Unconventional. Innovative. Collaborative. Entrepreneurial.

If you go to uwaterloo.ca right now these are the words the University of Waterloo will use to describe itself. However, like so many marketed things in the world the University of Waterloo, I would argue, describes itself inaccurately. My observations in this regard are largely inspired by recent discussions and readings I’ve encountered regarding the university and alternative education, including Rajesh’s insights about Waterloo’s message and Dethe’s well-linked entry about Schools of the Future. Let me begin by considering each of these words individually, specifically with respect to the University of Waterloo’s delivery of education–the primary function of any institution for higher education.


During my limited experience with the university, its Faculty of Engineering, and its Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering this could not be further from the truth. Every course I have take in E&CE was of a traditional style for the field: three hours of lecture a week (always lecture, not seminar, not discussion; lecture), one hour of tutorial per week, either a lab every week-to-two-weeks or one or more projects. The same thing delivered the same way for every course. Very conventional, and oftetn very boring.

This point was underscored by another Waterloo student during a fireside at my home on Baha’i perspectives on education. After reading a cursory overview of the Ruhi Institute’s methods and philosophy of education, my friend exclaimed (forgive slight paraphrasing) “what I find most frustrating is that these–with no offence intended–‘amateur’ educators have developed such an engaging and effective system for education, while education ‘professionals’ offer such a terrible system instead.” At the same fireside another friend pointed out universities’ knack for selling programs they don’t even have the resources to properly provide; I feel this observation applies to Waterloo’s habit of inventing a new discipline of engineering every few months before promptly massacring the first class to study in their “emerging field” in pursuit of accreditation, but I won’t go into that here.

In short, if Waterloo classrooms and administration are any indication, its methods are conventional. Outdated-ly so, and painfully so.


My case against this system is essentially “refer to the previous section”. If, in the area of education, its primary focus, the university wished to be innovated I would expect to see a high degree of experimentation in its curriculum and the curriculum’s delivery. In my experience such experimentation is almost completely absent with the exception of conservative inroads toward online course offerings and discussion-based courses I experienced in the Society, Technology, and Values (STV) course offerings. Furthermore, I would like to point out that the really bad professors I’ve worked with over the years at Waterloo–a minority, though a substantial number–make the dated mode of teaching all the more painful as such lecturers tend to have dismal presentation skills and even worse intuition on how students learn.


Definitely not. I have never been in a system where competition is more fierce and interdepartmental collaboration was more poorly executed. Waterloo Engineering’s reputation attracts some of the most ambitious (and, sometimes, self-centered) personalities around. Of course, it also attracts lots of bright and altruistic people too, but there are several systemic vices that breed competition at Waterloo, at the very least, in E&CE.

The first example is the co-op system. I’ll admit that, at some level, this is the “worst example” of the ones I will give because any system that’s built on the Western notion of a “job market” is typically very difficult to craft in a way that suppresses competition rather than encouraging it; certainly I have no simple solution to that problem. Nevertheless, putting students in the adversarial climate of competing for job placements as early as four months into their degree program is hardly a collaborative environment.

Next, the examples of interdepartmental “collaboration” I’ve experienced at Waterloo have been almost without exception bureaucratic nightmares. As the academic representative I have witnessed a lot of attempts at (or apathetic tolerances of) interdepartmental collaboration. I would like to provide a concrete example here, but I already deleted one after writing it to respect the confidentiality expected of department meetings. Trust me, it’s bureaucratic, it’s painful, it’s bad.

Finally, for all the aid that students are provided to succeed in their courses–and to their credit, there is a lot at Waterloo–none of it, that I know of, is designed with the aim of fostering collaboration. Support is provided top-down through tutoring from older, more experienced students that train undergrads to not only focus their energies on getting a good grade (which is bad enough when students could be focusing on what they’re actually learning) but also with the attitude, implicit or explicit, that in order to for students to succeed they need to focus on their time, their work, their grade, ignoring any “distractions” like helping other students. It turns out that I created a collaborative environment by staying away from these tutoring sessions during first year (except for group extra help sessions) and doing my homework in groups of other students that were just as confused as me; it took longer, but we all learned together.


