Saturday, June 28, 2008

Just One More Beer With Dad

Today was my Dad's birthday. He died in 2003, but he would have been 71 today.

So this evening after supper, I cracked open one of the 3 last beers I have from that very last batch of beer he made before he passed away. The beer was yeasty and likely already gone, given that it had been sitting around for more than 5 years.

But it didn't matter. Sipping that beer my father had crafted was as close as I could get to sitting down and having just another beer with him -- one of the things I long for most of all.

So Happy Birthday Dad! Cheers! I love you and still miss you terribly every day.

A Novel Idea

Today's Hamilton Spectator features a full page splash of related articles that I produced for books editor Rob Howard. (Okay, I stretched the truth a tiny bit - it's not entirely a full page -- the bottom couple of inches of the page contain the weekly bestseller list)
Photo illustration by Peter Haentjiens, The Spectator

Page E6 of the A&E section features a review I wrote for the Terry Fallis novel The Best Laid Plans (or, more accurately a review of the podcast version of The Best Laid Plans) -- this is the self-published novel that McMaster Alumnus Terry Fallis won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour for earlier this year. It also features my article "Novel idea" that introduces readers to podcasts as well as the growing popularity of authors giving away the audio version of their novels entirely for free via podcasts as well as a sidebar on how to listen to a podcast novel that walks the reader through the four simple steps required.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


I spent three days this week with a group of other campus bookstores and student representatives from across Canada. We were meeting as a collective known as CRAM (Canadian Roundtable on Academic Materials). The group begin meeting in November of 2007 as an attempt to bring students, booksellers and publishers together to discuss the state of academic materials, the rising costs continuing being pushed out to students and what we might all do, working together, to help make a difference in an industry that has spiraled out of control in vicious cycles for far too long.

For this week's HNT picture, I thought I should post a picture of the first two editions of David G. Myers psychology.

For my own first year Psych class, I believe I was instructed to use the Darley/Glucksberg/Kinchla text (4th edition - 1988) - it was $34.15 at Carleton University that year.

However, because I was extremely interested in Psychology, wanted to do further reading and considered majoring in it, I ended up getting my hands on some additional textbooks and took a liking to the David G. Myers textbook -- I likely got my hands on them via friends. I ended up taking Myers Social Psychology in 2nd year and quite enjoyed Myers' approach to that subject. (So this blog rant isn't an attempt to discredit David Myers -- I have found his writings on psychology both approachable and interesting -- this rant is about the bizarre nature of the textbook industry)

The 1986 1st edition of Psychology by David G. Myers retailed at Carleton for $31.95.
The 1989 2nd edition of Psychology by David G. Myers retailed at Carleton for $36.95.
There are a ton of stats for years in between that I do not have.
The 2007 8th edition of Psychology by David G. Myers retails for about $128.00.

In 20 years the cost of a book that, fundamentially hasn't changed (remember, we're talking BASIC principles of a 1st year introduction to psychology course -- basic concepts of psychology, which are a combination of biology, development and society) has increased by almost $100. So basically, in 20 years, the price has increased by approximately 400%. Terrifying.

I AM going to try to get my hands on the 2007 edition, but just comparing the preface from the 1st and 2nd, I see a few interesting changes and want to remind you that all a publisher needs to declare a book a NEW edition is to change 10% of the book.

10 % can constitute revising or adding a single chapter to a 10 chapter book. But I'd be curious to learn if the following types of changes consistute changes.

Example - from the Preface of Myers 1st Edition Psychology (1986):

My goals in writing this book can be reduced to one overriding aim: to merge rigorous science with a broad human perspective in a book that would engage both the mind and the heart.

From the Preface of Myers 2nd Edition Psychology (1989):

My goals in writing this book can be reduced to one overrising aim: to merge rigorous science with a broad human perspective in a book that engages both the mind and the heart.

Interesting change of wordage there -- the second is a bit tighter, a bit more concise, so I'll give the editors of the book that. But does that minor tweak in style constitute one of the changes making it 10% change?

