Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet

International Week 2008 Tonight I attended a lecture as part of International Week 2008 on campus at the University of Alberta. The speaker was Jeffrey Sachs, who is probably best known as the Director of the UN Millennium Project. Unfortunately he was called away to a special meeting in Africa with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and so he sent a pre-recorded video message instead.

His talk was very high-level and lacking in specifics. I suppose the idea is that you attend the lecture to whet your appetite, then you buy his new book (which, btw, he mentioned at least a half dozen times). All joking aside, I probably will buy it. I read his book The End of Poverty and thoroughly enjoyed it. I think his message is really important, and he’s great at delivering it.

Because Sachs could not attend, the organizers invited two other guests to make remarks and answer questions. One was Andrew Nikiforuk, a Calgary-based journalist, and the other was Dr. Rick Hyndman, Senior Policy Advisor for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

Nikiforuk presented after the Sachs video, and he delivered a great presentation with just some notes to refer to. Hyndman presented last, and he had a laptop with some PPT slides. There must be a law somewhere that if you’ve got two presenters and one uses slides, the person with the slides invariably has the crappier presentation! It just doesn’t flow as well, nor does it sound as convincing.

That said, Hyndman more than redeemed himself in the Q&A session, during which he was pretty much attacked. One guy who lined up to ask a question was wearing a bright green t-shirt with "Greenpeace" emblazoned on the front – how would you expect him to treat a representative of the oil companies!

The event tonight wasn’t long enough to delve into any details, but it definitely was an opportunity to think about some of the issues that Sachs is so passionate about.

Visit the U of A’s International Week 2008 website for more information.

Tuition is not the problem, books are!

Post Image On Friday, the Board of Governors at the University of Alberta approved a 4.6% increase in tuition fees. That translates to an extra $215.55 for general arts and science students. Of course the decision made the local news and predictably the segments focused on the extra burden this places on students.

But more than teaching or deferred maintenance, it was the question of affordability that concerned Students’ Union President Michael Janz.

Janz stressed that every time fees are increased, the debt loads that students incur go up, as do the chances that someone will not apply to the U of A because they see it as financially unfeasible.

I mean, what do you expect the SU President to say? Of course he’s got to side with students on the issue, that’s his job.

I think the focus should not be on tuition, however. Looking back on my time at the university, I think the problem are textbooks. Sure tuition is expensive and I am repaying student loans now, but it was textbooks that were the real killer.

In my last two years, I avoided purchasing textbooks whenever possible. The idea of spending $175 for a 150 page book just drove me nuts. Especially since most of the content in the books can be found elsewhere. The other thing that sucks is when a professor requires the latest edition of a textbook, meaning students cannot purchase the less expensive old editions.

There’s no reason to force students to purchase ridiculously expensive textbooks. Hell, there’s pretty much no reason to have physical textbooks at all! Just offer digital versions instead. Or incorporate free materials.

I think getting rid of the expensive textbooks would help students far more than trying to prevent tuition increases.

Read: The Gateway

Six months with the day job – no thanks to school

Post Image Today marks six months of me working at Questionmark. I started there in July as a .NET developer, and so far I’m really enjoying it. The work is interesting, and the people are great. After focusing mostly on Paramagnus for the last couple years, I was kinda worried that the transition would be painful, but it hasn’t been.

Of course, transition may not be the best word as I’m still working on Paramagnus too (along with Dickson). Not as much as I used to, obviously, but Questionmark has been very accommodating thus far. The first month or two was a bit difficult, but I have more of a routine now, so that’s good. The vacation last month was a nice break from everything as well.

I think part of the reason that doing both Paramagnus and Questionmark isn’t impossible is that I’ve never worked solely on Paramagnus. Until April of 2007, I was still a full-time university student! And all jokes about skipping class aside, it still required a fair bit of time and effort. So in a lot of ways I have just replaced school with the Questionmark job.

Those of you who know me well know that I do not look back on my time at the University of Alberta with much fondness. I really enjoyed the Economics courses I took and a few of my options were pretty interesting too. My computing sciences classes, on the other hand, were largely a waste of time. I always felt that the things we were learning about were entirely irrelevant! It still bugs me, because I love technology and I love software development but I absolutely hated most of the CS courses I had to take.

