Saturday, 28 July 2018

The Canadian Museum of Human Rights: I stared into the abyss for too long

Amazing architecture, but by the end of the long walk up
the history of humans being shitty to each other you might
be tempted to step off one of the many ledges; I was.
I just spent a long morning walking up the architecturally astonishing Canadian Museum of Human Rights.  By the end of it I was reminded of a comment one of my profs made after he visited the Holocaust Museum: "You don't end up thinking worse about Hitler and the Nazis, you end up thinking worse about everyone else."

By the time I got high up in the museum I was feeling pretty done with being human.  The Museum tries to introduce a sense of hope, but I had trouble accessing it, especially when the subtext of the whole thing and how it presents itself highlights the horror of human social nature.

What all the apartheids (the travelling exhibit on the first floor was called Mandela), holocausts, genocides and the general disharmony of human history had in common was our urge to establish ourselves as a dominant culture and then destroy anyone weaker or non-compliant.  This self serving, centralizing behavior is a foundation of human group think.  In the senior year of my philosophy degree I suggested that human beings are, by their nature, violently tribal and selfishly motivated when in groups.  They'll use any means at their disposal, from ability, race and gender to religion, culture and politics to isolate and attack each other for the benefit of their own tribe.  We'll invent a reason to segregate and attack each other if there isn't an immediately physically obvious one.  The prof adamantly and immediately shut down my line of thinking, saying that it had been proven in some kind of scientific sense that this wasn't true, but there is a museum in Winnipeg that shines a bright light on this central aspect of human nature.

We're not falling far from the family tree.  Just like chimpanzees, baboons and most other apes, humans feel the urge to attack and victimize strangers, not usually at an individual level but at a group/social level.  We have an in-built urge to aggrandize our own culture at the expense of others because it offers us a chance to be selfish while dressing it in virtue.  Murder becomes patriotism, genocide becomes an act of faith.  Human society is founded on this urge and the ones that survive embrace it wholeheartedly, the ones who didn't have already been eaten.  Our complexity has allowed us to glorify and express this viciousness in ways that are unique on our planet; our cruelty is truly boundless in regards to the natural world, but especially with each other.

You're supposed to reach the Israel Asper Tower of Hope at the top of the museum and feel hope, but I wasn't.   The Museum suggests an evolution of human rights towards something greater, but the world today seems to be awash in technology that is at best confusing any sense of advancement even while we're staggering under the weight of global issues we're all too selfish to address.

In 2018 we're using emerging technology to destroy human rights in new and interesting ways.  We've got Russia cyber-attacking and annexing whole sections of the Ukraine.  After learning about the Holodomor today, this is business as usual for Russia's relationship with the Ukraine.  What did anyone do about it?  Well, we awarded Russia with the World Cup and installed a US president who evidently works for them.  We've got social media platforms making millions even as they erode democracy and create a mis-information revolution.  The United States' democracy is in tatters and Ontario just followed them down the populist rabbit hole.  In both cases driven by white, right wing religious types who would love nothing more that to see all the advances made in human rights dissolved away.

The Museum seems to have stopped recording human rights abuses at about 2012.  Considering the delicate political dance being done this isn't a surprise.  Pointing out the human rights failures of current governments and corporations while they're funding you wouldn't keep the lights on for long.

The museum describes social media as a great democratization of media and a powerful means of giving everyone a voice, but nowadays we have a differing view on that.  Western democracies were soaring under black US presidents, politically strong European Unions and an expansive sense of hope when they stopped recording this selective history.  Sure, we were staggering under the weight of a banking collapse of international proportions that was designed to drive wealth from ninety-nine percent of us to the one percent, but that's not mentioned anywhere either unless you look to the sponsors list.  

The human rights march we're all supposed to be on towards an ideal the museum tries to present feels like it has faltered now that we're in our unscripted future; maybe it was never there to begin with.  It would have been wonderful to have seen new pieces on fake news, modern economic terrorism (banking), modern propaganda (social media), and how populism in Western democracies has put pressure on many human rights.  White supremacy in the Twenty First Century?  Human rights problems didn't end five years ago, we're not at the top of a mountain of human rights achievements we built, we're on a rickety house of cards that seems doomed to collapse, but the museum is strangely silent on this.

