Data Visualizations in the online classroom

My colleague, Kari Goin Kono, and I just published a short-form article, “How Data Visualization can facilitate Active Learning and Undergraduate Research in an Online class.” Fortunately, the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy is open-access, so if anyone is interested in reading the paper, you can find it here. Here is an abstract:

Abstract: This article explains how a data visualization assignment can aid students in developing research skills in an online course created in partnership between a faculty and an academic ux designer. This resource is particularly relevant as faculty move curriculum online to meet demand related to the COVID-19 pandemic. We will describe the process by which the assignment was first designed and revised, and then share our assignment guidelines, video, rubrics, student quotes and examples of this assignment, which other faculty are free to use

Shawn Smallman, 2021

Chinese language learning tips and resources

I’ve written before about resources for Mandarin study, but I’ve found some new websites and tricks that I wanted to share. Here are some ideas, which will mainly be of use to intermediate (and perhaps some advanced) Chinese learners. As always, I have no financial ties or personal connections to any resources that I suggest:

Tips for using Pleco. If you aren’t using Pleco, as a Chinese language learner you probably should be. There is a plethora of free resources available to learn Mandarin. But Pleco is the one app that almost everyone studying Chinese uses. It’s a Chinese language dictionary. But it also serves to teach you stroke order, much like Skritter (which I also have and love). It also has flash cards, so that it’s also an alternative to Anki app. After I have a Chinese class on iTalki my tutor sends me a copy of the white board. I then enter all the new words into my “useful words” file in Pleco. That way I can study the words that I’ve used in my discussion, which is a more organic way to study vocabulary than relying on the HSK word lists (although we all do that too, right?). One feature that I particularly like in Pleco is that you can set the Chinese dictionary page to brush, and trace out a character that you see, in order to look up its definition. All these tools are pretty well known. But even many advanced learners may not realize that in Pleco’s settings you can change the font color by tone. I have set my colors to the ones that I saw on Zhongwen- red is first tone, orange is second, green is third, and blue is fourth. But you can set the color to anything that’s memorable for you. It’s much easier to quickly note a color, as opposed to reading a diacritic or a number. This step just makes it a little bit easier to recognize and remember tones when using Pleco.

Two great podcasts: I’m not yet at a stage where I can easily listen to Chinese language podcasts. I’m hoping to reach that level in a year or two. But there are two podcasts that I highly recommend, both of which are in English. “One Chinese Word a Day with Teacher Lin” by Everyday Chinese is just what the title promises. Every day Teacher Lin will introduce one word, as well as two or three other words that are built with it. Most episodes are two to four minutes in length. It’s a good way to build vocabulary without a large time commitment. Mandarin Slang Guide with Joshua Ogden-Davis provides more in depth information. One of the challenges that all modern language learners face is the difference between the language that we encounter in our textbooks, and what we hear in person. For me, I especially struggle when Chinese speakers start to use number or internet slang. Ogden-Davis typically brings different guests onto his program, to discuss slang related to everything from sex to the most recent topic in the news. Of course, language learning is sometimes as much about cultural study as grammar and vocabulary. Ogden-Davis and his guests always seem to do a great job contextualizing slang words. Just be warned, with some episodes you may not want to play them in the car if you have young children in the back.

Three books: For an intermediate level Mandarin learner I’d recommend Jianhsin Wu’s book, the Way of Chinese Characters. I have a friend (an advanced Chinese language learner) who swears by the publisher Cheng & Tsui’s works, and this book makes me want to explore their catalog more. The book provides historical information on 670 Chinese characters. It sounds really dull, right? But it’s not. Every character is accompanied by a sketch related to the word, which helps to make it memorable. The character is also provided in earlier scripts, so that you can see how it has evolved through time. And there is a brief discussion of the text and it’s history. Many characters have unexpected or striking origins, which may help you to memorize them. The book also typically lists four words that are built using the original word. So by the end of the book, you’ll have been exposed to around 2,600 words. Of course, you’re unlikely to remember most of them. But some will stick. I like that this book does not use the HSK lists, because it’s also good to explore vocabulary outside this one canon. But if you are a beginner, another work may be a better choice.

