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Saturday, 29 August 2015

Outpost Bureaucracy: The Power of One is Strong

What's the longest journey you've ever taken through university bureaucracy? Mine is probably longer. After five months of appeals, I'm finally able to register at Concordia as a McGill student for an equivalent course. Just like the comic above - I was arbitrarily denied for no good reason after getting approval from six McGill and Concordia administrators. So like before, I employed a tactic to coerce this "outpost bureaucracy" which paid off! More on outpost bureaucracies later. Finally, while this is a story of eventual success, buckle down because I feel the comic above is no exaggeration.

I hope that by telling this embarrassing story university administrators will clear up some of their ludicrous and profoundly convoluted processes. I don't mean to unfairly target school administrators. But lets never forget that some of them are responsible for not fixing this mess. We need to complain more.

The Call to Adventure

In January 2015 I realized that if I schedule my classes right, I might be able to graduate as early as December 2015. Sweet! Lets make that happen! But I needed a diversity themed education course. Unfortunately, the only course overlapped by just 20 minutes and on only one day, with a computer science course I also absolutely needed.

Lets talk to the diversity professor, Donna-Lee Smith. Maybe she'll be understanding?

I spoke to Donna after class. I appealed alongside another student who commiserated with me because she too was experiencing how the education department and science department refused to cooperate with each other. Both me her promised to prioritize attendance in Donna's class. We could make this promise because lectures in science courses are typically optional, or recorded, or just terrible. We just needed some flexibility in case there was a test and we needed to arrive 20 minutes late maybe once a month.

Donna's answer? No. Absolutely no. 100% attendance every single day is non-negotiable. Donna seemed like a good professor from her first class, but this was inexcusably inflexible.

She clearly did not care about our schedules or our lives. If I had a test or exam conflict, she was going to be a problem, not a solution. Donna is not the final gatekeeper in my comic, by the way. We've hardly even gotten started.

Refusal of the Call

So I dropped the course. Next I asked advisers for an exemption or if I could substitute a course. I was denied.

One problem with pursuing a multi-disciplinary program is that no department feels you belong to them. I'm completing an arts degree (arts department) in computer science (science department) and education (education department). This is the only way at McGill to get a degree studying education and technology. Fun side note: my arts degree consists of zero arts credits.

So when I say "next I asked for an exemption and was denied" this wasn't a simple matter of meeting with my adviser. The arts adviser told me to see an education adviser, who told me to see a science adviser, who told me to see an arts adviser. I estimate I sent a dozen emails to a handful of people at this stage. I was eventually denied, since saying no is less work than saying yes. So I thought I'd make an appointment and explain my circumstances, since saying no to someone's face takes more work.

Meeting with the Oracle

In the summer the stakes got high. Some of you may know already that I'm extremely fortunate to teach technology topics in a high school during my studies. Since I want a career in education technology, this is fabulous work experience and it's easily more important than any one course I could take at McGill. Unfortunately, for my final fall semester I was left with just two choices:

Teach or graduate. I had to quit my job or take an extra semester for one course.

So I met with an adviser, Grace Wong-McAllister, again. I tried hard to offer alternatives:
  • Could my six extra credits in education technology replace the three diversity credits? No.
  • Is there any other course I could take instead of this one diversity course in the fall? No.
  • Is there a summer course I could take instead? No.
  • Could I get an exemption? No.
The last point is especially fun. She asked if I had previously done relevant course work that could exempt me from this course. I answered: "well, yes. I have a BA in English literature. Maybe half my essays were about race, gender, religion, or cultural diversity." She looked at me like I was a block of mouldy cheese that just spoke to her. "No no no... that won't do."

Crossing the Threshold

Here's some advice: don't give up. Just because nine people say no in twenty different ways doesn't mean it can't be done. I kept pressing Grace for options. Eventually she thought of something.

"It's a long shot, though."

An inter-university cooperation group called CREPUQ might let me take an equivalent course at Concordia while I'm a McGill student. Pretty soon this became my very last option. If I couldn't take this course at Concordia, I'd have to quit my fantastic teaching job or take an extra semester for one course. I'm still baffled by the incredible stupidity of this situation. All because of a 20 minute overlap on one day.

The Trials

Luckily, I had no problems checking Concordia's schedule because I remembered my old login credentials. The course existed! And it fit in my schedule! So I filled out several pages of awkward CREPUQ web forms. My program of study was not an option so I chose a generic option instead and left a note.

