Submarine robot more advanced than Mars rovers

After two years of development by a team of Canadian researchers that include York University computer scientists, AQUA Robot took its first undersea test last week at the Bellairs Research Institute in Barbados, and proved it could swim, survive and observe in the shallow ocean, reported Canadian Press Jan. 23. Having done a tropical test in January, the team, sponsored largely by the federally funded Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Systems (and including researchers from McGill University, Dalhousie University, York University, the Canadian Space Agency and MD Robotics of Brampton, Ont.), plans summer trials in Canadian lakes. “The fact that the robot uses legs to move and yet can swim through the water makes it completely unique as a research vehicle,” says project leader Michael Jenkin, computer science professor in York’s Faculty of Pure & Applied Science. “This is an enabling technology that will permit many different things to be done in the water that are not currently possible, such as monitoring the growth or destruction of a reef, or changes to a ship or oil platform.”

It is the only technology of its kind in the world, reported The Globe and Mail Jan. 26. AQUA is capable of walking into the water from the shore, going out to a specified area, building a three-dimensional model of what it has observed, and then returning to shore. “While these visual tasks seem simple to humans, they represent the cutting edge for robot systems and are, in fact, beyond the reach of other robots such as the recent crop of Mars exploration vehicles,” Jenkin said. Research scientist Jim Zacher of York University told the Globe: “This project rocks.”

Schulich MBA moves up in international ranking

York University’s Schulich School of Business solidified its status among the world’s top MBA faculties by passing one of its major rivals and contending for top Canadian honours in the Financial Times 2004 rankings of business schools, reported The Globe and Mail Jan. 26. The Schulich School ranked in the 22nd spot among the top 100 schools offering masters of business administration degrees, up from 26th a year ago and from 31st position two years ago in the closely watched FT rankings. That left it just behind the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, the leading Canadian school, which placed 21st over all this year, the same spot as in 2003. But in these often volatile rankings, said the Globe, the Schulich School moved past the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business, which dropped to 29th from 22nd a year ago and from 18th two years ago. “This is very satisfactory – our fifth consecutive year of steady improvement,” said Schulich Dean Dezsö  Horváth, whose school graduates 300 full-time MBAs a year.

The Schulich School placed No. 3 on the FT scorecard in terms of value for money – the rate of return on every dollar spent – even though its 2000 graduates pulled down the lowest weighted average three-year salary, US$85,734, among the top 35 schools. In addition, Schulich scored No. 85 in terms of alumni achieving their aims, behind the leader, Queen’s, as well as Rotman, No. 13; Ivey, No. 38; McGill, No. 51; and UBC, No. 64. Horváth said Schulich’s lower score in aims achieved reflects the challenges of finding career placements for 300 graduates in a poor economy, such as MBA graduates experienced in 2000-2001. These challenges are not as great for smaller programs, such as Queen’s, he said. Also, the Schulich School offers wide career opportunities, including jobs outside North America and in the arts and non-profit sectors, which pay lower average salaries than in programs that focus on investment banking and consulting, he said.

Scientists’ interest in Mars reaching fever pitch

For even the most sombre scientists, the attraction of Mars is now reaching fever pitch as NASA’s rover Spirit suffered a glitch, its Opportunity landed and its orbiting Mars Express sent back proof of water, reported the Toronto Star Jan. 25. “I’m so lucky that this is all happening before my retirement,” said John Caldwell, a planetary scientist in York University’s Faculty of Pure & Applied Science. The 59-year-old professor stole a few moments to talk about the continuing lure of Mars in the midst of a deadline application to use the Hubble space telescope to search for signs of volcanic activity on the red planet. “Is Mars totally dead or not? Or is it simply hibernating?” he asked, the words tumbling out in excitement. The answer to those questions lies in probing the planet’s 10 volcanoes. “Just like Earth went through its ice ages, the current conditions on Mars could be merely cyclical, not permanent,” said Caldwell.

Like many scientists, Caldwell pointed that out today’s unmanned missions paradoxically are demonstrating how robot explorers make more sense than the Bush plan. “You can do just about anything with a robot that you can do with a person and probably do it better,” he said. “If a robot fails, we learn from our mistakes and build another. If you lose people, that’s a tragedy.”

Goodbye to Star publisher

In a farewell feature Jan. 26 for Toronto Star publisher John Honderich, the Star asked for comments about his tenure at Canada’s biggest metropolitan newspaper. York University President & Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden said of his departure: “It’s a very great shame. He’s done a tremendous job there. We were the first university to distribute the Star on our campus and he had a great impact on that. He will be missed.”