There also seem to be some gaps in the museum's historical analysis.  No mention of Palestinians, or Syria, or dropping nuclear bombs on untouched civilian populations to get accurate statistics, though the Japanese comfort women system was mentioned.  You can't help but feel there are some Western political undercurrents going on here, which of course leads me back to what kicked this whole thing off: we'll use any means necessary to gain and keep a social advantage, even if it means weaponizing human rights themselves as a political tool.

Insights from the general public at the end of six plus floors of human rights atrocities.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Neurodiversity is Useful But Not Worth Nurturing

A colleague shared this display on autism from the Canadian Museum of Nature. In it they take a positive neuro-diverse view of autism and its differing strengths.  Most people would describe autism as a form of mental retardation, such is the prejudice and demand for people all thinking in lockstep like the majority does.

I showed it to my son and asked him what he saw.  He started to say, "Hi", but then stopped himself and said "Es and Ns."  I suspect his indecision and then incorrect answer (answers are always based on neurotypical expectations, not on what's actually there) would have gotten him a failing mark if this was a test question.  If it was on the literacy test, my hyperlexic son would have been considered illiterate even though he's the furthest thing from it.  When I saw it I saw Es and Ns but knew the expected answer was 'HI', so that's what I said - I've learned how to (mostly) tell people what they want to hear rather than what I see (and what's actually there).

Neurodiversity, as presented by the Canadian Museum of Nature, emphasizes the benefits that the human race enjoys as a result of it.  Having people who are able to comprehend data from a variety of different perspectives has obvious advantages, but in most cases neurotypical people will go out of their way to isolate and alienate those who they find mentally different, whether it ultimately benefits them or not.  Compliance and conformity will always trump complexity and difference.

Neurotypical prejudice especially hammers ASD influenced thinkers for their lack of social nuance, but then NTs are happy to benefit from Newton and Einstein's ASD driven detailed analysis of physics, or Alan Turing's ASD detailed focus on computing, or Nicola Tesla's ASD focused electrical engineering (there are many other examples).  In those cases where ASD produces exceptional results, NTs are happy to benefit from it even as they isolate and punish the people doing the work.  This approach often results in neurotypical people taking social and financial advantage of this genius for their own benefit.  NTs are happy to make use of ASD driven breakthroughs, but this often has more to do with how they can harness it and profit from it than it does having any kind of compassion for the people themselves.

When I was putting myself through university I worked as an automotive technician.  As people gained experience, many would move toward the sales desk, hoping to get out of the dirty technical work and into the cleaner sales end of things where management lived, but I was the opposite.  I went out of my way to take the technical roles and tried to avoid the sales side of things whenever I could.  I excelled at the technical work, quickly becoming the service manager, but had no interest in the slippery psychological side of the business.  Most business is of that slippery, psychological nature, as is a tragic amount of education.  For the people who work better at developing relationships and working their way up (which is to say most people), this is great, but for a guy with ASD it just feels dishonest.  We're not there to develop relationships that benefit our career, we're there to do the job at hand.  If I were better at the slippery psych I'd be up in management somewhere, but technical expertise isn't what gets you ahead even when that's the job at hand.

Education is a great example of human relationship building getting in the way of an important technical skill (learning).  Being willing to say what a teacher wants to hear rather than the truth as I see it is difficult for me.  I managed to earn degrees and diplomas in spite of my lack of tact and every grade I've ever been given was done so grudgingly rather than with encouragement.  What a teacher wants to hear usually isn't what's there and it's usually something designed to retain that status quo power structure built around relationship building.  If you can ingratiate yourself to the system/teacher/administrator you can count on it to help you socially climb it.  I have a great deal of trouble interacting with many managers for this reason.  They seem less interested in teaching and learning and more focused on personal advantage through networking.  It takes a special kind of manager to recognize my focus and support me in it rather than attacking me for it.

If we spent less time trying to align things socially for our own benefit and spent more time on tackling the issues themselves, I'd be over the moon, but it'll never happen, it isn't human nature.  I'm tempted to tell my son to see all the Es and Ns he possibly can and screw the rest of it, but that won't help him find a place in our Teflon coated social apparatus.  But spending lots of time and energy on something that doesn't come naturally to him (the nonsense of human relationship maintenance) means he's not developing his special understanding of the world to the best of his unique abilities.

