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.

Advertisements

Guilty Pleasures

We all have them. Chocolate. Soap operas. Romance novels. Ice cream. Trashy reality television shows. Tabloid newspapers. They’re called “guilty pleasures.” Mostly innocuous stuff but, perhaps, not the types of things you’ll readily mention to strangers or casual acquaintances.

One of my personal favourites is detective novels. I used to read a lot of the “classics” like Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man series with Nick & Nora Charles) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye).

Over the years, I began enjoying many of the later authors in the genre, which include John D. MacDonald, Robert P. Parker and more recent practitioners such as Robert Crais and Louise Penny, among many others.

But, in my opinion, there’s one particular novelist and one specific “detective” who stand above the rest. The author’s name is Lawrence Block, a Buffalo, New York born writer who’s lived much of his 76 years in New York City and sets many of his novels there.

Block has written several different series, a humourous one about a gentleman burglar named Bernie Rhodenbarr and a more recent one about a hit man called simply “Keller.”

All of the series are entertaining in one way or another, but if Block did nothing else but create one particular character, that would have been fine with me. His name is Matthew Scudder. To say he’s “flawed” would only begin to poke at Scudder’s many issues.

When the series started back in 1976 – nearly 40 years ago – he was an alcoholic, ex-NYPD detective who’d left his wife and two boys. He admits to taking bribes, sleeping with prostitutes, covering up crimes and much more during his time on the force. He makes the decision to quit the NYPD after accidentally killing a young girl when he was off-duty and had been drinking.

The first few novels in the series are good but, other than Scudder’s many less-than-savoury habits, aren’t particularly memorable. Ironically, the whole enterprise really takes off when the character, who now gets by as an unlicensed “detective” who helps out friends for money and lives in a seedy Hell’s Kitchen hotel, wises up and quits boozing, joining Alcoholics Anonymous.

The story goes that, at this point, Block had decided to abandon the series because he didn’t think there was any future in the story of a dry alcoholic. It goes to show that sometimes we’re not the best judges of our own talents. Far from being over, Scudder’s story had really just begun to be told.

Much of the next few novels deals with the reformed drunk’s agonizing attempts to remain sober. You’d think that learning about someone’s efforts to find his next AA meeting or trying to overcome the pull of alcohol everywhere he goes would be pretty dull stuff. On the contrary.   Instead, Block creates one of the most multi-layered, morally-conflicted humans you’re likely to encounter in fiction.

On top of that, he’s some kind of detective. Dogged. Determined. Brilliantly analytical. Able to take the tiniest most insubstantial thread and keep pulling on it with his mind until a twisted, unsolvable case is put to bed. As one of his former coworkers on the police force described him, he’s like a dog with a bone.

But, having created a great character is only part of Lawrence Block’s attraction. He also happens to be a spectacular wordsmith. And he does it with seeming effortlessness, a true sign, in my mind, of a very talented writer.

Much like Chandler or Parker in their prime, his writing is spare, his imagery always on the money. As the New York Times Book Review put it: “Bulls-eye dialogue and laser-image description,” calling his characters “almost real enough to touch.”

I rarely re-read books. Without exaggeration, I can count on one hand the number I’ve read more than once. But, that hand does not include Block. I have read the entire Scudder series, many of them more than once.

And a few years back, I decided to make it my mission to purchase each of the books in order, one or two a year, and take a run at the entire 17-volume series, just to experience the pure joy of the character that Block created so many years ago.

What a pleasure that’s been. I’m only seven books into my journey of rediscovery and I’m loving every minute. I could probably knock off each one in an evening but, instead, I’ll usually take at least a week to pore over every page, savouring the dialogue, reintroducing myself to Scudder and all his acquaintances, and learning to love this amazing, twisted, tormented character all over again.

I’ve never written to an author before, but I’ve often considered dropping Block a note, just to thank him for creating these mini-masterpieces. Maybe he’d appreciate it, as he’s hardly a household name and has never become anything close to being wealthy for his efforts. Or maybe he’s a snooty snob who would be too good to care what others think of him.

I’ll never find out because I never want to spoil the enchantment and the mystery behind both Block and his wondrous creation. Like discovering the secret behind a magic trick or the recipe for a perfect dish, sometimes, it’s just better not knowing.

