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31 August

In the not-such-good-news department, the union that represents the clerical and technical staff at McGIll University (MUNACA) have had a strike vote and seem certain to go on a general strike Thursday September 1st at 6am. They seem to be are asking for a lot -- as far as I can tell, much more than the university can possibly ever give apparently including a 49 per cent wage increase over 3 years. That does not bode well for a quick settlement, but who knows what's a bargaining ploy and what's a firm requirement.

Thursday is also the first day of classes at McGill, so it may be difficult for many of the new students. The people on strike are clerical staff and lab technicians. This includes many student advisors, as well as the people who make administer lots of stuff and make sure that people get paid. Jobs are being covered by management where permitted, and some essential services such as animal care will not be touched, but I will over a thousand people absent this won't be trivial. I hope most departments have already processed the paperwork for their student teaching assistants who may depend on getting their salaries in a timely way.


Update: according to widely-distributed reports of the bargaining process: MUNACA (the support staff union) "entered the negotiations demanding a three-year salary increase of 49.9%, and is currently asking for 28.9% over the three years, of which 3% is a scale increase and 6.64% an automatic progression increase per year for a total of 9.4% per year over a three-year contract." The university seems to be offering much less than this, and there seem to be many other issues. It looks like it's going to be a long time.

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
08 January

Computer science is becoming increasing popular again, after a huge upswing in the 1990's, a lull after the dot-com meltdown in 2001 and a gradual growth since then. In the last few years computer science departments all across the US and Canada have been seeing enrollments grow, and i the last year or two they have ben growing quite a lot. At McGill, we have seen a steady but gradual growth in enrollment for a few year, but it is now becoming a surge.

In the last few days, there are been some notable popular manifestations of this trend. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg made a New Year's resolution to lead to program and posted it on Twitter:

My New Year's resolution is to learn to code with
Codecademy in 2012! Join me. codeyear.com #codeyear

A major salary survey is about to be released that shows CS salaries have been rising (when many other sectors are not seeing growth) and "Midsize and large companies are both aiming to hire more IT pros. The midsize are seeking IT executives (such as VPs of information services and technical services), as well as programmers, database specialists, systems analysts, and voice/wireless communication pros. Enterprises are moving IT and data center operations back in-house, which means greater demand for data center managers and supervisors."

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
28 April

This week concluded the cyclic review of the McGill School of Computer Science, a review that will not take place again for about 7 years. It was quite a big production and was the culmination of about 8 months of data collection and various kinds of reporting. The 2-day site visit involved several people from inside McGill including faculty and students, as well as outside experts. While their report will only arrive later, they provided some interesting and useful feedback for us.

This kind of review has been suspended for several years since people were unsure if the workload was justified by the outcomes, which historically were often incremental (or less than incremental). On the other hand, planning and resource allocation needs data, the challenge is to collect the data efficiently.

The data we gathered supports the strong position of the School in both research and teaching, and the process helped bring people together to identify common concerns and goals, which was the most valuable objective. As one might expect, I got sick as soon as it was over.

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
23 November

In the last couple of weeks I visited and gave talks at Dalhousie University and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT). It's a treat to be able to zip in to nearby universities and see what's going on, and tell them about what we are working on.

UOIT was quite a hike from Toronto, but luckily my host Faisal Qureshi was kind enough to pick me up at the train station. Since I flew in to the Toronto Island Airport, took a ferry boat to the mainland, took a bus to the GO train, and boarded inside a subway station, and then took the train to Oshawa, it means that I used almost all normal modes of standard transport to get there. The only thing I seem to have missed out on was a horse ride. UOIT is one on the newest universities I have visited recently (with perhaps the exception of Education City in Doha). It's a great space and seems like a very energetic campus, at least based on the glimpse I saw of the Computer Science area and Faisal's lab.

Dalhousie;s building was more reminiscent of McGill's McConnell building where my own lab is, unfortunately for them. An older mid-20th century pragmatic design rather devoid of big glassy atria. The group I met was similarly energetic though, and they have access to some amazing facilities for marine robotics. Some of these facilities belong to DRDC-Atlantic and they are stupendous.

This week I didn't leave Montreal at all, perhaps for the first time this Fall. While these trips have been great, it sure will has been nice to be home every single day.