Can you imagine if we had a school system that encouraged neurodiversity and enhanced it rather than trying to find ways to accommodate it by mitigating it into the same socially driven expectations box everyone else is content to be thinking in?  Can you then imagine a world where those enhanced, neurodiverse kids could go out into the world empowered by their differences instead of being socially embarrassed, belittled and beleaguered by them?

Previous Posts on ASD:

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

The Happy Ship

One of the more ASDish qualities I have is finding awards ceremonies difficult to fathom, especially graduations.  Being packed into a room with a big crowd of people is tricky enough.  Doing it under the constant threat of public acknowledgement is agonizing.  I get the sense that North Americans play this up more than in other places, so perhaps there are some cultural influences going on here too, but my savage disregard for awards seems to run deeper than just cultural dissonance.

I am in the process of weathering two days of back clapping by people who thrive on back clapping.  Their love of self aggrandizement (and don't kid yourself, graduation ceremonies are all about acknowledging and empowering the system) makes my hatred of it confusing to them.  I never feel more alienated from neurotypical people than I do when graduation rolls around.

The first was my son's grade eight graduation put on earnestly by his elementary school.  As in every other graduation I've had to weather, this one involved repeatedly congratulating the same students over and over again for being advantaged and conforming to norms in a manner so efficient that they produced outstanding results in a system designed for them.

And why shouldn't all those advantaged, neurotypical kids be awarded for these things?  They thrived in the artificial learning environment that is the classroom.  They arrived well fed and clothed and culturally aligned with the process that was about to assess them.  These students all had a clear understanding of how to manipulate that system to their own advantage.  It was amazing to see how many of the awards focused on that socializing aspect, recognizing compliance in maintaining social norms as the highest virtue.  Awards for helping to run the school appeared thick and fast with happy teachers handing them out while not having to hide their favouritism any more.

I showed up to school in Canada as an immigrant from a lower socio-economic bracket.  I don't think like other people and have trouble remembering who is who let alone how to create tight social bonds with teachers that would result in any kind of award.  My son gets to skip the immigrant thing and I've gone to great lengths to ensure that socio-economics aren't weighing him down like they did me, but I've also given him an even healthier dose of ASD than I have.  He got to sit through two hours of hearing about how all these wealthy, socially engaged and advantaged, neurotypical kids deserve to be honoured by a school system designed for them.  How do you think that made him feel?  He has struggled to finish his elementary career this week on a positive note.  And yes, this makes me angry.  Not only is the ceremony actively exclusive, but the social pressure involved in attending is absolute.

I just finished reading Paul Theroux's The Happy Isles of Oceania: paddling the Pacific, so I've got nautical themes floating around in my head as I write this.  Paul is an odd duck himself.  He takes great pleasure in doing things differently and being alone doesn't freak him out in the way it does most people; I imagine he'd find graduation ceremonies as alienating as I do.

As I fidgeted in the humidity of that packed room, the idea of a cruise ship came to me.  On that happy ship are all those students predisposed to success in school.  They thrive in noisy rooms full of people, they are socially tuned to make best advantage of the entire school system, and that system is eager to reward their compliance.  Their communications skills allow them to create positive, supportive relationships with their peers, but most importantly, their teachers.  These uber-kids are like professional athletes.  They excel in an artificial environment and then get rewarded for it handsomely by the people intent on maintaining that system.

As if every day at school stepping into a shoe designed for them wasn't enough, they then get graduation where everyone gets to hear about this very abstract and specific version of excellence, for the same people, over and over again.  These are the students that I meet in high school who don't really care what Hamlet's motivations are and don't think there is anything to actually learn about human nature in literature, but they do want to know how to get the A+.  Education isn't self improvement for these people, it's a flag they wave around for social advantage.

