Saturday, June 30, 2012

Amsterdam Day 3, the Hague, and Volendam

Since I was too tired to post impressions of day 3, it'll have to be now instead and be relatively short. Yesterday we visited the Rijksmuseum, which is located maybe 10 minutes from the hotel. It is a lovely and imposing building, even though it's being renovated right now. The museum itself is unfortunately half as big as it usually is due to these renovations. Still, the exhibit of famed Dutch ceramics, silver and gold ware, historical artifacts (weapons, costumes, etc), and most importantly the classic Dutch painters on display is still impressive. It's well worth a visit considering that some of Rembrandt's, Vermeer's, and Jan Steen's famous paintings are on display. The Night Watch is really quite something seen live... but there are other gems as well. Vermeer's Milkmaid is lovely, as are the rest of Rembrandt's paintings on display, and I also quite liked Adriaen van de Venne's Fishing for Souls painting. Almost forgot, photographing paintings is allowed sans flash, which is quite a big deal.

After the Rijksmuseum we stopped at an excellent antiquariat and print shop that I highly recommend to everyone visiting Amsterdam. It's called Antiquariaat Hoogkamp, located at Spiegelgracht 27s and they have a website here. Honestly, skip buying fancy prints at museum shops and check it out - the variety and quality (and prices) are excellent. Afterwards we went for a walk in the Jordaan distrtict. It has nothing to do with Jordan, but is rather a Dutch way of pronouncing French word "jardin" - garden. This is a bohemian art district, and it's instantly obvious. There's an art studio literally on every block (sometimes more), more street music, and the shopping is far more interesting than the usual tourist traps in the centre of the city - check out these awesome knitted kyrgyz hats. It's also a very scenic and colourful walk and a very interesting neighbourhood to visit, so I highly recommend it. For eating we were very satisfied with this place - Amigo grill. A grand walk to visit all the remaining major sights in the core of Amsterdam concluded the day. We finally checked out the other famous churches, the royal palace, and some other sights. By the way, the New Church is very beautiful inside, but is far less interesting from a story point of view than the Old Church and the admission price is highway robbery. At the end of the day, we decided to try authentic (I hope it was anyway) Dutch cuisine at De Blauwe Hollander and it was really quite good. But by the end of the day I felt like a change of scenery was needed.

For such a small country Holland contains an infinity of spaces. The green stretches to the horizon interspersed only with gleaming canals and thick copses of threes. The sea likewise stretches into the gray haze. Unobstructed by buildings of the cities and towns, the flat lines of Netherlands stretch into nothingness. It makes even a simple drive through the countryside more beautiful than it ought to seem. The enormous modern windmills and the quaint classic Dutch windmills aside, the countryside is very nice - the transition from a city to the country is very abrupt though. Blink and you miss it. Our destination was the Hague. On first impression it is a more outwardly modern city than Amsterdam, a lot more office buildings and high-rises on the outskirts. The city core, despite having more modern buildings than Amsterdam, still retains its older charms. Although we initially wanted to visit the Mauritshuis museum where an excellent collection of Vermeer, van Dyck, Jan Steen, Rubens, and Rembrandt is kept, we were delayed by the Netherlands' Veterans' Day parade, due to which all the museums were closed in the morning! So we wandered around the old city core, got to see the other royal palace (more medieval and more pretty than the one in Amsterdam), the royal stables (the size and magnificence and age of which put our Parliament building to shame), the Peace Palace (where the International Court of Justice tribunal sits), and some other interesting spots. The Hague is a very stately city, quieter than Amsterdam, with somewhat less canals but no less ubiqutous bicyclists, more spread out and interesting in its own right. It reminded me of Ottawa quite a lot. The parade was quite interesting and good spirited, and there were Air Force fly-bys and we got to see (from a distance) Prince of Holland, but started to drag on. Visiting the Mauritshuis again we discovered that it's actually closed for renovations until 2014 and that Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is actually on display closer to home - in United States' Finck museum. The rest of the exhibit was moved to the Gemeentemuseum - so go there instead if you are in the Hague. The exhibit was quite impressive even without Vermeer, and included some more modern artists like Kandinsky. It's well worth it.

