Goodbye, Chief.

Posted in Random thoughts, University life at 10:16 am by ducky

Today, my alma mater, the University of Illinois, announced that Chief Illiniwek would no longer perform at athletic events.

The Chief’s performances had been hugely divisive, with one side contending that the Chief was offensive to Native Americans and the other insisting that his portrayal demonstrated respect for Native Americans. Both sides were correct, which made it so very difficult.

The Chief was not a mascot. He didn’t stand on the sidelines and lead cheers, he didn’t clown around, he didn’t mug for the cameras, or throw t-shirts into the audience. He came out at halftime, danced, and left. He comported himself with dignity and gravity at all times. The dance was physically very challenging. The students respected and honored the Chief. It was very respectful, compared to what it could have been.

On the other hand, the Chief was not authentic. The dance, while containing some elements of Native dances, was not totally authentic. In particular, the last thing the Chief did before leaving the field was mid-air splits — jumping up, spreading his legs up and out in a V, and touching his toes. The costume was Lakota, not Illiniwek. (The Illinois Natives were pretty efficiently disposed of, so there aren’t a lot of records of what they wore or how they danced.) Furthermore, it is a strange borrowing to put Native culture into this context.

What pushed me over to the anti-Chief side was to think about how I would feel on seeing a bad adaptation of important Western culture out of context. Imagine that you’re at a soccer game in Japan, and at halftime, they announce that it’s time for The Pope. Imagine the crowd going wild as a guy in Greek Orthodox regalia solemnly runs out onto the field, and does something sort of like an Irish jig, ending with mid-air splits. Even as a non-Catholic, that would make me highly uncomfortable and perhaps a bit angry. If I were Catholic, I’d be furious.


Snow, flooding, rock slides, laryngitis

Posted in Canadian life, University life at 10:51 pm by ducky

I gave a talk last week at Web Directions North that I didn’t get to rehearse as much as I’d wanted due to snow, flooding, a rock slide, and laryngitis.

Snow: This might not sound like a biggie, but the Annual Green College Ski Trip happened on Feb 3 and 4. I had been ignoring my husband for days on end as I worked on my presentation, and I couldn’t really spend the domestic credits that it would take to skip the trip.

Flood: While Jim, I, and 26 other residents were on the ski trip, one of my neighbor’s sprinklers failed and gushed water into his room for 40 minutes before the firefighters and residents got it shut off. (Yes, we collectively are looking into the emergency procedures around here.) While our room ultimately had no water damage, nobody knew if they other sprinklers were also going to go off or not, or if the water would leak into our room.

Resident Mika McKinnon, who impresses me more and more as time goes on, basically took charge and organized posses of people to go into neighboring rooms (via the we’ll-let-you-back-into-your-room-if-you-get-locked-out master key holders), unplug all of our electrical appliances, and take laptop computers out and to hold them in a dry place.

Note that they had zero legal right to do this. If I wanted to, I could probably sue them up one side and down the other for breaking and entering, and trespass to chattels if not outright theft. And yet, they had absolutely every moral right to do so. As Mika’s father is a lawyer, I presume that she realized that she could get in legal trouble for doing so, yet did so anyway. I greatly admire her for that, and I am very grateful to her and all the others for rescuing our laptops.

Rock slides: On Sunday, the day we were supposed to come back from the ski trip, a rock slide closed the only road back to home for eight hours. This meant that we got back late. Not only did that mean that I didn’t get Sunday evening to rehearse, but tapping lightly on the door of the guy who had our laptops failed to rouse him. It took another day to get our laptops back.

Laryngitis: On Tuesday evening, my co-presenter emailed me to tell me that he had lost his voice. It looked like maybe I would have to give his presentation and mine… and while I knew about some of his stuff, there were some detailed technical issues that I didn’t actually know anything about. So I tried to cram knowledge about his area.

Fortunately, his voice came back by Thursday, so I didn’t have to give his talk.