From an outsider's perspective it feels at best patronizing and at worst like you're getting your face rubbed in it.  If you see any awards that aren't based on 'academic excellence' (whatever that means), they tend to be tertiary awards given as charity without any other criteria.  The best you can hope for is someone saying how hard you tried, but don't be patronized by that pat on the head.  For the neuro-atypical thinkers who don't work best in a classroom, but are learning all the same, there are no awards for all the books you read  (or wrote) that aren't on the curriculum.  There are no awards for all the art you made that didn't happen in class.  There are no awards for all the sports you participated in that didn't happen under the hammer of a phys.ed. teacher's critical eye.

My son's grades look remarkably like mine.  When you get grades like that they tempt you to say fuck it to school, which I'm sure makes the neuro-typical people who deliver them feel very powerful.  Assessment for compliance.  Assessment for conformity.  Assessment for learning?  Rarely.  Sitting through graduation ceremonies only exacerbates that feeling (I didn't attend any of mine).  I had a chat with my boy afterwards and reminded him that what teachers are willing to see in the very limited classroom environment is not in any way an accurate reflection of what he is capable of.  When you have the kind of intelligence that is very difficult to observe let alone quantify, part of your genius has to be nurturing it yourself.

We're all crossing the learning ocean, but some of us know
what the waves sound like because we're out in it on our own.
All those neurotypical kids on their big cruise ship crossing the learning ocean have the benefit of a system designed for them, but many of them also forget that they're actually on the learning ocean; the cruise ship becomes their whole world.  When they have to disembark in that glittering graduation ceremony of privilege rewarded, they are lost.  They didn't learn anything for its own sake, they learned things for grades and accolades.  They struggle to find their way in a world that doesn't always reward their privilege with success, though they'll never forget that feeling of privilege and will seek it again and again for the rest of their lives.

I ended our chat with this:  embrace your difference, don't surrender to their assessment.  And if you don't want to go and watch them clap each other on the back for being privileged, then don't.  It's the dropouts and outliers who tend to invent new things - no artist ever learned their art in a classroom.  The fighting spirit you develop in yourself getting beaten up by the school system will be what makes you strong when you don't have to suffocate in it anymore.  Whatever happens, never forget that learning isn't school.  Always be learning, never let them rob you of your creativity.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Competitive Urges: Skills Canada National Finals in Edmonton, 2018

I've hesitated to post this because I get the sense that competition is generally sneered upon in Ontario classrooms these days.  With earnest people saying everyone is a genius and anyone with the urge to pick up a tool is a craftsperson, something like Skills Canada might seem like a cruel and unusual way to show that as obviously incorrect.

I've always had a competitive streak and think there is real value in both winning and losing, but losing really bothers me (hence, competitive streak).  This was written on a long flight back from Edmonton as I struggled with failure.  Contrary to popular belief, I consider this to be a good thing.

Can you feel the heat?  Skills Canada Nationals is a pressure cooker of excellence!

I was in a foul mood when I started writing this, but by the end I'd thought my way out of the frustration, which is the most I can ask from a reflection...

I’m at a loss to explain how we can be so dominant in provincial competition and then fumble Nationals.  Two times now we’ve taken the time and expense to come out to Skills Canada Nationals and have come up short.  In the latest case I could not have possibly arranged things any better.  From coop to employment opportunities to multiple in-class opportunities and supports, my current candidate had every tool possibly on hand to achieve success, but we haven’t.  This is the worst possible time to ask me (on the plane, flying home, empty handed), but I’m feeling tired, frustrated and struggling to understand why I’d go through this again.
4am wake up for a 10am departure - moving hundreds of
people, many of them with hundreds of pounds of tools
is a logistical challenge.

A consistent issue with leaving our small town to come to nationals is circumstantial.  In our first go around, the social pressure around missing high school prom proved such a distraction that my candidate arrived with a pocket full of angry texts and little chance to focus on preparing for the coming battle.  In this year's case, a sports injury in a pointless local game the week before the competition led to a week away in wheelchairs and on crutches.  In both cases small town life conspired to produce the kind of static that knocked capable technicians off a medal.   But maybe there is more to it than that.

I don’t think the competition is particularly technically challenging.  There is nothing asked that my competitors aren’t directed to and encouraged to get a handle on.  This has worked so well provincially that we’ve medalled the past three years (two golds and a bronze), but at Nationals both times the wheels have fallen off the cart.  That we can do so differently at two near identical competitions suggests that our issue is psychological, not technical.