Yes. A ton of entrepreneurs come out of Waterloo. Perhaps too many. One out of four isn’t bad.

In light of these observations I would like to make an open appeal to the university to live up to these marketing slogans in their teaching. I recognize that some of the things going at Waterloo do in fact embody these slogans; after all, there are tangible examples provided with each slogan on their webpage. I further recognize that the university “does other things than teach/educate”. I personally want to go into research, but that doesn’t mean that I devalue education; on the contrary I look forward to continuing my contribution to education after I graduate. Nevertheless, I find it troubling that an institution with a primary purpose  to educate and a vision so progressive is so far behind in exploring more engaging alternative modes of education that, I would argue, could prove to be more effective. I could provide a myriad examples of what I mean by alternative education, and I may write about it later, but for now any interested readers should read Dethe’s post and follow any of the excellent links provided there; I don’t agree with all of Dethe’s observations but I certainly like most of them. The university can start by hiring into teaching positions only those with both the competency and the passion that teaching demands. Perhaps even more troubling than the current state of undergraduate education is the university’s recent plan to focus more on graduate education and research. To this shift in priorities I have only one thing to say…

Please Waterloo, fix your undergraduate programs before you go pouring money into the same mistakes at the graduate and post-graduate levels.


This weekend I attended EpCon 2010, which was billed as a conference for college/university students interested in technology. About half way through the conference I recommended that it be renamed (at least this year) to SMECon, Social Media & Entrepreneurship Conference, in keeping with the recurring themes in the vast majority of talks and breakout sessions. In general I enjoyed the conference, although I felt it lacked three things: greater diversity of topics (with fewer shameless plugs for big-company products), opportunities for discussion groups (rather than unending presentations), and content more about society/technology/values to encourage students to think critically about emerging technology. Continue reading

Life’s an exciting adventure, isn’t it? Even though I’ve been in San Francisco for two days, I feel compelled to blog a wrap up my cross-country account.

On Day 2 we took a detour to see the House of Worship just outside of Chicago. Unfortunately, we were foolish enough to trust technology to direct us on our way. So, when we searched for 100 Linden Ave, Chicago it gave us directions to Linden in Oak Park, not Wilmette. Eventually we found it, but in the pouring rain. I picked up some reading and tunes at the shoppe, and spent some quality time in the corner stone room and the auditorium.

Later that afternoon we stopped for lunch at Quiznos in North Aurora, IL. When we got back to the car, it refused to go faster than 20km/h… downhill. Turning again to the GPS, we found the name of a local-sounding mechanic. At the nearby Motel 6 we used the phonebook to also look up a “discount” towing service. I suppose if they’d’ve flown the car to San Francisco for us, it would have been discount. Anyway $422 later, we met up with Eli, a Mexican-American mechanic that assured us we wouldn’t pay a cent for his services unless the car got fixed. He even had a friend/colleague of his to drive us to a nearby hotel–the drive refused any tip.

Unfortunately, our bad luck had not run out yet, and our ride drove away before we found out the hotel was booked for the night. So, we took a cab back to the Motel 6 that gave us the phone number to the not-much-of-a-discount towing service and checked in for the night.

The next day we walked to the neighbouring outlet mall which was not an easy task. This was one of those outlet malls that are just off the highway where, aside from a narrow entrance ramp for cars, nature is frantically attempting to reclaim every inch of the land surrounding the commercial sprawl. After a couple of hours of pretending to be interested in buying electronics and playing Worms on Val’ls laptop, Eli called saying that the car was ready. So, a cab drive and a reasonable fee later we were on the road again.

However, our bad luck still hadn’t quite run out. The first time we stopped to get gas and lunch, we miscalculated a turn, crossed the opposing lane of traffic and scraped across an SUV. There was no serious damage to either vehicle, but we still needed to wait around for the police report to be filled out. We also had to pay “bond” and sign a sheet that was apparently not an admission of guilt, even though it certified our payment for a bond fee associated with an illegal right-hand turn.