Similarly, the Preface numbered points of 8 priciples are flipped around.

Consider - 1st edition:

1) To put facts in the science of concepts
2) To exemplify the process of inquiry
3) To be as up-to-date as possible
4) To integrate principles and applications
5) To enhance comprehension by providing continuity
6) To teach critical thinking
7) To reinforce learning at every step
8) To provide organizational flexibility

2nd edition:

1) To exemplify the process of inquiry
2) To teach critical thinking
3) To put facts in the science of concepts
4) To be as up-to-date as possible
5) To integrate principles and application
6) To enhance comprehension by providing continuity
7) To reinforce learning at every step
8) To provide organizational flexibility

Well, at least 7 and 8 are in the same spot as in previous years -- but someone please tell me the reason why the exact same principles have been flipped around? Is that to meet ye olde 10% edition change requirements? And how much more of the same type of unsubstantial types of changes occur throughout the rest of the book? IE, chapters flipping around, or changing titles, etc.

It looks to me like a little bit of smoke and mirrors is going on here. But it's interesting how, within almost every single discipline that requires a college or university textbook and across the 5 main publishing giants that are producing these textbooks, there's an overwhelming cycle of 3 years between edition updates. Is collusion too strong a word to use here? It likely is, but it does nicely capture what seems to be an intense desire to deceive or mislead, both in the actual pedagogical requirement to update a textbook and in the costs associated with such updating.

Sure, there are cases where examples and pictures need to be updated. When seeing instructional videos (like the one that Fran and I saw a few years ago during a parenting preparation "course" we attended) we often laugh when we see people in their cool dude 1970's clothing. So sure, drawing on newer photographs and examples is likely a good thing. But the truth is, in most cases, particularly at an introductory level, the content is the same. I mean, if there's a picture of a young man standing in a 1970's leisure suit it's understandable to replace that picture in a textbook with a student wearing those stupid low never-ending hanging ass jeans that are popular (you can tell I've never been much into popular fashion) -- but it's hard to tell if that cross-section of the human brain defining various lobes was created in the 70's rather than in 2007. While fashion has continually changed I don't think the actual shape or structure of the brain has evolved all that much in 30+ years.

Okay, so my ranting and frustration about this situation aside, the textbook publishing industry as we know it needs some serious investigation and analysis done so we can bring it all back to the basics: Students require a reasonable balance between quality and affordability for academic materials.

And I am confident with the brilliant young minds I spent three days sharing ideas and strategies for improvement with, that groups and efforts such as those seen in CRAM are going to help drive the industry in exactly that direction.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Seven Words I Don't Want To Say

George Carlin died on Sunday June 22nd.

Seven words I didn't want to say.

Anyone who is even remotely familiar with Carlin's work has likely heard of his infamous "Seven Dirty Words" (or "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television") routine. Carlin properly shook up the establishment with this routine.

As Carlin stated, there's nothing wrong with so many of the words that offend people. It's not the words themselves, it's the context that counts; it's the context that makes them good or bad. Words themselves are innocent, it's the racist asshole who is using the words that we ought to be concerned about.

I loved how Carlin described the use of language and words as evolving into mis-truths and mis-information because of the softening of them. How the truth and reality can lose all meaning when they get entirely buried under jargon. He used the example how the condition known as "shell-shock" in WWI evolved into "battle fatigue" in WWII then "operational exhaustion" in the Korean War and then finally "post-traumatic stress disorder" by the time we reached the Vietnam War. The softening of the condition removed the basic humanity and reality out of what the condition actually is.

Through comedy, Carlin allowed us to challenge society's norms and take a second look at the way we classify things. He pushed the envelope in a way that allowed us to take a better look at ourselves. And I applaud him for that.

I classify Carlin as an original, a one and only, a pioneer.

Rest in peace, George! In honour of your desire to use simple words to speak the truth, I won't say that you are "gone" or "passed away", "laid to rest" or "no longer of this earth" I will simply state that you're dead.

