Saturday, October 19, 2013

A Deep Breath, Democracy, and Twitter Blocks

Thomas Lukaszuk, Deputy Premier  of Alberta and Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education, has a very active Twitter account (@LukaszukMLA) – 8923 tweets and counting as of today.  Apparently this account has been in existence for less than two years.  It is commendable that he is taking advantage of social media, though I must admit that I am often bemused by the disconnect between the flow of information that he provides (via the #abpse hashtag) and that provided by others participating in the same dialogue.

Recently a number of Twitter users have reported that their accounts have been blocked by the Minister’s.  There is obvious anger about the Minister’s blocking, frequently expressed in conjunction with alarm about the state of democracy in Alberta.  The image below gives some sense of the situation.

My opinion? Everyone should take a deep breath, exhale slowly, step back, and consider things a bit more objectively and calmly.

First, I find it a bit of a stretch to consider that direct access to a politician via an unblocked Twitter account is a cornerstone of democracy.  Hopefully political dialogue requires more depth than is available in missives that can be no longer than 140 characters, and on average contain only 11 words!  And presumably democracy has been around a lot longer than Twitter, which was created in March of 2006.

Second, an objective examination of the tone of #abpse tweets over the past few months indicates a growing (and understandable) rancor.  There have been many negative tweets directed towards the Minister that have been personal in nature, and typically include his account name to appear directly in his Twitter feed.  I, for one, do not feel that this is particularly helpful or constructive, even though it conveys the emotions of the many affected by #abpse budget cuts.  If I was on the receiving end of this, then I would deal with it with whatever tools are available.  And, of course, account blocking is a perfectly reasonable tool to use in this case.  Sometime I’m surprised that the Minister’s account hasn’t disappeared completely!

Third, and related to the point above, if an open line of Twitter communication to the Minister is important, then perhaps we should consider the tone of our tweets before we share them.  I have no idea how many accounts he has blocked, I do not know who he has blocked, and I have no knowledge about the tweet content that results in being blocked.  If innocuous tweets lead to an account being blocked, then that would be unfortunate (but see below).  However, I am sure that the Minister’s account has seen a flood of tweets that were more than a little charged.  

Fourth, account blocking doesn’t prevent Twitter posts from being processed.  A blocked account cannot communicate with @LukaszukMLA directly, but can easily search for his tweets.  Similarly, I would be surprised if the Minister himself doesn’t search for #abpse tweets, seeing as he often uses that hashtag.  He can easily keep up with what he might be missing due to his blocking of some accounts.

Of course, keeping up with the public opinion expressed in Twitter is something that may be very important for the Minister to do.

In a recent column in The Guardian, John Naughton argues that Twitter provides a key technology for societies to discuss political issues, and suggests that recent debates by governments on either side of the Atlantic have been affected by electronically expressed public opinion.  Naughton’s column in The Guardian provides a link to an interesting paper from Carnegie Mellon University that shows that Twitter data is not only highly consistent with ‘gold standard’ public opinion surveys, but actually provides a leading indicator of survey results.  That is, Twitter analysis can ‘scoop’ the pollsters.  Apparently Twitter predicted not only the overall result of the latest provincial election in British Columbia, but also made accurate predictions about the seat distribution across all parties.  (It is not perfect, though.  Twitter analyses did not predict the results of the recent provincial election in Nova Scotia.)

In short, there are good reasons to keep #abpse tweets flowing, and they may provide important and accurate information to the Minister and his government regarding public opinion.  It is unfortunate that he has blocked some accounts.  But don’t worry about democracy: we still have it, and can exercise it at the ballot box during the next provincial election.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Engineering Photo-Ops

On October 9, the Premier of Alberta and the Deputy Premier (who is also minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education) visited the University of Calgary to make a major announcement: the government is contributing $142.5 million for U of C to expand its Schulich School of Engineering.  When the expansion is completed, there will be room for 400 additional engineering students.

On the one hand, this should be a ‘feel good’ story: this is a good result for that university, and it is good for the government to channel substantial funds back into the postsecondary system.  Accordingly, the government press release is filled with positive quotes.

