Canoe Trip Down the French River

Wilderness canoe tripping is more than a recreational past time for me. When I’m paddling in the pristine Canadian Shield, I feel a sense of peace and connectedness that no other experience brings me. It has been something I have been doing since I was a teenager growing up in Winnipeg.

Camping in Birds Hill Park, circa 1975. Ron is second from left.

Camping in Birds Hill Park, circa 1975. Ron is second from left.

Every summer my friends and I would go on one, two or sometimes three canoe trips a season. It was through these trips that I learned how to take care of myself in the wild. How to lead and how to follow. How to be part of a group. How to deal with myriad foibles and personalities of my tent-mates living in close quarters for an extended period of time. I learned how to be resourceful and to “MacGyver” my way out of trouble. I learned the importance of planning and the even greater importance of how to deal with the unexpected.  I use these skills everyday in my personal and professional life.  It was leadership training like no other.

Canoeing (and being outdoors in the wild) is one way that I identify myself. It is a source of my self-confidence and self-reliance. It is the reviver of my perspective and the maintainer of my mental health. Photos of me in the wild are the photos I choose for my personal profile pics in social media. By doing so, I say to the world that the outdoor Ron is the real Ron.

The stress and hectic life in the city drains away after several days travelling by paddle stroke and portage step. The days are spent talking, singing, having long philosophical discussions with my fellow campers without interruption or distraction. We prepare food and eat every meal together. We prepare our site, keep our clothes dry, set up our tent, tend to each other’s needs, and pay heed to ensuring we are protected from weather and critters. We go to sleep and get up with the sun. We see wildlife as it is and has been for thousands of years. We take our time. We are in the moment.

Lately I have had the immense pleasure of paddling with my three adult sons. It has become a way for us to connect that rivals no other.  We get to build a shared experience and have uninterrupted time together. I get to pass on my outdoor skills to them which, given how much they love canoeing in the wild,  I expect that they will use their whole lives and pass on to their kids in turn. No computers, no cell-phones, no TV nor any kind of distraction gets in the way. It’s wonderful.  In Yiddish, we call the feeling of spending such time with our children as Nackas.

On August 25th, 2015 I set out for a 4 night / 5-day trip to paddle the French River down to Georgian Bay and back with my 3 sons. I kept a travel journal, which follows:

Day 1: Hartley Bay Marina to Sturgeon Chutes (Site #605)

Distance: 10 Km

Time: 3 hrs (easy, lazy paddling)

Notes: No portages. Open water with wind off of Georgian Bay as we exited the shelter of Hartley Bay. Site #605 was on high-ground with a lovely view of the chutes. Site #604 was a bit hidden but looked reasonable if #605 was taken.

 

We left Toronto at around 9:30am. Stopped for gas and bait along the way. The boys were excited — this trip was months in planning.

Arrived at the French River Provincial Park Interpretive Centre at around 2pm to buy a camping permit and to get any advice on wildlife and weather. We were told where to avoid camping (bears have been seen on various sites this year) and how to keep away from the Massassauga Rattlers that love the rocks in the park.

Drove across the French River bridge and turned left onto the 17km long Hartley Bay road (dirt road, no 4 wheeler needed, but drove slowly). We got to the Marina and did the paperwork with the nice people at Hartley Bay Marina. I had reserved a pair of 17′ Nova Craft canoes a couple of weeks earlier.

We put into the water and were under way at 2:30 under overcast and threatening skies.  There was little wind and we paddled along the bay seeing several cottages and fishing resorts. We knew this park had a long history including the fir trade, logging and mining. There are several private islands and a modest traffic of outboard motor boats. We didn’t expect complete remoteness, but it was still a bit off-putting to see motorized and electrified civilization in an otherwise wild part of Ontario.

Light rain as we paddled. Everyone was dry — I’m glad I upgraded my ancient sets of camping rain jackets and pants.  As we made our way down the low-lying, grassy river on the way to The Forks, we saw a young bear foraging in the grass on the far bank.  We were down-wind and it didn’t smell or see us for a while. But when it did, it quickly melted into the forest.

Site #605 was nice; it’s on high ground with a lovely view of the chutes. Tent areas were scarce — the site is not for big parties. We were all happy and comfortable. I enjoyed preparing our steak and potatoes meal sitting in my new Helinox camping chair (Thanks for the tip, Stew!).

Overcast skies as we retired to our sleeping bags.

Day 2: Sturgeon Chutes to French River Western Channel (Site #702)

 

2015 French River Map Day 2
Distance: 16 Km

Time: 2.5 hrs (easy, lazy paddling)

Notes: No portages. The Wanatipei River is a lovely paddle. Narrow but navigable with interesting rock formations and lots of wildlife (turtles, geese, heron, duck). The Western channel can be windy. Site #702 was great — high up on a knoll with a great view of the surrounding area.

 

No rain overnight. Up at 8-ish and broke camp by 10:30.  As we were having breakfast, the boys saw a movement on the grassy island in the middle of Wanatipei River. A mother bear and her two cubs were rummaging at the shore no more than a kilometre away from us. We watched as they moved on into the water and across to the main land.

On the lovely paddle through the Wanatipei River, we saw beaver, cormorant, heron, duck. Entering Thompson Bay, we saw several buildings and camps on islands and boat traffic. We made our way south until we found the shoreline and turned right to follow the shore along the Western Channel of the French. We stopped at site #702 for lunch. The site was so nice, we decided to stay over. The boys were anxious to have some time to fish anyway.