After the Hague our last destination of the day was a large fishing village (a town would be more appropriate) of Volendam, famed for its fresh and salted seafood (and really the gastronomic reason was our only reason for visiting). It is, however, a lovely spot and a chance to see how the less urbanized Dutch people live (short version - nicely). The Marina is very nice and the North Sea is - well - a sea, if you're into that sort of thing. The best smoked fish is to be had from street vendors rather than the pricier restaurants. Since much of Holland is within 1-2 hours of driving from Amsterdam, you don't feel like you're missing out on visiting Important Tourist Locations by stopping at smaller and equally nice less-visited places. Tomorrow a long trip to possibly Antwerp and Haarlem, and ultimately Bruge!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Amsterdam Day 2

Anne Frank house (the shorter one with the white roof) as seen
from the boat
No visit to Amsterdam should go without a canal trip. Most of them leave from a spot near Konings Plein, and the price for a 1 hour excursion is very reasonable. Go early in the morning, that way your boat will be mostly empty (like mine was). If you are willing to spend more you can even hire yourself a small boat with a driver who will double as your tour guide. If you are feeling adventurous you can even hire a canal bike and pedal down the canals. The tour is really great though, I got to see many landmarks from this perspective, the tour itself was entertaining (apparently three cars a week end up in the canals every week due to poor parking), the Amsterdam house boats (and garden boats, and workshop boats, and museum boats, and the decrepit-boats-that-double-as-duck-nests boats) are very neat. Anyway, the canal trip is cool, take it if you get the chance!

After the canal trip we went on another long walk and ended up walking through the Red District. It's actually rather tame during the late morning, just a little more trash than the rest of the city. Architecturally though it's as picturesque as the rest of Amsterdam. On a whim we went into the Old Church. Admission is not free, but it is cheap, and was totally worth it! The church is absolutely stunning inside! During the Reformation, the Amsterdam Calvinists went a little nuts smashing and dismembering the Catholic pageantry inside the church, but they stopped short of smashing the magnificent organ or the stained glasses. Actually, a Catholic church devoid of most of its gilded trappings is very interesting - you get to see the bones of the building so to speak. It's being renovated so some of the stained glasses are not on display, but it's still really interesting. Speaking of interesting, the floor of the church are all tombstones going back 700 years (35 generations lie buried in the church). So you're literally walking on dead people, all of them the rich and/or famous citizens of Amsterdam. Also, if you're observant you'll see that some tombstones bear mysterious markings (or maybe these are just acronyms), including what looks to be alchemical or kabbalistic signs. Or maybe I've watched too much Indiana Jones and read too much of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.

Anyway, afterward we popped into the Hermitage Amsterdam museum. It's is a sort-of extension of the famous Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, and its collection gets changed twice a year. I've seen most of what they had this time around when I was in the actual Hermitage, but it might be worth visiting again in the future. Another small museum that's very interesting is the Rembrandt house, it's restored to the time when Rembrandt lived in it, and it contains some of Rembrandt's sketches, letters, and assorted knick-knacks. After some more picturesque walking we finally arrived at our ultimate destination - the Van Gogh museum. It's not just Van Gogh there though, there is also a collection of paintings by his friends and contemporaries, very interesting collection of late 19th/turn of the century posters, illustrations and lithographs, and the Japanese ukiyo-e prints that Van Gogh brothers collected. Word of warning though, the line-up is quite long, either go there early in the day or obtain an advance pass. There are museum passes being sold in most hotels and tourist shops that let you skip the line. If time is off the essence, it might be worth it, especially as regular admission to Van Gogh and Rijkmuseum is not cheap.

The day concluded on a sour note as Germany lost to Italy 0-2. Going out to watch the game was fun though, huge crowds, very boisterous, looking forward to watching the final game (although by then I'll be either in the Hague or in Bruges). Today looks like it's raining most of the day, so I'll be indoors in Rijksmuseum most of the day! Rembrandt ftw!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Amsterdam Day 1

A view of Central Station and portion of Damplatz
First day in Amsterdam (more like half day, first few hours were spent in the airport, and jetlag is about to claim the remaining evening hours. What follows is a confused, sleep-deprived, rambling first impression of the city.

It is by far the busiest, most crowded, relaxed place on earth. I don't know if it's the tourist crowd, or the presence of so many byciclists, or something in the air (more on that soon), but it's a very relaxed place. Traffic is a snarl, pedestrians step aside to let a tramway rattle down the street, byciclists are brazen lords of creation dominating the lanes, and pedestrians happy to ignore most designated crossings. It's dizzying and a little nerve-wracking at first, but I gradually got used to it.

Gastronomically (I was starving so looking for sustenance was a major preoccupation), Amsterdam seems to be dominated by Burger Kings, a local cafe chain, and for some reason Argentinian in specific, and Latin American restaurants in general. The Indonesian cousine for which Amsterdam is supposed to be famous for is present, but in less amounts than I was led to believe. Lots of Italian places too. You have to order bitterballs - a Dutch delicacy. It's like a spicy meat falafel - delicious! Prices on food everywhere I looked have been very reasonable even with the current Euro-CAD exchange rate. Ignore the area around Damplatz, and Leidseplein, and eating in Amsterdam will be cheap and excellent. Leidseplein has a lot of restaurants but they tend to be either chains or aforementioned glut of Latin American and Italian restaurants.