I also like ShaoLan Hsueh and Noma Bar’s book Chineasy: The New Way to Read Chinese, which is a more accessible work for beginners. Bar’s illustrations are simple and spare, but also help you to remember words’ meanings. Much like Wu’s book, the word selection is unrelated to the HSK or standard word frequency lists, which can sometimes be a strength.

Lastly, years ago my Chinese teacher (thanks Qing Qing!) suggested that I order a Chinese picture dictionary as a means to learn vocabulary. There are many to choose from, and they are often quite inexpensive. I’ve found that to be an enjoyable alternative to more standard works on Chinese characters. Most public libraries probably have one Chinese picture dictionary too.

ChinesePop: If you want to find a great resource to study Chinese characters, but don’t want to pay, this is the site for you. Of course, there is a special level for people who choose to provide financial support, but the free level is also outstanding. The website CharacterPop allows you to view characters, which are animated so that you can see them written stroke by stroke. The characters are broken down with their individual meanings, so that you can better understand the word’s connotations. One of my favorite features is that people provide their own sentences to help you to remember the character. It’s always good to have more than one way to study characters, so this may be a good option for you.

Remember, language skills are highly variable day to day, so don’t worry if you have a class or a conversation during which your ability seems to crater. It will come back. There are no shortcuts. It’s all about the time. Whatever you do, just don’t give up.

Shawn Smallman, 2022

The case for new nuclear power plants

Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, and with the dramatic rise of wind energy, it seemed that the nuclear industry was fated to oblivion. But that hasn’t happened, particularly in Europe. Instead, the wildfires on the US west coast and Australia, as well as heatwaves, have focused the world’s attention on decarbonizing the economy. At the same time, natural gas prices have surged, which has caused popular unrest and anger from Brazil to France. Worse, Europe has been disappointed over the last few months as the wind industry has produced less power than expected. All these factors combined have led to a radical rethink of nuclear energy. If this is truly a global climate emergency, how can nations globally reduce their CO2 emissions quickly enough without including nuclear in the mix? A recent New York Times article has discussed the debate in Europe.

France, which already heavily relies on nuclear power, is planning on expanding its nuclear industry. For the past twenty years there has been substantial interest in smaller, modular nuclear plants, which might be quicker to produce. A number of European nations, such as the UK, are now expressing interest in this option. The argument that nuclear proponents make is that nuclear waste can be rethought of as nuclear fuel for future reactors, as new technologies are developed. And the total amount of space needed to store this waste is modest. Still, as the NYT article above suggests, this argument is not persuading many nuclear energy critics, in places such as Germany. In other countries, however, the nuclear industry seems to be achieving momentum.

The pro-nuclear movement exists in Canada and the US as well, often led by younger people who perceive the global climate crisis as a global challenge. One good place to hear this movement’s arguments is the podcast Decouple, which posts frequently. The podcast has given extensive attention to the decommissioning of the Pickering nuclear power plant in Ontario, Canada, and similar topics. Be forewarned- you won’t get a balanced view of the nuclear debate on this podcast. But if you want to hear why nuclear power plants should be rethought of as “climate cathedrals,” this is the podcast for you. And you’ll also hear an argument as to why misinformation and unrealistic thinking have driven bad energy choices, which will deeply hamper our collective efforts to fight global warming.

What’s most interesting to me is that I am now hearing the same arguments in favor of nuclear power both from older environmentalists -the last group that I would ever expect to adopt a pro-nuclear position- as well as as a younger generation. I think that the wave of recent climate catastrophes has changed the conversation in ways that I never would have guessed in the months after the Fukushima catastrophe.