In the afternoon, Noah and Carmi got it into their heads that they wanted to gather clams and crayfish for dinner. A major project ensued (gathering, scrubbing, boiling, opening/peeling, etc.).  Some fresh shellfish meat was eaten, but in an abundance of caution, I abstained.

As the boys set off from shore for another fishing attempt, they spotted a bear on the hill quite close to our camp site. It watched them as they returned to shore. We set about putting all our food away and gathering pots and pans to bang together should it be necessary (It wasn’t).

That evening a rousing game of hearts was played in the tent. Prior to turning in, we went out of the tent for a final pee only to discover that the skies had cleared. There was an Aurora Borealis lighting up the western horizon. Noah had never seen one before and was mesmerized.

 

Day 3: French River Western Channel to Bad River (Site #730)

2015 French River Map Day 3
Distance: 14 Km

Time: 4 hrs easy paddling, but with stops to enjoy rapids, portage and ponder the map.

Notes: Need to do lift-overs and portages around rapids or dried-out channels. The lower Western Channel is full of narrow rock-islands, fiords, rapids, swifts, etc. Fun, beautiful but easy to get lost (We did). Map and compass have always served me well, but not this time. Water levels were low at this time of year. Some spots just barely floated our canoe. Some of the chutes looked inviting for a swim, but we heeded the warnings on the park map and stayed away.

 

All through the night, we were serenaded by whippoorwhills exchanging calls. Early in the morning a pair of chipmunks got into an argument and it made me think of my new waterproof food duffel bad hanging in a nearby tree. Fortunately, neither chipmunks nor bears troubled our food through the night. The morning started sunny, but the skies clouded over as the day progressed.

We made good time paddling down the Western channel. We pulled over at camp site #709 to take our bearings and prepare for the complex navigation to come. Dense thickets of islets, inlets and passages were to our south. I consulted the map repeatedly. We portaged through a dry watercourse and thought we were in the right place. Later, I discovered that I failed to find the right passage into the Old Voyager Channel, our route for getting down to Georgian Bay. Instead, we ended up in (what I thought was) Black Bay, the western most of the Five Fingers of the Western Channel. We paddled south east looking for land marks to help us confirm our location. No luck – I couldn’t place ourselves on the map. There were many islands, inlets, swifts, chutes, rapids and whale-backed islets to entertain the eye, challenge the man in the stern and confuse the sense of direction.


 

Travelling by dead reckoning, we headed east as soon as I could find an opening, hoping to catch Cross Channel – an east-west passage through the wondrous delta of the French. Eventually, we found some fisherman in a dingy and asked where we were. The guy in the stern, encouraged by Ariel’s offer of a tot of Highland Park 10 year-old whiskey, pulled out a GPS. The guy’s GPS map wasn’t nearly as detailed as the park map, but I could make out that we were in the easternmost of the Five Fingers. This was significantly further east than I thought. We must have never been in Black Bay! After some friendly chat and more than one pull on our dwindling supply of whiskey, we parted with the fisherman and headed south. Soon, Ariel’s sharp eyes picked out a campsite and we made out way over to see the number on the blaze was #731, confirming where we were. Well, no harm done — we were about where we needed to be and had some fun getting here.

Some more portaging over fast-flowing chutes we found ourselves at Devil Door rapids. With the water level so low, this narrow passage was nothing more than a fast squirt through the rock walls into the open bay of Bad River. We passed some big sail boats and lake cruisers here as this opening connects directly to Georgian Bay. We checked out both site #730 and #729 and found that #730 was better, albeit quite far back from the water’s edge and little exposed. Luckily the winds were light off of Georgian Bay.  We nestled in by late afternoon.


 

The boys went out fishing and came back with a nice bass, which I boiled up and made ready for an appetizer to tonight’s dish noodles, spicy tuna and Wensleydale cheese sauce. They also reporting seeing a moose calmly grazing nearby. In bed by 10 pm, tired but happy.

Day 4: Bad River to Wanapitei Bay (Site #617)

2015 French River Map Day 4
Distance: 18 Km

Time: 7.5 hrs paddling including portaging, lunch and exploring.

Notes: Quite a few lift-overs and small portages through the first river segment. Breathtakingly beautiful islands and islets on the north shore of Georgian Bay, but the wind coming off the lake can be challenging -we stayed in the lee of the islands. Camping spots at The Elbow were snapped up quickly — you need to arrive early if you want one. We had a south wind at our back up the Main Channel. It would have been tough going had the wind been in the other direction.

 

Heavy, unsettled weather started the morning. Clouds moving north rapidly through the sky off  Lake Huron. Broke camp and set out east at 10:30am. The nameless river (perhaps it’s part of the Cross Channel) is shallow this time of  year and was broken by dry breaks and beaver dams. Several easy pull-overs and portages got us through. The boys found some snake skin and saw catfish in the shallows.  The weather gradually improved with sunshine and warm winds. We stopped at site #723 for lunch, a wander over the Georgian Bay flats and a swim. The water was cold — even for August. We also took the traditional Tuchas Shot (don’t ask).

Breathtaking paddle through the seemingly torn islets of northern Georgian Bay. Hundreds of bald, pink, whale-back islets. Even with light winds, there were whitecaps out in Georgian Bay. Paddling in the lee of the islands helped keep the waves at bay. Navigated by compass — keeping an eastern course we worked our way around the islets and eventually found the wide open mouth of the French River Main Channel.  Highly visible navigation markers made this opening obvious.  With a light but steady wind at our back, we made great progress through the channel. Our canoes surfed on the waves coming from behind us. We made The Elbow in good time and found the 180 metre portage without difficulty.