No need for public inquiry into Arar case

“Your renewed call for a public inquiry in Canada into the arrest and deportation of Maher Arar by the United States is misguided,” wrote Jean-Gabriel Castel, professor emeritus of international law at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, in a letter Jan. 22 to the National Post. “It is well established by international law that, for whatever reasons, the United States had the right to deport Arar to any country willing to accept him since he was arrested on its territory. This flows from the principle of territorial sovereignty. International law does not obligate a country to deport an alien to the country of his or her citizenship. However, the United States had to inform Arar that he had the right to request that the nearest Canadian consular post be informed of his arrest. This was done.

“Canada and the United States are, however, parties to the Convention Against Torture, which prohibits them from sending a person to a country where he or she may be subjected to torture…. If Arar is to be considered a Canadian citizen the United States has violated the Convention. However, this rule is subject to interpretation. It is also well established that a passport is only presumed to be evidence of citizenship and that there is no obligation to honour its contents. Therefore, on the international plane it is doubtful whether international law was violated by any of the countries involved.”

MPs should vet Supreme Court judges, says prof

Parliament is the proper forum to debate the role of judges in a democratic society, says Patrick Monahan, dean of York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, reported Canadian Press Jan. 22. He was commenting on Prime Minister Paul Martin’s attempt to redress the “democratic deficit” in Ottawa and give backbench MPs more say in government decisions. Monahan, who helped Martin develop his reform plan, said, “The idea that the courts are simply interpreting the Constitution is, to any lawyer, a completely romantic view. They’re making policy in a wide range of areas.” It’s perfectly legitimate for MPs to grill Supreme Court candidates on their legal philosophy, their view of the Charter of Rights and where they draw the line between judicial and political spheres of influence, said Monahan. But he balks at asking nominees to state personal views on same-sex marriage, abortion or other divisive issues. The whole point of being a judge is to put personal views aside and decide cases on the basis of the facts and the law presented in the courtroom, said Monahan.

Definitely not your average radio host performs at York

Sook-Yin Lee, now well into her second season as host of the wide-ranging arts and culture program “Definitely Not the Opera” on CBC Radio One, was frantically preparing this week for what she calls an “improv opera,” which she performed Jan. 21 at the Art Gallery of York University, reported The Globe and Mail Jan. 24. “Waking Period,” based on a screenplay she wrote, was done in collaboration with harpist Kristen Moss-Theriault. The gig came about when curator Philip Monk saw her perform an earlier work in which she conducted an orchestra that included an accordionist, a knitting section and a kid playing basketball, all cued by glass tubes she operated with light sticks.

Chinese prof jigs and jives like a Scot

Tony Szeto never feels out of place in his Scottish kilt and he embraces Robbie Burns Day as much as the Lunar New Year celebrations, reported the Toronto Star Jan. 26. The Chinese geophysicist at York’s Centre for Research on Earth & Space Science may be short on Celtic heritage, but give him a pair of ghillies, soft leather dancing shoes, and he just jigs and jives like a Scot. “I just love everything about Scottish country dancing, the music, the sociability, the challenge, the footsteps and the teamwork,” said Szeto, a Hong Kong native and York University professor in the Faculty of Pure & Applied Science. “A lot of people think that scientists are dull and dry, but we are all multifaceted people. And I do have an artistic streak in me. My Scottish dancing is an expression of that side of me.” A photo showed Szeto dancing.

South African play shaped by apartheid

South African performer and writer Andrew Buckland says that Canadian audience members tell him his play The Well Being, opening Jan. 27 in Ottawa, “is like nothing I’ve seen before,” reported the Ottawa Citizen Jan. 26. There’s a good reason for this uniqueness, says Marcia Blumberg, a specialist in South African theatre who teaches in Glendon’s English department. During the years of the apartheid regime from 1948 to 1994, few international playwrights would allow their works to be performed there. “They had to deal with theatre in their own way,” she said. “And it flourished.” Blumberg is giving a pre-performance talk on contemporary South African theatre Jan. 31 at the National Arts Centre. She has seen the play evolve after watching it at the Edinburgh Festival and in South Africa. “It’s quite spectacular the way they morph into different characters.”

Canadian industry punching out

Donald Daly, an economist and senior scholar at York University’s Schulich School of Business, said the challenge to Canadian manufacturing will magnify over the next two years, as the higher dollar exposes the sector’s vulnerability, reported The Globe & