ca advocates increasing maximums to between 120 and 130 km/h on Ontario’s 400 series highways. More than 28,000 people have signed a petition on the website supporting the increase.

The Stop100 site includes editorials from several sources to back up their fight, including The Globe and Mail and The National Post, along with lots of information on various studies that support an increase in speed limits.

The website also notes that 120-130 km/h speed limits exist in more than 60 countries and states worldwide – and that many countries with higher speed limits have lower or similar fatality rates to Ontario.

What are your thoughts? Do you routinely exceed the speed limit, especially on 400 series highways? If so, do you believe you’re guilty of breaking the law and should be punished for doing so – along with the large percentage of other drivers who also typically exceed the maximum? Or do you think it’s time Ontario re-examines a policy that is constantly ignored by most of its drivers? Equally important, how do we drive home that point with our provincial government?

Reopening The Death Debate

Abortion. Capital punishment. Assisted suicide. If you were making a list of the top three subjects that no politician ever wants to discuss, those would probably score highest in Canada. Although most people probably won’t squawk if the status of the first two issues remains as it is, more and more Canadians are starting to murmur about the need for change on the matter of assisted suicide.

In a touching column in The Globe and Mail on June 27th, writer Gary Mason is more than just murmuring. He begins his article by stating bluntly: “One day, society will look back at the way we currently allow some people to spend their last stretch of time on Earth, and it will abhor us.”

Strong words, indeed. Mason admits he’s been on the fence about the issue in the past. “On one hand, I understand there are people whose lives have become essentially valueless, because of illness, tragedy or some other reason. Because of that, they would rather not spend their final days trapped in a world of misery, despair, pain and/or physical suffering,” Mason writes.

On the other hand, however, he states, “I’ve had trouble imagining signing an order to end a person’s life, especially if that person was someone I spent a lifetime loving.”

When his father got sick, he wrestled with both sides of the argument, despite the fact that his dad’s final years were entirely miserable. Still, he couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of voting to end someone’s life. In a gut-clenching moment, he admits, “Now, I realize how incredibly selfish that point of view was.”

What changed his mind? Mason says the ordeal of watching his younger brother die, someone he wasn’t even particularly close to, was what pushed him over the edge in the assisted suicide debate.

“When I first saw him in hospital, I barely recognized the person with whom I’d once shared a bedroom. His skin hung off his bones. Once one of the strongest, most robust persons I’d ever known, he might have weighed 36 kilograms in the final week of his life. As he lay in his room, he was often delusional. He drifted in and out of consciousness. He ripped out drips that had been inserted into various parts of his body as he flailed about. He could only mumble a few words, but the ones he whispered to me one afternoon I will never forget: ‘I want to die, Gary. Please let me die.’”

The situation got so bad, his brother begged Mason to steal a needle and do what had to be done. This was not some hypothetical debate among politicians or people sitting around a water cooler or arguing at a church meeting. This was a real person asking Mason to end his misery, to make a life-changing ethical decision and break the law. Mason realized, “His were precisely the circumstances that would qualify for physician-assisted death consideration in more enlightened jurisdictions around the world.”

Thankfully for Mason, he never had to make the ultimate decision because, after a few more days of torture, his brother finally passed away. But, that didn’t end Mason’s mental dilemma. Or his thoughts about others going through their own ethical conundrums.

“I know there are many Canadians who have shared similar experiences, maybe ones that have also reshaped their thinking on the question of dying with dignity,” says Mason. “There seems little doubt now that we are going to have a national debate on this matter, and this is only a good thing. The Supreme Court of Canada is set to rule on it for a second time. And of course, the province of Quebec has already gone ahead with comprehensive end-of-life legislation, which could also get challenged in the courts.”

Britain is also considering the idea of legalizing assisted suicide, notes Mason, and he believes Canada has to look seriously at how various U.S. states and other countries are dealing with the issue. He realizes what a minefield the debate may become.

“I’m not suggesting for a second that there is anything straightforward about this discussion. The question of whether the sanctity of life trumps personal freedom, or vice versa, is a complex and divisive one. It’s also vulnerable to histrionics, overstatement and oversimplification,” he comments. And weak-willed Canadian politicians are highly unlikely to put it on their “To Do” lists anytime soon.

But, the issue is not going to go away. In fact, it will only grow in the coming years. “As Canada’s baby boomers begin their grand exit, the demand for a debate on this subject is only going to intensify,” says Mason.

