Updated: 05/09/2003; 6:43:33 AM.
Good Books
Reviews of Books that are helping us understand more about what is really going on

Friday, September 05, 2003

Stuart sent me this. It is the best piece I have seen yet on why so many of our kids are in trouble
6:42:13 AM    comment []

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

In the late 1970's I had the adventure of becoming Wood Gundy's man in Saudi Arabia. I spent 3 amazing years travelling around the Kingdom as it was in the midst of the transition from from small mud-brick towns such as Jeddah, with the Purdah wooden screened balconies facing narrow streets, and in Riyadh, where the old mud quarter and the old fort were still part of the town, to a huge building site where all sorts of modernity emerged.

My first night in Jeddah was spent in the old airport hotel, high ceilings and fans and waiters in fezzes,  opposite the old airport - so close you walked from the terminal to the front door.  I got some kind of skin disease on my feet from the shower floor. When I left the new airport was miles out of town and I stayed in hotels that matched any for opulence and cleanliness. I am not sure that this was better.

To prepare myself to fit into the culture, I read two books - The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Wilfred Thesiger's account of his travels across the empty quarter. I wanted to get the cultural sense of how to behave as a westerner. I wanted to get a sense of the meaning of life even if this life was being destroyed before my eyes. Thesiger, a hawk of a man and a real warrior stood out more than Lawrence. He found the essence of the bridge between the Englishman and the Desert culture. The power of reticence and understatement - the formality which hides the feeling - the love of the landscape - courtesy - the power of holding back and letting things happen - the essence of endurance and toughness and not complaining - the power of giving one's word - the ability to listen for what is the subtext and the real agenda.

These were great lessons. I learned how to spend the day productively in the great man's audience room gradually making my way to his ear and being asked to comment throughout on other people's business. I learned how to listen for the test that would be put subtly upon me before I could return and talk about what I wanted. I learned to love the desert and would spend the weekends (Friday) in the desert with friends hunting and picnicking. A Saudi Picnic would usually involve taking lunch, a goat, out live and killing it and the cooking and eating it that evening. Knowing how to talk and how to eat was an important part of fitting in.

He died this week aged 93 a stranger in his own culture and lost to a culture that has also died. So much the pity


1:28:08 PM    comment []

Monday, August 25, 2003

I watched Dr Strangelove again the other night - what a great film! Sterling Hayden who plays General Ripper is not a household name any more but his autobiography - see link - is a masterpiece and is still available. Hayden started life as a schooner skipper and somehow had found his way into film. At the height of his career - he asked his kids to spend the weekend with him on his yacht and sailed off for 4 years. His estranged wife and studio were pissed. The book has always had a huge impression on me and partly gave me the courage nearly 10 years ago to go on a business strip to PEI that has not ended yet.

"To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen, who play with their boats at sea -- "cruising," it is called.

Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in.

If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about. "I've always wanted to sail to the South Seas, but I can't afford it." What these men can't afford is _not_ to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of "security." And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine -- and before we know it our lives are gone.

What does a man need -- really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in -- and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That's all-- in the material sense. And we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention from the sheer idiocy of the charade. The years thunder by. The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life? by Sterling Hayden From Sterling Hayden's book, Wanderer "

9:41:23 PM    comment []

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Several years ago, a friend of mine came close to breaking free from the institutional life. He had a foot in each place. But frightened by the unknown, he pulled back into the world he knew - confident that he was safer there where his mastery lay. Last week he was fired.

In my own life and family too we have a recurring story, a Greek tragedy, where the pull of duty and obligation to the familiar overwhelms the preservation of self. The outcome - an early death for both my father and grandfather. It seemed to be their only exit. I thought that I was exempt from this story but find that I am well into it.

I too like my friend have a choice. The  paradox is that in a turbulent time, the greatest risk is in hanging onto what seems safe. The greatest safety - to reach into the unknown. This is surely not only true for each of us as individuals but also for organizations.

Here is how Herman Melville describes this in Moby Dick

"The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that's kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship's direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through. With all her might she crowds all sail off shore; in so doing, fights 'gainst the very winds that fain would blow her homeward; seeks all the lashed sea's landlessness again; for refuge's sake forlornly rushing into peril; her only friend her bitterest foe! " Moby Dick - The Lee Shore Chapter.

11:56:03 AM    comment []

Sunday, August 10, 2003

I have just finished The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. His Mars series told me more about how a world system can be created than any other source. This book, The Years, has caused me to look more deeply at my own life, my actions in it and my mortality than any other. Here is part of a review in the Independent: where you will find a synopsis as well

"Robinson can write action and adventure as well as anyone, but in the end this is an ethical fiction about the true purpose of humanity. His supple, thoughtful prose is always up to the challenge, whether exciting us with ideas, thrilling us with spectacle or presenting us with moments of elegy or quiet passion. It is not just the reader who, in section after section, recognizes the same characters in new guises. They discover each other time and time again with delight, sometimes meeting twice in a life after early death and sometimes waiting almost until old age for that fulfilment. After years of rice and salt come moments of happiness and celebration"

The book has brought forward a number of important questions for me.