Shawn Smallman

A new COVID-19 variant

Early in the pandemic I thought it likely that COVID-19 would have multiple waves, perhaps three like the 1918 influenza pandemic. So I never thought that the pandemic would end quickly. But over the last six or seven months I keep finding myself thinking that this time, finally, it must be ending. In June I had both of my COVID-19 vaccinations, cases in the US were plummeting, and I thought that by this winter it would have finally ended. Then Delta arrived, and filled the emergency rooms of the US south. This fall I was able to travel to Lisbon, where I am carrying out historical research on the 1918 influenza pandemic. When I arrived this October Portugal was the most vaccinated country in Europe, and was the subject of a front page article in the New York Times. And yet since I’ve arrived I’ve seen the case right rise dramatically. Not long ago I was looking at the New York Times country data page, and saw that cases in Portugal had increased 116% in two weeks. The country’s case rate may pass that of the US before long. Keep in mind that not only does Portugal have a high vaccination rate, but also people are very good about wearing masks here. It’s common to even see people wearing them in the street, at least if the street is crowded.

While Portugal is facing serious challenges, the situation is far better here than it is in other places, such as Austria. The COVID-19 incidence there is growing at a stunning rate. The government is implementing firm measures, but is facing mass protests. Other countries, such as the Netherlands, are in the same situation, as we have seen from the protests in Rotterdam. Still, the situation is much worse in Eastern Europe, where in some countries such as Bulgaria only a quarter of adults are vaccinated.

It’s in this context that we are receiving news about a new -as yet unnamed- variant in South Africa. There is a lot that we don’t know about this variant yet. The German news channel recently interviewed one expert who suggested that it might be 500 percent more infectious than Delta, although he stressed that we just don’t know yet. Even such qualified statements are dangerous. We will have more data soon. Still, there is a lot of speculation that this variant might partially evade vaccines, because there are so many mutations, including a number involving the virus’s spike protein.

Nations are rushing to block flights from South Africa. Britain was very slow to respond to the Delta variant, and allowed travel to continue for weeks after it was clear that Delta might lead to a new wave. But after the news of this new variant emerged Britain blocked air travel from Southern Africa. Many other nations are also imposing travel restrictions. Of course, this variant has already been found in Israel. And in Hong Kong -where it was brought by a traveler from South Africa- it managed to spread to one other person in a quarantine hotel. Blocking travel from South Africa will help to buy some time, which might be put to use gathering data on the virus. It might also give people the time to be fully vaccinated and get their boosters, if they are in countries in which vaccines are readily available. But in the end, it won’t be enough. Without a complete border and air travel shut down, a highly infectious virus will certainly spread globally.

Given that Delta is already so severe in Europe, the timing for the emergence of this variant could not be worse for this region as it heads into winter. People are exhausted from the pandemic. But it’s not over. Please, if you are not vaccinated, hurry to be vaccinated now, so that your body has time to build immunity. While all medical treatments have risks, the risks of COVID-19 are much greater, billions of people have had the vaccines, and a new variant is coming. And if you are eligible for a booster, now would also be a good moment for that too. Two months ago there was a significant debate around whether boosters were necessary. Given what’s happening now in places like Portugal, there’s no doubt that only focusing on the severity of cases, and not on transmission, is a poor public health approach.

Let’s hope that this proves to be a false alarm, and that the new variant doesn’t greatly increase severity, transmission, or vaccine evasion. We all deserve some luck.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

Before entering restaurants in Taiwan people sanitize their hands and have their temperature taken. Image courtesy of Isabella Mori.

Censored: China and its Digital Secrets

Roberts, Margaret E., Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020.

In my online “CyberWar and Espionage” class I show a famous clip of President Bill Clinton talking about China’s efforts to censor information online (p. 76). He wished them well with that, and said that it was similar to trying to nail jello to the wall. Over the years I have noticed that this footage often infuriates students -especially international students- who view it as an example of American hubris. Of course, in the years that followed not only did China successfully create an entire digital ecosystem, it also managed to successfully control critical information. And China’s example has since been followed by a plethora of authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning states (p. 7). But what strategy did China use to achieve this seemingly impossible goal? This question is at the heart of Robert’s insightful and carefully researched book, Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall.