A day later: rejected. Invalid program of study.

Okay. I resubmitted. This time I just lied and said I was an education student.

I could see now that my request must pass through a gauntlet of administrators. The next one in line is only notified once the one above them approves my request:
  • 1st program adviser - McGill
  • 2nd program adviser - McGill
  • Registrar - McGill
  • Adviser - Concordia
  • Approval of Registrar - Concordia
  • Confirmation of Registrar - Concordia
That means if one administrator diddles, I'm stuck. Well that's exactly what happened. After McGill adviser #2 stalled for a month, I sent them an email. To their credit, they soon woke up and passed the torch.

Two months later, I got CREPUQ approval to register for the course! Victory..?

The Crisis

After re-activating my old Concordia account (not easy) I found that I could not enrol in any courses. I had to contact "enrolment services". They eventually removed that lock.

Next, I hit a "reserve capacity is met" lock. I contacted enrolment services again. They tell me to ask the department. Okay. Calling the department took a few days of trying because their office was moving during the summer. I spoke to an administrator we'll call "Sarah". Sarah is the mountain gatekeeper from the comic. She asked for details by email, I happily sent them. Her email reply, verbatim:

"i verified but unfortunately there are only spots for Concorida students."

Okay... I asked when the leftover slots would open for independent students. I gave my story and circumstances.

"sorry but the course will not open up,it is only for Concordia students"

I see. So I previously got a BA from Concordia, I'm a re-activated "independent" Concordia student, I'm probably doing a master's at Concordia soon, but I'm not enough of a Concordia student for Sarah?

Outpost Bureaucracies
I'd like to take a moment to explain my term "outpost bureaucracy". This is where a lower employee is assigned god-like responsibility over some very obscure task in a bureaucracy. The catch is that it's so obscure that nobody cares about it. For example, approving inter-university independent student requests in one department. It's an outpost, so it's very lonely and there's no prestige. But it's an outpost! So there's nobody around to criticize any decisions. When that lone adventurer comes to the mountain summit, what is the outpost sentry tempted to do? Justify their self-importance by harshly exercising their power with impunity.

The Ordeal

So I phone someone else in the department of education. I give my best performance explaining my circumstances and try to elicit sympathy. She sounds optimistic and suggests I send her an email with all the details. Thank you! I send the email. Nothing. Two weeks later I follow up: "Hey? Any news?" No response. It's been months now, still nothing. I phoned and left a message, nothing.

I called the graduate department to see if they can pull some strings for a future student. I spoke to a nice guy, but nope.

I called the Concordia CREPUQ coordinator. Also a nice guy, but nope.

Slaying the Dragon

What finally worked was a carefully crafted email. I employed several tactics:

  • I sent it to the Concordia registrar from my CREPUQ request instead of the advisers. I reasoned that registrars had more power because the advisers were serving as a spam filter. My first invalid request was denied by an adviser and never saw a registrar's inbox. People who are difficult to reach tend to have more power.
  • I quoted Sarah verbatim, including her tragic misspelling of "Concorida".
  • I mentioned that someone in the registrar's own department was not responding to phone calls.
  • I wasn't whining about my situation. Instead, my main request was for CREPUQ to remove this course from their list since Concordia is obviously not cooperating.
  • I said I wanted to help future students going through the system.
  • Finally, I requested that only available courses be listed on CREPUQ.
That last point is vital. I was asking the registrar to get involved in a long process and do a lot of work. Nobody wants to do work. Several days later I got a phone call... from Sarah! Sarah who previously denied me entry unconditionally. She was now remarkably kind and helpful. I'm thinking... maybe someone important came to the outpost?

For the sake of completeness, this wasn't the end, just nearly. Sarah said she unlocked the course. It didn't work. I call, no answer. I get an email saying she registered me herself! I check... oops! I'm registered in the wrong course. 445 instead of 454. Chronic dyslexia! Apparently her "director" gave her the wrong course number. Maybe we've identified my saviour.

Finally, I'm now registered for the right course and everything is dandy!

Return with the Elixir

So what did we learn on this hero's journey?

  • When you make offerings to many gods and your life takes a positive spin, it's hard to say who helped. I think it was the registrar email but really, who knows? Like the gods, the registrar never answered.
  • Emails tend to produce "no"s. Phone calls are more like long drawn out "no"s. But meet the Oracles in person and don't leave until your path is before you.
  • This journey had many characters. Mentors, shadows, tricksters, heralds, and shapeshifters. I estimate this whole process directly involved fourteen administrators (I left out details). FOURTEEN. Does that seem right to you?