Why have I met a handful of people who mean so much to me? It seems as if I have known them before. Did I? By the way this group does not include just those that are good to be with but also "enemies" who stir my stumps. At 53 I now know that I am not immortal. My father died aged 55. Is this all that there is? If so - am I living my life to the full? If not then what can I expect? What changes should I make?

I have been thinking a lot about how I will live the back end of my life. If I had read "The Years..." at an earlier time it may not have had this effect on me.

I am drawn also to the example of Siddhartha in Hesse's book and to the final character Bao in "The Years ..." Both had been in the world and had "done" a lot. But both found at the end of life, that doing the simplest things, rowing passengers across the river, baby sitting or teaching a few students, gave them the insights and a connection to eternity that a more active life had not. I am already feeling the signals. In doing the most mundane tasks that, before I had seen as chores, such as mowing, painting the shed and above all walking the dogs, I am finding that I pay more attention to the world and find myself slipping into it. Melding into it even. On a good day as I do these mundane works, my outline will fade and parts of me will fall into the larger world giving me a sense of what it may be like to be reconnected to the universe and making my death less frightening.  

I also find this in teaching. As I go on, I feel more ignorant. I am the one who is getting most of the lessons! I am the one who is being rejuvenated by my students. And so I am reconnected to their energy and naivety and to their future that will outlive me.

I am only 2 years away from the age of my father's death. 3 of my closest relationships have cancer. So the question of my life has moved to the top of my list and is unlikely to go away. I feel pregnant with opportunity and ironically less afraid than ever. 

It's some thing about acting simply and "seeing" the world as it is I think. Here is how Lester Noll describes the ending of Siddhartha which I think contains a great lesson for me.

"The wound (the knowledge that his son rejected him as he had rejected his own father) continued to hurt as Siddhartha ferried people across the river. But where he had felt a distance, even an aloofness from them, he now shared a sense of life with them. One day he happened to glance into the river and saw the reflection of his father in his own face. His own father had died, probably long ago, without ever seeing his son again. The river laughed at him. "Everything that was not suffered to the end and finally concluded, recurred, and the same sorrows were undergone," it told him. He went to Vasudeva, sitting in their hut weaving a basket. He told him what he had just seen. He told him, confessed to him, all that he had experienced when he followed his son to town. He felt like Vasudeva was more than a kind old man listening to his tale but rather more like the river, even like God himself. He continued to talk but he was understanding that this new realization meant an end and a new beginning.

Vasudeva took him by the hand and led him to the river. There was more to hear than the laugh. Siddhartha watched and listened. He saw his father, Govinda, Kamala, Gautama, all flowing by in the river. He heard the suffering and desires, the laughing and woe, all mixed together in thousands of voices, all flowing by in the river. And the combination of all the good and bad, the events and emotions, together, in their integration made the single sound Om.

Vasudeva saw his friend's recognition. He saw Siddhartha had surrendered to the stream of life. As he rose, Siddhartha knew his friend must leave. They bade farewell and Vasudeva walked off into the woods, "into the unity of all things," leaving Siddhartha alone, "with great joy and gravity."

In his old age, Govinda ( his friend who was always seeking the path) was staying at the pleasure garden Kamala (the mother of his son) had given to the followers of Gautama. While there he heard about the old ferryman that some called holy. He did not recognize Siddhartha. Rather, he asked if he was, like himself, a seeker. Siddhartha kindly suggested that, perhaps, the venerable Govinda was seeking too much and not seeing that what he was seeking was right in front of him. Siddhartha then revealed his identity to his old friend and invited him to stay the night in his hut. In the morning when Govinda was about to leave, he asked Siddhartha if he might tell him what his doctrine or belief was. Siddhartha reminded him that even as a young man he distrusted doctrines. He told Govinda that he has had many teachers in his life but the last and best were his predecessor, Vasudeva, and the river. "Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom." He went on to pick up a stone and explain that that stone would one day be dirt, then perhaps a plant and then an animal or a man. And a man will one day become a Buddha and, in that, God. One can love that stone, not just a stone but as all of those other things, but one cannot love words. Words can only express part of a truth, leaving the remainder either unexpressed or misrepresented. And thoughts are very much the same as words, both are unreliable. But things, Govinda interjected, are illusion, Maya. "If they are illusion, then I also am illusion, and so they are always of the same nature as myself," Siddhartha replied. He told Govinda that the most important thing in the world is love, that we are "able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love, admiration and respect." But, Govinda told him, Gautama preached a similar doctrine but forbade his followers from binding themselves with earthly love. Siddhartha replied that is just the reason he so mistrusted doctrines.

