A scholastic tragedy

Last February my Canadian high school hit the headlines around the world, but for all the wrong reasons. Seven students were killed by an avalanche while on a school skiing trip in the Rocky Mountains to the west of Calgary.

This week a consultant’s report into the school’s Outdoor Education programme was released, and it makes interesting reading. While describing the programme as one of the best in Canada and praising the skill and character of the students on the trip, it criticises the school for failing to systematically assess the unavoidable risks involved and communicate them to parents. However, the parents were also criticised for complacently abdicating their responsibility for their children’s well being.

In February the disaster made the news internationally (even the BBC reported it), but the consultant’s report appears to be of more local interest. The headline in the Globe & Mail on Wednesday was Report into avalanche deaths faults school planning, while CBC Calgary susbsequently reported School to drop some outdoor trips.

Strathcona Tweedsmuir School had an ambitious outdoor education programme even when I was there, and it was the source of many of my best memories of my scholastic career. White water canoeing is the most exhilarating and simultaneously terrifying activity I have ever completed, and yet I would never have experienced it if I hadn’t attended STS. I remember one cross-country skiing trip to Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park on which the return journey was the definition of bliss. [I notice now that the Lake O’Hara Fire Road trail that we skied crosses several avalanche paths, but I don’t remember being concerned about this at the time.]

One of the most interesting segments of the report concerns the effect of the school’s “instructional style”:

Pressure from peers or teachers can affect the decision-making ability of a student or family. It may be subtle or not. A teacher applying pressure to a student may, at the time, feel that a demanding style will “motivate” a student to achieve. Others may disagree and say that the style is inappropriate.

Some parents of OE 25 students have criticized a “coercive” style they say
is prevalent among select STS outdoor education staff. The staff describe
this style as “having high expectations,” and the students interviewed gave
no evidence to suggest otherwise. To the contrary, students who were
interviewed consider the outdoor education staff at STS to employ
appropriate instructional styles and to be positive role models. However,
the school needs to be aware of and give serious consideration to this topic.

In the past, parents have talked to the high school principal and outdoor
education program staff of their concerns about outdoor education teacher
demands and instructional style. As one of his roles, the outdoor education
program coordinator should be responsible to facilitate consistent and
appropriate instructional styles within the program.

I can certainly appreciate this criticism. I remember some teachers applying pressure and itimidating students to participate in activities that didn’t at first appeal. Participating in an activity under duress is unlikely to encourage a positive experience. Everyone would be better off if the motivation to participate was derived from the anticipated rewards of the Outdoor Education programme, rather than fear of the negative consequences of staying at home.

Here’s hoping the school community can learn from this tragedy and use the knowledge to benefit future students.

Alberta bound

This week’s edition of the Economist contains an article about Canada’s potential to rival Saudi Arabia as a producer of oil (see Economist.com | Energy | There’s oil in them thar sands!).

As the Economist states “there may be more oil trapped in Alberta than under all of Saudi Arabia”. Trapped is an appropriate word because the oil is embedded in thick, viscous sand and cannot be extracted without considerable effort and money. The process involves injecting steam into the ground in order to reduce the viscosity of the sand such that you can pump it out of the ground and separate the oil.

Twenty years ago my first summer job after starting university was in the Reservoir Engineering department of Gulf Oil in Calgary. I was a computing major at the time, and my job was to analyse the results of a computer simulation of in-situ oil sand extraction. It was a good summer job and I learned a lot, although it was totally unlike anything I’d done before or since.

Now it seems that after considerable research and investment, it may finally be economically viable to begin developing Alberta’s oil sand industry. It’s nice to think that Alberta’s natural resources may one day lessen the developed world’s dependence on the Middle East, although according to the Economist we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Today’s Weblog

Well, blogging has certainly become mainstream now. This morning BBC Radio 4’s flagship news programme Today introduced its listeners to weblogs (see Today RealOne Player required). The interview lasted all of 3 minutes, but that was sufficient for Cory Doctorow to explain that the new medium has two strongly attractive characteristics for journalists:

  • complete freedom to write whatever you want without any editorial interference.
  • the possibility of almost instant, gratuitous feedback.

Consequently the hosts, Edward Stourton and James Naughtie, both agreed that blogging sounds like fun!

Is it such a small world after all?

It’s a commonly expressed idea that as technology shrinks the world, we are all bound to become more alike. However, the major literary event of the week (year?) in the English speaking world seems to prove this assumption wrong.

International media coverage of the launch of J. K. Rowling’s latest novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, has revealed significant cultural differences between at least three countries with which I’m familiar.

In Britain the BBC was quick to report on a new world record, as if it might re-establish Britain’s place on the world stage (see Potter ‘is fastest-selling book ever’ from the BBC).

In the USA, where the culture is business, the focus was naturally on the sales volume and money. National Public Radio advised its listeners on whether or not they should buy shares in Rowling’s American publisher, Scholastic, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange (see Harry Potter and the Pitfalls of Success, but take care — there are apparently better buys on the NYSE).

