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Sir Ken Robinson

Last night I attended Sir Ken Robinson’s talk at Vancouver’s Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education. During my bus ride home, I was surprised to find that many people had been tweeting about the talk using the hashtag #sirkenyvr, with some even going to White Spot to meet and discuss in a Tweetup. The times they are a-changing…

Anyway, back to Sir Ken Robinson. Having watched his two TED talks, the RSA animate video he narrates, and recently read his book The Element (as mentioned in a quick review yesterday), I pretty much knew what to expect in terms of the content of his talk. Many of his ideas and anecdotes have been presented before, and I suppose that’s inevitable once you become a famous author. Even so, I felt like I got a lot out of this presentation and discussion, and was thoroughly engaged the entire time. I jotted down some quotes and notes during the talk, and will try to decipher these into coherent thoughts.

“Make education personal”

This is one of Sir Ken’s most frequently cited suggestions, and with good reason. Many students are disengaged and uninterested in learning because they’ve been presented with an Industrial Age one-size-fits-all model of education. Sir Ken referred to mainstream education as riding the ‘rails of conformity’, a phrase which brilliantly illustrates the convergent nature of our systems as well as alluding to the railway, perhaps the most recognizable and enduring image of the Industrial Age. In the digital age, we have the tools and capabilities to bring education back to its roots, so to speak, allowing learners to pursue their passions and develop themselves as human beings, rather than cogs in a system doing “clerical work”.

Human beings are not mechanistic

Similar to the argument presented towards the end of The Element, Sir Ken points out that human beings are organic rather than mechanistic creatures, and our systems of learning should reflect this obvious fact. It is tough to break old habits, and the remnants of the mechanical age are no exception. Our manufacturing, transportation, city structures, and yes, even our education systems were built on the backbone of the Industrial Age. We’re transitioning into the digital or electric age, and these types of transitions are disruptive. Marshall McLuhan noted in the 60’s that as we shifted to living in proximity to our neighbours through the instantaneous connections of the electric age, we were returning to a tribal culture unseen since preliterate man. Could it be that the electric age of television, computers, and the internet  is actually more natural and organic than the mechanical age of factories, steam engines, and railroads?

Marshall McLuhan in the early 1970's.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote that “We live today in the Age of Information and of Communication because electric media instantly and constantly create a total field of interacting events in which all men participate.” And he wrote this thirty years before any of us had ever used the Internet! He goes on to explain that “electricity is organic in character and confirms the organic social bond by its technological use in telegraph and telephone, radio, and other forms.” Much of McLuhan’s work was built upon the idea that each new technology is an extension of man, and the discovery of electromagnetic waves extended our central nervous systems beyond our bodies. If this is so, then Sir Ken’s suggestion to return to more organic metaphors for learning make perfect sense. The digital age provides us with the means of communicating with more speed and precision than ever before, and we’re truly becoming a global village – with the ability to view (in high definition) events happening around the world. We’re not becoming dehumanized by our technologies, we’re simply being provided with an improved means of communication which is actually more natural and organic than we might think at first glance. As McLuhan so poignantly said:  “The simultaneity of electric communication, also characteristic of our nervous system, makes each of us present and accessible to every other person in the world.”  In my opinion (which is quite contrary to McLuhan’s pessimistic view), this extension of our nervous systems and the improved communication that comes with it are great steps for humanity, and we should be embracing them in our classrooms.

The hidden curriculum

Sir Ken contends that in education, we “create problems not deliberately but systematically” which results in an “embedded structure of the curriculum” in which we segregate subjects, create disciplines, and then arrange them in order of importance. (His words remind me of Neil Postman at times.) He told an interesting story about a girl (I think it was his daughter but I might have missed that) who after finishing a dance class was asked “What did you get out of this class? Did you gain from the experience?” to which the girl replied, “I got a B.”  We’ve come to create a culture in which standards and grades are more important than personal growth and development, and the kids don’t know any better. What would John Dewey think?

