Friday, June 15, 2012

O Brave New World

Miranda: O brave new world / That has such people in't!
Prospero: 'Tis new to thee.

                                            - The Tempest (V.i.183-184)

Three people were shot and killed at the University of Alberta shortly after midnight. News on this story is still breaking. Also, my eldest daughter becomes a teenager today, so I've been mentally processing this story in the context of the world she is growing up in.

I first found out about the incident this morning through Twitter. I suppose I could have got the news watching TV or listening to the radio, but my usual morning routine is a cup of coffee and going online to check email and a few of my favorite blogs. Despite its simplicity, Twitter is a breakthrough in communications; anyone in the world can know instantly when something happens. There is a "six degrees of separation" element, where someone you follow can retweet someone they follow, and so on. In my feed, the first mention of the shooting was a retweet of a reporter's post which came in at 1:20am, less than an hour after the incident. By the time I woke up several people I follow has also retweeted the news so, on Twitter at least, it was hard to miss.

Around 11am the police held a press conference and released the name of a person of interest. Within a few seconds this was all over Twitter, almost like an Amber Alert as there is a manhunt ongoing. A few minutes after that people were tweeting this person's Facebook page, Twitter account, and even his profile from a dating website called Plenty of Fish. The speed at which this information has been discovered and shared is amazing. And of course, we are all psychoanalysing this person based on his tweets and profile pictures. It's not quite a lynch mob, but there are similarities.

It appears that the shooting occurred during an armed robbery, and the victims are all employees of the armoured car security company that was servicing the ATMs in HUB Mall on the University campus. I have to admit, and I mean no disrespect to those affected by the killings, that when I learned about the robbery aspect of the tragedy I was in some way relieved. The awfulness, the horror is still there, but at least we understand the motive and are not left wondering why. I lived in Montreal during the Polytechnique massacre in 1989 and the reasons for that tragedy were incomprehensible. When an unexpected trauma hits, I think we feel disoriented while we try to somehow fit these shocking new facts into our understanding of the world. Being able to connect the dots helps. Having no understanding of why a madman decided to target 14 women made the Montreal massacre that much more traumatic. Maybe it's as simple as knowing the shooter wanted money, and isn't looking for more victims. We hope, anyway - he's still at large. (Also, the Ecole Polytechnique killing spree lasted about 90 minutes from Marc Lepine's arrival to his suicide. I wonder how differently those events might have gone in the age of smart phones and Twitter.)

As this story was unfolding, there were some complaints by students about - well, I'm not sure, I guess they weren't notified properly, or quickly enough. Enough that the U of A responded to questions on their website updates, explaining that the Crisis Management Team was activated and how their decisions were made. In this case they were assured by police that the suspect was no longer on campus. Two things struck me here, the first being that to me the speed and quality of communications has been excellent. I'm old enough to remember when word-of-mouth and the radio were the prime sources of breaking news. Now all you need is an internet connection and you can know something virtually as it happens. If you're twenty and you grew up with this technology, your perspective is different.

The other thing I noticed was that here we are right in the middle of a developing crisis with many unknowns, and people seem to be questioning the actions or lack of action of the U of A. The crisis team apparently did not want to alarm students needlessly, and their information at the time was that there was no longer any danger on campus. Some students expect everything instantaneously, and also don't understand imperfect decision-making in the fog of war. This is a generational fault line. On the older side there is an underappreciation for the connectedness of technologies and the expectation of on-demand information that the younger group has known most of their lives. The younger generation has little experience in any sort of crisis, and does not always appreciate that sometimes you have to do the best with what you have. Slow but pragmatic vs. immediate but demanding.

Well, Miss, this is the brave new world in which you're coming into your own. Technology changes, and sometimes people change as a result. Bad stuff happens, but remember we're just a bunch of people mainly trying to do the right things. Happy birthday, sweetheart.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Zero Tolerance

A local high school teacher was recently suspended for giving a grade of zero to a student who did not hand in an assignment. There is a little context, but the absurdity of it is right there in one sentence. The background is that many schools and school districts are implementing "no zero" policies that prevent a teacher from giving a grade of zero. Part of this movement has to do with well-meaning educators, who feel that grades should be a reflection of what a student knows, and it is unlikely a missed assignment means the student has absolutely zero knowledge of the subject. Also, when grading assignments mostly in the 70% - 90% range, a single 0% can dramatically lower the overall mark to the point where the student may feel it is pointless to try to salvage the year. There are some less noble incentives as well, such as artificially propping up school averages (which can impact funding) and high school completion rates.

The Edmonton Public School Board does not have any specific guidelines on zero grades. But the high school in question does, which the principal has every right to implement and enforce. In this case the teacher has been reprimanded several times for violating the No Zero policy, and his suspension was a result of not following the rules. When this story hit the newspaper it seemed to strike a nerve, and an online poll showed roughly 97% of respondents supported the teacher's right to hand out a zero grade (this was out of more than 13,000 votes, so I'd consider it a big enough sample to be accurate). Many teachers wrote in support of the no zero policy, many others in support of zeroes.

My daughter's junior high has grades of A, B, C and D. No F. The corresponding percentages show that a D ranges from 0 (wait - what?) to 49 percent. Back in my day, that was an F. There are also indicators for "unable to assess" and "incomplete" among others. My guess is the unable to assess means the student didn't hand in his work on time. But it looks like you can be a C student with a 50% average, which is a form of grade inflation. The C earned today isn't worth as much as a C from 20 years ago, but it is treated as equivalent. Maybe this is why the minimum high school averages required by universities keeps going up. Which probably encourages more grade inflation to keep up - a vicious circle. As average grades get higher and higher, the impact of a zero is even more noticeable.