In essence, what Roberts argues is that the standard approach to censorship -which relies on fear- would no longer work in a digital era: “The costs to governments of fear-based methods of censorship are more severe in the information age, as there has been an increase in the number of producers of information in the public domain” (p. 54). Instead, she argues, China adopted “porous censorship.” This does not mean that China can delete all negative information. Instead, China’s approach has been to raise the costs of information (which she terms “friction”), by imposing what equates to a tax on time or effort (p. 2, 42). What this means is that elites are often able to invest in technology (such as Virtual Private Networks) that allow them to escape the limits of censorship, while the masses cannot (although there are risks even with VPN usage. See p. 163) Still, this approach achieves two goals. First, it creates a division between the elites and the masses (p. 6, 8). Second of all, it avoids popular anger or backlash, when people realize that information is being censored. If people don’t understand that a particular web page takes four times as long to load as a deliberate policy, they are less likely to become irritated (p. 121-122). At the same time the government can promote other information (flooding), which can distract from the negative content that they want to obscure (p. 5-6): “Friction and flooding are more porous but less observable to the public than censorship using fear, and therefore are more effective with an impatient or uninterested public” (p. 18).

What Roberts is trying to do is to explain how a government can simultaneously have a digital environment which is ubiquitous, while also limiting information that might undermine the regime. Her work achieves this goal, and explains why a regime such as China does not target absolute censorship (p. 4). Censorship doesn’t have to be perfect to achieve its goals (p. 4). By concealing censorship the government minimizes its costs, which include drawing the attention of its citizens to certain topics (p. 8).

Roberts prose is at times prolix. There are moments where she repeats ideas or elaborates on examples, when a more concise treatment would have worked as well. But the book also rewards attention. At the core of her work is a detailed look at censorship in China, which is based on pain-staking research on such topics as how the Chinese states censors information about the immolation of Tibetan monks (p. 19, 155-162). Her ability to digitally scrape information from the Chinese online environment is impressive, and her analysis of this data is rigorous (see for example pp. 122-145). While this allows us to have a deeper understanding of China’s digital world, what’s even more significant is how she develops a theoretical understanding of censorship. This allows not only to better understand the choices made by the Chinese state, but also other forms of censorship in democratic countries (p. 16-17).

Most of all, the book creates a new perspective of censorship, which breaks down simple binaries of free and unfree. Yes, there is censorship in China. But the notion of “porous censorship” allows us to understand how the Chinese state achieved the seemingly impossible, and created an effective censorship apparatus for a fully digital citizenry. Of course, this system has an authoritarian underpinning. Google was eliminated, and a uniquely Chinese digital environment created (p. 55-58). The Great Firewall blocks key websites (p. 109). But most Chinese don’t necessarily perceive that they are living in a heavily censored world (p. 25, 110, 150, 165). They can find information online. The Chinese equivalents to YouTube and Twitter work for them. And sometimes they unleash scathing criticism of government officials or policies (p. 113). But censorship is also pervasive: “For typical Internet users, the government uses the strategy of porous censorship to walk the fine line of controlling information while preventing censorship from backfiring” (p. 115). The laws regarding what citizens can post to the internet prohibit a wide array of information (p. 117). All social media in China requires that citizens sign up using their real names (119): “Previous studies have estimated that anywhere between 1 percent and 10 percent of social media posts are removed by censors on Chinese media social sites” (p. 151). There are clear limits on expression, but the government tries to conceal these restrictions as much as possible.

The velvet glove has worked effectively, even though during a crisis -such as in Wuhan during the early COVID-19 outbreak- fear still remains an important tool, particularly for “journalists, activists and key opinion leaders” (p. 116; see also 119). Roberts argues that although it is an effective strategy, porous censorship can be a destructive approach for a regime when faced with a crisis (p. 10, 14). But it’s also true that China’s regime has to date effectively overcome multiple major crises, including the February 2020 Wuhan debacle.