According to Statistics Canada, the average life expectancy for a Canadian male rose from 59 in 1920, to 69 in 1972, and now stands at over 79. Similarly, women’s life expectancy went from 61 to 76 to 83 over the same timeframe.

It’s wonderful that more and more people are living into their 80s, 90s and even past 100. What a blessing for those who are healthy, active and mentally vibrant. But what about those who aren’t? As Canada’s senior population continues to grow, the issue of assisted suicide will demand more and more attention.

At some point in our lives, we’ll likely all have to deal with this dilemma. How will our positions change when that happens?

For Mason, the shift was dramatic. “After witnessing the sad and mostly undignified end to my brother’s life, I know where I now stand,” he admits. No matter what your own stance, even if it’s a morally or theologically-based one, how will it hold up when you’re faced head-on with someone close to you who’s dying? Be prepared to find out.

Deep, Dark Secrets From Advertising Land

In one of my life’s previous incarnations, I worked for many long years in the field of advertising or, as news people like to refer to it, “the dark side.”

Unlike news, which is supposed to be factual, balanced and neutral, advertising is often pretty much the exact opposite. In general, marketing is frequently built on a foundation of hyperbole, half-truths, exaggeration, dubious claims and a host of other not particularly savoury building blocks.

Need proof? Do what I do every month and check out the ‘Selling It’ section of Consumer Reports. You’ll find a showcase of the most devious and deceptive advertisements submitted by readers. Nothing brings a smile to my face like the blatantly absurd marketing methods used by some businesses.

Of course, the smile fades when you realize those same ads are also directed at you, me and hundreds of millions of other North American consumers and that, no doubt, some of us have already been wooed by their outrageous ploys.

After originally being trained as a journalist, I crossed over to the dark side almost three decades ago and discovered, instantly, the fine line that exists being truth and whatever the heck you call some forms of advertising.

Early in my career, I remember talking to a client who sold major appliances. He showed me two refrigerators, a bland white one and another one that was some kind of off-white colour. The price tags on both were the same, but the off-white model had a large sign indicating it was $100 off. Wow!

The retailer asked me which one I’d buy and, being the rookie advertising clown that I was, I pointed to the model that was “on sale.” He laughed at my ignorance, saying they were the same model, but that no one would buy the off-white version, so he had slapped the $100 enticement on it and, voila, naïve consumers were jumping at the chance to pick up the “sale” model. Ka-ching.

Oh, the lessons I learned over the next several decades. Although the idea of “bait and switch” was outlawed years ago in Canada, it still exists to this day. The idea is to advertise a low-priced model of – let’s say – electric cat polishers. Kitty lovers will swamp your store looking for the bargain polisher, only to be told that the retailer is sold out, but that he’ll give you a sweet deal on the “super deluxe” cat polisher. You know, the one that has the bonus bottle of fur enhancer or three extra speeds (fluffy, super fluffy and ultra meow). Ka-ching.

When the government tried to clamp down on the practice by saying you had to have at least one working model of something in stock in order to advertise it, one of my clients actually put locks and chains on their “working models” and, when customers asked for one, they’d claim it would take them at least an hour to find the key to unlock it.

In the meantime, Sammy Sleazeball, their top salesman, would spend the intervening time trying to upsell the customer on the features of the top-of-the-line – let’s say – cordless sandwich assembler. Ka-ching.

And it’s not just local retailers who try pulling the industrial-sized ball of wool over your eyes. It’s the national manufacturers, as well. Recently, I was in a grocery store looking at the tempting selection of bacon (mmmmmm, bacon).

At the same time, another intrepid shopper was loading his cart with $4.00 packages of smoked pork fat (aka bacon), which were “on sale.” Awesome. And not a bad price, right?

So wrong. In case you haven’t noticed, two of the major manufacturers of sizzling breakfast meat (aka bacon) have recently reduced the size of their products from 500 grams to a mere 375, roughly one third less than the original portion. I believe it’s called the ‘new convenient size’ or some such bogusness. I guess it’s convenient because everyone likes to go to the store more often to stock up on stuff, right?

Anyway, do the math. A $4.00 price on the smaller size was exactly the same as the $6.00 price on the standard size sitting next to it in the cooler. So, my bargain-hunting fellow shopper saved himself exactly – let me figure this out – nothing (didn’t even need a calculator to do the math). Ka-ching.

On the bright side, he now has a freezer full of very convenient sized packages of strips-o-piggy (aka bacon), so there’s that.