And I'll also say that you made the world a better place and gave us a lot of fucking laughs over the years. Oh shit, I used a derivation of one of those seven dirty words. Whoops, I did it again. I hope I didn't piss anyone off.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

HNT - Fire Station

And here's another sign that when spring and summer comes, I get even busier doing fun family things and spend less time blogging. (It must have something to do with all that extra sunlight drawing me out of the basement cave where I like to compose my blog posts, articles and fiction.)

This week, for Half-Nekkid Thursday, I'm posting pictures taken back in early May - they were taken during the "Doors Open Hamilton" weekend where various landmark locations, services and attractions open their doors to the public and allow people to tour through and learn more about integral parts of their community.

One of the places that we made sure we visited was Hamilton Emergency Services Fire Station #1 (built in 1913) on John Street North.

Alexander, of course, has long been fascinated by Firefighters and fire trucks -- for the past 6 months if you asked him what he wanted to be he would tell you he wants to be a Fireman. It used to be that it was the fringe benefit of getting to drive the big truck that attracted him, because he used to be torn between firefighter and garbageman (I mean just check out that awesome huge truck that collects and crushes garbage - how can that NOT be one of the coolest things?) But more recently if you asked him WHY he wants to be a fireman, he won't explain it has to do with the truck but instead it's because he wants to help people.

Yet, despite his more altruistic reasoning behind the current career choice, I'm thinking it might still have something to do with the truck. Because while we were touring the facility of Fire Station #1, learning much about the history of firefighting in Hamilton as well as the way in which these services work today, he had the opportunity to ask the firefighters and emergency service personnel virtually ANY question about what they do.

And what does he ask?

"Where do you put the oil in the fire truck?"

After a long pause, perhaps reflecting on how he might have repeatedly been asked questions about sliding down the fire pole, how fast the trucks go, the volume of water that can be pumped through per minute or various other exciting specifics about firefighting or the fire truck, one of the firemen graciously showed him where and how they checked and filled the oil. (From the particular truck he showed us, you have to sit in the "back seat" of the truck cab to access it)

It proved to be a great weekend, particularly since we ended up learning about way more than we originally thought we'd learn during our tour of Fire Station #1.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

HNT - Beginnings and Endings

As I've said before, I'm a very lucky guy to work in the book industry. Every single day I am surrounded by something I am very passionate about: books and book people.

But ever since 2006 when I moved into the world of academic bookselling, I've been privileged to experience the joys and thrills of two of the defining moments of the student experience. Those first introductory days on campus (or at least the seeking out the required textbook aspect of it), and the celebratory ritual of graduation.

This week at work we've been involved in the June Convocation. Our university bookstore is involved in convocation to offer complimentary gowning for the students and faculty as well as caps for the Masters, PhD students and academic procession.

While the days are long (I had to be there for setup at 5 AM on Monday) and there are moments when it is extremely busy, working at Convocation is one of the highlights of the year. It is an absolute blast to get the students into their gowns and then help them find their way to the next post where they'll get the appropriate coloured hoods for the department they're graduating from. Everyone is beaming with big smiles and nervous energy, and like that first visit to the bookstore, I'm honoured with the thrill of offering them guidance and support.

At Convocation, we also have a booth to sell degree and portrait frames, McMaster crested merchandise and other items to help them remember their years of hard work and study. With it we offer complimentary framing. Watching the smiles almost bursting with pride of students and their parents as you hold up the frame holding their newly earned diploma is a very fine moment and one that very often brings me close to tears.

I'm not sure why -- since, except for the students I know, either through having served them repeatedly through their time on campus or from having worked with them, most of them are complete strangers. But I can certainly remember what it was like to reach graduation day and the pride that I and my parents felt that fine afternoon. It was 16 years ago since my own graduation, but helping gown the students, watching them take pictures with their families and loved ones and sharing in the moment certainly brings it all back to me and makes me feel young again.