I’ve always wondered if any of the CS stuff I learned would be useful in a real job. None of it was at Paramagnus (except maybe the two database courses), but I don’t think that should really count, because I have complete control over our development and how it works. Questionmark should count though, right?

I can honestly say that if I had to rely on the things I learned in computing sciences for my job at Questionmark, I’d be completely screwed.

Instead of a Bachelor’s degree in Computing Sciences, I should have gotten the BFA in Software Development, as described at Joel on Software:

When I said BFA, Bachelor of Fine Arts, I meant it: software development is an art, and the existing Computer Science education, where you’re expected to learn a few things about NP completeness and Quicksort is singularly inadequate to training students how to develop software.

Imagine instead an undergraduate curriculum that consists of 1/3 liberal arts, and 2/3 software development work. The teachers are experienced software developers from industry. The studio operates like a software company. You might be able to major in Game Development and work on a significant game title, for example, and that’s how you spend most of your time, just like a film student spends a lot of time actually making films and the dance students spend most of their time dancing.

That sounds like it might have been useful! Better yet, screw university and just start a company. I mean it – I have learned so much from Paramagnus. I can’t imagine where I’d be had I not started the company. I certainly wouldn’t have a job at Questionmark.

Is it my fault for going to the University of Alberta instead of NAIT? No, I don’t think so. The U of A is supposed to give you the best education possible, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of preparing you for the real world. Will I look back twenty years from now and find value in the CS courses I took? Never say never, but I seriously doubt it. The tech industry changes too quickly.

I think the current education model for software development is horribly flawed. Very few people want to be computer scientists, charged with proving theorems and all that other crap. I think a lot of people want to learn how to develop software, from start to finish. I laughed at first, but I think the BFA in Software Development idea is actually quite good. It could totally work!

If I’m ever in a position to make it happen, I absolutely will try.

Edmonton Public Library & U of A Libraries at Facebook

Post ImageLast October I wrote a post about some radio ads the Edmonton Public Library (EPL) was running at the time. My argument was that the EPL’s advertising just wasn’t “with it” and that they should take a good long look at what would appeal to younger patrons. Here is what I wrote:

The goal is clearly to try and bring young people into the library. Instead of some hokey ad about an adventure, why not highlight the aspects of the library that appeal to young people? Things like public computers, excellent study and workspaces, a Second Cup built right in (for the downtown location at least), power outlets for your laptop, and wireless Internet (do they have this?).

I could have saved myself some characters if I had simply written “things like technology.” I wonder if someone at the EPL read my post, because they certainly got the hint. Tris Hussey (editor of the excellent blognation Canada) posted about the EPL’s new Facebook application this week:

…it looks like the Edmonton Public Library is the first public library to have a Facebook application! Taking a quick look at the EPL site, they seem to have “gotten” Web 2.0 . they have RSS feeds for events, you can add a catalogue search to you Google homepage, pretty darn cool.

That’s all true, but the main EPL site is still ugly as hell! I bet Jakob Nielsen likes it though.

Kudos to the EPL for diving into Facebook! Dickson remarked during lunch today that libraries don’t get enough credit for being technologically savvy, and I have to agree. And wouldn’t you know it, the University of Alberta Libraries has a Facebook application too. Very similar functionality to the EPL application.

I wonder how many other libraries have Facebook applications? What other kinds of organizations should create Facebook apps? I’d love to see a Starbucks app, where I can manage my card and fill up someone else’s card all within Facebook. As Tris said, “something that people can use. Something that is simple.”

Read: catech

Checkers solved at the U of A

Post ImageHow many games of checkers can you win in a row before someone beats you? Quite a few? Doesn’t matter, eventually you’ll lose right? You think, “it’s only a matter of time.” Well some Computing Sciences researchers at the U of A have figured out why – it’s because humans make mistakes. They’ve solved checkers, completely, and have software that is invicible:

After more than 18 years and sifting through 500 billion billion (a five followed by 20 zeroes) checkers positions, Jonathan Schaeffer and his colleagues have built a checkers-playing computer program that cannot be beaten. Completed in late April, the Chinook program may be played to a draw but will never be defeated.