The relationship between teacher and learner

In theatre, one can remove the curtain, the lights, the director, the script, the props, and even the stage, and still maintain the essence of theatre. For theatre is really about the relationship between actor and audience, and that’s it. Similarly, education is not about curriculums, policymakers, technology, textbooks, or even subjects – it’s about the relationship between teacher and learner. At its heart, Sir Ken points out that “education is about facilitating learning.” As Sir Ken so eloquently stated (and I noticed it was re-tweeted numerous times), “when kids walk in the classroom and you close the door, you are the education system.”

Sir Ken ended the night with a quote from H.G. Wells which emphasizes the importance of transforming education: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” The optimist in me wants to think we’re making great strides in the digital age, and that inspirational speakers like Sir Ken Robinson are leading the way for education to win the race, leaving the McLuhanesque pessimism predicting catastrophe in the dust.

Thank you Sir Ken Robinson for the engaging and inspirational talk last night.

Continuing to slowly make my way through Maria Popova‘s list of 7 Must-Read Books on Education, I recently picked up #2 on the list, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Sir Ken Robinson. It only seemed fitting to read it this week, as I am going to see the man speak tonight at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre.

Ken Robinson is perhaps best known for his TED talks (Do Schools Kill Creativity? and Bring on the Learning Revolution) and as the narrator of the brilliant RSA animate video, Changing Education Paradigms:


Celebrities and Creativity

In The Element,  Robinson gives us countless examples of famous (and sometimes not so famous) people and the struggles they endured on the way to finding their passions. We learn that Paul McCartney hated music class as a teen, Aaron Sorkin wanted to be an actor, and that Meg Ryan wanted to be a writer. We’re treated to stories of people who defied the odds and pursued their passions, including Simpsons creator Matt Groening, Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, and Fleetwood Mac founder Mick Fleetwood. At times I found myself getting a little bit tired of all the celebrity worship, although this format tapers off a bit towards the latter third of the book as Robinson begins to write at a more personal level. He provides some background about his own childhood and the hardships he faced in dealing with polio, realizing he would not be a professional soccer player, and then later excelling in school as a young teen, perhaps due to a fortunate change in policy in British education.

While the stories and interviews provide entertaining segues into the content of the book, the most enjoyable and rewarding passages come in spurts when Robinson goes into editorial mode, offering his views on particular topics. For instance, in comparing human beings to the rest of the species on Earth, Robinson notes that:

“Other species communicate, but they don’t have laptops. They sing, but they don’t produce musicals. They can be agile, but they didn’t come up with Cirque du Soleil. They can look worried, but they don’t publish theories on the meaning of life and spend their evenings drinking Jack Daniel’s and listening to Miles Davis. And they don’t meet at water holes, poring over images from the Hubble telescope and trying to figure out what those might mean for themselves and all other hyenas.”

For which he offers this explanation:

“What accounts for these yawning differences in how humans and other species on our small planet think and behave? My general answer is imagination. But this is really about the much more sophisticated evolution of the human brain and the highly dynamic ways in which it can work. The dynamics of human intelligence account for the phenomenal creativity of the human mind. And our capacity for creativity allows us to rethink our lives and our circumstances – and to find our way to the Element.”

It’s a valid point, and if my memory serves me correctly, is similar to the message conveyed in the final chapters of Thomas L. Friedman‘s The World Is Flat. Imagination is what makes us human, and gives us the power and capacity to progress and evolve. Robinson goes on to define “creativity as applied imagination” which I think is a very insightful way to put it. We can imagine in our heads, but it takes creativity to turn our thoughts into meaningful products.

Transforming Education

I was first introduced to the notion that our educational institutions (and many other industries) were built on the infrastructure of the Industrial Revolution in Don Tapscott’s and Anthony D. Williams’ Macrowikinomics. After a year in the education program at UBC, I’ve seen and heard this idea countless times in articles, lectures, and hallway conversations. Ken Robinson offers similar suggestions, noting that:

“For more than three hundred years Western thought has been dominated by the images of industrialism and the scientific method. It’s time to change metaphors. We have to move beyond linear, mechanistic metaphors to more organic metaphors of human growth and development.”

He goes on to offer a more organic metaphor relating to plants, farmers and gardeners: “The plant grows itself. Farmers and gardeners provide the conditions for growth.” The metaphor is quite similar to one offered by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown in A New Culture of Learning (#3 on the list), in which they suggest we should think of classroom culture as behaving more like a bacterial culture growing in a petri dish, cultivated by a teacher who acts as lab scientist, providing structure and conditions for growth.