Team Ontario is a monster!
So, what about Nationals is so overwhelming?  The assumption (I think) is that Nationals will be next level, but Ontario provincials have many more competitors from many more schools.  Getting out of Ontario is by far the most difficult part, and we’ve managed it twice.  The people we face at Nationals aren’t IT unicorns; they’re kids, all with less experience in competition.  In some cases they only had to show up to get to Nationals because there were barely any provincial competitors.   I’d assumed that our previous ‘blind’ Nationals experience (where we placed 4th anyway), had prepared us for this one.  My candidate was more experienced, more focused (barring sports injuries and school plays) and had been given many more opportunities to develop their IT skills than our first go around, yet subjectively we’ve underachieved.  Our best hope now, prior to knowing the scoring, is a tie with our last attempt, but I fear that might be too much to hope for.

Got the kit...
Last year we blew provincials and didn’t go through.  I lay the blame for that entirely at my own feet.  The change to a Toronto based venue meant a cruel and unusual commute that made us exhausted and late; we didn’t have a hope of peak performing (yet we still managed a medal).  This year we did back flips arranging hotels and finding ways to minimize the financial burden on our competitors in order to ensure our best shot, and that worked.  Leading up to Nationals I made sure everything was taken care of and any possible need was filled prior to sitting down to compete.

Expectations are perhaps the killer here.  Our first time around I took Nationals to be a reconnaissance.  We’d already over achieved to such a degree at Provincials that I was just happy to be there.  Sure, a medal would have been nice, but understanding the contest was my real goal.  That we came so close to getting a medal had me convinced we were moving in the right direction.  This time around my previous champion gave a detailed rundown of what to expect on Nationals and we didn’t go in blind, yet we have failed to capitalize on that information.  This could mean it was bad information, but I doubt that.  It could also mean we simply didn’t make the time to make use of that information because my two competitors have an unhealthy competitiveness between them.   We have underperformed, yet the competition was described as too easy, and we knew what was coming.  How are we bottom half?  With the medal ceremony behind us, I’m left wondering where we are, and, as a coach, I don’t like the feeling - the lack of understanding feels like a failure on my part.

This might sound like whinging or poor sportsmanship, but I didn’t spend all the time and money and stress to not place again.  This isn’t even a case of gold or die, just knowing we were there or thereabouts would have met my expectations; I don’t think that’s an absurdly challenging goal.  If we didn't want to be competitive, why did we compete?

Pre-contest huddle.
One of the more surprising aspects of this trip was just how different my competitor was.  On our first go I had what looked like an Eastern European rock star who had the swagger to go with it.  He had the technical chops, but his cockiness also meant he’d tackle problems aggressively and with some verve; he wasn’t intimidated by anyone or anything.  I suspect that fourth place finish was as much the result of that fearlessness as it was his technical skill.

This time around I had an anxious perfectionist who I couldn’t read very well and (I fear) I didn’t coach as effectively as I could have.  Maybe, in this case, a less acerbic approach might have served us better, but my approach to coaching and teaching has always been to encourage an independent and experiential approach to the challenges of technology.  I give students the gears if they make a silly mistake, but never penalize them for it.  The ones who stick around end up resilient, self-aware and technically superior.  I don’t baby students and hand them answers, I’d rather see them struggle to a solution themselves.  The result is a technician who might not know all the answers, but damn well knows how to find them.
Like herding cats...

Except at Nationals.

This time around I had a university bound, academically strong student for whom this was just one of many feathers in his hat.  This is his second national final in an ICT related field in as many weeks.  At the CyberTitan National Competition, on our first go at it, we placed as high as I’d hoped we would and that trip was (I think) a great success.  My expectations here were actually similar this week, to finish in the top half, but we’ve failed to do that.  There were only 7 competitors in the national IT & Networking final – three provinces and all the territories failed to produce candidates who could meet national standards – so finishing in the top half would have meant a medal.