Two decades ago it was widely believed that the rise of the internet would undermine authoritarianism globally (p. 12). That didn’t happen. As Roberts describes, “political entities have a wide range of effective tools available to them to interfere with the Internet without citizens being aware of it or motivated enough to circumvent it” (p. 13). But she also describes the “dictator’s dilemma,” namely that censorship comes with costs, one if which is that increases the likelihood that the regime will become too distanced or out of touch with its populace (p. 22-23, 52, 111). This rich work of political science scholarship describes how China has sought to resolve this dilemma, so far with remarkable success. Of course, there are economic and political costs to this approach (p. 76). But in the end, China has created a nuanced and layered strategy to control digital information, as Roberts thoughtfully details. I think that this book would be an excellent choice in undergraduate senior seminars and graduate classes that address censorship or authoritarianism.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

Card in a Shenzhen hotel, which explains the internet restrictions to guests. Photo by Shawn Smallman


The strange story of Antlers

In 2014 I published a book called Dangerous Spirits about the history of an evil spirit (the windigo/wendigo) in Indigenous religion and belief. Yes, my research agenda is all over the place, but I like it that way. It turns out that there was a movie called Antlers being made about this being, and it was set in Oregon. The movie maker -Scott Cooper, who was working with Guillermo del Toro- reached out to me for my advice in 2018. But it was when I was moving across the country, so I suggested that they contact Dr. Grace Dillon in Indigenous Studies instead. I later heard -almost by chance- that my publisher and the film-makers had agreed that they could use my book in the movie. But then COVID came, and the movie didn’t come out. I didn’t hear any other news.

Last night I got a text from my daughter, who had gone to see the movie in a theater in Vancouver. And it turns out that they used my book about a third of the way into the movie. It’s a silly thing, but it makes me happy because this will be the only time my work will ever show up in pop culture.

Out of curiosity, I went and looked up the book’s availability on Amazon, where it was selling for $974 when I looked. But the Kindle version was only $9.53 U.S. But if anyone is looking for a physical copy of the book, you can order it for $19.95 Canadian from Heritage House, a small, independent publisher.

I’m currently on sabbatical, and doing historical research regarding the 1918 influenza pandemic in southeast China, using records from Macau that are now stored in Lisbon, Portugal. I don’t think that Antlers is playing here, so it may be a while before I see it. But I want to thank the film-makers for including the book in the movie.

I also want to thank the Ruth Landes Foundation, because the Ruth Landes Memorial Research fund made the book’s research possible. If you haven’t heard of Ruth Landes, I really recommend Sally Coles’ biography. She was a cultural anthropologist who did research on everything from Candomble in Brazil to Indigenous narratives in Kansas, Minnesota and Ontario. Her approach to using narratives inspired my book, and she’s someone whose work I deeply admire. I grew up outside of Hamilton in Ontario, Canada, where she taught at McMaster University. I wish I could have met her just once.

As for Antlers, even the trailer scares me.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

The odd world of graduate education

Photo by Somesh Kesarla Suresh on Unsplash

Years ago I used to give teach summer class at the University of Trier as part of an exchange program. The region is beautiful with the small medieval villages and castles scattered along the Mosul River. The class was offered in English, and I enjoyed talking with my students over lunch. One question that my students always asked was how much tuition was at my university. In-state tuition at PSU is now $9,579 US dollars a year (which is not expensive for a state university in the United States) and it was perhaps seven or eight thousand at the time. But my students were shocked when I said this figure. The first time this topic came up they startled me by all shouting in protest at once. They couldn’t understand how Americans could accept that a university education could cost so much.

In Germany, as I understood it, whether or not universities charged tuition varied from state to state. But I think that the students told me that their tuition at the University of Trier was about $200 U.S. dollars a year in the period around 2008 to 2012. When they heard what my students were paying, some of them laughed so hard they cried. In Canada, citizens can attend a world-class university like McGill for a fraction of PSU’s tuition. For a Quebec resident tuition would be $2,725 Canadian a year. With fees, books and other charges they might pay five to seven thousand a year, apart from room and board. In Canada it’s perfectly reasonable for students to expect to be able to earn their tuition money through a summer job, and to help support themselves with a campus job over the year. Then there is the United States.