Robinson believes that we face enormous challenges in the 21st century, and we are in need of a transformation:

“The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed – it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions. The key is to embrace the core principles of the Element.”

I found this book to be enjoyable and inspiring, even if some parts of it were repeating points we’ve all seen in his TED talks. I’m looking forward to reading more from Ken Robinson, and even more so to seeing him speak tonight.



Opinion: At least 20% of students’ readings should come from material which has been chosen by the students themselves.

Why did I choose 20% as the benchmark? I was partly inspired by Google’s now-famous employee policy, called “Innovation Time Off, where Google engineers are encouraged to spend 20% of their work time on projects that interest them.” This policy was responsible for staple Google products such as Gmail, Google News, and no doubt countless Android applications. When we pursue interests we’re innately interested in, we’re much more likely to gain something from the experience.

When students read what they want to read, they are more engaged in the material and chances are that if something interests them, they’re more like to put effort into learning about that topic, designing projects which reflect that learning, and without even realizing it, they’ll be developing related skills along the way.

And I’m not just talking about K-12 education. When you’re taking classes at a university and your professor gives you a list of assigned readings, just the fact that they’re assigned makes them unbearably burdensome to read sometimes. What if for some proportion of the assignments, we let students choose what they wanted to read? Professors could assign a few things to read, perhaps some online articles which can be commented on in a collaborative wiki format (with highlighting and digital sticky notes to boot!), and then let the remaining readings come from whatever the students read on their own time, for pleasure. Students could be encouraged to then apply what they were reading to the assigned readings, comparing, contrasting, analyzing, and evaluating at a level of engagement they don’t often reach when they’re simply forced to read something.

Reading for Pleasure

Do people even read for pleasure anymore? I’ve noticed in the past year of riding the bus in Vancouver, I’ve seen books slowly being replaced by smartphones, iPods, tablets, and eReaders. Many would argue that they’re still reading – the medium has just changed. And while I can certainly agree with this to some degree, I also agree with the multitude of writers who say that we’re losing something in our transition to the digital age. When we change the form of reading – we change the meaning of the words. It only seems natural that our books will become shorter, shallower, and more distracting – er, interactive. eBooks will have animations, links, and perhaps even advertisements. What does this mean for the future of class readings?

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m going to miss the dog-eared pages, the pencil marks and notes in the margins, and the serendipitous moments provided by used book stores. If Amazon, Google, or Sony can replicate those three things, perhaps I won’t have as hard of a time transitioning to eBooks.

[This last paragraph makes me feel like my grandma when she talks about growing up in the golden age of radio, before the advent of TV.]


 “Through the discovery yesterday of the railway, the motor car and the aeroplane, the physical influence of each man, formerly restricted to a few miles, now extends to hundreds of leagues or more. Better still: thanks to the prodigious biological event represented  by the discovery of electro-magnetic waves, each individual finds himself henceforth (actively and passively) simultaneously present, over land and see, in every corner of the earth.” – Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

McLuhan foresaw the level of connectedness this discovery of electro-magnetic waves would bring, and he did it when television was still a relatively new media. He made the majority of his fascinating insights in the 1960’s, decades before any of us would use YouTube, Facebook, or Wikipedia; before the words download and upload; and before Google and tweet were verbs. Do his ideas still have relevance in the 21st century?

Gary Wolf of Wired magazine wrote a cover story about the man in 1996, in which he interviewed McLuhan’s ghost using the Internet (certainly an apt medium for an interview with the ghost of the media guru). Wolf only poses the fictional McLuhan two questions,which are well worth the quick read. Another (much longer!) read, and perhaps the best introduction to McLuhan and his ways of thinking, can be found in a Playboy interview from 1969. As further introductions, the Wikipedia entries for his two most well-known books, The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media, are certainly fine places to start.

Last week (July 21, 2011) marked what would have been Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday, and I’ve seen a number of articles in the past few days about the eccentric English professor from Edmonton. People debate his legacy, argue his importance, and write him off as a bumbling eccentric who cashed in on the naive and impressionable public of the 60’s, but the more we progress into the digital age, the more we hear the validity of his poetic words.