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
16 December

Two weeks ago the McGill daily had a long rambling article that implied -- in fact more than implied -- that robots from our lab were going to be deployed in Afghanistan. The subtitle of the article was "Robots partly built at McGill set for deployment in Afghanistan." When I saw this, it literally spoiled my dinner. On one hand, it is disturbing to see even a student-run newspaper run an article that included what I see as misleading, naive and potentially damaging content. On the other hand, perhaps I should have just shucked it off as the vagaries of the rumor mill -- much the way movie stars are advised to ignore the yammering insanity of the supermarket tabloids.

The article combined a variety of unrelated facts and a large dose of innuendo to reach a totally unsubstantiated and incorrect conclusion. Our lab has, in fact, focussed on the use of robotics for environmental assessment, specifically the observation of coral reefs, for almost a decade (although we have also thought more recently about applications like monitoring the port of Montreal, or search and rescue). I have often been pleased by the fact that we might be making a tiny step towards making the ocean environment better, at the very least by attracting publicity to the plight of the reefs. The key research we do is based on automated analysis of visual images to allow robots to better interact with humans in their immediate vicinity, for example by allowing human scuba divers to more efficiently program them.

The key elements of the "expose" in the McGill Daily article was that (1) our research grew out of prior research that had been funded partly by the US military/industrial complex, (2) that a McGill professor who quit 10 years ago subsequently worked for a while for a company that also does research funded by the US military, and that (3) some professors someplace at McGill might be getting military funding. Just wait until they hear the bad news about Santa Claus...

Like all science and engineering, our work is built upon the results of others, and one of the important progenitors of our hardware platform was a project that was funded a decade ago partly via DARPA -- the US defense advanced research projects agency. None of this DARPA long-ago funding came to me, my students or my lab, but since we used ideas or technologies from a DARPA project this seems to have been enough for the paranoid authors of the article to draw all sorts of ridiculous conclusions for their hurried little magnum opus. Now, the ill informed might still worry because DARPA was somehow involved in this line of research at some point. Such a worry could only be spawned if somebody failed to recognize the role DARPA has played in US science and technology policy and funding for the last 40 years. DARPA has also funded studies into how the neurons in the brain are inter-connected. Yes, is also the same DARPA that single handedly funded the development of the Internet (originally called DARPANet). It's also the agency that funded projects to build the driverless cars now being deployed by Google (in fact by the same people including Sebastian and Mike who won the DARPA-sponsored competition). Oh yes, and they have taken on the quest for synthetic blood and the revival of the US manufacturing sector. In short, if you try to eschew technologies that DARPA helped start, you better get your bear skin rug and book of earthworm recipes ready for the comfy torch-lit cave you plan to settle into with the other drooling luddites.

A related, and more profound issue, but one that was apparently too subtle for the simplistic shovel-ware that was this article is the following: as science and technology continues to mature and expand human capacity, what mechanisms can we envision as a society to channel the results away from harmful applications? This can't just be a matter of an edict, or one or a few scientists, or even nations, staying away from certain lines of research. Rather, it will require a global-scale agreement on how certain technologies should, or should not, be exploited. As a rule, however, we have done very poorly at such efforts and any successful approach will have to be very forward-looking, multi-national and subtle and will have to avoid the heavy-handed tactics that have consistently failed in the past.

The McGill Aqua2 robot hard at work
The "death-dealing" McGill Aqua2 robot hard at work on a coral reef
(Click to expand)

By Gregory Dudek at | Read (1) or Leave a comment |    
20 February

McGill announced today that it will be joining EdX, a consortium of universities that offer online courses based around the trendy new MooC (massive open online course) format. McGill has been putting selected course material online for some time, and putting some up for public viewing as well, using various technologies including iTunes University.

EdX is one of several efforts to bring university courses to huge populations of online participants. The other such projects are Coursera and Udacity, as well as the Kahn Academy which has less of a university focus.

McGill with other great universities on EdX

Online lectures have been around for a while, but I feel that the current wave of excitement is largely due to the efforts and early successes of my friend and fellow roboticist Sebastian Thrun who is one of the co-founders of Udacity. Udacity uses a model that is a bit different from the other university-centric MooC projects with a generally more modularized and iconoclastic approach to course offerings.

It looks like McGIll will be taking the effort very seriously and, despite brutal budget cuts from the government, making a very concerted and focussed effort to put some specially tuned designed content on EdX. As the press release stated, "renowned professors at McGill, working closely with edX technical and production teams, will design, develop, and deliver MOOCs, with initial course offerings to cover areas in sciences, humanities, and public policy." MooC's have the potential to be useful and important, as well as disruptive (in both the good and bad sense), so it should be interesting.

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
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