I expected to see turn-offs to the 3 campsites from the portage but there were none. I suppose you need to access them from the river.  There was some rusting derelict heavy machinery on the upstream part of the portage that was part of the earlier settlement of what what is now the Provincial Park.  Unfortunately, most of the half dozen campsites at The Elbow (besides the three at the rapids which we didn’t check out) were taken. One was available (site #624) but it wasn’t very nice. So, we decided to carry on up the Main Channel.

 

On the route, we saw a smaller bird harassing a bald eagle and what we thought was a weasel (marmot? mink? otter?).  With the wind at our back, we flew upstream and got to site #621 in good time. It wasn’t very good so we continued on to site #618. Also, not great (far back in the trees and somewhat buggy and claustrophobic). After checking out #619 (not good), we settled on site #617 which was relatively nice. By this time, it was 5:00pm and we were feeling quite tired from the sun and a full day of paddling.

We got a fire going and I sparked up my trusty MSR stove and cooked up that night’s supper: Mennonite sausages smoked over fire with a side of boiled couscous with fried onion and garlic.  Tired as we were, we put up a tarp and hoisted the food duffel in a tree (as always ). After the obligatory marshmallow roasting, we turned in.

Day 5: Wanapitei Bay to Hartley Bay Marina

2015 French River Map Day 5
Distance: 8 Km

Time: 2.0 hrs paddling.

Notes: We had a steady drenching mist in calm air. Had there been wind, this piece of open water would have been challenging.

At 4 am “flash-lights were flashing, zippers were zipping” (Carmi) because the Nalgene water bottle had sprung a leak and soaked the ends of two sleeping bags. The incident was managed and folks eventually went back to sleep. Later  a steady rain started to fall. When we woke to pale morning light, everything outside the tent was thoroughly wet. We were glad to have set up the tarp. Our packs were dry and we had a cozy spot to sit and have breakfast (Coffee, oatmeal, orange slices, dates). We took our time that morning.  We spent the better part of an hour gazing out at the lake, smoking tobacco pipes with the sound of the rain on the tarp above our heads.

We were trying to decide if we should have a layover day here at this site, continue on to a different site or  head for the car.  After lunch, a quick fishing trip (Noah caught a small sun fish) and a few more hours of on-again / off-again rain, we decided to declare victory and head for the car. We waited for a lull in the rain and collapsed the tent and packed it wet. All of our gear was secured and we set off in the canoes at 2:30 in the afternoon in a steady misting rain.

We pulled into Hartley Bay Marina at around 4 pm. We settled up our bill, stuffed the wet and dirty packs into the car, took the final photo.  Ariel drove home with a stop in Barrie for some dinner.


 

Post Script

I bought a great little rugged camera for the trip, an Olympus TG-4 . Shock proof, water proof, etc. You can see all the photos of the trip by clicking the picture below.

French River Canoe Trip 2015

When Numbers have Colours

I just finished my latest Coursera on-line course on Visual perception and the Brain. As part of the course assignments, I had to write a final essay on a topic related to visual perception. I have long been fascinated by synaesthesia, so I researched it and wrote a little about it. What follows is an adapted version, suitable for a blog.

Synesthesia2Daniel Tammet has synaesthesia. To Daniel, numbers on a page have a unique three-dimensional shape and unique colour. That is, the digit 1 is a hazy glow of white light. The number 4 is a blue boomerang. The 5 is a yellow cross-hatched square. The number 6 is a tiny black hole. Daniel “sees” these shapes and colours both when looking at the number on a printed page as well as when he is simply imagining the number. Number-colour synaesthetes, like Daniel, have a unique multi-modal experience of the world. A stimulus to their visual sense triggers an associated experience in another of their senses (eg. colour, auditory, haptic or olfactory). In Daniel’s brain, as in the brains of approximately 0.5-2% of the world’s population, there is an unusual amount of cross-talk between sensory systems that are usually somewhat isolated from one another. This gives rise to one sensory modality triggering another (eg, a graphical representation of a number causing a sensation of colour). There are several different sub-types of synaesthesia where one modality of perception triggers another modality. The most common is the number–colour synaesthesia (like Daniel) in which numbers have shape and colour. The literature also documents word-colour, sound-colour, texture-colour, sound-taste and several other forms of inter-modality triggering. In a recent TED talk, Daniel used painting to create a pictorial representation of the colours, emotions, textures he experiences when the thinks of the first 20 digits of PI. Very cool.

Why Number-Colour? Why Not Number-Smell?

Could any human sense cross-talk with any other? Could a number have a particular smell, for instance? It seems not. Adjacency in the brain is among the stronger theories of why synaesthetes have certain sensory modalities paired with other modalities. Cross-connections are more likely in adjacent areas than they would be in part of the brain that were distant from one-another. In a 2001 paper by the neuro-psychologists Ramachandran and Hubbard, the authors propose that the number-colour type of synaesthesia may result from hyperconnectivity between nerve systems in the fusiform gyrus and/or in the angular gyrus areas of the brain. These locations in the brain are known as integration points for different visual-perceptual and emotional systems. Dr. Jamie Ward of University of Sussex points out that our neural systems for taste are close to those of systems which support spoken language in Broca’s area of the Brain. Thus, there are synaesthetes who pair the sound of words with a particular taste.