“You know nothing of my work!” 

Who would be up to the task of writing a biography of McLuhan for the Extraordinary Canadians series? Fittingly, it was Vancouver’s Douglas Coupland. He has written a very engaging biography of the media theorist, entitled You Know Nothing Of My Work! (a line from McLuhan’s only movie appearance, in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall) which is equal parts biography of McLuhan and of the media landscape of the 20th and 21st centuries, filled with observations only Coupland could voice. (Which reminds me, I’m still upset that I wasn’t able to make it to the event a few months ago at the Waldorf, in which Coupland hosted a night of YouTube watching in honor of McLuhan.)

Why is McLuhan more important in the 21st century than he was in the 20th?

So far, in the 11 and a half years of this century, we’ve seen digital technologies such as computers, smartphones, and perhaps most importantly, the internet continue to grow and astonish us on a daily basis. The global village of the internet is more connected than ever before with the rise of social media. Social components are permeating every aspect of the online experience, from videogames and Facebook to Flickr and YouTube. Every site has a Share button, increasingly making the internet more  organic, crowdsourced by its network of users. The news has even become social, with every television station, newspaper (that’s an antiquated term if I’ve ever heard one), and sportscaster Tweeting nowadays.

The media of the internet has radically evolved to become much more social, and McLuhan was perhaps one of the first to see it coming. Of course McLuhan did not explicitly predict much, but that’s not to say he didn’t know what he was talking about. As Coupland points out, reading McLuhan “is a poetic or artistic experience – you get a sense of the future rather than a prescription or a prediction.” He was a man ahead of his time, and reading his books is a bit like stepping into a time machine with eyes pointed both forwards and backwards.

Some say McLuhan is the ultimate pessimist, while others contend it’s much more complicated than that. Here Coupland describes McLuhan’s view of humans as social creatures as hopeful or optimistic: “Call it religion or call it optimism, but hope, for Marshall, lay in the fact that humans are social creatures first, and that our ability to express intelligence and build civilizations stems from our inherent needs as individuals.”

The Global Village

In the 21st century, we express intelligence through the content we post online. Sure, there are sites dedicated to lolcats and plenty of pictures on Facebook of frat boys getting wasted, but there are also engaging thoughts being exchanged on Twitter, and beautiful art being displayed on Flickr. Eric Fischer has mapped this expression of digital intelligence, by expressing geotagged Twitter posts with blue dots and Flickr photos with red dots. If the area contains both, the dot is white.


Photo from Eric Fischer's Flickr


I couldn’t help but look at these beautiful photos and realize that McLuhan’s global village is more real than he would have ever been able to imagine, and he probably would have hated it. Or would he have? While on the one hand, McLuhan has expressed countless times in his writings and interviews that he has “nothing but distaste for the process of change” he prefaced that statement with the acknowledgement that he could see  “the prospect of a rich and creative retribalized society — free of the fragmentation and alienation of the mechanical age — emerging from this traumatic period of culture clash.” I have to wonder what McLuhan would think – has the internet returned us to our tribal roots? Are social media allowing us to free ourselves of the fragmentation and alienation of the mechanical age? Would McLuhan be an avid Tweeter? Something tells me his aphorisms and paradoxical statements would be perfectly fit for 140 characters, and he would begrudgingly make use of the medium. But who am I to make that guess? I know nothing of his work.


The Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots of 2011 have come and passed. A lot has been written and said about them already; the politicians, media folk, and even that guy on the bus will give you their thoughts about what happened. So now I’ll be that guy on a  blog who gives his opinion.

I think it’s incorrect, naive and optimistic to simply pass the riots off as the work of a select few hooligans representing less than 1% of the entire crowd. But in the digital age, where iPhones and YouTube reign supreme, everyone can see what really happened. As social media displays its potential as a tool of justice, we’re seeing a lot of these so-called hooligans exposed. And some of them seem like pretty good people, by all accounts. I’d guess that a good chunk of the remaining 99% of the crowd were there to watch the hockey game and have a party. When the rioting began, these young fans had decisions to make. Would they join in the mayhem, try to stop it, or get out of there and head for home? These kids were on the fence, struggling to make the right decision. Keep in mind that many of these kids have been drinking vodka out of Dasani bottles for the past 4 hours, crowded into a small space on the street with thousands of others. These are angry, young individuals, and their city’s team just lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final on home ice.

