Thursday, May 09, 2013

You Might Be Your Own Biggest Weakness - And You Might Not Know It

Since I started teaching, I've tried to bike to work as often as I can.  This means that for most of the fall, and a good chunk of the spring I cycle about 80 km per week.  Not a huge amount for serious cyclists, but decent.  Last week I was especially proud when I noticed that I had worn through my rear tire.

It's funny, because wearing through that tire (and needing to buy a new set) was part of a startling revelation for me.  You see, I have a 15 speed mountain bike, it's a solid, fairly basic machine.  No shocks or anything fancy, a bit on the heavy side with big tires on 26" wheels.  It's not really the best bike for suburban commuting, but not the worst either.

On my rides I frequently encounter more serious cyclists.  You know, road bikes, pedal clips, spandex everything.  I was always amazed, and frustrated, as they appeared to effortlessly sail passed me, no matter how hard I was (or thought I  was working).  This got me thinking about getting a new bicycle, but a decent bike runs for somewhere north of $700, so I needed to give it some consideration.

Once my tire wore out,  I decided to replace my 2" tires with more road-friendly 1.5" tires.  I figured that this  would make a HUGE difference in my speed.  I put the tires on this morning and headed off to work.  Sure enough, the ride was stiffer, and it felt like I was going faster with the same effort.  Here's the kicker though, two "serious" cyclists whizzed past me, just like before.  To add insult to injury, they were old.

I was pissed.  Clearly, my 26" wheels were too small, and my bike frame was too heavy.  This bike would never cut it -  I had to get a new one.

As the two drew ahead of me, I had two startling realizations:

1.  These guys had giant, like GIANT calf muscles and more importantly,


Holy crap.  It's not the bike.  It's ME.  I'm the reason that I'm slower than those guys.  I forced myself to match their pedaling rhythm, and lo and behold - I was able to stay much closer to them.

Now don't get me wrong.  I know that a lightweight 21 speed bike with skinny tires on 29" wheels will go faster than a heavy bike with smaller wheels and wider tires.  But those guys would have kicked my ass if they were riding tricycles.

All this to say, when you're bitching about things not going your way - because you don't have the right job, or the right gear or the right tools or the right whatever - double check and make sure that the problem isn't YOU.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

An Open Letter to David Pollock, Mayor of Beaconsfield

Every month, Beaconsfield circulates a newsletter called CONTACT that lets us citizens know about all the great stuff happening in our town - like eBooks (and French eBooks) from the library, swimming lessons, hazardous waste collection days and the like.  This month, I noticed a little notice about changes to the noise/nuisance bylaws for Sundays.  It used to be that the only time you could mow your lawn or do renovations on a Sunday was between noon and 4PM.  This was a bit annoying sometimes, but I totally understand the need for a bit of peace and quiet.  Apparently, this wasn't enough peace and/or quiet for some folks, because now you can't use any motorized equipment at all, at any time on Sundays.

So I wrote a letter to the mayor, which I sent on May 3, 2013.  As of this writing (May 8) I haven't heard back.

Mr. Pollock,    As I read this month's CONTACT, I was very disturbed to find that the city's noise by-laws had been amended to prohibit the use of any motorized equipment or tools at any time on Sundays.
While I appreciate the need for controlling noise pollution, this by-law presents a number of problems, both practical and philosophical.
Neither Kirkland or Pointe-Claire restrict noise on Sundays to such an extent.  This means that Beaconsfield residents who live on the borders of these other cities can still be subject noise coming from their neighbours in  those municipalities.  In fact, no other municipality in West Island has such restrictive regulations.
In many families, both adults work full or part time, leaving the weekends as the only time for activities and yard maintenance.  Given the vagaries of the summer weather, it is not uncommon for one of the weekend days to be rainy and unsuitable for yard work.  In addition, families with children often find themselves shuttling between multiple activities on one of the weekend days, and this by-law further complicates their lives needlessly.
My last argument, is a moral one, and perhaps the most important.  The choice of Sunday as a quiet day, or day of rest, reflects a strong Christian cultural bias on the part of Beaconsfield.  I am Jewish, and though I am not overly observant, my traditional day of rest is Saturday.  The choice of Sunday by the city is based solely on tradition, since I am sure that the majority of "Christian" residents of Beaconsfield do not regularly attend church.  Although Beaconsfield has a reputation for a certain degree of cultural homogenity, the population is rapidly become more diverse and the value judgement implied by the new by-law does not reflect an openness of spirit toward residents of different cultural communities.
I appreciate the need for controlling noise pollution, and I applaud council for it's proactive approach.  However, the previous version of the by-law was already among the most restrictive in the West Island. The current by-law will ultimately be ineffective because it cannot protect those Beaconsfield residents who live adjacent to neighbouring municipalities.  It is needlessly restrictive and authoritarian and discriminatory.
I trust your better judgement will consider a revision of this by-law.
Please do not hesitate to contact me, should you have any questions.
Michael Lautman

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Don't be a fucking idiot. Vaccinate your kids.

There's a terrifying story on Stuff (see link) about a family in New Zealand who opted not to vaccinate their children and then watched their 7 year old suffer for three weeks and almost die from tetanus.  If you know me or have read this blog at all, you m ow that I am completely pro-vaccine.  
Vaccines save lives.  End of discussion. The only reason we actually have this debate at all is because vaccines are so effective.  So effective that no one who is a parent today saw a friend die of tetanus or smallpox or become physically disabled from polio.  Our parents did.  My dad's friend H had polio as a child, and it stunted his growth and left him with a limp.  But we didn't, because we were all immunized.  That means we aren't scared of these diseases.