Govinda did not fathom much of what Siddhartha had told him but he did regard him as a holy man and so, before leaving his presence, he asked that Siddhartha give him something he could understand to take with him. Siddhartha told him to kiss him on the forehead. Although this seemed an odd request he did so and when his lips touched Siddhartha's forehead he saw, suddenly and wonderfully, many things. There were human faces and animals, death and birth, experiences and sensations, in changing streams, flooding his consciousness, merging, transforming, in time and out of time. How long it lasted he was not sure but he found he had tears trickling down his face as he bowed to the ground in front of this man "whose smile reminded him of everything that he had ever loved in his life."

© Lester L. Noll


1:39:31 PM    comment []

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

I had lunch with Dan and Steve yesterday and one of the items we talked about was why boys are so turned off by school. Our bottom line that real learning was as much about motivation as any other factor. Becoming expert at something seemed linked to motivation. Is this why boys like games so much? Is there a lesson for so called educators like me?

Jeremy Hiebert has some great stuff on learning and play.

I read last week that boys are starting to turn away from action flicks. The stated reason was that they preferred the interactivity of games and th amount of contro that they had in games.

I am old but here is a question for the young turks out there. Is there something deadingly passive about the instruction method used at school? Is there somthing about the teacher being a "Mom Clone" that pisses boys off?

Is part of the appeal of most good games that they demand real skill and that the skills cannot be learned quickly? Is another part of the attraction that the good games have compelling ladders of challenge? Is another part of the appeal that truly amazing games have all of this and allow you to compete with a large community?

Finally what if we made school more like games? Anyone read Scott Orson Card's books?


11:27:06 AM    comment []

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Enabling collaborative learning.

Sebastian has found Martin Terre Blanche's wonderful blog. He quotes a good post on obstacles to collaborative learning.

  • Students and lecturers are more familiar with a knowledge-transmission model of education and don't always understand what is expected of us in a more constructionist environment.
  • We have too little information about lecturers' and students' backgrounds, networks and skills - so often we don't realize that there is somebody in the group who could teach the rest of us a lot about some aspect of what we're studying.
  • No or very limited mechanisms for students to talk back to the lecturer and (especially) to talk to one another.
  • Inadequate 'course memory'. Lecturers often are the only bridge for this year's students to the knowledge created by last year's group - students don't get to see what last year's group did. There is no mechanism for students who want to stay in the group after the course is officially over (and who could be a useful resource for next year's students) to do so. [Martin Terre Blanche]

Reading through this list made me realize that the people who pioneer new modes of communication in hi-tech conferences these days are in the process of fixing these issues - through backchannelling and real-time blogging, the product of which most often gets turned into permanent, hyperlinked, googlable archives for the benefit of those who aren't there.

Here are some more obstacles elicited from one of Martin's readers.

[Seb's Open Research]

So good to have Seb back blogging again. The ideas in this post are dear to my heart as I teach online at UPEI. I have found that effective teaching online demands a really different pedagogy from the sage on the stage model of content transmission. I laugh when some e of my colleagues in the faculty worry about their content being stolen when I have found that what works best is dialogue, By about week 3, I hardly post at all and the class have taken over.

What I find works is to have a big idea for a class - This term we look at how businesses that use the principles of the Natural Step are not only doing good but doing well. Thus solving the paradox of the supposed choice between the planet or jobs which seems to paralyze movement.

We have at the core of the class 2 books The Ecology of Commerce by my old mentor Paul Hawken, who comes here to PEI on August 13-14th, and The Natural Step for Business by Brian Nattrass and Mary Altomare. Each week we have a series of questions that we use as a formal structure and we have assignments which are posted for all to see. So far it looks pretty conventional. But 40% of the mark goes for participation judged on quality and quantity. I have found that this feature gets the juices going. With a class of 20 we get about a 1,000 posts in a 6 week half semester. Very soon we shift gears up from the abstract to how each of us can make a difference. We leave the world of the case studies and we look at ourselves. By week 4, we have lost the academic voice and we are in Cluetrain territory where all of us are revealing a great deal about who we really are as people. The material has become an excuse to explore our lives.

If we are lucky a student goes very deep and this stimulates the rest of us to open up as well. So the content is really only a catalyst. We have gone back to the Socratic method and it is hard to tell the prof from the student. We use WebCT which is very clunky but we mainly just use the discussion tool. I would love to use Groove which I find very smooth and has great features such as images and drawing tools. I have found that it is the quality of the conversation that counts the most. Asynchronicity is a popular feature with both me and the students. I get up very early and many of them work and post late. I have even taught while on vacation in Thailand! There is huge resistance to this type of approach from most faculty because they know no other way of teaching. Many of the younger students have a problem too as they have come from school, and also know no other way of learning. I have found that my adult students fit best as they have long ago left school and are very comfy with taking a leading role themselves. They also want o lear so that they know something new while many of kids take a course because they need the credit - very different.

A lot more has to change before this approach is commonplace. School itself is a huge barrier as it en-cultures the kids to be passive learners.

5:47:43 PM    comment []

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