Like Allan Macinnis said in “A couple of lies about the riots of 2011”, these are the same angry young men you see on Granville Street every weekend. You’d probably recognize them if you saw them. They probably have a UFC shirt of some type on, they have huge muscles, and they love Red Bull and Vodka. Of course I’m stereotyping, and the whole city’s not like that, but Granville Street on a weekend certainly seems more prone to violence (to say the least) than the rest of the city, and that’s probably due in part to its clientele. Are we all prone to some form of violence though? Some of the rioters probably have no idea what came over them, in hindsight. Would we have gotten caught up in the moment and thrown that mannequin through that window? Would we have grabbed that iPhone from Future Shop?

As Cameron Macrae pondered in the Vancouver Sun, Are we all riotous? He wonders what his 19-year-old self would have done in that situation, and if we all stop to think about that question, we can begin to understand what happened after the hockey game. The 19-year-olds of today are different than the 19-year-olds that took part in the ’94 riots. This generation has grown up on the internet. They all have smartphones, Facebook accounts, and a desire to be seen that only the YouTube generation could possess. When the riots began, a lot of these kids who were on the fence, jumped right into the action in order to show off, whether they realized it or not. It felt good to have people cheer them on as they jumped on that police car, and c’mon – it’s just so badass, bro!

In one shocking story I just read (Rioters aim to set Chapters ablaze), a group of rioters were apparently trying to start a fire at Chapters, the huge bookstore on the corner of Robson and Howe, chanting “burn the books.” A group of brave residents stood their ground, and prevented the store and its countless books from being burned to the ground. I think this is quite telling, and demonstrates the intellect of your average suburban rioter, coming down to Vancouver for a good time. Nice try, barbarians.


I think that something was going to happen regardless of whether the Canucks won or lost the game. If you bring gasoline, lighters, masks, and crowbars to watch a hockey game downtown, something tells me you don’t care that much about the game of hockey, or the Vancouver Canucks. You are probably more interested in the fact that there are over 100,000 people (which is roughly the population of Kelowna in the summer!) gathered together in a small area. And that small area just happens to be in the center of the shopping district, home to expensive jewelry, perfumes, and Louis Vuitton bags. It’s the perfect scene for a criminal. Granted, less than 1% of the crowd had these intentions, and the other 99 really did just want to watch the hockey game. But when a good chunk of that 99% is young, angry, and drunk, some bad decisions are likely to be made.

Picture from Mashable

The riots of 2011 may go down as one of the most embarrassing and disgraceful acts by a group of fans in sports history. Regardless of what happened in ’94, or how much worse any other riot has been in the past, this riot is happening in real time on our Twitter feeds, in Google News, and YouTube videos. The digital age has fully arrived, and it’s part of the problem in Vancouver tonight.

Picture from Mashable

If you watch the footage, you’ll see countless people in the background, smartphones and digital cameras in hand, filming what’s going on around them. In the ’94 riots, nobody had a digital camera. The only footage we have came from professional newscasters. In 2011, with our iPhones, streaming video, and Twitter feeds – we’ve all become newscasters. When you put a cameras in the hands of the vast majority of a crowd, the nature of the crowd changes. When that 1% of the crowd starts to act stupid, the other 99% are there to record it on their smartphones. As the amateur newscasters record videos and take pictures, the rioters are encouraged to continue, whether they realize it or not. As half of the 99% sticks around to take pictures and videos of what’s happening, the rioters are encouraged to continue, or at least not discouraged. It would be a lot easier for police to move in and arrest those who are causing the problems if there weren’t thousands of others standing around watching. It’s kind of like kids at school who agree to fight after school, and only end up fighting because there’s a crowd there to watch them. If no crowd shows up, the kids don’t fight. Okay, maybe controlling a riot isn’t quite that simple, but you get the idea.