Went on a three hour walk around the city, it's beautiful and there is a ton more to see. Every street seems to hold a dozen neat places at least. Like this amazing Art Deco/Art Nouvelle movie theatre (above). Yes, it's still a movie threatre today. So much of downtown looks like it would've 400 years ago in the Golden Age of Amsterdam. The fronts of  buildings enter right on the canals, while protruding cranes seem ready to reach down onto the waiting barges and winch up furniture or bales of goods from far-off exotic places. Each building seems to hold some interesting detail waitingto be uncovered by a patient observer. Also, I'm not sure what the deal is, but some older buildings appear to be leaning forward... On purpose it would seem. The effect can be a tad disconcerting but neat.

Despite the initially dangerous-seeming traffic, Amsterdam is a very pedestrian-friendly city, and the air is very clean! Walking in downtown Toronto right now would probably induce asthma. The only exception to the quality of air is the cigarette and pot smoke. More people smoke outside than I am used to, and the smell of pot is pretty pervasive in some parts of downtown. Yes, coffeeshops and various pot smoking paraphenalia is everywhere, on major thoroughfares and pedestrian arcades alike. I stopped noticing them after a while, but the air pollution produced by purveyors of such places is unmistakable. The city is very clean save for cigarette butts, kind of a weird juxtaposition.

All hail our Segways overlords!
OK, I'm starting to wax verbose, and I'm heading to bed! Tomorrow, hitting three or four museums, and another walk of the city!

P.S. Segways everywhere! What would be the plural cognomen of Segways? A clutch of Segways? A lean of Segways? A hilarity of Segways?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Classroom of the Future... tomorrow!

Spurred on by Margaret Wente's shrill diatribe against teachers and their unions in Ontario (not wholly undeserved - I could say two or fifty unpleasant things about the Ontario College of Teachers), and by the end of the school year, I started thinking about what would an effective classroom look, say, 7 years from now. A lot of this is going to be generalizations though, but I think the numbers bear out. So given that:
- the supposed purpose of education is to provide valuable skills and knowledge to the new generation
- the costs of education per student are going up, while enrollment is actually slowly decreasing, and education is consistently the second highest portion of government spending not just in Ontario but across Canada
- education is seen as being vital to a 'successful' career
- teenagers are busier than ever with part time jobs, community hours, trying to find internships to help with business/pre-law/pre-med/etc. applications
- all phones will be equivalent to today's cutting-edge smartphones
- Internet access will be ubiquitous (it might be heavily censored in the future, but at least access to it will be a given in Canada)
... I think that the current model of education will be dangerously unsustainable and counter-productive in every way. The province is already trying to cut $70 million this year in under-used schools (see link above), and this number will only increase in the future even as class sizes increase. Education as it is right now is unsustainable. It is unsustainable economically, it is unsustainable environmentally (the cost of power, the cost of fuel to transport students to the school, the tremendous waste of supplies created by ever school, cost of constant renovations), and it will soon become unsustainable morally.

"Wait, what?!" Hear me out. Schools no longer have a monopoly on information for young people, nor do they any longer have much of a moral ground when it comes to teaching some kind of objective knowledge and giving useful skills. Maybe up to a certain point (say Grade 6 or 8) the institutional, structured, orderly classroom is preferable, but afterward the students are wasting time and potential. I'm not talking just about gifted students, I'm talking about students in general. The only reasons the lesson periods are as long as they are is because we (education system and society) need to: a) keep them from 9 to 3, b) because the classes are damn big and much of the lesson gets lots in the static and needs to be repeated. The high school years as they are structured now are a big waste, and the amount of time spent on transmitting the curriculum requirements into their fragile young minds can be condensed. Even if we keep 12-grade system, the amount of time per grade could be reduced without sacrificing quality. Assuming that we are willing to do some radical changes, that is.