My talk went okay. I got some trustworthy feedback that at least some people liked it, but it wasn’t nearly as polished and professional as I am capable of. Next time.


times have changed

Posted in University life at 10:53 pm by ducky

I recently needed to select two faculty members to be on my supervisory committee, and one to be the second reader on my thesis. Because I am doing data mining of user studies, I wanted there to be one HCI person and one data mining person on my committee; the second reader needs to be able to understand both.

For the HCI person, I dithered between Kellogg Booth and Joanna McGrenere, ultimately picking Kelly because he’s got a bit broader depth of experience, but Joanna would have been just fine. Karon MacLean also would have been fine. (I know from having been a TA for Joanna and Karon that they are both very easy to work with.) For the data mining person, Raymond Ng was the obvious choice, but my supervisor (Gail Murphy) pointed out that Rachel Pottinger would be a good backup.

I worried a little bit about the second reader, but a bit of sniffing about assured me that Cristina Conati had background in AI and HCI.

After I had done this exercise, I was blown over by the realization that my MS career at UBC could have easily had these people in the seven important slots:

  • Advisor (i.e. person who gives advice on classes): Karon MacLean
  • First term TA instructor: Karon MacLean
  • Second term TA instructor: Joanna McGrenere
  • Supervisor (what in the U.S. is called “advisor”): Gail Murphy
  • Supervisory committee #1: Joanna McGrenere
  • Supervisory committee #2: Rachel Pottinger
  • Second reader: Cristina Conati

All women! And the thing that most surprised me was that I had not invested one iota of effort in trying to find women faculty — it just happened. It’s not as if before I got to UBC, I said, “I want to make sure that I find women to mentor me.” (If I had been looking for women, this is the list that would have happened instead of what could have easily happened.)

Not only that, but these aren’t even all the women in the department. There are almost as many women on the faculty who aren’t on my list as are on the list: Tamara Munzner (information visualization), Anne Condon (theory), Irmtraud Meyer (bioinformatics), and Alla Sheffer (graphics).

Twenty-five years ago, when I was getting my undergraduate degree in Metallurgical Engineering, there wasn’t even one woman faculty member in my department. Ten years ago, when I was getting my MS in General Engineering, there was exactly one woman faculty member in my department.

Times have changed!



Posted in University life at 10:46 am by ducky

This morning I had a actual, genuine, real, honest-to-goodness I-forgot-to-take-an-exam nightmare — and I’m not even taking any classes this term.

My father said that he knew he was a grownup when he had a nightmare that he forgot to give an exam; I knew that I was a grownup when I had a dream that I had forgotten an exam and, even in the dream, was completely not concerned about it. I believe that was my first exam dream; today’s was definitely the only one since.

In this morning’s dream, a whole cavalcade of things were causing anxiety: not only had I forgotten to take my Econ class (in reality, I haven’t had an Econ class in my life), I had lost my wedding ring, and I needed to pee and fell in the toilet! (I’d also forgotten to start my History of Marriage term paper, but I wasn’t very concerned about that even in the dream because I could write that paper in my sleep, so to speak.)

My husband says that he gets nightmares when he gets too warm — that it’s the brain’s way of making you take off a blanket — but I wasn’t overly warm. I needed to pee, but it wasn’t urgent. It was 9:45 AM: Jim had gotten up at 6:30 AM to go flying, which messed up my sleep cycle and he turned off the alarm clock.

I think the dream was just my brain’s way of making me get my indolent posterior out of bed.


Update on Globe and Mail Green College article

Posted in Canadian life, University life at 9:27 am by ducky

Update: As I mentioned in my response to the Globe and Mail article about Green College, it reported that the Principal, Keith Benson, said that there was lots of drinking and partying. I’ve asked around, and my sources report that there was a problem with one pair of roommates in the spring of 2005 (the semester before I got here), and that some people moved out because of it. It was not a generalized problem.

Meanwhile, the Equity office says that for confidentiality reasons, they can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any complaints.


Green College press coverage

Posted in Canadian life, University life at 7:50 pm by ducky

Today, an article ran in the Globe and Mail about various woes at Green College. Much of it is about a harassment lawsuit that I don’t know anything about, but then part was about the recent contract issues and the tensions between the Principal, Keith Benson, and the residents.