Their research and “proof” were to be published in today’s edition of the journal Science.

This is pretty incredible when you think about it. It speaks to the advances we’ve made not only with technology, but with our understanding of how to harness it to do things that previously seemed impossible.

I generally consider checkers to be a fairly simple game, but don’t let that fool you:

The popular game may be simple to play, but it holds a potential 500 billion billion positions. That’s one million times more complicated than any other game solved before, says Jonathan Schaeffer, the computer science professor who began the project in 1989.

Congratulations to Schaeffer and his team! I can’t imagine what they’ll figure out next.

Read: ExpressNews

Tutoring CMPUT 101 – Introduction to Computing

Post ImageA few months ago I was walking through HUB Mall at the U of A when I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen since high school. We had a brief chat, and I of course told her about all of the geeky things I do. Turns out she was taking CMPUT 101 this semester (spring term), and asked if I’d be willing to tutor her. I said sure, not knowing what I was getting myself into!

Her final exam was today (hopefully she did well) so our last session was yesterday. Throughout her course we met twice a week for roughly two hours each time to go over the concepts she was learning in lecture, and to work on her labs. It was a really good experience for me, and she said my help was really important for helping her understand the material. Actually, she told me yesterday “you have a gift you should share! maybe you should join the tutor registry.” I think she was being overly nice 🙂

Here are some thoughts:

  • As this was an introduction course (that I never took actually) I really had to refresh my memory on some of the topics (like Two’s Complement). Mostly it all came flowing back to me though!
  • There were definitely some frustrating times, for her and for me! She would have trouble grasping a concept and I would have trouble explaining it. We worked through it though, and found a way for it to make sense. So I learned that tutors need patience.
  • I get the feeling that taking a computer course in a compressed term (spring or summer) is quite hard, especially if you’re not a computer-person! The content is just rushed.
  • I think tutoring a higher level class would be fun, where the student already knows the basics.

I know she’ll pass the course, so I am just eager to see how well she does! She gave me a gift card for Starbucks yesterday as a thank you – incredibly nice of her, but completely unnecessary!

I don’t know if I am going to join the tutor registry, but I’ll definitely considerate it now that I have some experience.

Graduation Day at the U of A

After six long years, I finally walked across the stage today at the Jubilee Auditorium to complete my undergraduate degree at the University of Alberta. I am now the proud holder of a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematical Sciences (Minor in Economics).

For me, graduating from university is a stepping stone to bigger and better things. I’ve done my fair share of complaining over the last few years, at times wondering if completing my degree was even worth it. I stuck with it though, and I guess time will tell if it pays off. I am guessing it’ll be many years from now when I finally recognize some of the things I learned during my time at the U of A. I think the best things in life are usually like that.

The ceremony itself was rather long. The first hour contained speech after speech, while the second hour involved over 700 graduates walking across the stage. The honorary degree was presented to Dr. Maria Klawe, who gave a very interesting (if slightly long) convocation address. In her remarks, Dr. Klawe mentioned three pieces of advice:

  1. Fail openly, and fail often.
  2. Avoid jerky behaviour.
  3. Endeavor to become good at something you find difficult.

The highlight for me was when Dr. Klawe explained how she came up with #2. Back in 1990 she had the pleasure (or displeasure it sounds like) of meeting Steve Jobs. She was quick to point out that she admires his many impressive accomplishments, but at the end of the day, she remembers that he acted like a jerk. As a result she vowed to always treat others with respect, no matter how wealthy or famous she became.

There are a lot of people who supported me throughout university, but I have to say thanks to Mom and Dad, first and foremost. My parents have always been there to support me in everything I’ve done, and I really appreciate it. Unfortunately my Mom couldn’t come today, but I know she would have if she could have! Extra thanks to my Dad for pulling double duty as my photographer this afternoon (I’ll post more photos tomorrow).

Thanks also to everyone else who helped me get to this point – you know who you are. I appreciate both the encouragement and constructive criticism.

Finally I am done with school! Huzzah! Now I can focus on my career and, um, repaying my student loans.