In the US, it is increasingly difficult to find a job working for an NGO or company if you don’t have an MA. I did a podcast episode in which I talked about career paths in International and Global Studies, in which I said that I wasn’t sure that MA programs were always worth the cost. At the end of the episode I interviewed my former student Chiara, who disagreed with me. She explained the challenges that she faced finding a good job without an MA. Over the last decade, MA programs have become increasingly important for anything above an entry level job, and perhaps for many of those jobs too.

For this reason, students are increasingly entering MA programs. Many of these programs are also ridiculously expensive, and students fund them with debt. Jordan Weissman has an article on this topic in Slate which is drawing a lot of attention: Master’s Degrees Are the Second Biggest Scam in Higher Education. In my opinion, the article lacks nuance because there are wide variety of costs and experiences available with MA programs. But Weissman’s main point that many students go into debt that they can never hope to recoup is an accurate reflection of many students’ experience. In the nineties I had my first teaching job in Joplin, Missouri. One of my colleagues told me that his student debt was greater than his mortgage. I was shocked then, but I think that this increasingly becoming a norm. I have spoken since with many students who simply cannot afford to attend an MA program, even though they are exceptionally talented.

I’ve blogged about this before, but twenty years ago when I wrote recommendation letters for students going to graduate schools they were almost entirely in the U.S. Now students increasingly are looking at MA programs in from Canada to New Zealand, because they tend to be cheaper. My international students are much less interested in U.S. graduate programs, not only because of cost, but also because of concerns about the United States. I think that international students also perceive visas to be more difficult to obtain in the United States than in Australia, Canada or Europe. Asian or Middle Eastern students also worry about how they will be welcomed while studying in the US. At my institution there was a dramatic drop in the number of Middle Eastern students after 9/11. Just anecdotally -I don’t have the figures to back this up,- this shift hasn’t changed over the last twenty years. I don’t think that my school is unique.

This change impacts US graduate students’ experience, which is now arguably less international than before. But since international students pay a premium to come to the United States, it also means that universities face increasing pressure to shift the tuition burden to domestic students. The cost of MA programs at a minority of institutions looks predatory. I want to stress that although high graduate tuition rates is a problem across the United States, many MA programs enable to students to find financially rewarding and fulfilling jobs. But I think that this overall trend will increasingly turn higher education into a class privilege unless something is done.

Harvard and Yale will always attract sufficient students. But as I talk with students -and hear about their worries as they balance their employment prospects against student debt- I believe that something has to change. Funding graduate education through student debt creates a strange political economy, in which universities and private lenders have incentives that don’t always match well with student needs. The total student debt burden in the US is 1.57 trillion. I would be curious to know how much of that debt is for master’s programs. And I have no doubt that this debt burden will continue to snowball into the future unless major changes are made at the federal level.

I don’t think that most of the jobs that my students are applying for actually require the skills developed by an MA. Instead, an MA has become -in my opinion- an easy way for employers to sort applicants, when there is so much demand for these jobs. What bothers me the most is not only that students are sometimes going into so much debt for these MA degrees, but also that I’m not sure that it should really be necessary for them to do so.

Shawn Smallman

The terrifying wildman of Canadian folklore




Picture credit: Elle Wild took this photo of the Indigenous graveyard in British Columbia, Canada during the 2020 wildfires. Used with permission. I wonder if the second totem pole from the left has an image of Dzunukwa, the Basket Ogress, on the base?

Every year I cover some aspect of the supernatural around Halloween. This year I want to talk about video by Hammerson Peters, a Western Canadian author who has a YouTube channel covering that country’s legends. These videos are well-produced and draw on historical sources. I love folklore, and have written my own book about an evil spirit in Algonquian belief called the windigo. So, of course, I enjoy viewing his channel, including one recent video: Nakani: The Wildman of the North.

In this video he Peters draws on careful research to document Indigenous belief in a being similar to the Sasquatch or Bigfoot in the Northwest Territories and Alaska. He also touches on similar tales from other areas, such as Labrador. His use of the records of 19th century explorers deepens the sense of veracity in this narrative.