Why are people doing this? Because the Vancouver Canucks lost a hockey game? I question how much you really care about the game of hockey if you’re downtown right now breaking windows. Yeah, the game was frustrating, and the Canucks were probably capable of winning the hockey game, but they didn’t. Tim Thomas was an absolute beast in this series, allowing only 8 goals in 7 games. No matter how bad the goaltending may or may not be in your own end, if you only score about 1.15 goals per game, you’re going to have a tough time winning a seven game series. There are a ton of other things that went wrong for the Canucks (Rome being a guinea pig for a new league disciplinarian, a powerplay that went dead, inconsistent officiating, injuries to Hamhuis, Samuelsson, and Raymond, an unwillingness or inability to stand up for star players, and as mentioned before, goaltending), but those can be left for another day.

The Bruins hacked and slashed their way through the series, pulling the Canucks into a style of game they aren’t capable of playing, and before the Canucks realized it, they were out of it. The momentum had shifted entirely. By that time Marchand has shown what kind of skill he has, Recchi found another gear, and Bergeron regained his scoring touch. Everyone talked about the Canucks’ depth (myself included), but the Bruins are pretty deep up front as well. Their second and fourth lines were the difference tonight.

At least the fans in Rogers Arena showed some class, giving Tim Thomas a huge ovation as he raised the Cup. They recognized what had just happened. Tim Thomas came into their house and stole the show, completing outplaying his Canadian counterpart. It’s too bad that there were so many people downtown who are not fans of the sport, and simply came downtown either with the intention of starting something, or because they wanted to see what would happen. Like I alluded to earlier, if you’re down there recording videos and taking pictures, you’re contributing to the problem.

This night may go down as one of the most disgusting events in sports history as far as fans go, if nothing else due to the age we live in. There is a lot of footage out there, and in the next few days, more and more people will see it. The story has already been posted on Mashable and The New York Times, which I found out from Roger Ebert’s Twitter feed. The nature of news has changed, and this riot in an affluent, Canadian city, which broke out because of a hockey game, is already spreading quickly, becoming global news. This is a gigantic black mark on the city and the franchise. I just saw footage of seven guys fighting each other on the corner of Robson and Howe, and most were wearing Canucks T-shirt jerseys. I saw a D. Sedin (22) fighting a H. Sedin (33), and a Bieksa (3) was backing him up. It’s so sad. You’re fans of the same team, people. They lost and it sucks, but get over it and go home. You’re just encouraging the idiotic 1% of the crowd to keep doing what they’re doing.

The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man
by Marshall McLuhan

What is The Gutenberg Galaxy? It is McLuhan’s term to describe the post-printing press world, and it is home to a whole lot of knowledge, thoughts, and ideas. In short, you might say that the galaxy consists of anything that’s ever been printed. The Wikipedia page for this book has an estimate for just how big the Gutenberg galaxy might be: in 2004/2005, the British Library had more than 97 million items, while the Library of Congress had more than 130 million.

Reading The Gutenberg Galaxy was kind of like what I imagine running a marathon feels like – grueling and intensely difficult, but ultimately rewarding when you get to the finish line and reflect on what you’ve just done.

This book took me an extremely long time to get through. The text is dense, full of paradoxes and passages you might have to read two or three times to obtain even 25% comprehension (or maybe that’s just me), and the writing style seems almost arcane. It must have taken me at least three months to read this book. Granted, I’ve been extremely busy with teaching and tutoring, but that’s still a long time (even for someone like myself with self-diagnosed reading ADD).

I was relieved to read that Douglas Coupland is with me on this one. In his biography of McLuhan, he describes The Gutenberg Galaxy as “possibly one of the most difficult to read yet ultimately rewarding books of the twentieth century. It explains so much, all the while taking the reader on side journeys into charming cul-de-sacs and odd dead ends.”

The side journeys, cul-de-sacs and odd dead ends are mostly due to McLuhan’s odd mosaic style and bizarre ability to jump from one obscure text to the next, surfing his way through many passages picked out from all areas of the Gutenberg galaxy.