My first national finalist was a college bound kid who had been on the verge of failing in the years before and found his way out of that mess though finding his genius in info-tech.  He ended up going to college for IT and considers his Skills experience a vital piece of his career (as he should).  I never once heard my first champion say, ‘it’s just IT’ when someone asked him what competition he was in, but I heard that too many times this week.  Downplaying the field of study (I fear) when competing at the national level in it was a reflection of the doubt that plagued this medal run.  At one point I heard, "I don't understand why I'm here with all these people" (meaning experts in their skilled trade).  I thought it might have been false modesty, but it in retrospect it was doubt, which is a disaster when you're in a pressure cooker like Skills Nationals.  Maybe I should have identified that and talked about it earlier, but if years of straight ‘A’s in computer and software technology courses, multiple provincial medals, full time summer employment as a  network technician, a top five finish in the related cybersecurity contest nationally, detailed notes from all the competitors who came before and a coop in IT wasn’t enough to instill some confidence, I fear nothing will.  I don’t think this result was a deficit of technical skill.

Watching mastery across such a wide range of skills
never gets old.  If you get a chance, go to Skills Nationals.
This year in electronics we took a giant step backwards, to the point of me wondering if we were ever moving in the right direction.  My competitor was crushed by our poor result and this prompted me to chase down her judges and request some clarification on our results.  She'd actually ended up in the medals on the two toughest categories (building circuits), which helped restore some confidence.  Then we got clarification on what we missed, which has shed such a bright light on what we need to do that I can’t believe we won’t be contenders next year.  Her response to all of this was stubborn anger.  I can work with that.  One of the judges encouraged her to hang in there saying, 'it’s the failures that toughen you up and eventually make you a champion.'  It’s that kind of thing that makes me want to do the hours and hours of volunteer work it takes to build up to winning provincials again and perhaps going through another exhausting and potentially hope crushing week at nationals.

Maybe one of the things I need to be doing when I’m looking for candidates to take on this overwhelming challenge is to look for the tenacious scrappers who can’t, won’t and don’t stop.  Maybe that was missing this year.  A student following in his brother’s footsteps for whom things had fallen into place, winning medals even when he claims the whole thing was a disaster was suddenly doubtful of his place in the competition.  I don’t know what to do with that.  Maybe that judge is right – it’s overcoming the setbacks that make you commit to the competition and fight with conviction.  Win or lose, if we left everything on the competition floor I’d be happy with the result, but something stopped us from doing that this time.  Perhaps it was the injury, perhaps it was nerves, perhaps I'm just the wrong coach for a this particular student, which is a shame for us both.

I didn’t do well in school.  You can count the number of ‘A’s I got on one hand.  Things generally have never come easily to me, I have had to fight for them.  I dropped out of college, out of an apprenticeship and struggled to get into and through University.  I’m good at many things, but I don’t think I’ve ever been a natural at anything.  The things I’m good at are the result of determination and stubborn disregard for failure.  It’s that kind of tenacious student that I’m best able to help because I can identify with them.  I find the honour roll perfectionists alien and don’t always know how to work with them to bring out their best.  Perhaps the best thing I could have done here was to send another teacher instead.  If I could go back and rerun this week over and over again Groundhog Day style, that would be one of the variations I’d try.

I’m most effective helping the stubborn, scrappy student I have much more in common with attain their mastery than I am trying to aim an honour roll kid at gold.  Those scrappy students also play to my love of underdogs.  As I said earlier, perhaps expectations are what make this so difficult to take.  This time I thought I'd brought a howitzer to a knife fight.  As fixated as I am in this moment on failing to medal again, in less fraught moments I’m more about a good struggle than I am about winning – but it’d sure be nice, just once, to sit on this long road home with something tangible to show for it.


A week after we got back we had an interview with the local paper.  When asked what I thought something like Skills Canada does for a student I immediately went to the degree of resilience it develops.  I truly believe that competition is good for us all, and that competition has to involve winning and losing.

At the opening ceremony the MC asked the audience of hundreds of competitors who was going to win a medal, they all started cheering - the unspoken disappointment was left hanging in the air, you can't all be winners.  More people come home disappointed after Skills Nationals than satisfied.  That's no bad thing.

My goal as a coach is to find ways to help competitors put their best foot forward.  This year has taught me a lot about how I can better do that.