According to the article, Prof. Benson “paints a picture of drinking and partying so wild that it forced two serious scholars to leave the college last year because they couldn’t work.”

My immediate reaction was, “Where were these parties and why wasn’t I invited?!?” 😉

In all seriousness, however, Prof. Benson’s perception of reality is very, very different from mine. I’ll put things that the reporter said he said (which are direct quotes from the article, but frequently paraphrases (not direct quotes) from Prof. Benson) in bold, and my model of the universe in italics.

  • Prof. Benson attributes the conflicts to a few residents” – 59 of the roughly 100 residents attached a statement to their contract stating that the didn’t like it. Out of about 100 residents, about 75 cast ballots to form a Green College Resident Association, 70 voted for, 4 abstained, and 1 voted against. This is more than fits comfortably into my definition of “few”.
  • whom he describes as disrespectful and so abusive to college staff that equity complaints have been made against them.” – That’s the first I’ve heard of complaints from the staff, and I am surprised. In the contract dispute, I thought that the residents behaved with admirable composure given the sudden threat to their housing.
  • [Benson] also describes the residents as very young” – That’s the nicest thing anybody has said to me all day! I’m 43, my husband is 44, and we are not the oldest residents at the college. I haven’t really investigated this year, but last year there were (at least) two people who were in their 50s, us in our early 40s, and then about three people (out of 100) who were in their late thirties. After that, it got harder for me to tell age, but many of the residents are older. I’d guess that the average age is probably around 27, and that doesn’t fit with my mental model of “very young”.
  • Benson “paints a picture of drinking and partying so wild that it forced two serious scholars to leave the college last year because they couldn’t work” – This was the first I’d heard of any issue. I can think of two in-room parties (not counting the time when we had about ten guests sitting in our room drinking approximately one glass of wine with no music and minimal noise) in the two years I’ve been here, and both were on non-school nights. There have been a few Green College parties run by the Social Committee, but the official parties and both in-room parties were on non-school nights.
  • it forced two serious scholars” – implies that not all the scholars are serious. I’ve thought hard about the people I’ve known here, and I can only think of one — a postdoc — who perhaps was not very serious about his scholarship. (He might have been, but his research didn’t come up in conversation much.)
  • ‘They don’t understand academic civility,’ Prof. Benson said, calling their behaviour inappropriate. ‘For example, at a welcoming dinner [for residents and alumni], they did the wave. And an emcee made jokes about [the housing contract] in front of the dean.'”While I can’t swear that the dean also did the wave, she was at one of the tables that did do the wave. All the tables except for Dr. Benson’s did the wave. My table was almost completely alumni, and they expressed disappointment that Prof. Benson’s table did not do the wave. And my mental model of emcees is that they are supposed to make jokes.

Now, I understand that journalists are not able to provide absolutely all context for absolutely all quotes, so perhaps he didn’t really mean what the article indicated. I hope so.

Finally, according to the article, “Ann Rose, acting dean of graduate studies, said she is solving problems as they arise.” I have no disagreement here. I been impressed at how helpful Dean Rose has been.


contract status

Posted in Canadian life, University life at 9:55 am by ducky

I’ve been negligent in telling what ultimately happened with the Green College residence contract conflict.

The University came back with a new contract. There are still some egregious clasuses regulating (perfectly legal) behavior, but during the meeting, the administrators repeated over and over again that they had no intention of enforcing the rules to ridiculous extremes. They said that those clauses were intended for egregious behavior. For example, the prohibition against rules against any noise audible outside the room is not intended to be used to keep me from saying, “Who’s there?”, but to keep people from blaring 200 decibal opera at 3 AM.

I suspect that it is hard to write contracts to clearly prohibit egregious behavior while also allowing reasonable behavior, and they didn’t want to work that hard.

Jim and I had to think really hard about whether we wanted to sign or not. We ultimately did, attaching a statement that said (basically) that we were signing in reliance upon the statements of the administrators that the rules would be enforced reasonably. The fundamental reason we felt okay signing was that people closer to the negotiations than us said that the administration recognized that we were quite capable of causing pain (in the form of bad publicity) for them if they were unreasonable about the contract.

