Archive for General

M.B. Williams – The Woman Behind Parks Canada

With my free Parks Canada pass in hand, I have been looking forward to visiting a few favourites and a few new treasures this summer. Right now, though, I sit at home waiting for the weather to warm up and the flowers to bloom.

I was pleased, therefore, when I saw the University of Calgary Press had a book on the history of Parks Canada that was Open Access. It was through this book, A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011, that I discovered the fascinating history of M.B. Williams, the author of the first and most definitive series of guidebooks about Canada’s national parks.

MB picnicking in the Rockies, 1920s. Photo Credit:


M.B. (Mabel Bertha) Williams began her career as a file clerk in Ottawa where she spent her days cutting press clippings. When her boss at the Department of Interior, J.B. Harkin, had the opportunity to start a new department in charge of National Parks, he asked her to come to the Dominion Parks agency with him.

Within a decade, she was in charge of almost all the promotional material for the parks and had authored an amazing series of guidebooks that could be found in tens of thousands of Canadian households.

When the depression hit, her entire female staff was laid off. Even though her job was secure, M.B. quit in solidarity.

She struggled thereafter to find success as an author, publishing the first history of Parks Canada, Guardians of the Wild, with Thomas Nelson in 1936.

Looking through an archive of her work is amazing. I recall leafing through a well-worn copy of Jasper Trails as a child. It’s still a wonderful read today.

The audio clip below is an interview with MB much later where she explains how she went from clipping newspaper articles to writing the guidebooks and promotional material for Canada’s parks.


You can read all of the available guidebooks online at, and the University of Calgary Press title is free to read here. Or just grab the chapter on MB Williams. It’s a short and fascinating read.

Let’s Teach Kids To Code

A friend of mine forwarded a link to Mitch Resnick’s Ted Talk about teaching kids how to program computers. Resnick is one of the creators of MIT’s Scratch programming software, which is a wonderful way to introduce kids to the joys of being content creators instead of merely passive viewers.

With smartphones and tablets being the primary ways many kids now use the Internet, we seem to be pushing the next generation into being mere consumers of content, when their futures demand they be producers.

On the other side of the coin, there are some AMAZING tools that can be used by even very young children to create their own media, whether it’s movies, music or computer programs. In fact, there’s such an abundance of creative tools, it’s embarrassing how few kids get to use them in education.

For music, there’s AudioTool and JamStudio, both accessible online right from a web browser, storytelling and animation with Scratch, Creaza or XtraNormal; and programming with Microsoft’s Kodu, MIT’s Scratch and Carnegie Mellon’s Alice.

But there’s no reason to stop at visual tools. I disagree with Mitch Resnick when he says (at 6:20) that if programming is real code (non-visual) it is limited to only a small sub-set of the population. I think it is valuable for every child (and adult) to have the opportunity to learn how to code in a real programming language. They may not all become programmers, but knowing how to use a programming language to solve problems and do repetitive, boring tasks for them will improve their job prospects and their lives in the future, no matter what career path they choose.

There is something else that is missing from Scratch and Kudo and other simplistic visual programming tools. They miss out on the most important lesson a kid can learn from programming. Scratch blocks fit together like Lego. There’s very little that can go wrong. If the parts click together, they’ll work.

Real programming isn’t like that. The beautiful thing that programming teaches you is that it’s ok to fail. In fact, you can expect things to go wrong the first, second, maybe even the first ten tries before you finally diagnose all the problems and get things working the way you wanted them to. But the failures aren’t meaningless. Each time you fail, you get closer to finding out what works.

failbetterOur schools, and our society, tend to discourage us from failing. Failing is bad and should be avoided at all costs. If you fail, you get derided, moved to a ‘special class’, or just get lost when the next material is presented; you get an F,  your parents ground you for bad grades, and you’ve irreparably damaged your GPA. After years of understanding that failing is bad, it’s no wonder we develop our fear to such an extent that we keep ourselves from doing things we think we might not be good at.

Programming expects failure. It’s fun to watch a kid understand this… that it’s not a bad thing that their program produced errors, it’s an expected part of the process.  Working through those errors until finally the code does exactly what they want it to (whether that takes minutes or hours) is an amazing, frustrating and liberating process that every kid should go through.

So by all means let’s let our kids learn Scratch and other similar environments. It’s very empowering for kids to have the tools to create what their imaginations conceive. But lets not stop there and think that there’s no further “most people” can go in learning to code, because the life skills learned from learning to program go far beyond the language and syntax and could very well change a child’s life forever.

Tooth Fairy Economics

A recent writing assignment for Colgate (link) led me to the online Tooth Fairy Calculator based on survey data collected by Visa in 2012. The  calculator, which is meant to help parents determine how much money the tooth fairy should leave, reveals some interesting information on how upper income and well educated parents treat the event versus high school educated, low income parents.

About 90 percent of kids receive between one and five dollars, with only three percent receiving less than one dollar under their pillow. Apparently, the quarter that the tooth fairy used to leave no longer cuts it in today’s economy.

You’d think that the more money the family has, the more cash the child can expect from the tooth fairy, but the inverse is true. The greater the income and education of the family, the more likely it is the tooth fairy will leave only one dollar.

The likelihood of a frugal fairy also increases with the age of the parent, with parents under 30 more likely to pay in the four to five dollar range, while parents 35 and up are more likely to give only one dollar per tooth.

An 18-year old mom (or dad)  in Mississippi, the poorest state based on per capita GSP in the U.S., with a high school education and an annual income below $25,000 will give their child five dollars per lost tooth. Compare that to a 40-year old parent with a graduate degree and an income over $75,000 living in Delaware, the state with the highest per capita GSP, who will give his or her child only one dollar per tooth.

It’s hard to draw any psychological conclusions from this, but it’s reassuring to know that the next time your child loses a tooth, you can keep up with the older, wealthier, and wiser Joneses by keeping your tooth fairy frugal.