So here we go, let's put our futurology hats on:
- Education needs to be far more virtual and distributed than it is now. Rote memorization of knowledge in the age of ubiquitous internet access and smartphones is laughably obsolete. A smartphone with net access is for most intents and purposes a crude exocortex memory. The age of polymaths and encyclopaedics is over - you can either be an expert in a very specific field, or you can know a little about a lot of things and depend on freely accessed knowledge for anything that requires greater detail. What we really need to focus on is the development of research, search and analysis skills. We assume that young'uns today are super-duper tech savvy because they spend so much time on their damn phones, but nothing is further from the truth. I can do things with browsers, spreadsheets, word processors, or PowerPoints that leaves their mouths gaping, and I'm not even especially computer-literate.
- To make education more virtual and distributed than it is now, reverse classrooms need to be implemented widely, from Grade 9 on. What is a reverse classroom? The teacher posts the lesson in the form of a document, a YouTube video or podcast (typically 20-30 minute length), Smarttech lesson, etc. online and assigns work related to the lesson. The students watch/read the lesson on their own, and come to class to work on their homework, assignments, or get further assistance from a teacher. Only we need to gradually push the envelope further. The work can also be completed online - a simple bot could watch the completion of work and compile a report for the teacher on which students did their work and in what time. What does the teacher do with the rest of his/her time? Well...
- The class sizes will become bigger. That is inevitable as the governments (witness McGuinty's slow about-face on teacher wages going on right now) will reduce education expenses. With reverse classrooms, however, the class sizes will approach mid-range university classes (40-50 students per teacher). The teacher, however, will spend most of his/her time evaluating work, preparing lessons, assisting with any inquiries, and facilitating. Facilitating what...?
- Student apprenticeships. This is not a new idea and indeed many schools already implement it, but rather stupidly only for those students who have no chance at all of academic success. Well, we should replace those community hours (so many of which end up being faked anyway) with meaningful and varied apprenticeships. Build a professional online network of Ministry-of-Education-approved local businesses in each school area. Let students have a large degree of freedom when selecting their apprenticeships, let them try out a different job every month, maybe even hold bidding competitions on who gets what position.
- A typical student day might be something like getting up in the morning, checking messages from guild members (read on!), teachers, heading off for a few hours of apprenticeship. While on the way, listen to a lesson or two, fire off a couple of questions or quick homework. After work meet up with guildies online or IRL, raid some lessons (OK OK, I'll get to it in a second), complete the work. Once or twice a week come to progress meetings with the teacher, or remote in.

Alright, so here's my crazy/maybe-revolutionary idea of the day. Education needs to start taking cues from the psychology behind social networks, facebook games, and Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs). All three of these are so wildly successful because:
a) we connect to other people and we can share our success and brag about it
b) the tasks are broken down into small incremental steps, and the completion of each step rewarded with small but increasing rewards
c) as rewards increase, so does the difficulty
d) they create a community built around common interests and goals
I think it's all too plain how the MMO/social network can apply to education. The requirement for teamwork and cooperation and social learning is already written in the curriculum, but it's not very meaningful in the current homework. Students can complete work in short bursts, with each successful completion opening up new challenges, but also rewards. What rewards? Maybe preferential bids on apprenticeship gigs, grades, whatever. Even money (see the effect financial rewards have on grades - heck universities and colleges already do so with bursaries and scholarships)! So while the overall grades and performance of the student will be assessed on an individual basis, progression through curriculum and additional perks will be possible through social interaction and actual teamwork. Heck, plug in augmented reality eventually and it will really be like something out of science fiction!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Unevenly distributed future

I am only 130 pages in "The Makers" by Cory Doctorow (yes, that Cory Doctorow of the blogosphere fame), but it already might be the best book I've read in the last 6 months. No, wait, scratch that - 12 months (Kraken did come just about two years ago). There is a Big Idea on every page, it's bursting with enthusiasm, imagination, and - despite the outwardly bleak post-post-industrial after-the-Crash American setting - even optimistic book. It is crazy, intelligent and incisively funny in the way that Neal Stephenson's "Zodiac" or "Cryptonomicon" (it even deals with similar themes of entrepreneurship, startups, business ethics, futurism, social implications of technology, and wild crazy adventure), or Stross' Halting State were. I will have more to say about "The Makers" when I finish it, but at this current pace it'll be quite soon - I literally had to force myself to put it down today. Errrr, the students can do pre-exam review on their own, right?

P.S. Why so many links in this post to Amazon? No, I'm not shilling for Amazon (although if you're from Amazon and want to give me money I will not say no), but if you have not read any of these books you need to order them right now from Amazon, or your nearest public library, or your nearest mIRC portal and then put your life on hold until you read them!

P.P.S. Doctorow's book is already inspiring me to rant on a few topics. Expect more activity as the school year winds down and my free time goes up. Some of the upcoming topics may include:
- what will happen if all personal debt was erased overnight
- the new model of education
- political revolutions in fantasy
- lessons from this teaching year
- my European vacation!