Most of the residents who were holding out also signed. I know of two students and one spouse who could not bring themselves to sign, and will be moving out in a few days. At least 57 residents attached the “in reliance” clause to their contracts. This includes people who did so retroactively — people who were not part of “the holdouts”. I don’t know if their statements will have any legal weight, but it sure was a nice show of support.

One postscript: a professor I spoke to seemed to be under the impression that the police were present at some point. I think he must be a child of the sixties, where police were everywhere and disputes were violent. Or perhaps he was thinking of the APEC97 protests. I was only here for a few days during the contract dispute, but I have not heard *anything* about police. While I wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some raised voices in the town hall meeting with the Principal about the contract, but I also have the impression that the negotiations with other university administrators were entirely calm and civil.


UBC Green College eviction notice

Posted in Canadian life, University life at 11:09 pm by ducky

Today I and at least 21 of my fellow residents received eviction notices from our dorm.

“Dorm” isn’t exactly the right word for it, but “residential academic community” is a mouthful. The University of British Columbia’s Green College is supposed to be more than just a place to live, with a strong academic component and strong self-governance. It also has the reputation for having better food: the ten meals per week are provided by the Green College Dining Society, a non-profit owned and run by the residents.

At least, that’s how it is supposed to work. On 28 July, after being repeatedly assured by the Principal that there would be “no substantive changes”, we were all given a new contract and told to sign in two business days. In addition to switching from being month-to-month to term-based, the new contract has a number of onerous terms. Many of them would not be legal if they were in a private landlord’s contract, but UBC has a blanket exemption from the BC Tenancy Act.

The new contract:

  • Has a clause that the administration can change the terms of the contract at will with a week’s notice. (That’s not a contract, that’s an oath of fealty!)
  • Has a long list of prohibited behaviors that are grounds for behavior, which if enforced, would mean that everybody could be evicted. Prohibited behaviors include but are not limited to:
    • Any noise that is audible from outside the room. Walking around, moving chairs, and calling, “Who’s there?” would all thus be grounds for eviction.
    • Having a party on any day at any time except for Friday and Saturday night, or without prior notice to the Resident Advisor. Parties are defined as alcohol, seven or more people, noise. (The contract does not specify if there is an AND or an OR joining those clauses!) This means that if seven people go down to the TV room to watch a hockey game on Sunday afternoon, they cheer their team, and one person has a beer, it is a violation worthy of eviction.
    • Open (which apparently means, as in the US, unsealed) liquor containers in the hallways. Thus to bring a half-empty bottle of wine from one room to another would be an eviction-worthy violation. (I guess they would rather we finish it off.)
  • If evicted, you still have to pay your rent.
  • Says that we have to adhere to documents that do not exist.
  • Has a cancel-with-no-penalty date that is two weeks before we got the contract.
  • Gives the administration the right to enter our rooms with no notice for almost any reason.
  • Gives the administration the right to make us change rooms whenever they feel like it, with minimal notice.
  • Says that if the administration changes the meal plan, then we have to sign up for the new meal plan at whatever cost and whatever level of service they switch to. This gives them a way to dissolve that pesky student-run Green College Dining Society and further erode self-governance.
  • Says that if there is a catastrophe such that our rooms are unlivable, we still have to pay rent and meal plan. (This was also in the previous contract, but with a month-to-month lease, there was a much lower financial risk.)
  • Researchers who lose their eligibility (i.e. turn in their thesis) have only three days to move out, and must pay a penalty of 25% of the semester’s cost for doing so. (This makes short-term stays, e.g. for visiting research scholars, difficult.)
  • Explicitly promises nothing except for a mattress pad and internet access.
  • Drinking games are not permitted. Shared-container alcohol (like a punchbowl) is not permitted at parties.
  • Acting as a host to someone who has been evicted is itself an evictable offense.