Approaching the age of 80, it’s hard to know how many years Block still has with us or how many more Scudder novels he has in him. The last one came out in 2011 and he’s only written three in the past 13 years, so the end of the line could be near. That would be heartbreaking news for a devoted fan like me, but all good things end someday.

In the meantime, I intend to savour every moment of this guilty pleasure, taking snack-size pieces of Block’s delectable goodies whenever I hunger for the unmistakable taste of Scudder.             Whatever your guilty pleasure, I hope you get to enjoy it for many years to come, as well. Life’s too serious not to take a few moments every once in awhile just to enjoy it. Grab a piece and take a giant bite whenever you can. Delicious!

 

 

 

 

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.

Have A Great Weekend!

You don’t have to go back too many years to remember when the majority of workers had weekends off. Search your memory banks and you can probably recall sitting on the back deck with your feet up, enjoying a refreshing beverage, putting the work week behind you and letting your mind drift off to Never Never Land. Zzzzzz.

Where was I? Oh, right – weekends. Well, unless you’re one of the few fortunate souls who still works Monday to Friday from 9-5, those days are long past. In addition to the normal busy parts of life (family functions, charitable endeavours, kids’ sports activities, etc.), most of the world is now burdened with a variety of tethers that tie them to their jobs 24/7, even if they’re far away from their physical workplaces.

In the “old days,” they used to say certain types of work required people to be “on-call.” What an antiquated term that seems today. Now we’re all on-call, around the clock, wherever we are, even if we’re, technically, on vacation.

Some of that may be a requirement of our employment, but much of it is self-inflicted. It’s our choice to carry our smartphones or other technological umbilical cords with us at all times, glancing at them like Pavlovian dogs every time we’re summoned, whoever is beckoning us. We can’t seem to turn them off – and most of us wouldn’t be inclined to do so whether or not we had the choice.

It’s bad enough that most of the non-stop interruptions that keep us from doing something useful with our lives involve Facebook updates (“I just bought a hat!”), tweets (#cleaningthesink), selfies (me and a lint ball), YouTube videos (Cat licks paw!!!), or whatever.

It really starts to get sad, though, when all roads inevitably lead back to our jobs: checking our emails, making notes to ourselves, calling the office, dealing with customer concerns and, of course, actually working from home for 10, 20, 30 or more additional hours a week.

At some point, we all need to shut it down and give our weary brains a much-needed snooze. In a Scientific American article from last fall entitled Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime, author Ferris Jabr says, “Throughout history people have intuited that such puritanical devotion to perpetual busyness does not in fact translate to greater productivity and is not particularly healthy.”

Instead, we should be searching for ways to disengage ourselves from work, rather than trying to perpetually add more to our overflowing plates. Quoting an essay from The New York Times by essayist Tim Kreider, Jabr says: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.

“The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

How very true. Jabr adds, “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.”

As well, just what are we doing with all that additional “work time?” Not much of any true value, to be honest. Quoting a 2010 study of 1,700 white collar workers from the U.S., China, South Africa, the U.K. and Australia, Jabr says, “On average employees spend more than half their workdays receiving and managing information rather than using it to do their jobs.”

It’s easy to offer advice on how to consolidate or eliminate much of our “busywork” but, in the long-term, how effective will those efforts be if we don’t make our own commitment to downsizing our lives, resisting the temptation to peek at our electronic devices whenever they call out to us, choosing not to spend that extra hour or ten at our workplaces, deciding not to sacrifice our nights and weekends to “catch up” on our mountain of neglected employment spewage and, generally, making a choice to put leisure time ahead of our jobs.

Or maybe all of that is some unrealistic, out-of-date fantasy. Have we come so far in our evolution that we’re ready to give up all the things we’ve always cherished and that have provided us with an antidote to our jobs?

If so, perhaps it’s time we rewrote that 1981 Loverboy classic, Working for the Weekend. In today’s frenzied world, maybe it’s time to come up with some lyrics that truly reflect where we’re at today. In that case, we’ll just retitle the song, Working on the Weekend and be done with it.

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.

 

Back To The Future

Ronald Reagan. It’s been years since I thought about the 40th President of the United States. However, in one of those odd coincidences that happen so frequently in life, I was reminded of Reagan recently after watching an Oscar-nominated movie and reading a popular 2013 novel.