Hereditary Basis of Synaesthesia

There is some evidence that synaesthesia is hereditary (passed along the X chromosome). Thus, one theory postulates that synaesthesia could arise due to a genetic mutation that inhibits the pruning of neural connections between perceptual areas of the brain during fetal development. Reinforcing this observation, Ramachandran and Hubbard refer to experiments where researchers found much larger neural feedback from inferior temporal areas to the V4 visual area of the brain in prenatal monkeys than they did in adult monkeys. They speculate that should connection pruning during fetal development fail to eliminate these links, then connections between the number-grapheme area and the V4 area would persist into adulthood supporting the ability to the experience of colour when viewing numbers or letters. While genetic factors appear to be part of the picture, genetics by itself cannot account for the whole phenomenon. The neural cross-connections merely permit a number to evoke a colour. Learning is an essential reinforcing element because people are not born with an understanding of number and letter symbols. Ramachandran and Hubbard point out the fact that different synaesthetes have different colours evoked by the same numbers. For example, to one synaesthete 3 is red while to another it is blue.

The “Inverse Problem” in Visual Cognition

It is a bit hard to believe, but our eyes do not perceive the world as it is.The Inverse Problem The image that impinges on the back of our retinas is in fact an amalgam, a blend, of a number of distortions that occur as light from (say) the sun bounces off an object and the photons are picked up by your eye. It works like this … light from the sun traverses the turbulent atmosphere, is partially absorbed by the object in front of us and partly reflected by it, is reflected by near-by objects that blend with the main reflection, traverses yet more atmosphere, gets inverted and bent by your eye’s cornea and lens and then finally ends up on the rods and cones that make up your retina. These are only sensitive to certain wavelengths of light and their response changes with time. By the time the image is being picked up by your retinal cells and sent to your brain, it is a mere approximation of what you are looking at.

Figuring out what is ‘really’ out there in the physical world is called The inverse problem in visual cognition. The crux of the inverse problem stems from the fact that the same image on the retina can be generated by different physical objects with different shape, colour, motion or orientation. The classic example illustrating this is that if the sun was a little brighter and the paper a little darker, our retina would register the same image as when the sun was duller and the paper brighter. Just using our visual system, we can’t know which of these two scenarios are in fact ‘reality’. Grey_square_optical_illusion-300x232The reverse is also true. We may see the same patch of colour as lighter or darker depending on the surrounding area in the image. For example, the patches A and B in the image to the right are in fact the same shade of gray — we just see them differently due to the context.

This fundamental limitation causes ambiguity in that we cannot be sure what physical source is causing the visual stimuli we see. Is that a tiger hiding in the bushes or is it just the play of shadow and light on the leaves? Our retinal images are the same in both cases. Answering such questions quickly and accurately can be the difference between living to procreate and being somebody’s lunch. Dr. Dale Purves, in the Coursera course I’m taking called Visual Perception and the Brain, makes the point that images are only representations of the physical world. They only exist for us in our perceptual and cognitive systems. Our visual perception of the physical world is distorted due to variances in luminance, reflectance, transmittance and the physiological limitations of our perception systems. As such, as we try to make sense of what our eyes see, our brain must make a number of assumptions and extrapolations based on heuristics and memory. As synaesthetes have a special kind of integrated milti-sensory perception, could they have an evolutionary advantage over non-synaesthetes in their ability to make sense of the physical world? For example, Dr. Purves has shown that the same patch of colour in the physical world is experience differently by our perceptual system depending on the context that the patch appears in.

Could There be an Evolutionary Advantage to Synaesthesia?

Could someone with synaesthesia, using senses triggered by that patch of colour, have memories and experiences which could afford him/her an evolutionary advantage? Dr. Jamie Ward, in a recent video interview outlines a number of theories as to why their might be an advantage to being a synaesthete. For example, he relates a study where synaesthetes have been shown to have an ability to remember certain shapes or colours better than non-synaesthetes. This ability to use other sensory systems to help remember more visual information and remember it more accurately could be an adaptation that could be selected for by natural selection. Having more and better data in which to associate images with phenomenon in the physical world could help address the inverse problem in visual perception and thus could result in better survival and reproduction. That being said, Dr. Ward asserts that more work is needed to better understand the phenomenon because there are different forms of synaesthesia with different genetic and phenotypic characteristics.

The phenomenon of synaesthesia has interested me for years. I can’t help but feel a bit impoverished knowing that there are people who have a more integrated and rich experience of the world than I do.

P.S. Did you know that Leonard Bernstein, Richard Feynman and Vincent Van Gogh were all synaesthetes? So were a lot of creative forces in history (here is a list of more famous people with synaesthesia).

Here Comes the Sun

The 6th-floor palliative care room at Baycrest is neat and tidy. In the bed lay a woman in her 80?s with the sparse hair of someone who has recently undergone chemotherapy. Her face was worn and gaunt, but she was dozing peacefully. The bed sheets were crisply folded around her. At the bedside were flowers, stuffed animals and cards. The green LED on the bed-side monitor blinked softly. In the corner was a portable cot (recently used) with it’s sheets and pillows stacked on top of it.
Palliative-Image
Along the window sill were a dozen framed photos of the woman at various stages of her life, surrounded by her husband and children. The expressions of the people in the photos showed that the woman was much beloved and respected. In one, she stands with her hands enclosed by her husband’s; they are in their 70’s and are clearly much in love.