The video makes wonderful viewing on a windy, fall night, and I recommend it. But the curse of having done work on mythology and folklore is that I have some context regarding some of the sources that he uses. For example, Hammerson Peters refers to one case documented by a French Oblate Missionary, Émile Petitot (1838-1916). When considering information the first step is always to evaluate the source. There are question marks surrounding Petitot: “Beginning in 1868 Petitot began to have short bouts of insanity in the winter; he hallucinated, ran half naked in -40 degree weather, and attempted to kill Father Séguin” (For Petitot’s mental health issues see the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, The priest also had a public relationship with a young male servant, followed by a marriage to a local Métis woman, Marguerite Valetta, in 1881; the Catholic Church then forcibly placed him in a mental asylum in Montreal in 1882. …

The Great Lakes and the mystery of the Marysburgh Vortex

Photo by Cole Wyland on Unsplash

Every year at Halloween I do posts about folklore or mysteries, from the ghosts and Jinn of the Middle East, to ghosts across cultures. As I am writing this, however, the most popular page on my blog is a book review about a young Canadian woman, who was the center of an alleged poltergeist case during the 19th century in Nova Scotia, Canada. As Thompson and Norris’s marvelous book (Haunted Girl: Esther Cox and the Great Amherst Mystery) makes clear, the truth was far more complicated than this simple narrative, and perhaps involved trauma, self-loathing and exploitation. I have no idea why this review is being discovered now, but I’m glad to see that Norris and Thompson’s thoughtful and well-researched book is receiving the attention it deserves. But today I want to talk about another mystery, one that is closer to home for me.

I grew up in southern Ontario, and did my undergraduate studies in Kingston, Ontario on the wonderful campus of Queen’s University. The old buildings were often built out of limestone, near the point where the St. Lawrence river meets Lake Ontario. When I was there in the 1980s the local bars still had a rich folklore about the Prohibition era, when local rum-runners brought alcohol to the US across the lake. But the eastern end of Lake Ontario was also known for its inordinate number of missing ships. There are some truly odd cases, such as the Bavaria, a Great Lakes Mary Celeste. The crew went missing in 1889, and (as so often the case in the folklore of shipwrecks) the people who boarded the ghost ship allegedly said that they found food set out in the kitchen. The story of the Picton’s disappearance in 1900 -complete with a message in a bottle- is at least as odd.

As Max Hartshorn describes in his wonderful newspaper article, ‘Strange things out there’: Inside Lake Ontario’s ‘Bermuda Triangle’ at, these missing ships are not the only part of the local folklore. People also describe strange events affecting planes, and even UFO sightings. The article has a map of this area in folklore, which stretches from Kingston to Prince Edward County on Lake Ontario’s north shore, to Oswego in New York state. Hartshorn interviews a number of people about their experiences, and their first hand accounts are certainly queer.

As Hartshorn also describes, Hugh F. Cochrane’s 1980 book Gateway to Oblivion, first coined the term the Marysburgh Vortex. As he points out Charles Berlitz’s, the Bermuda Triangle almost certainly inspired Cochrane. Hartshorn even noted that the two covers of the books looked very similar. Berlitz’s book was a best-seller, which inspired people around the world to find an endless number of triangles (why no rectangles or pentagons?). The Great Lakes did not escape this trend. Jay Gourley wrote a book, the Great Lakes Triangle in the 1970s. But Hartsthorn points to a plethora of other triangles: “The Bass Strait Triangle in Australia, the Broad Haven Triangle in Wales and the Bennington Triangle in Vermont are just a few examples of the triangle boom of the 1970s and ‘80s.” But the Great Lakes can have treacherous waters, so there is little need to invoke the supernatural to understand shipwrecks. As Hartshorn argues, Lake Ontario narrows at eastern end, which makes it easy for a ship to hit a shoal or island.