After determining that the only thing leaking from the bottom of the car was water from the A/C unit, we set out again to spend the rest of the trip having to both weasel our way out of the driver-side door. The rest of our trip was largely uneventful. We didn’t stop at as many sights as I would have liked on account of having lost almost a day and a half to setbacks. Along the way I learned that all the States East of Wyoming (and West of Michigan) are absolutely dull geographically, but I never new that Nevada was so mountainous.

Anyway, the journey to California has finally ended. I started work yesterday at the usual slow pace; still waiting on this and that to get everything fully set up to start work; still lots of learning to do before I’m fully comfortable with the work environment. We will see what the rest of the semester has in store…


It has begun! Mark and Val’s Excellent Adventure: Road Trip to San Francisco is a go!

Left from Kitchener at about 11:30AM. After a quick stop in London to pick up a couple of things we foolishly trusted the GPS system to guide us.

We set the GPS to get us to Flint, MI; the GPS figured the best route was to go via Buffalo. Of couse, when we noticed this, we paid it no attention and continued to Sarnia/Port Huron. However, the GPS could not be pursuaded; after each exit we passed, it recalculated a new route that was the same every time: pull a U-turn at the next exit, drive to Buffalo, and then turn around and head for Flint.

Unfortunately, the system didn’t improve much once we crossed the border either. Its latest bright idea was that we should drive through Detroit to get to Flint, rather than take the straight and uninterrupted route via I-69. I am seriously concerned about when we enter parts of the States where I haven’t been.

Crossing the border was relatively uneventful. We waved a bunch of pages with signatures on them around while customs officials looked for fruit and yogurt stashed in between our laptops and our clothes. We did arrive right when our officer was about to change his shift though, so when the computer system froze up half way through processing us he got tagged out by a seemingly more attractive and experienced one.

Finally, we stopped in Flint to pick up my new Peek, which turned out to cost a fraction of what I expected; I’m pretty sure it’s an older model, which is fine by me. Our hotel appears to be a T-Mobile deadzone though, much to my chagrin.

Now we’ve stopped in Kalamazoo, MI for the night, mostly because I like the name. According to Val, that’s about 1/6 of the way, which is not bad for a half-day of driving with delays crossing the border. I took some pictures today, but I left the photo cable in my big luggage; hopefully I’ll remember to dig it out tomorrow and transfer some photos.

Anyway, I’m off to contact people I’m supposed to contact, blah, blah, blah. Sleep eventually. Stay tuned tomorrow for more updates–from on the road if I can get my Peek to work correctly!


UWs new marketing logo
UW's new marketing logo

So, there’s been a lot of buzz about the proposed new logo for UW, but I haven’t written anything substantial about it because for a long time I didn’t hear anything about the university’s response to the outcry.

Recently, I came upon a Facebook video of UW’s Meg Beckel explaining all of the expensive research that went into developing UW’s change of image. The main defense of the logo change was that research showed that the university associates itself with such terms as:

  • Innovative
  • Creative
  • Courageous
  • Connected
  • Critical-thinking
  • Unconventional
  • Risk-taking
  • Collaborative

…while a survey of outsiders associated the following with UW’s current marketing logo:

  • old
  • staunchy
  • uppity
  • royal
  • imperialistic
  • academic
  • rugby/athletic
  • ancient
  • smart
  • boring
  • passive
  • proud
  • mythological
  • hard
  • formal
  • old fashioned
  • Harry Potter/British

First of all, the univerity should applaud their target audience for their innovative/creative/unconventional/risk-taking use of the word staunchy. Also, as a student, I would have replaced collaborative with relentlessly competitive in the university’s list, but the first list of adjectives otherwise does a good job of representing the university’s self-image. I am somewhat skeptical of the second list. Not that those adjectives were made up, but I’m willing to bet that they were hand-picked from a very young sample space.