Alternate Ending

Here's how we used to do course registrations:

Dear reader from 2015, does this look ridiculous to you? Well registering through CREPUQ (while it worked in the end) seems far more ridiculous to me than the picture above. Solving my scheduling problem required an estimated forty emails, one external organization, six phone calls, and three meetings in person. All spread out over five months and fourteen administrators.

So how should this have worked? How many people should have been involved in fixing my scheduling issue? How about zero.

Don't be a pessimist now! Do you think you could have told these registration administrators from the 1960s that they'd be replaced by a computer? The only difference between then and now, is they didn't have the technology we do.

Course Registrations Should be Provincial

Why the hell do different universities manage their own course registration platforms? It's like schools are paying software companies to make Microsoft Word two hundred times separately. It's like they're saying "but my documents are special because my university is special". Your university is not a special snowflake. Students register for courses in all universities in a fundamentally similar way.

This could be managed centrally by the highest branch of government in charge of education: the provinces. We can pay to get it right, make it flexible, and remove no autonomy from universities. Meanwhile there could be one way to register for university courses for each province. Every university can chip in and they'd save a ton of money by eventually cutting support staff. Here's what I want to see:
  • When I search for a course on McGill and it's not there, I'm shown a list of equivalent courses offered at other schools. I just click a "register" button, agree to some terms, and I'm done.
  • Schools can set their own limits on how many courses can be taken externally.
  • Schools choose which of their courses participate - just like now.
  • Schools set their own limits on how many external students are allowed in each course.
One day I might write a post on how to avoid blowing ludicrous sums of money on public software projects. But this post is already epic. Instead, I'll leave you with a comic that perfectly details why course registrations for universities are such a mess - why bureaucracies expand and don't contract. The problem is not technology or funding. We have the technology and working together saves money. The problem is politics:

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Guess Who's Still Teaching at McGill?

That's right, this guy:

A year ago I wrote a post called Nomination for Worst Professor. I highly recommend it if you're interested in how bad professors can possibly be. Here's a reminder if you need it though. First, the usual "merely bad professor" stuff:
  • His lectures were usually not specifically about the course.
  • He kept telling the class that the course is "boring" and "dry".
  • He liked to end class 30% early.
But here's the stuff that really makes him shine like a hunk of coal in a jewelry store:
  • When it was discovered that many of his students couldn't calculate an average, his reaction was "oh well!" and he never tested us on it (or really anything) even though he said he would.
  • He just about never referenced any research, ever, throughout the entire course.
  • He lied about who our TA was, then started ignoring my emails altogether. He gave me several bogus email addresses for our TA and I never found out who it was, or if they even existed.
  • I persisted, but it proved impossible to get any feedback on an essay worth 25% of our grade. I am nearly certain nobody read any of our essays and we all just got As.
He's Back: Proof the Department Doesn't Care

My comic above is not a joke. In some rare cases, I really do think offering a lecturer position to a randomly chosen graduate student would be a huge improvement for the course. Imagine how seriously a graduate student might take that opportunity? Clearly, improving this course is not McGill's priority.

Maybe hiring a replacement was too much work.

In my original post I did not identify the course, professor, or the department chair. I wanted to give the department a fair chance to do something about this. Now that he's teaching again there's no reason to maintain privacy. Gus Appignanesi is the professor and Jeff Derevensky is the department chair I complained to. I'm hoping Jeff was powerless here but it could have been a conflict of interest. Their research interests are conspicuously identical. They likely work together and know each other outside McGill. More on this in my original post.

By the way, I've still gotten zero feedback on my A grade essay. Or proof that anyone even read it. Why doesn't the department care about this, at all?

But Everyone Loves Gus!
That's right, Gus currently has a smooth 4.6 out of 5 rating on RateMyProfessors.

"Gus is a rare gem at McGill."

"Best professor at McGill"

Well, what did we expect? A professor ends class early, expects nothing, doesn't test you, doesn't challenge you with research, talks about irrelevant fun random topics, and hands out As without reading your paper. Of course students love him - especially those who write glowing reviews without punctuation on RateMyProfessors.

I can't think of a more perfect example of why you must use caution interpreting ratings on RateMyProfessors. It's up to the department to evaluate professors more objectively, and ignore high praise from student reviews in cases where a professor is seriously undermining the legitimacy of a department.