I could go on all day with dozens and dozens of similar examples. Marketing experts have a million ways to extract hard-earned dollars from your wallet and, at the same time, make you think you just acquired the bargain of the century.

Back in 1958, a fellow by the name of Sy Syms (born Seymour Merinsky) started a discount clothing chain called SYMS Corp in the United States and coined the brilliant phrase, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” Although Syms passed away in 2009, that time-tested piece of advice lives on today.

Along with the phrase, “If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is,” it shows that you really need to work hard, be skeptical, educate yourself, comparison shop and don’t believe everything you hear before you blindly purchase your next – let’s say – automatic lint baller.

Buyer beware. The dark side awaits.

An Unfortunate Love Affair

Hockey. Maple syrup. Freedom. Nature’s beauty. Whining about the weather. There are so many things Canadians love. And then there’s the thing we love the most. It’s a little something called debt. We’re positively enamoured of the stuff, just can’t get enough and savour it so much we just keep adding more.

According to a recent Maclean’s magazine article by columnist Jason Kirby entitled Canada’s Fatal Attraction to Debt, our total household debt jumped from $360 billion in 1990 to over $1.7 trillion last year, a staggering increase.

What’s causing our insatiable passion for credit? It’s easy to point the finger in several directions but, honestly, there’s one overwhelming cause: low interest rates. Looking at a graph accompanying Kirby’s article, it’s amazing how closely a rise in household debt to disposable income has mirrored a similar decrease in five-year mortgage rates since 1990.

It’s absolutely undeniable that low interest rates have led to a feeding frenzy of increased debt. Kirby says it’s like watching a movie called How Canadians stopped worrying and learned to love the debt bomb.

Despite warning after warning that interest rates are bound to rise sometime soon, most of us have grown immune to such predictions. After all, the rates have been virtually locked at historic lows for so many years, anyone who forecasts an increase is generally dismissed. As Kirby says, “We’re pretty much at the point now where it’s just accepted interest rates will stay low.”

But, betting that will happen and, consequently, that we’ll all be enjoying what Kirby calls “essentially free money” for years to come is a dangerous risk.

The columnist gives a generic example of a young couple earning $100,000 and wanting to purchase a home with a 25-year mortgage. Using the accepted guideline of not devoting more than 32 percent of your income to housing costs, the couple would have been eligible to borrow $200,000 in the days of 10 percent mortgage rates, which, although it may seem hard to imagine for some, was roughly the average rate over the last 40 years.

Instead, with rates today hovering around three percent, that same couple would now be able to borrow $300,000, 50% more than in the past. If they did, they’d be paying roughly $1,420 a month. However, should rates increase to that historic 10 percent mark, their monthly payments would balloon to something like $2,700. If you’re a new homeowner, try to imagine how that would affect your life.

And, of course, the same holds true for everything we buy. As Kirby points out, “An era of low rates has desensitized borrowers to the risks inherent in carrying too much debt. A whole generation of young Canadians has come of age in an era when no bungalow, renovated kitchen cabinets or TV is ever truly out of reach.”

There’s little doubt that the entire world’s economy is one giant house of cards. It wasn’t too long before the recession hit in late 2007 that many countries, including the U.S. and most of Europe, were considered to have booming economies that, ostensibly, showed no signs of collapse. Then BOOM!

For a few short years, there were some tough reality checks where credit dried up, houses were repossessed and much of Europe was revealed to be a virtual economic sinkhole. Then things started turning around again and – voila – people returned to their same old ways.

In Canada, due to a highly regulated banking industry and some relatively prudent government schemes, we were spared the worst of the recession’s woes and some people took a small breather from spending like drunken, financially-lobotomized sailors. But, that tendency was short-lived and now we’re pretty much back to where we started pre-recession.

The one saving mercy for all of us is that interest rates continue to hold steady, long after it was predicted over and over and over by economists and other financial geniuses that they would rise. Now, even the most rabid predictors of interest rate increases are hedging their bets, saying it could happen in 2015 or the next year or the year after that.

It doesn’t much matter. As Kirby concludes so eloquently: “Central banks have consistently proven themselves incapable of spotting bubbles. It happened in the U.S. It will happen here. And when the consensus among economists, and more importantly, borrowers, is for rates to stay low, it’s a safe bet they’ll be proven wrong. The story of Canada’s love affair with debt has all the makings of a cliffhanger, and those who’ve overextended themselves are standing at the precipice.”