Anyway, the argument is the following: “we want to be associated with the first list, but right now we’re associated with the second list”. Combining the above evidence with this argument is misleading. The second list of adjectives is based on people’s first impression of our logo, not their overall impression based on the reputation and marketing they’ve experienced from UW. It’s entirely possible that most people already associate UW with most of the adjectives in List #1. I am sure that surveying young people’s impression of most Ontario university’s largely classic and traditional marketing logos would yeild similar associations, which brings me to my next point.

While I agree that UW should strive to market itself according to how it wants to be perceived, the issue of being an exciting, innovative place should be subordinate to the issue of being a prestigious university. If I were a parent or youth considering UW, I would first want to know that it is a post-graduate institution of high repute, then I would concern myself with its goals, look, and feel. Using a marketing logo that makes UW look like an 80s night club undermines the first and more important concern.

Another argument made in the video can be summed up as follows: “it’s okay to have a flashy and tacky marketing logo because we’ll still use a classic logo for ceremonies such as graduation and certification”. As a student, I am much more concerned with the marketing logo that my university employs. The marketing logo will represent to others what type of institution I attend. The ceremonial logo will collect dust along with the accompanying text on my degree certificate.

Following the marketing/ceremonial argument, Beckel goes on to show how the new logo will be branded for faculties and institutes, which is nice, but shows nothing about the flexibility of the logo itself. In the brandings, the logo is the same, but the faculty/institute is written in a particular colour beneath. This marketing strategy can, of course, be applied to any logo, including the current coat of arms. In fact, the coat of arms is sufficiently simple to dye the logo itself a different colour for reach faculty and institute making the effect more dramatic and memorable. Many people have also complained that purple was not used for engineering; personally, as an engineering student, I don’t care, but I can appreciate that others do.

The next part of the video is perhaps the most laughable. The university practically underscores the complaint of students by putting the new logo up against the marketing logo of other universities. With the exception of the University of Windsor, all the other logos are slightly modified, still classy revisions of the ceremonial logo. UW’s? Still rockin’ the 80s night club look.

In conclusion, I would like to make it clear that this discussion is not intended as an attack on UW or its marketing team. As a student, I appreciate all the hard work that they do; I simply wanted to convey why I feel they happen to be way off-base with this particular decision. The need to convey a prestigious university as hip and exciting should be subordinate to the need to convey it as a prestigious university. I just wish UW’s marketing team had considered this hierarchy of concern in designing a new visual identity for the school.

The rumour is that the marketing plan is too far along to change the logo now, which is perhaps what I find the most disappointing. Why on earth did the university pump so much money into surveying prospective students, alumni, and other target markets for selecting a logo without consulting the students whose institutional identity will be affected? I wish I could say this is the first time UW found a way to put students last in their agenda, but unfortunately it’s not. More on that another day.

For the past several days I have been wrestling with various useful Web 2.0 applications in an attempt to get them to talk to each other suitably.

What I’ve found is that Google Reader and similar services will put all kinds of feeds together so that I could make one link that contains everything: my blog, my tumblog, my twitter, my facebook, etc, etc.

However, what I would like to do is–rather than trying to convince everyone in my life to use a Google Reader link when they are more comfortable with a particular application (usually Facebook or Twitter)–what I’d like to do is post information to anywhere, and it will automatically be made available everywhere. Here are some highlights of my attempts and frustrations:

  1. Tumblr will sync with Twitter (post my tweets, and tweet my tumblr posts), as well as repost my blog and my Facebook feed.
  2. The Twitter application in Facebook will post my tweets as Facebook status updates.
  3. Combining 1 and 2, I posted everything except my Facebook status to tumblr, and allowed [anything but Facebook] -> Tumblr -> Twitter -> Facebook to do the work. This still has problems though. First, Twitter turns media rich posts on Tumblr in to mini URLs, so an image or video posted to [anything but Facebook] gets to Facebook as a mini URL, while Facebook supports media-rich posts. Furthermore, posting to Facebook is still a dead end, the solution to which would be posting my Facebook updates to Tumblr, creating an endless feedback loop: Facebook -> Tumblr -> Twitter -> Facebook -> …

One solution would be a smart synchronizer that uses the API from every service that interests you to check whether a post exists at location X, and if it doesn’t, forward it there in the correct format. Provided that ONLY that synchronizer is used (so that it can keep track of post’s origins without error) that would work.