Standing beside the bed with a guitar in her hands is Chrissy (a member of our music therapy staff), speaking softly to the woman. “Your son tells me that you love music, and especially the Beatles” she says. Laying her sheet music gently on the bed next to the woman she begins to strum softly and sing:

Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right

Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here

Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right

Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been here

Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes

 

The optimistic music fills the room with warmth. With a faint raising of the eyebrows, with an barely audible murmur, I see the woman respond to the music. I sit for 30-minutes, listening to the guitar and Chrissy soft voice. I watch as she speaks to the woman in the bed asking her if she likes the song, if it reminders her of anything, would she like to hear another, etc. There is only the faintest of responses to these questions, but enough for Chrissy to adapt and select the music she is playing. Then, it is time for us to go. We quietly slip out of the room and let the woman sleep. Chrissy is off to see another client, and I am off to my office to deal with a busy day of meetings.

One of the best parts of my week is when I am scheduled to job shadow a member of my team. I try to visit with each individual at least yearly to better understand how and where they work and the issues they are facing in delivering their services to our patients, clients and their families. Each one of them is contributing mightily to the Baycrest vision, each in their own way.

I feel honoured to be working with such a compassionate and dedicated team.

Being Unanonymous

On the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog

Nobody knows you are a dogThere are probably many folks out there that are familiar with the classic cartoon on the left. It was drawn in 1993, at a time when there was a universal expectation that your activity on the Internet was anonymous and untraceable. Even a dog could mascaraed as a person.

Today, the opposite is true. Everything you do on the Internet and with your cell phone is tracked, correlated, analysed, identified and recorded. You and your activity become commodities that are bought and sold between firms or used by governments to ‘protect you’. You cannot so much as walk around the city with your smart-phone’s WiFi or Cell service turned on without your activity being tracked and used for commercial (at best) or nefarious (at worst) uses.

In this brave new world, commerce has changed. All that wonderful stuff out there in the cloud that we access all day long cost money to make and it has to be paid for. We consumers have tacitly agreed to pay for it, but with a different kind of currency – our identities. One of my favourite Internet security gurus, Bruce Schneirer , says it succinctly:

Nothing is free, so if you won’t pay cash, you’ll have to pay with personal information.

Okay, so we can no longer trust that our Internet activity is anonymous. But I have also found that it is true that no one trusts us even when we choose to declare our identity.

I had a personal taste of this one night 2-weeks ago. Working on my home computer in my basement, I hit the enter key to submit my answers to a final exam in Introductory Human Physiology, an on-line Coursea course. Rather than the results being submitted, something curious happened. I was taken to a web page that asked me to type a particular sentence into a box on the screen. As I typed, a program ran in the background analysing my typing style.

Identity Validation

Identity Validation: Convincing someone that I am me

When that was done, a message appeared that said that my typing passed the test. Then, I was then taken to a different page that asked me to sit-up straight and look right into my webcam.  After I clicked an OK button, a picture was taken of me. A few seconds of analysis followed. Again, a message appeared saying that my image passed. Finally, I was taken to a page that said that my exam results have been linked to my identity and submitted for grading.

In truth, this wasn’t a total surprise to me. You see, when I enrolled in this Coursera course, I chose their ‘Signature Track’ – an optional service where my participation in the course is linked to my identity. When I opted into my course’s Signature Track, Coursera put me through a process where my typing style and facial features were captured by their identity verification system. I also had to snap a picture of photo-ID. Upon submitting each exam (there were three in the 12-week course), my typing style and facial image were captured again and compared to the reference prior to them accepting my answers.

Signature Track Certificate

The Signature Track is the systems where Coursera takes special pains to ensure the person who sits for the exams is the person who signed up for the course in the first place.  Coursera markets the Signature Track as a premium feature with these extra security features.  I paid the $50 fee largely to see for myself how they do this identity verification. It was certainly interesting, but I found a number of ways to circumvent it. For example,  the certificate itself is  self-printed and easily spoofable if you have some proficiency with Photoshop.

Anyway, earlier this week I got an email confirming that I passed the course. A link took me to a special customized web page featuring a JPG facsimile of a classic certificate with the words Verified Certificate  above an official looking seal. My fancy certificate is on the left; click it to go to the special Coursera page where you will see the official confirmation of my taking the course.

 

The Course Itself: Introductory Human Physiology

As the for the course itself, it was harder and more intense than any I have taken thus far. Drs. Carbrey and Jakoi of Duke University really know their stuff and packaged up a fascinating romp through the body’s major systems. They did their best to simplify things, but there was an assumption that you were comfortable with high-school chemistry and biology and could dive into fine details about ATP metabolism, PH regulation and organic chemical reactions and without much explanation. We learned about organ systems, homoeostasis, endocrine pathways, cellular transport, normal organ operations and pathological states of various systems. You had to keep up with the lectures and readings – everything had a deadline.

Lecture Notes Screen Shot  Questions

The Course materials were the usual on-line learning variety including lecture notes (PDFs), videos with in-video quizzes, power point slides, discussion forums, post-lecture problem sets, FAQs and practice exams for review. It was a respectable (if by now somewhat ordinary) set of media that I have come to expect with Coursera courses.

Discussion Forum Course Description FAQ

Exam Takers = 5% of Participants

I was among 27,870 active participants from all over the world.  Of these nearly 28,000 learners, only about 1,300 (5%) wrote the final exam. Of these less than half passed. In fact only 560 learners (2% of the total population of participants) both wrote the final exam and also got a grade above the passing level of 75/100.