In addition, it limits which rooms couples with one partner being a non-student can live in, thus effectively limiting the number of non-student partners. This is an end run around the student-run Membership Committee.

I have the impression that many of these clauses are ones that they have no intention of enforcing. (In fact, the Principal has already issued contracts to two couples with non-student partners who do NOT live in one of the two couples rooms.) This seems strange to me: if you do not plan to enforce the rules, you shouldn’t write them into the contract. Maybe they think that writing the rules into the contract means that they are covered in the case of liability, but I would think that if it is patently obvious that they cannot enforce the rules as written, then I would think that a jury could be persuaded that the rules effectively did not exist.

We have tried reasoning with the acting Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies (who has traditionally overseen Green College), Housing, and Legal. While the Dean seems sympathetic, Housing and Legal are resolute: “The University does not negotiate contracts.” (Um. Didn’t they just negotiate contracts with the Teaching Assistant’s Union?)

I am puzzled by the university’s response — it seems to me like the university is dangerously under-reacting. Apparently, the University is exempt from the BC Tenancy Act because they need to be able to discriminate against non-students, which is prohibited by the Tenancy Act. However, they really seem to be abusing their exemption. It seems to me that this would leave them vulnerable to the assertion that they should not get a blanket exemption, but rather only exemptions from specific, targeted clauses.

Mostly, however, I am sad. Green College seemed like such a bright, shiny place when we applied. From talking to alumni, it sounds like it used to be a really neat institution. But while I am really impressed by my fellow residents, the institution seems to be sliding into greyness.


Bad mood

Posted in University life at 9:06 pm by ducky

I’m in a bad mood. I’m really struggling with an assignment to factor large integers.

Problem #1: it’s a boring problem. It’s been done a million times before, so I’m not contributing a bit to the state of knowledge.

Problem #2: It’s really nit-picky stuff, rife with opportunities to make off-by-one errors.  I miss Smalltalk, where it was almost impossible to make off-by-one errors.

Problem #3: The stuff I have to do is boring. In order to deal with large integers you have to use a more complex data structure. That means that there are suddenly a huge number of simple things that you can’t do simply any more. Instead of

int x = 2;
int foo;
foo = x + 3;
cout << foo;

you have to say

mpz_t x;
mpz_t foo;
mpz_set_ui(x, 2);
mpz_add_ui (foo, x, 3);
cout << mpz_get_str (NULL, 10, foo);

Now, I understand perfectly well why it has to look like that, but boy, it sure isn't pleasant. Furthermore, this class is on parallel algorithms, NOT on big numbers. I do need to be able to pack and unpack big numbers to send them around the network to different computers, but knowing how to do mpz_inits doesn't seem to be particularly important in the grand scheme of things.

Problem #4 -- and this might be the biggest problem -- is that I've been too stupid to dump this and do something else. It shouldn't be this hard, and it is. I should stop and move on.



Posted in University life at 5:02 pm by ducky

When you think of movies, you probably think of southern California, but I have seen more moviemaking at UBC than I ever saw when I lived in southern California.

Yesterday as I walked home, I passed snow on the ground and a tree covered with lights. Today, the tree was gone, and although the snow was gone, there were still sheets of white plastic (simulating snow) scattered along the main mall.

We had to move our car for a day once so that a movie crew could park their trailers there while they shot at our dorm.

Early on at UBC, I went to what I thought was Koerner Library and discovered a sign over the door that said Health Sciences Center. (Because I’d heard that they were moving a bunch of resources from Koerner over to the new Irving K. Barber Learning Center, I assumed that the sign meant that they had moved everything over to IKBLC. I went all the way over to IKBLC to return my book, only to discover that the sign was a movie prop.)

Even more exciting was the walk home where I had to weave through Seattle Fire Department ladder trucks, police cars, a bomb squad truck, ambulances, about fifty police officers, a bunch of gurneys, and twenty or thirty medical personnel. All associated with some movie. That movie also brought a big impressive-looking “stone” sign that said, “University of Northwestern Washington”.

While I was sure that I would have new experiences at UBC, I certainly never thought that walking through movie sets would be one of them.

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