Another solution would be to have one application where all posting is done, whether it’s a quip, status update, image, video, whatever. Then this “super application” sends out the information in the correct format to everything. The problem with this solution is that the super applicaiton needs to be available for every platform that I use to post content (my phone, my laptop, my PC, a Mac, etc, etc). This solution also doesn’t really solve the problem because I can’t simply post using any interface I want, and expect everything to get updated–I have to use the super application all the time.

Is there anyone out there that has found a good solution to this problem? I’ve seen seesmic for Facebook and Twitter, but it doesn’t cover other applications. I’ve also tried flock, but for some reason it won’t play nice with my self-hosted WordPress blog.

Any help on this would be appreciated. I would hate to have to learn 1/2-dozen APIs and write my own application to do this properly.


No tongue is there that speaketh not the praises of its Lord and maketh not mention of His Name. Amongst the people, however, are those who understand and utter praises, and those who utter praises, yet understand not.

~ Baha’u’llah, Surih of the Temple

This is one of my favourite quotations articulating the objective nature of the spiritual reality of all things. That conscious praise of God is a question of how conscious we are of objective reality and not a question of how we feel about a subjective reality has far-reaching implications.

As you may have already observed, I recently migrated my old domain, white-raven.net to markdittmer.org. My domain was expiring soon, I have moved to a different host, and I almost never use my old White Raven alias for anything anymore. I guess as I get older I feel less of a need to hide behind a cryptic name on the Internet.

At any rate, update your links and what not because I only have about a month and a half left before white-raven.net expires and is no more. For now, there is a HTTP redirect to markdittmer.org locations.


Every professor–certainly every engineering professor I have ever had–should go to this. The event is advertised here (unfortunately no permalink to the event) and discussed here. The theme underscores, in my opinion, one of the greatest failures of Western post-secondary education: students are allowed to, and sometimes even encouraged, to “work the system of evuation” instead of “striving for excellence and pursuing knowledge”.

So, the Durban Review Conference II commenced today. According to the Telegraph, Canada was among the USA, Israel, Italy, and Australia in boycotting the conference. When I first read about this, I found it a little confusing since the conference purports to be focused on anti-racism. However, the first conference was apparently rife with anti-semetism and was so offensive that the United States walked out on the conference half way through.

Here’s what Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Maxime Bernier, in announcing Canada’s choice to boycott the event:

Unfortunately, [the 2001 Durban] conference degenerated into open and divisive expressions of intolerance and antisemitism that undermined the principles of the United Nations and the very goals the conference sought to achieve…I had hoped that the preparatory process for the 2009 Durban Review Conference would remedy the mistakes of the past. We have concluded that, despite our efforts, it will not.

In addition to producing irrefutable evidence of the event’s hypocrisy by citing its agenda, the Telegraph’s article also alluded to the UK’s disappointing choice not to boycott the event alongside its Western allies. An interesting move.

Also contrasting the Western boycotts is the list of NGOs in support of the event in 2001 available here, and the reported list of major NGO attendees which includes Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and UNICEF.

I don’t pretend to be well-informed enough to reserve judgement on the Canadian, English, or NGO decisions made here, but it certainly seems like, once again, the world’s leaders need to learn how to get along. If repeating the mistakes of Durban I is not the answer, then another conference on a more balanced set of issues and perspectives should be held by the UN in cooperation with its member nations. From the sounds of it, Canada made the right move to back out, but non-cooperation isn’t enough; problems don’t get solved by pointing at the solutions that aren’t working. I am interested to see what gets published on the Iranian Prime Minister’s opening speech today.

I’ll write more on this later I’m sure…