The mosaic is composed of 107 short chapters, most of which consist of dissecting a passage of text from a book, poem, article, or some other piece of writing. For instance, in one chapter entitled The modern physicist is at home with oriental field theory, McLuhan pulls a passage fromWerner Heisenberg (the physicist who is credited with developing the uncertainty principle of quantum theory), who had quoted a tale of the Chinese sage Chuang-Tzu in The Physicist’s Conception of Nature. In this tale, a peasant farmer is presented with the opportunity to enter the Industrial Age and use mechanical machines to do his farming. But the farmer replies:

“I have heard my teacher say that whoever uses machine does all his work like a machine. He who does his work like a machine grows a heart like a machine, and he who carries the heart of a machine in his breast loses his simplicity. He who has lost his simplicity becomes unsure in the strivings of his soul. Uncertainty in the strivings of the soul is something which does not agree with honest sense. It is not that I do not know of such things; I am ashamed to use them.”

After each passage in the book, McLuhan offers his thoughts on the piece: ‘“uncertainty in the strivings of the soul” is perhaps one of the aptest descriptions of man’s condition in our modern crisis; technology, the machine, has spread through the world to a degree that our Chinese sage could not have even suspected.’

These are McLuhan’s words from 1962, but oddly, they seem more fitting in 2011. I can only imagine that people in the year 2061 will think the same. 49 years after McLuhan wrote of the machine’s spread, our world’s technology has devoured us to a point that even McLuhan could not have possibly imagined. Every 12 year old has a 1 GHz processor in his or her smartphone, Tweet and Google are verbs, and we’ve become so addicted to our gadgets, we’ve had to create laws so we don’t use them while we drive. What would Marshall think?

This is the first book of McLuhan’s that I’ve read (although I just picked up Understanding Media at Pulp Fiction books a little while ago), and I’m in the process of reading Coupland’s biography of McLuhan at the moment. Marshall (as Coupland refers to him) was simply a fascinating individual, and it’s a shame that more Canadians aren’t aware of his contributions to the 20th century. If it were up to me, I’d make some passages of his writing required reading for high schoolers in Canada. I think that through analyzing McLuhan’s work and seeing our history broken up into 4 eras (Oral tribe culture, Manuscript culture, Gutenberg galaxy, Electronic age), many students would be able to realize just how different the world has become in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. I get the impression that kids in our school don’t really appreciate how different it was to grow up without the internet, for example. I’ve told my students before that they’re about the same age as Google, and they’re shocked! They can’t believe that I was in already in grade 8 the first time I used Google to search for something. Reading McLuhan would give many students some context – a macroscopic look at our world’s history, told through the lens of media.

The copy of the book I had came from the Vancouver Public Library (VPL), and having this old hardcover copy to read was especially fitting for a book such as this. As I contemplate buying an eReader, analyzing the pros and cons of print and digital books, it was surprisingly refreshing to read a book that is nearly 50 years old, turning its yellowing pages and even seeing past readers’ pencil marks, notes, and musings. I actually really enjoy it when I get something from the VPL and there are thoughts jotted down in the margin (at least if it’s done right). Whoever was marking this book appears to have been  a professor who was using the book for his or her class. It was neat to see which passages stood out to that reader, although I have to wonder if these markings influence my own reading of the book, drawing attention to things I might have interpreted differently in a brand new copy. Will this form of reading be lost in the digital age? What will eReading eventually look like? Will we be interacting with other readers of the book in interactive editions? Will books just become shorter? Will anyone care to read something like The Gutenberg Galaxy in an era of eBooks?

For my last question, my guess is no, and that’s a shame. At the very least, the Wikipedia entry for The Gutenberg Galaxy is a good start, and at least lays out the structure of McLuhan’s major ideas. I think there are passages of sheer brilliance contained in McLuhan’s book, and I hope to be able to utilize them in a classroom some day.

Note: This started out as a review of the book, but gradually became something else. If you’ve actually read this far, hopefully reading this post didn’t feel like running a marathon. I feel like I’ll be coming back to McLuhan’s writings at least a few more times in my life, and I hope to soon dig deeper into some quotes and passages from this book. I took a lot of notes for this one.

Spring is by far my favourite season when it comes to watching sports on TV, for not only do we have hockey playoffs taking over the city, but baseball is getting into full swing, and hey – even the basketball playoffs have some exciting matchups this year.

Tonight, I had to decide between watching the Jays battle the Yankees in New York and the Lightning in Boston for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final (ECF). The Lightning and Bruins have had some exciting games, and the stakes are certainly high being the conference finals and all, but I actually found myself watching the baseball game over the hockey game for most of the night, or at least until the Jays broke it open with their big inning. Note that I might have made some different decisions if the Canucks were playing, however.