The movie is Dallas Buyers Club, which tells the horrifying story about the outbreak of the AIDS virus in early 1981, coincidentally, the first year of Reagan’s administration. The film details the struggle to identify and treat the first victims of AIDS. It’s a sad, sad story of fear and prejudice and ignorance, some of which was propagated by Reagan himself.

Ostensibly, the President refused to utter the word “AIDS” in any of his speeches until 1985, during his second term in office, despite the fact that it had become an out-of-control epidemic by that time. In 1981, there were just 159 reported cases of the disease. By the time Reagan left office in 1989, nearly 90,000 Americans had already died of AIDS.

As the movie relates, during those first few years, the U.S. government dithered and delayed, eventually setting up blind clinical trials that dying AIDS sufferers would have to wait for a year to start. By then, if they were still living, they would have only a 50/50 chance of being prescribed the untested drug AZT. If they weren’t in that fortunate group who received the drug, they’d get a worthless placebo, instead.

Dallas Buyers Club relates the story of two very different victims, one an emaciated redneck played by Matthew McConaughey (who knew this guy could actually act?) and the other a flamboyant transgender male/female, played superbly by Jared Leto. The unlikely pair of victims join forces to purchase illegal, experimental drugs from various parts of the world, creating their own “cocktails” to help prolong their lives.

The other 80’s touchstone is the novel The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. The book centres around a group of young people who come of age during the Reagan administration. One part of their lives deals with the sudden appearance of the AIDS virus and its effects on the members of the group, one of whom becomes involved with a victim of the disease.

Twenty-five years after he left office, Ronald Reagan routinely scores near the top in surveys about “Most Admired Presidents” and many still consider him to have had a greater impact on American life than almost any U.S. leader in the 20th century. His supporters point to the restoration of American morale following the Vietnam War, the great wealth accumulated by many, the collapse of the Soviet Union and numerous other touchstones that occurred during his administration.

On the other hand, Reagan’s tenure also saw the national debt soar, relations with Iran and other Muslim countries ruined, a massive build-up of defence spending, the attempted destruction of unions and, of course, the aforementioned devastating effects of Reagan’s inattention to the AIDS virus.

Added to that, in my opinion, there was a transformation of America into a less caring, more fearful, more isolated nation, one that’s only been made worse by subsequent Republican Presidents, including Reagan’s Vice President and successor, George Herbert Walker Bush and Bush’s son, George W.

For those who never supported Reagan, he’s considered a B-list actor (one who co-starred with a chimp in the “classic” Bedtime for Bonzo), an eccentric geezer, and a dunderheaded buffoon who championed absurd projects such as the cartoon-like Star Wars defence program, which would have seen billions or trillions of dollars spent trying to shoot enemy missiles out of the air. It also led to the President’s popular nickname, Ronnie Raygun.

Rather than looking at him like a friendly, doddering old uncle, they see him as a mean-spirited tool of the rich and powerful who gave generously to the wealthy through his failed Reaganomics program, a simplistic economic system that anticipated a trickle down of wealth to the poor and middle class, something that never happened.

Instead, Reagan’s policies sowed the seeds for an America where the rich got richer, the gap between the haves and have-nots widened, mistrust of foreign countries grew and fear became the norm in American life. It also paved the way for creepy characters like the Bushes and Dick Cheney to build on their own wealth and power at the expense of average citizens for much of the last 30 years.

In the movie and book’s descriptions of living with the AIDS virus, Ronald Reagan’s true colours shine brightly. During his tenure, the primary goal in life was to accumulate great wealth, at the same time ostracizing those who were different, promoting fear, buckling under to the religious right and ignoring anyone who didn’t fit into the President’s narrow definition of what it meant to be an “American.”

In Reagan’s United States, the AIDS virus was considered to be God’s punishment for those whose lives didn’t conform to what was considered “normal.” It was a tragic, despicable view that ended up killing tens of thousands, many of whose lives might have been spared if Reagan had kept his eye on the physical health of his country, rather than just its wallets.

A friend reminded me last week of a quote from an unknown source that says, “People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.” Too true.

Put on as many pairs of rose-coloured glasses as you want. No matter how hard you squint, you can’t hide the fact that this popular president did so little to help average citizens, as well as the weak, the poor, the sick or the challenged. Instead, he promoted the stockpiling of wealth for those who were already well off – at the expense of the people who truly needed his help and compassion. In my mind, that’s nothing to be admired.