Podcasting Lectures at the U of A

Post ImageDuane Szafron is a Computing Sciences professor at the University of Alberta. He’s also a podcaster. Sadly, being both a podcaster and a professor is currently a fairly rare combination, but I hope the work of Szafron and others will change that:

“I think it makes it harder for people who give fairly boring lectures. I think more students won’t show up for those,” he said. “And I guess my attitude [as a professor] is, if you can’t deliver anything extra than what you would provide online or whatever, then what’s the difference if people don’t show up for class? Is that really bad if people don’t show up?”

Spot on! I’ve written before about podcasting and boring lectures, and I completely agree with Professor Szafron. Recorded audio and video lectures are not a replacement for class time, they are a complement.

It sounds like Szafron’s podcasts have been a hit, at least based on an informal survey of his students. Currently he makes lectures available in MP3 format, though he apparently experimented with video as far back as 1999. Both have their place, but I think audio is a much more appropriate format for lectures – they are easy to listen to on the bus, train, or while doing something else.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we might be able to help educational institutions take advantage of podcasting. Maybe I’ll have to pay Professor Szafron (who I never had as a prof) and his colleagues a visit!

Read: The Gateway

Don Tapscott Talks Wikinomics at the U of A

Post ImageEarly this morning I attended a lecture sponsored by the U of A’s School of Business featuring Don Tapscott, author of the new book Wikinomics. It’s a good thing I didn’t buy the book a couple weeks ago like I was going to, because everyone got a complimentary copy at the event (and I got him to sign mine).

I had no idea, but apparently the event was something of a homecoming for Don! He got his M.Ed. in Research Methodology from the University of Alberta, as well as one of his two honorary Doctor of Laws. He joked that he was happy to enjoy the Alberta spring weather with us! From a distance, Don looks a little something like Red from That 70’s Show, but I can assure you, he’s a much more engaging speaker than Mr. Forman.

He started by congratulating us for being named Time’s person of the year, and said that in his opinion, it is the corporation (as opposed to an individual) that is undergoing the biggest change. Much of his talk focused around what he called the “four drivers” of mass collaboration:

  1. Web 2.0
  2. The Net Generation
  3. The Social Revolution
  4. The Economic Revolution

The one that caught my attention the most was the second one – no surprise I suppose, as I am a member of the net generation (he said anyone under 29). The comments he made really resonated with me (such as that we view email as a more formal way to communicate). He is currently working on a research project to demonstrate that members of this generation are wired differently…we think differently than our parents. Perhaps the most profound aspect of the net generation is that we view work, entertainment, and everything else as the same thing. No longer is there a clear distinction between work and fun…they need to become (and are becoming) one.

Don also explained that the net generation is incredible at detecting BS, and that we actually do care about things. He said a common remark from older people is that members of the net generation don’t care about the news, all they watch is The Daily Show. Don’s reply was brilliant: “The Daily Show isn’t funny unless you know the news!” Truer words have never been spoken.

The talk finished with a brief question period and a few final thoughts from Don. He said an important takeaway is that leadership can come from anywhere. It doesn’t have to come from the top, which I thought was a good point.

I look forward to reading the book now!

Oilsands research at the U of A

Post ImageI have written in the past that I think more research and development should go towards extracting more value from the oilsands. This R&D would ideally lead to better “green” technologies, and the profits we gain from the oil in the oilsands could also go toward sustainable energy. I’m sure there is lots of this R&D already going on, but a story about a new University of Alberta research centre caught my eye:

The Imperial Oil-Alberta Ingenuity Centre for Oil Sands Innovation’s mandate is to find more efficient, economically viable, and environmentally responsible ways to develop Canada’s oilsands resources, one of the largest crude oil deposits in the world. The centre will be led by scientific director Dr. Murray Gray.

The centre will invest $15 million over the next five years, will recruit more than 50 faculty, graduate students, and researchers, and will “apply the emerging tools of nanotechnology” to the oilsands. I guess that’s appropriate considering the National Institute for Nanotechnology is also located here at the U of A.

One of the main research goals of the centre is to reduce the amount of water used in the oilsands projects.

Read: ExpressNews