Class Map

A 2% passing rate would be a terrible result in a traditional class-room. But in a MOOC, that might be normal; who knows?

In all, it was a great course and a good experience, but far more hours and intensity than I anticipated. I’ll be more careful next time to carefully read the course descriptions of my next Coursera course.

Smell-O-Vision

Predicting the future must be human-kinds second oldest profession.  I try to avoid falling into the trap of prognosticating anything, preferring to use a more Darwinian approach  in preparing myself and my organization for what will come (flexibility, adaptability, etc.).

Whenever someone does ask me about the future of technology —  “What do you think the next big thing in technology will be?” I have a ready answer. I respond with something ridiculous and humorous. “Smell-O-Vision!”, I would say, trying to make the point that it is futile to try to predict the unpredictable.  How anti-predictive I thought I was.

Today I learned that I’m going to need to invent a new snarky response to that question. Thanks to the innovators at the Oscar Mayer Institute for the Advancement of Bacon, a marketing campaign has just been launched to promote a real-life smell-o-vision device. They have built a hardware plug-in for the iPhone that enables an alarm clock to wake you with the smell of bacon.


bacon
 

At first, I thought April fools day had come early. But on checking this out, it appears that this is legit — it is a real product. Snap the device onto your iPhone, set the app for the time you want to wake and put the phone down on your night stand. At the designated hour, the device will emit puffs of vapour scented like fresh cooked bacon.

Well, it turns out the folks at Oscar Mayer are not the first to think about bringing scent to the user experience. PC Magazine has an article on 10 oderific gadgets and gizmos that you can buy today which lever what scientists believe is among the oldest of all our senses.

Olfactory-processing

The Science of Smell

According to a New York Times book review of the aptly titled Smell,  the nerve bundles branching backward from our nose are connected to the evolutionary ancient parts of our brain. The olfactory system also connects more or less directly with our limbic system — the part of our brains that deals with our emotions. Smelling something generally leads to emotionally nuanced and even instinctive actions. Hormone production is also triggered quite automatically through the strong connection of olfactory nerves to the pituitary gland. The upshot is that what we smell influences our general bodily function in an way that we may not be concious of. According to the book review, before we can rationalize or verbalize what we smell, but have an immediate reaction and start to act in accordance with it.

Personally, I can relate having recently spent a year suffering from anosmia . What I missed most during that year was not the joy of tucking into a fragrant glass wine nor was it wafting up the waves of scents from a bouquet of flowers. What I felt was a general feeling of missing the mini-surprises of unsought emotions.Poem That is, I was not pleasantly distracted from my daily activities when I caught a waft of my wife’s perfume as she walked by. I was not pleased by the clean smell of a freshly washed towel after my shower. I was not alerted to the state of cleanliness (or lack thereof) of the public toilet I walk into at the Hospital I work at. I could walk past a bagel shop and not know I had done so. No sensation of sweet baking. No reflexive mouth watering. No gentle hunger pangs.

Now that I can smell and taste again, I have become very attuned to the little mini-emotions that pop into my conciousness all during the day. So much richness has been restored to my every day life. I am happy to smell and to feel the emotions induced by smell — even the negative ones brought on by stinky garbage.

The Emotion of Smell

Our sense of smell is a very under appreciate human sense.  Even reading about smells can induce emotion and memory. See if you can read the poem on the left by Christopher Morley without your limbic system triggering a pleasant emotion or two.

If you found yourself experiencing the warm recollections of the smell of ripe apples and camp-fire smoke, this little poem provides some subjective proof that our nose is an important part of our emotion-inducing senses.

I don’t think I’ll be a customer for the bacon vapour alarm clock gadget, but it’s nice to know that the frequently forgotten olfactory system isn’t totally ignored in today’s personal technology maelstrom.

Broken Dishes

Book Thinking Fast and SlowSome books are just so good, that I read them again and again. One such book is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. I have both hard-copy and e-book versions which I find myself going back to a few times a month.

Kahneman is a remarkable fellow — a psychologist by training, he won the Nobel prize in Economics in 2002 for integrating insights from psychological research into economic science, primarily human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty. His book is a treasure-trove of empirical examples of how we think; nicely organized in an easily understandable theoretical framework. I highly recommend it for those who thirst to understand why we are the way we are.

Last week, while working on a complex grant application here at Baycrest , I had an opportunity to apply one of the insights from Dr. Kahneman’s book. We were working on a section of the grant application where we were to outline the economic benefits of creating a centre dedicated to the commercialization of innovations in aging and brain health. We had come up with a list of 2 strong benefits and 6 additional benefits — a total of 8 points. The 6 additional benefits were good and added somewhat to the overall business case but they lacked the clarity and resonance of the first two benefits. The small team gathered around my office meeting table were working on the text that supported our list of 8 benefits when I recalled an experiment described in Khaneman’s book and decided to change our approach. Here is the experiment that came to mind (the text in green below is copied directly from the book):

Christorpher Hsee, of the University of Chicago, asked people to price sets of dinnerware offered in a clearance sale in a local store, where dinnerware regularly runs between $30 and $60. There were three groups in his experiment. The display below was shown to one group; Hsee labels that joint evaluation, because it allows a comparison of the two sets. The other two groups were shown only one of the two sets; this is single evaluation. Joint evaluation is a within-subject experiment, and single evaluation is between-subjects.