Don’t miss the surprise ending to this spine-chilling thriller. I hear it’s a real shocker. Or maybe not so shocking at all.

 

 

School’s Out

“No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks,” the great philosopher Alice Cooper once wrote. A recent experience where I watched a large family in a restaurant spend the majority of their meal cruising their smartphones led me to wonder how students in the digital age are managing to learn in a traditional school environment – when so much of their lives revolve around their electronic devices.

With the question of new teaching methods picking at my brain, I started searching for answers on the Internet. And, as so often happens, I ended up finding out much more than I ever wanted to know in the first place.

In the case of my search for teaching trends in the digital age, I stumbled upon a professor from the UK named Steve Wheeler. The educator recently wrote a three-piece series that commented on yet another article about three new emerging teaching trends. That article was written by Daniel S. Christian, an information technology instructor in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Now you see what I mean about already discovering more than I really wanted to know.

According to his original thesis, Christian said he believes that new teaching methods are being driven directly by the upsurge in online activity and identifies three key changes to support his argument.

The first trend is “a move to opening up learning, making it more accessible and flexible.” Christian says, “The classroom is no longer the unique centre of learning, based on information delivery through a lecture.”

Wheeler comments on Christian’s first trend by saying that this has been happening for at least the last decade. Classroom centred learning may be cost effective in terms of having a teacher deliver lessons in front of the class, allowing the students to reflect on what they might have learned and then testing them afterwards. But, is it still effective? With new technology, Wheeler says, learning can now take place anywhere and, more importantly, at the pace of each individual learner.

Of course, by taking teaching out of the classroom, we’re also introducing a whole series of other issues. As Wheeler asks, “Will there be a divide between learning that continues to rely on traditional learning spaces, compared to learning that takes place largely outside the walls of the traditional classroom? Moreover, if there is such a divide, will it be delineated by its cost effectiveness, its conceptual differences, or its pedagogical impact?”

Christian’s second trend involves “an increased sharing of power between the professor and the learner.” He continues: “This is manifest as a changing professorial role, towards more support and negotiation over content and methods, and a focus on developing and supporting learner autonomy.

“On the student side, this can mean an emphasis on learners supporting each other through new social media, peer assessment, discussion groups, even online study groups but with guidance, support and feedback from content experts.”

Wheeler wonders if teachers will be willing to voluntarily relinquish their position as the sole instructors in the classroom and become “co-learners.” He believes, “Some would feel justified in jealously protecting their positions as acknowledged experts and resist any calls to take a sideways step and let their students lead. Knowledge is power, and holding that position of power can be seductive.”

On the flip side, will students be willing to let their teachers into their personal digital world? “They are intimately familiar with the functionality of their devices, knowing how to use them to connect to, create and organize content. They are adept at connecting to their friends and peers too, but will they be willing to power share with their professors, take on greater autonomy and assume more responsibility to direct their own learning in the future?” wonders Wheeler.

Christian’s final changing trend in teaching centres around “an increased use of technology not only to deliver teaching, but also to support and assist students and to provide new forms of student assessment.”

Wheeler says this issue may be the stickiest of all, because learning and assessment are inseparable in education. Therefore, how do you reconcile digital learning methods with traditional grading systems? Wheelers reasons, “If students are relying increasingly on digital technology to connect them with content, peers and tutors, and to facilitate new, distributed forms of learning, then we should endeavour to assess the learning they achieve in a relevant manner.”

In Wheeler’s own classrooms, he often frees students from the confines of paper-based essays and allows them to submit videos, blogs and other forms of assignments. But how do you grade one form against another? In Wheeler’s case, he tries to determine equivalencies in effort, the sequencing of content and how well his students use the different capabilities of each technology. That’s a long, long way from having students take multiple-choice exams – and one that seems ripe for disagreements.

Whether we agree with Wheeler’s interpretation of Christian’s new trends or not, there can’t be any doubt that the way we teach our children is undergoing an extraordinary change because of the light-speed advancements happening in digital technology.

To return to Alice Cooper’s philosophical treatise on education: “Well, we got no choice/All the girls and boys/Makin’ all that noise/’Cause they found new toys.” New toys, for sure. And we’d better start thinking of more productive ways to make use of those toys if we intend to keep pace with the way we educate our children. If not, Mr. Cooper’s prediction that “School’s out forever” will almost certainly become increasingly true.