We should be.

Child Suffering from Smallpox

According to this article in JAMA, prior to 1947 there were a combined  average of 10,433 deaths per year in the US from measles, mumps, polio, diphtheria, pertussis, rubella, smallpox and pertussis.  In 2004, there were a TOTAL of 31 deaths from these illness in the US; 27 from pertussis and 4 from tetanus.  

Holy shit.  Without accounting for the massive increase in population in the US, this means that 10,402 people don't die each year because of vaccines.

The anti-vaccine fanatics will have you believe that because vaccines are so dangerous, we are actually no better off.

Here's the truth.  In the US there are about 11,000 adverse reactions to vaccines reported each year.  About  1600 of these result in hospitalization, and 220 result in deaths.  

Hmmm 10,433 versus 220.  Don't get me wrong, I'd much rather that vaccines had no risk - but nothing in life (especially medical procedures) are without risk.

Remember, public health is a game of odds, and the odds of saving lives are clearly on the side of vaccines.

Don't be an idiot.  Vaccinate your kids.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

When Students Are Smarter Than Teachers

One of the big news stories around here this week is how Dawson College expelled a student for exposing a security flaw in the online course management software they use.  The software, called Ominvox, is used in many CEGEPs (junior college) in Quebec.

Here's the gist of the flaw:  Pages containing sensitive information about users (students and teachers) are given encrypted URLs, but apparently the URL still contains pieces of the staff or student ID number.  Simply by changing those numbers, anyone logged in to the system can have information about any other user.

The student in question Hamed Al-Khabaz, immediately reported this gaping security hole to the College's head of IT.  He got a pat on the back.  After few days, he ran a program to see if the vulnerability was still there.  Good follow-up on his part.

The College then threatened to press charges and ultimately expelled the kid.


The correct course of action should have been:
1.  "Holy crap - thanks for finding this really serious problem with our system, we'll get that fixed right away."
2. "Here's your diploma. You can go home now."

Seriously.  This kid is smart, thorough and above all HONEST.  This first thing he did when he found the problem was tell a grown up.  And then he got expelled.

I thought that the mission of a college - or any other school for that matter - was education.  I didn't think that this mission was restricted to the classroom.  Well what the hell do the administrators at Dawson think they are teaching this student, and all their students, by their actions?

They are teaching him to toe the line, to cover his ass and never trust anyone in a position of authority.  Clearly these are superb lessons.


I hope that my own children can act with the clarity of thought, integrity, thoroughness and honesty that Hamed Al-Khabaz did.

This whole incident started back in September of 2012, and we're only hearing about it now, because the company behind the software, SkyTech (not Skynet) forced Al-Khabaz to sign an NDA.  In my capacity as a teacher, I used Omnivox everyday, and I have not heard a thing about it - including whether or not the vulnerability has been repaired.

In an interesting about-face, SkyTech has now offered Al-Khabaz a scholarship so that he can complete his studies at a private college.  They should hire him.

Institutions of all kinds, governments, companies, schools, and parents, need to remember that the example we set by our actions often provides a more powerful lesson than anything else.

Watch this clip of Al-Khabaz being interviewed on CBC News.

You can sign a petition to encourage Dawson College to reinstate Hamed Al-Khabaz here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Teaching My Son to Love Justin Bieber

All of my kids love Justin Bieber - and would gladly tell anyone about it; at least until recently.  Something sad - and certainly not uncommon - has happened to Curious Boy recently.  At his last birthday party, the subject of JB came up.  My daughters, and the one other girl there had no problem saying that they like (or loved) Justin - although the 7 year old friend has "moved on" to One Direction.  The rest of the gang (boys) were quick to say that JB sucked, or to make gross faces.  Curious Boy held his tongue.  I noticed what was going on, and I made point to be vocal about the fact that I like Justin Bieber's music.

Quick aside:  I do like Justin Bieber.  I grew up listening to Doo-Wop, Motown, the Beatles and other melodic pop.  I'm not saying that JB is John Lennon, but I have a soft spot for catchy pop tunes.  On top of that, since I saw the movie "Never Say Never", I have a lot of respect for him and his family.

Now, back to my main point.  Since then, CB has been very anti-Justin.  He makes faces when there's a Bieber song on the radio; he won't watch "Never Say Never" with his sisters.

It's easy to see where these boys get the idea that they've got to hate Justin. I was at a party recently where the subject of music came up, and my friends - all fathers of young boys - were also quick to slam Bieber.  Even going so far as to say that they would "shoot him in the face" if he were standing there.  Admittedly, this conversation was under the influence of a few bottles of wine.  This sentiment, however, is surely expressed at home - and not only about Justin Bieber.

It's time to be brutally honest.   This kind of exaggerated loathing of a pop star (we're not talking about Mahmoud Amedinejad here) is nothing but thinly veiled homophobia.  Justin Bieber exemplifies many qualities that are traditionally considered feminine in our society.  He has a slight build.  He cares about his hair and clothes.  He talks about love and caring.  Many men worry that expressing that side of themselves will make them less of a man - maybe even (gasp) gay.  You don't have to like his music - but that kind of vitriol is unaccptable, and spreads to our children.

Making it acceptable to hate on JB in your house, teaches your kids to dislike people based on appearance and perception - without even knowing them.  Attaching derogatory names objectifies them and makes them less than human.  This is the direct precursor to intolerance.

I hope that CB comes around about Justin Bieber.  I'll be far more concerned if he starts listening to Flo Rida or some other macho crap.

For more information of language and intolerance, check out Barbara Coloroso.

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