NPR also reported that given the staggering 8.5 million copies of the book being printed in the US, Saturday Night Live had joked that Rowling’s next book should be titled ‘Harry Potter and the End of Trees’.

Trees concerned the Canadians too, but they had good news to report since many were saved by printing all 935,000 Canadian editions on recycled paper (see Harry Potter goes green for Canadian buyers).

Who says cultural differences are disappearing? Everyone is behaving true to form.

An Internet Bestseller

Given the dot.com boom and bust, the long-term impact of the Internet on business largely remains to be seen, but there’s at least one industry where its effect is a huge improvement: the sale of antiquarian books.

Believe it or not, but the impact of the Internet on the sales of used books was far from certain. Would the improved ability to find specific books increase demand and sales sufficiently to offset any decline in prices that might occur if customers could easily shop around? That’s the question Björn Frank and Guntram Hepperle asked at the University of Hohenheim in Germany at the end of 2000. In the abstract to their paper entitled The Internet’s Impact on the Market for Antiquarian Books: Some Unexpected Empirical Results (click here for the whole paper in PDF format)
they concluded:

Though there is a considerable variance in most books’ prices, we do not observe the expected negative correlation between price and share of internet sales (in relation to a seller’s total sales). We find other factors which have a systematic impact on prices, but with respect to the Internet, our main result is that e-business currently contributes little or nothing to driving prices downwards.

Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca WakefieldI have to say that I’m not surprised. Yesterday a biography of one of my distant cousins arrived in the post from Hoffman’s Bookshop in Columbus, Ohio. The third edition of Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca Wakefield: Missionary in East Africa was published in 1888 and written by the subject’s brother, Robert Brewin. I only discovered this book two weeks ago in the course of doing some family history research, and yet thanks to the information superhighway I already have my own copy and Hoffman’s Bookshop has another satisfied customer.

Although I purchased the book from Hoffman’s, the transaction was brokered by abebooks.com, which “connects those who buy books with those who sell them, providing abundant selection at affordable prices”. The Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca Wakefield was only the second book I have purchased in this way, but I’m in the market for a third, and thanks to abebooks.com’s “want list” feature there’s every chance that I’ll find it eventually.

Last week when I was searching for the Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca Wakefield there was only one copy to be found, so comparing prices was impossible; but in my limited experience prices on the Internet for books in a similar condition are also similar. So the real benefit the Internet brings is the ability to track the books down in the first place. There’s no way I would have found copies of my books without the Internet.

Of course, there’s another benefit. I have yet to set foot within 250 miles of Columbus. In fact, I’ve never been to Ohio at all; and now, fortunately, I don’t have to — at least not to spend time in its bookshops.

Update: For more on the Canadian success story abebooks.com see Giants and behemoths in The Globe and Mail.

My Desert Island Disc #2

All Fly Home album cover
All Fly Home album cover

A year ago I wrote about my first Desert Island Disc and with the advent of summer, it’s high time I wrote about my second – Al Jarreau’s Grammy-winning album from 1978 All Fly Home.

I hadn’t heard of Al Jarreau in 1978. I was introduced to his music a few years later by my second roommate at university, George Applegarth, who came from an old established family in San Francisco.

George was incredibly urbane for a freshman in small-town provincial English Canada, and I had never met anyone like him. It was clear from the start that he really wanted to enjoy student life, and in the end he had trouble adapting to the cold, serious, unsophisticated climate he found at Queen’s. Just before Halloween he called it quits and returned to his large family in warm California. During his short stay, however, I fell in love with his two recordings by Al Jarreau. I played them over and over again in our room, until even George started to complain that I was playing them too much.

The two albums were This Time and All Fly Home, and to be honest I don’t know which I would choose as my favourite. Whenever I introduce friends to Jarreau’s music, however, I always play All Fly Home because I know that one particular track is guaranteed to impress them: Jarreau’s version of the Beatles┬ásong She’s Leaving Home.

The song tells the story of a girl running away with her boyfriend to escape the oppressive control of her parents. It was inspired by a true story that Lennnon and McCartney spotted in The Daily Mail, and you can tell from the lyrics (“She’s leaving home, after living alone, for so many years“) that they understood the feelings of disaffected youth very well.

It’s hard to describe what Jarreau does to this song, but no one ever recognises it as Lennon and McCartney even if they are familiar with the original. It’s arranged for jazz trio and, freed from the constraints of pop, lasts twice as long as the original. At this point in his career, Jarreau was a true jazz musician, and as fans will know, when not singing words, his voice becomes a fourth instrument in the band.

His interpretation of She’s Leaving Home is about as far removed from the Beetles’ version as I can imagine possible, and yet it remains incredibly true to the spirit of the original song. In fact, more so. I think it is arguably better at expressing the painful regret of past failures than the original Beatles recording.

Even though I haven’t heard them all, Jarreau’s performance is so good that I’m sure it’s the best rendition of this piece (according to The Covers Project there have been eight). It’s a masterpiece of understanding, expressed through a song all about misunderstanding, and for that reason alone it would have to be among my desert island discs. Besides, how many cover versions are better than the original?