I find it challenging to get anything productive done during this time. Every year of my undergrad in university, the opening round of hockey playoffs coincided with my final exams. This of course meant that I had no classes to go to – just exams to study for. Needless to say, there were a lot of students watching hockey games in our residence lounges during the exam period.

I’ve heard others (who I will keep anonymous) express similar complaints about their love-hate relationship with playoff hockey:

“It’s awesome that we keep winning, but I’m looking forward to not having 3 hours of my night devoted to the game every second day.”
“Man, watching the hockey playoffs is expensive!”
“I’ve cancelled work three times for the Canucks!”

… and so on.

I’ll have to keep up with the multi-tasking, at least for another couple of weeks (or so I hope, as a Canucks fan). Here’s to many more extended springs of playoff hockey in Vancouver!

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The umpires of baseball or the referees of hockey – who’s worse?

Okay, I know they’re tough jobs and all, but it is frustrating when you see certain things happen. Anyway, I’m just glad to have baseball back, and just as hockey playoffs are about to start too.

I’ve been having the debate of what to watch all night, flipping between the Canucks vs Flames and the Jays vs Angels. I’d usually choose the Canucks, no questions asked, but so far this season, it’s pretty exciting to watch the Blue Jays. The bat of Bautista, the defense of Escobar, Hill and Macdonald, the emerging young rotation of Romero, Drabek, and hopefully soon, Morrow. These Jays are young, skilled, and hard-working. The new GM and manager represent a total overhaul of the Jays as a franchise, and early in this first season I’m liking what I see.

And I liked what I saw tonight, except for on a couple of plays, of course. The first was game-changing call on Yunel Escobar in which he was called out for running in a straight line, avoiding the ball, and stepping safely on third base. This call was absurd, and absolutely affected the game in a critical moment in extra innings. Scott Carson, the 3rd man in the booth for Rogers Sportsnet, seems to be just as puzzled as I am. He tweeted “Been doing this a long time, but I’ve seen things happen for the first time over the last two innings … Bob Davidson’s call on Escobar????” That call definitely influenced the outcome of the game, and made no sense. I hate when umps do stupid things.

The second play that was tough to watch was Snider’s botched fly out, in which he misread the ball. It sucks to have the winning run reach base on a play like that, but I guess that’s baseball.

Back to the positive stuff. The Jays looked fairly promising, the Bautista deal looks like it will work out after all, and I’m excited for some of these young guys like Arencibia, Drabek, and Escobar.

All that being said, I’m only talking about baseball as a sport. Baseball has many problems, or more precisely, the MLB has many problems. The game of baseball is great; the league is terribly run, however. First, the steroid scandals. It’s so painfully obvious that some players have used steroids, and it’s certainly tarnished the game. Baseball has always been a game of statistics, of numbers, and of chance. The steroid era has greatly inflated a number of players’ stats, and their names are still in the record books.

Secondly, the umpiring.

Umpiring is crucial in a baseball game. Each umpire has a slightly different definition of what a strike zone is, and the pitchers and batters slowly learn it as the game goes on. The umpire behind home plate is not the only important one making calls on the field. The umps at the bases are undoubtedly just as important, as they have to make many close calls at the bags. We all know how bad it looks when an umpire blows a call, especially when the stakes are high. Who can forget the call that cost Armando Galarraga his perfect game last season?

When umps do stupid things, it’s a lot more obvious nowadays. Sitting at home, we have the benefit of instant replay and the ability to rewind live TV, so we can watch the replay again and again to see how just bad the call really was. When will the MLB wake up and start using instant replay of some kind, at least on foul calls or close plays at the bag. If they brought in some sort of challenge system, I think it could work.

I understand that making judgment calls in any sport is a tough job. It can be hard to see what happened in a quick game like baseball or hockey, and making a decision on the spot, you’re bound to make mistakes sometimes. Today, in the digital age of HD TV and dozens of cameras at every game, we can make the right call. The MLB should at least try to erase two or three of the stupid things umpires do each game, by bringing in some form of instant replay.