What Now?
Thank you for reading and sharing my posts. I've gotten far more readers than I ever imagined by talking about McGill. I really feel like together we're exposing how some McGill courses are the pinnacle of grade-inflated shams. Like "security theater" too many university courses are "education theater".

If you want a profoundly easy course that does not challenge you, taught by a professor who says and proves he does not care, then take Measurement and Evaluation with Gus this coming semester.

Finally, awhile ago I found a website called Degrading McGill written by a McGill professor. If you're interested in what value McGill is giving you in exchange for your time and money, I highly recommend it.

If you care, complain.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Don't Ban Killer Robot Research. Just Ban Killer Robots.

There's a lot of serious and legitimate concern lately about the development of autonomous weapons.

The Basic Idea
Humanity nearly has the technology to mass produce machines which can target and choose to kill humans, all without human intervention. So a factory worker turns on a machine, and then it goes out into the world and finds terrorists or protesters and kills them. The machine does this all by itself without any human controller actually making that final decision. In case you haven't been following the latest advances in robots and machine learning, we are nearly there.

I agree with the campaign to stop killer robots that we need to ban killer robots. But they also advocate banning research. Instead, we must only ban their manufacturing and activation, because banning research on killer robots is not only totally ineffective, but unwise.

This is Scarier than Nuclear Weapons
Nations have some control over nuclear weapons. The recent deal with Iran for example greatly restricts their ability to make nuclear weapons in exchange for improving their economy. That's because obtaining nuclear materials, refining them, and building facilities to make nuclear weapons requires a major industrial effort. Furthermore, nations that do so have trouble hiding it.

Automated weapons are especially frightening because none of these restrictions apply. In the video above, a mere hobbyist strapped a handgun to a quadcopter. All it's missing is a camera and the right software to be an automated weapon.

Why Ban Any Research?
We must ban some research - like trying to clone a half-human half-animal. A pig-man is unethical to create, even if it only happens in a lab. Does a pig-man have human rights? Did we force them to suffer pain their whole life with their hybrid physiology? Answering these questions reveals that the process itself and the product of the experiments are unethical.

However the process and results of researching automated weapons in a lab are not so clearly unethical. No one is being harmed by the research directly and it could have many benevolent uses - like non-lethal law enforcement, or wild animal control, or domestic robots, or even robots that disable other automated weapons. Similarly there's a reason organizations like the Centre for Disease Control hold on to the worst strands of Ebola and Anthrax. It's because there is, or there may be, some benevolent use of that type of research.

Criminalizing Science
We should never criminalize knowledge or the people seeking knowledge. In the past, subjects that were taboo were the ones we most desperately needed to research! Sex, astronomy, and human biology were all forbidden research in the past.

The only reasonable times to criminalize science are from science fiction with world ending inventions like Ice-nine. With Ice-nine a crazy person with no resources could end the world. But even with technology as frightening as automated killing machines, we are not nearly there yet.

Banning Research Won't Work Anyway
We can't ban general research into robotics, computer vision, robot tool manipulation, etc, because this field involves far more than just killer robots. But breakthroughs in all these fields combined will eventually give us the ability to make killer robots whether we research it specifically or not. The designers of handguns and quadcopters probably didn't have this combination in mind, but once both were invented a hobbyist easily combined them. So if there's some magical ban on research, any interested nation will just direct their military to research each field individually.

Let's Ban The Manufacturing and Activation of Automated Weapons
This all comes down to human responsibility. Let's consider an example where a machine is designed, built, and activated. Then it decides by itself to go to some location and then decides to kill. Who is responsible for the murder?

  1. The researcher who designed the robot hand.
  2. The factory worker who builds generic robot parts like servo motors.
  3. The factory worker who can clearly see that the final product is an automated weapon.
  4. The software engineer who copies the killer robot software onto the robot.
  5. The factory manager who delivers the machine to customers.
  6. The owner or politician who activates the machine.
What do you think? I think people 1 and 2 are totally excused from the murder. As we progress into 3, 4, 5 and 6, the people become more and more responsible. Let's not ban research or the generic construction of robots (1 and 2). Instead let's ban the production and activation of automated weapons.

If you're interested in reading more, Elon Musk (SpaceX, Tesla), Stephen Hawking, and thousands of AI researchers recently signed this open letter on the subject.