On the other hand, Twitter exploded with many negative reactions (see figure below).  People were outraged that the government promise to U of C was nearly identical to the funding that it cut from postsecondary institutions in its spring budget.  There was a general outcry about favoritism: Calgary versus the other institutions in the province, engineering versus arts, and so on.  After all, the University of Alberta had just announced a mass departure of 121 employees, including 77 professors, due to a voluntary severance program that was instigated as a result of budget trouble.  Perhaps the optics of the announcement could have been better!

This is not to say that there was not a great deal of work creating positive photo opportunities at the announcement.  Pictures of dignitaries interacting with engineering students and their gadgets quickly appeared on social media.  I enjoyed the ‘thank you’ photograph that appeared on the Flickr feed of the Premier’s office, which is reproduced below.  Unless it is typical for school children to be milling about the U of C grounds wearing colorful ‘Future Engineer’ T-shirts, this photo was definitely … engineered!

I was particularly interested in the photograph of the Deputy Premier looking at some LEGO NXT robots displayed by engineering students.  It seems that the skills required to design such machines are appropriate in our current context of enterprise and advanced education.


Why did I pay particular attention to this photograph?  Because the evening before it was taken, students in my PSYCO457 “Embodied Cognitive Science” course built their own robot, a Braitenberg Vehicle 2.  After constructing the robot, they observed its behavior and manipulated its design.  Next week they will alter the robot’s program to further their explorations.  Of course, I took advantage of all the activity to generate my own publicity shots.  The three photos below depict this year’s batch of students in the process of building,

the machine that they built (three were constructed),


and students experimenting with their creations.


Students in this course are typically psychology majors, some in the Faculty of Science and some in Arts.  (This year one is an English major, last year one was a Philosophy major).  The course’s current structure was developed a few years ago when I had the opportunity to meld my research with my teaching thanks to a McCalla Professorship that I was lucky enough to be awarded – from the Faculty of Arts.  A hint of why psychology students, arts majors, or philosophers can learn something from building robots is provided in a video that I made and posted on YouTube. (Yes, I know – a flagrant video-op!)  The last segment of that video is available here, and is most relevant to my point; other segments from that web page illustrate many robots designed by students for that course.

The irony in all of this – to get to the point of this blog entry – is that none of my students in this course are engineering majors.  If you look beyond the engineering buildings at any university you will be surprised at the diversity of skills and ideas that students are being exposed to!

 Photograph Sources

Source for ‘Thank You’ photo: Flickr feed, PremierOf Alberta’s photostream,

Source for U of C LEGO robot photo: Twitter feed, Alberta Ministry of Enterprise and Advanced Education

My own photo-ops are occasionally posted on my Instagram feed drmrwdawson




Tuesday, October 01, 2013

On Voluntary Severance

The results of the University of Alberta’s Voluntary Severance Program were announced today.  This program offered money (up to twelve months salary) as an incentive for employees to leave the university.  Today it was announced that 121 staff members -- 83 Faculty, Faculty Service Officers, and Librarians, and 38 Administrative Professional Officers – were approved for leaving under the terms of this program.

This has to be one of the darkest days in the University’s history.

A closer examination of the details underlying this news is even more depressing.  My own faculty, Arts, is the worst hit with 30 losses.  A huge amount of experience – in the form of 53 full professors – is leaving the university.  This is expertise that will be nearly impossible to replace, even when the university is in the financial position to do so.

This was a point that I made last April (The Best, the Brightest, and the Alberta Budget).  I argued that the government was mistaken in its belief that it could attract and retain the best and brightest in a climate of reduced funding and of salary restraint.  That earlier blog quoted the Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education’s belief that all was well:  “I would be very surprised if any professors are actually seriously thinking of leaving any university in Alberta”.

The news today – only five months after Minister Lukaszuk’s quote above – clearly shows that he was seriously mistaken.  Today one university has lost, in my view, a distressingly large number of staff, including a surprisingly large number of faculty members.

It is particularly disheartening and disturbing to see that 31% of these faculty losses (24 positions) were junior faculty members (assistant or associate professors).  These are individuals who have very productive career years ahead of them.  I wonder how many of these individuals are moving on to positions in other universities that are outside of Alberta. 
Their departure is a clear sign that things are going from bad to worse in Alberta’s postsecondary system.  Their voluntary severance needs to be interpreted as an alarming indicator about the poor state of Albertan universities.  It will certainly viewed as such by anyone outside of the province considering studying or working at one of these institutions.