So, in honour of feeling young, I present a photo taken from one of my first days in university when I'd moved into a shared house in Ottawa back in 1988 -- yikes, 20 years ago. I'd originally been searching the archives for a picture of me at graduation, but this one is a lot more fun.

In the photo are my cousin and roommate Rodney, me (look I had hair back then, but it's clear I was just as nerdy back then if not more so), roommate Maureen (my buddy Taki's girlfriend), Tammy (Rodney's girlfriend) and Taki. Oh, and in the back beside me and behind Tammy and Maureen, well that's Gumby, dammit)

Friday, June 06, 2008

Da Count - Hamilton Wingfest

Last weekend Francine and Alexander and I headed out of town for a few days -- we went up north to give my Mom a hand with some yard work that desperately needed doing.

But we just couldn't leave town without first making a visit to the first annual Hamilton Wingfest!

Given our love for chicken wings and the fact that Hamilton was one of the first Canadian cities to embrace the food (something having to do with our proximity to Buffalo, commonly associated with being the birthplace of chicken wings or Buffalo Wings) we just couldn't miss this historic event.

I mean, Burlington has its annual awesome Rib Fest, so why shouldn't Hamilton have a Wingfest? (I still have to go to Toronto for the Beer Fest to properly round out the fests, but we'll get one here soon enough - I have faith)

We headed down on the Friday night, which was rather chilly for late May and the sky was threatening rain. By the time we parked and walked in to Pier 8, the rain had started spitting down on us, but by the time we got to the kid's midway and bought our tickets, the rain stopped again. Alexander enjoyed a bunch of fun rides there -- he even won the prize of his choice at the kiddie duck pond, a giant blow-up dolphin.

The last ride enjoyed was the ferris wheel which I joined him on -- we had an awesome view of the grounds of Wingfest as well as the harbour. My favourite part of the ride was when on the quick descent of the ferris wheel Alexander started giggling and said: "That tickles" -- referring, I assumed, to that tickling feeling you get in your testicles when descending quickly.

We moved from there to the main grounds of the Wingfest, and, while we only had time to wait in one of the lineups (it was getting extremely cold, rather late and past Alexander's bed time), we quite enjoyed the experience. We polished off some french fries while listening to the Practically Hip -- a fantastic Tragically Hip cover band. Having seen the Hip in concert, I was amazed with this group and enjoyed their performance as much as the original band's. Actually, I enjoyed their performance MORE than the Hip -- and not just because frontman Dean (aka "Gordie") didn't almost kill me like Gord Downie did. (For a detailed explanation, read this blog post from 2006 that explains the details of an encounter many years ago with the original Gordie)

The music was great, the wings fantastic and Francine and I bemoaned the fact that we weren't going to be able to check out the rest of the fest over the weekend. We had originally planned on attending Wingfest on the Saturday night and enjoying seeing David Wilcox perform -- I've seen him dozens of times over the years and always enjoy his live shows.

But we did have a great time -- and made it out of there just before the rain really started coming down. We're certainly looking forward to next year's.

So, to sum up, this week I'm counting the fact that Hamilton, already rich with fun and wonderful things to do every single weekend has now added Wingfest to the repertoire. Needless to say: "WOO HOO!" and to the folks who organized it: "THANKS!" and "CAN'T WAIT UNTIL NEXT YEAR!"


Thursday, June 05, 2008

HNT - Daddio

Last week while trying to get my attention, Alexander called me Daddio.

I'd mentioned about a year ago that he stopped calling me Daddy all the time and out of the blue switched over to Dad. Since then it's been a combination of Dad and Daddy -- then, out of nowhere, he came up with Daddio and started laughing when he called me that.

The trend has continued on in the use of this pet name for me. Each time it is accompanied by giggles from Alexander as well as from myself and Francine. It makes me want to come up with some cute nicknames for him. (Other than Mr. Man or Zander)

This week's HNT pics are from the archives and a few shots that I took over the past few years of Alexander and Daddio hamming it up for the camera.