 

 

Set A: 40 Pieces

Set B: 24 Pieces

Dinner Plates 8, all in good condition 8, all in good condition
Soup/Salad bowls 8, all in good condition 8, all in good condition
Dessert plates 8, all in good condition 8, all in good condition
Cups 8, 2 of them broken  
Saucers 8, 7 of them broken  

 

Assuming that the dishes in the two sets are of equal quality, which is worth more? This question is easy. You can see that Set A contain all the dishes of Set B, and seven additional intact dishes, and it must be valued more. Indeed, the participants in Hsee’s joint evaluation experiment were willing to pay a little more for Set A than for Set B: $32 versus $30.

The results reversed in single evaluation, where Set B was priced much higher than Set A: $33 versus $23. We know why this happened. Sets (including dinnerware sets!) are represented by norms and prototypes. You can sense immediately that the average value of the dishes is much lower for Set A than for Set B, because no one wants to pay for broken dishes. If the average dominates the evaluation, it is not surprising that Set B is valued more. Hsee called the resulting pattern less is more. By removing 16 items from Set A (7 of them intact), its value is improved.

This is a fascinating and illuminating piece of work that provides an important lesson about parsimony.

Reflecting on this experiment, I reasoned that the grant reviewers would be engaging in single evaluation of the applications they receive. This is largely because most of the 40 or so grant applications they will receive would come from different sectors of the economy (healthcare, energy, finance, manufacturing, etc.).  It would be difficult for them to make a direct comparison between the economic benefits listed in one application to the benefits listed in the others. Benefits to the economy are not as easy to compare as are dishes. Moreover, the evaluation team will likely not each review the 40 or so applications. It is more likely that a small number of applications will be distributed to each reviewers. Thus, the reviewers will be making a somewhat independent judgement of the economic benefit list as it appears in each individual application.

My epiphany was to eliminate the 6 additional benefits in our list and instead to focus entirely on the first two. In this way, the ‘average’ value of the economic benefit argument we were making would not be diluted by lesser (albeit positive) points.  The team around my office table agreed to this approach and we spent our time fleshing out the two strong points. The result was a highly focused discussion of just the two strong points we had come up with.

The grant application went in on Friday and I think we stand a good chance to be selected for the short-list. Should we get selected, it will be amusing that we used research on how the brain works to win a grant competition for a center focusing on research about the brain.

 

Life Long Learning From Your Living Room

courseraAs a voracious learner, the advent of MOOCs couldn’t come at a better time. MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses, a recent experiment by major Universities in social-entrepreneurship .  There are three big MOOCs ‘competing’ to give you education for free:  edX, UDACITY,  and Coursera. It is still not completely clear why major academic institutions around the world (MIT, Stanford, Columbia, Yale, U of Toronto, etc.) are diving into this world. Much has been written about the risks and benefits to these institutions. But, whatever their motivation, we the learner benefit enormously.

A few months ago, I completed a course in Innovation (Leading Strategic Innovation in Organizations) from Prof. David Owens at Vanderbilt University. It was busy work — video lectures with interspersed quizzes, readings, discussion forum, end-of-lecture reflection essay and grading the essays of fellow students were the weekly tasks. Keeping up was sometimes a challenge. I found the course material to be a little basic for me, but the production quality of the delivery was exceptional.

I am now taking a far more expansive course ( A Brief History of Humankind ) from Prof. Yuval Noah Harari at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is a great lecturer, but there seems to be a far less demanding set of weekly tasks. We’ll see how this one goes…

Prior to MOOCs, finding quality courses, lectures, etc. was a bit of an art.  TED had (and continues to have) a breathtaking array of excellent lectures — but they are quite short and are meant to appetize curiosity, not to provide a deep dive into any one topic.  Some of the places I used to (and still do) frequent for learning material included:

edge.org John Brockman’s vast compendium of interviews and book reviews of great thinkers and their ideas.
massey The annual Massey Lectures which are often streamed by CBC on their Ideas program.
Reith The Annual Reith Lectures which are streamed by BBC.
Teaching The Teaching Company’s “The Great Courses”. These cost $money to buy but are excellent.
Perimeter The Perimeter Institute’s Public Lecture Series — webstreamed on their site.
CharlieRose Charlie Rose has exceptional thinkers on his program and, from time to time runs series on special topics such as the Brain.

 

So, now I can add MOOCs along with my work reading, conference tutorials, industry webinars, books (paper, ‘ebooks’ and audio books).  The scope of choice and ease and availability is breathtaking. There really has never been a time in history when so much of the worlds knowledge is so freely available to so many learners.

 

Quick, choose one: Takati or Ulumo?

Welcome to the world of User Interface Design. Here is your first assignment:

You are tasked with building OTN’s next great telemedicine service which will be delivered on PCs, smart-phones and tablets. Thousands of users are going to click on your service. Your service consists of two different applications (‘apps’). The first app is called TAKATI and the second app is called ULUMO (don’t worry what these strange names mean, play along). Your job is to choose a graphical look-and-feel that will make it apparent to users which app is which.

Which of the two graphics above do you choose to be the icon for the TAKATI app and which one for ULUMO? After you have chosen, take a moment to reflect on your decision. Was choosing easy or hard? Why do you think a shape and it’s colour just seems to fit a particular word? What would happen if you reversed your decision – would it make a difference to how usable our service was?