Grades should be measuring actual student achievement, not potential. If a student has mastered the subject material but does badly on a test, do we add up the right and wrong answers, or should we change the C into a B because we know the student is capable of better? Certainly at post-secondary schools (and for the rest of your life) your grade depends on how well you perform, and high school students should be held to this standard as well. I fully support the teacher for giving out a zero, especially since he does it reluctantly and only after several warnings. I also support the school board for suspending the teacher, as he violated a clear condition of his employment whether he agrees with it or not. Actions and consequences.

The zero grade issue is part of a larger trend in our society. We want nothing but success; failure is not an option. The biggest example of this is the bailout mentality in the financial system. Essentially, banks and other financial companies do stupid things that lose so much money they should be bankrupt. But instead of punishing incompetence with failure, these institutions are rewarded with large loans that ultimately come from taxpayers. In the moment of crisis the fear of "systemic failure" justifies keeping all these interconnected banks solvent. But the lesson learned is that risky behaviour has no downside. It would be nice if you could go to Vegas and bet a stack of chips on a hand of hold'em, and if you lose the casino would give you more chips.

Iceland's rogue banks were among the worst ever for going in over their head with all kinds of risky, idiotic currency schemes a few years ago. When things went wrong (as they always will, when you go all in with your poker chips again and again) the people refused to allow their government to use their money for bailouts. Protesters with torches actually stormed the Althing - the Icelandic parliament, and forced a referendum where the people voted to stick the banks with their own losses. The banks imploded, investors were punished, and there was a lot of pain to go around. But four years later, look who has the best GDP growth in Europe. Iceland has gone from negative 6.6% growth in 2009 to positive 4.5% this year. The message here, ignored by pretty much every other country on the planet with a banking problem, is that you can punish bad behaviour, take your lumps, and move on. The world does not end. It's actually healthy.

Whether it's missing high school assignments or billion-dollar banks gambling on shaky securities, rewarding failure only encourages more bad behaviour. It is also an injustice to those who completed their assignment on time, or who managed their investments prudently. We ought to accept that there are winners and losers, that sometimes bad things happen, that a little rain must fall. We should live with and learn from failure. We need to be able to tolerate a zero now and then.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Guide to the Internet

I figure I must have been on the internet on average a couple of hours per day for the past few years. According to Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-Hour Rule this makes me an internet expert. So I feel I should share my wisdom and expertise freely with the world on how the internet works. Here are a few tips to help you survive and thrive on the internet:

  • If you are insane, paranoid or just plain wrong about something, the internet standard is to type in all capital letters so everyone will know your mental status right away instead of wasting time reading to find out.
  • Spelling and grammar are optional. Don't worry that some words, if misspelled, can mean something drastically different than what you intended. Readers should be able to figure out what you really meant if they sound it out phonetically a few times.
  • Never miss an opportunity to use cryptic abbreviations, even when there is no limit on how many characters you are allowed. Full words are so 2003.
  • Keep friends and family in the loop with frequent Twitter or Facebook updates about your meals, wardrobe dilemmas, sores that won't heal, what TV show you plan on watching later, and so forth.
  • An easy way to keep undesirable readers away from your site is to use a paywall.
  • Make people fill out a registration form to be able leave a comment. Only those with a burning desire to get their point across, or who have lots of time on their hands, will follow through. This should keep more reasonable people from watering down a lively debate.
  • If you can figure out how to set up a blog, everything you write there will automatically be more important. Because you're a blogger.
  • Increase website revenue by creating advertisements that move around the screen, so your reader will have to have sharp reflexes and a steady hand to dismiss it without clicking through. And the smaller the "quit" box the better. A transparent background helps confuse the line between ad and content.
  • If it's on the internet somewhere, it is a fact. This is especially true in the field of natural/alternative medicine.
  • Spellcheck replaces the need to carefully reread anything you type. Don't waste valuable time by doing both.
  • When in doubt, use the "reply to all" email feature. Your recipients can decide whether the content is appropriate for them or not. 
  • If you need to post a link, don't spoil it by explaining what the link is. Most people enjoy a good mystery, and have the time and patience to see where it leads.
  • If you can't see or hear who you are communicating with, traditional manners and courtesy do not apply. Rant, scream, call people names, do whatever you would never do if you were face to face. Think of it as the internet equivalent of shouting profanities at another driver when your car windows are rolled up. Unburden yourself, you'll feel better!
  • If you receive an important message which urgently needs to be distributed to as many people as possible, it is bad karma to stop and check
  • You must spend a few hundred dollars a year on a smart phone. For those times when you are not at home or at the office or asleep - your child's Christmas concert, for example - you will need a way to be connected to the internet in case that important message arrives. Be sure to turn on the location feature so the internet knows where you are at all times.
  • Don't just post articles and stories in a single, drab block of text. Make it fun! Break things up by inserting ads, links to other posts, and mouseover popups to explain basic concepts like "weather". Anything longer than one paragraph should be broken up over several pages.
  • People often ask not to have email updates when really, deep down, they want them. Send these people emails just in case.
  • Grab attention by having a video play automatically when people least expect it. Outmoded icons for "stop", "pause" or "mute" should be avoided - use something a little less predictable.
  • Social media sites are where normal humans go to interact with others. Do not worry if you are often alone in a dark room while doing so, it's perfectly healthy. 

You're welcome.