Still, there are a lot of strange things under the Great Lakes waters. In the Maryburgh Vortex there is a roughly kilometer long area called the Charity Shoal structure, which -allegedly- creates a magnetic anomaly. Scientists wonder if it might have been created by a meteor strike as this video (by Andrew King, a reporter at the Ottawa Citizen) suggests: Did a meteor strike give birth to the mysterious ‘Bermuda Triangle of the North’? There are also strange structures of old rocks under Lake Michigan. One argument is that the rocks were created as drive lines and blinds by ancient hunters. That land has been under water for perhaps five thousand years. So archaeology can find wonderful things under the waters, without any need for a vortex or triangle. Yet the Great Lakes also have lingering mysteries that are harder to explain away, such as the 1994 Lakeshore UFO incident in Western Michigan. If you are curious to learn more about the mysteries of eastern Lake Ontario Global News also has a wonderful video by Darryn Davis, who interviewed local people about the region’s folklore. This video makes good viewing for Halloween; its also safe for children to watch.

I love the series Stranger Things. I think that Kingston, Ontario or Oswego, New York, would be a great location for a follow up series. Maybe they could use Krista Muir’s Marysburgh Vortex as a theme song (2011 on the “Between Atoms” album). Yes, there is even a song about the vortex, although it seems to have recently disappeared from Spotify. Even songs disappear in this area. According to the song, the vortex is always “calling.”

I also want to recommend Mysterious Islands: Forgotten Tales of the Great Lakes by Andrea Gutsche and Cindy Bisaillon. If you want to explore the history and mysteries of Great Lakes Islands, this book is carefully researched and rich in historical photos. Every brief section describes the history or folklore of one island. Who knew that Madeline Island -now a restful site for yoga retreats- had such a dark history? If you like stories about strange shipwrecks, please also read my post about the mystery woman of the ghost ship Baltimore, which must be one of the oddest stories in Canada’s history (although it happened in Nova Scotia, not the Great Lakes).

Reader, if you are in Canada or the United States, have a good Halloween. And if you are trick-or-treating with kids, please be sure that they have glow sticks or lights.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

French Canada’s odd tales: from the Loup Garou to the Devil’s Canoe

Henri Julien (1852–1908) Blue pencil, Study for La Chasse-galerie [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Years ago I used to teach a class on Canadian folklore in art and literature. This is a lecture that I gave in the class, which covered the Devil’s Canoe and the Loup Garou. Any faculty member or teacher is free to use it in their own class.  In my lecture I sometimes noted authors, but often failed to give their full names or citation, as this was only for my use in class. Still, there are many authors listed here, who might give you further inspiration, and who were the basis for this content. If you read French, I found this work particularly helpful while writing this lecture:

Larry Gowett, “Le loups-garous dans la tradition religieuse québécoise.” PhD diss., UNIVERSITÉ DU QUÉBEC À MONTRÉAL,1982.

Shawn Smallman, 2020

The Loup Garou and the Devil’s Canoe


Loup garou



Honore Beaugrand



For an oral version of a loup garou tale:

The French Empire in the New World

  • I want to talk today about werewolf traditions in New France, and the story of the Devil’s canoe
  • These are stories about exclusion and inclusion, about the difference between urban and rural, social and deviant
  • Tell us much about French culture not only in Quebec, but also in North America
  • Worth remembering the scale of the French Empire in the Americas
  • Much larger than what we think of as French Canada today
  • Between 1608 and 1759, the French explored and controlled much of North America
  • The core of their Empire was in what is today Quebec, along the St. Lawrence River
  • From their fur traders and missionaries spread out over the continent
  • Soon reached the Mississippi
  • Established a settlement in New Orleans
  • Tried to contain the expanding English colonists, who had arrived at Jamestown in 1607, and in Massachusetts in the 1620s
  • Throughout this region they brought their traditions and beliefs from France
  • One of the most common beliefs was in the loup-garou or werewolf
  • I want to explore this tradition, which is very different from the popular culture tradition of a werewolf that you are probably familiar with today
  • But before I begin with the beliefs, it is perhaps worthwhile to talk about the culture of New France
  • The kind of society implanted in the New World

Photo by Memory Catcher on Unsplash

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