Over the last few years the Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN) have been increasingly driving more of our service to the Internet. Our members can now get a broad swath of information about how to use telemedicine through on-line documents, check-lists, policies and member agreements. They can search and find healthcare providers and sign-up for educational opportunities on-line. They can schedule telemedicine encounters. If they need training, they can get it through a web-based multimedia at any time. They can launch videoconferencing events from the web or smart-phone. Have a videoconferencing encounter on their PCs over the public internet. We have a lot to be proud of, but we are only just beginning. In the next several months, we will be bringing all these isolated services under one web framework and one look-and-feel. Harmonizing all these services into one Telemedicine Centre will bring coherence and functionality as our users have never seen before.

As the little assignment above demonstrated, it can be important how you name things, what colour you use and what they look like. User interface design is about these issues and a lot more. Think of all the times you have been frustrated by poor user interface design on business-oriented websites or apps. Who has not had an experience an inability to find information on-line, to specify the correct product to purchase, to navigate a complex on-line form or to find out what to do when you run into trouble. Bad design leads to a bad user experience. And a bad user experience can lead to disillusionment and abandonment. Designing good graphical user interfaces is key if we want our users to adopt our services.

According to Jacob Nielsen, The distinction between user interface and user experience is subtle but important:

We design the user interface: screens, error messages, forms, commands, etc. But users experience the system as a whole, comprised of both the design and the implementation as well as many other components, such as network delays, which can ruin response times and degrade user experience as much as bad design can.

How can we ensure that our users have a positive and productive experience using our on-line services? Many of us at OTN already have aspects of the user experience at the centre of our job descriptions. However, the graphical user interface is a new thing for us. It will play in increasingly important role in user experience as we release more service through PC/Phone/Tablets and it needs its own special attention.

 

To this end, I have formed a User Interface working group to kick-start this work. We have been meeting and working on the user interface and user experience for our PC-based videoconference portal and the Telemedicine Centre with some great results (coming soon — be patient).

We all understand how important it is to make on-line services ‘easy to use’. However, making things easy is not always easy. It takes design expertise, effort and persnickety attention to subtle but important detail. With the formation of the User Interface working group, we now have a team which focused on the User Interface aspects of our user’s experience making sure our on-line services are the very best they can be.

 

An Innovation Doctrine

Lately, I have been reading a lot to better understand how my organization could respond to the rapid personalization of healthcare, mobile health computing (mHealth), social networking and ubiquitous communications.

As I was researching, I recalled an important insight in one of the books I had read by Dr. Jared Diamond. In his excellent book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail Or Succeed, Dr. Diamond outlines the major problems that societies historically have faced and how they mis-handled these problems:

• Failure to anticipate a problem before it arrives
• Failure to perceive it once it has arisen
• Failure to attempt to solve it after it has been perceived
• Failure to succeed in attempts to solve it


Dr. Diamond was discussing problems like major ecological, political or economic misteps that have brought down entire civilizations. However, I thought that his succinct 4-step failure mechanism applies equally well to other problems such as a disruptive technology or a fundamental market shift.
On thinking about this passage, it occurred to me that if we transform Dr. Diamond words in a positive way, we get a doctrine of innovation:

• Anticipate an opportunity before it arrives
• Perceive the opportunity once it has arisen
• Attempt to exploit the opportunity after it has been perceived
• Succeed in exploiting the opportunity

Jarad Diamond’s history lesson is that we should not be complacent in the face of major change. My modern take-away from this is that yes, we should be ever vigilant of disruptive change. But also, we must be open to major opportunities. Once we see a strategic opportunity coming, we must energetically embrace it.

This innovation doctrine is one of the ways to ensure an organization that embraces change, is responsive and sustainable, and an active contributor to an ever-changing health system.

The Astronaut

I’m cleaning out the basement and throwing out decades of accumulated stuff. On the one hand, it’s very cathartic to make space an get rid of dust-collecting do-dads of dubious value. But on the other hand, the act of selecting which artifacts to keep and which to throw out brings on a kind of melancholy. Original copies of my Master’s Thesis, letters from my old girlfriend, a vintage slide-rule from my collage days, magazine articles mentioning my name … the flotsam and jetsam of half a life lived. What’s it good for? Why keep it?

Anyway, in a dusty box I came across a little gem. There, shoved into an envelop with kitchy birthday greeting cards was nearly 30 year-old, yellowed newspaper clipping. It was an ad from the careers section of the paper — Canada needed astronauts. Along with the ad, were two letters paper-clipped to the back.

Newspaper Ad

Ad Looking for Canadians with the Right Stuff

It’s the summer of 1983. A young, enthusiastic, but hopelessly under-qualified Ron Riesenbach sees an ad in the newspaper seeking candidates for Canada’s inaugural astronaut program. While only an undergraduate still in University with no military experience, flying skills or biological payload expertise, he decides to go for it. After weeks of filling out forms (“Please list the number of hours you have logged flying the following aircraft ….”, Uhhh, zero.) and getting required medical tests, an application is submitted with a carefully crafted cover letter which celebrates the candidates (pathetically meager) qualifications.

Letter of Application to Astronaut Program

Letter of Application to Astronaut Program

An embarrassingly short time later, a letter arrives from the National Research Council. In gentle (but firm) bureaucrateese, the Chief of Personnel celebrates the great response the ad has engendered, but regrets to inform Mr. Riesenbach that his application will not be moved forward for further consideration.

We Regret To Inform You

We Regret To Inform You ...

Sigh … a dream squashed. But the innocent enthusiasm and bravery of the attempt makes me proud.

This document I’ll keep.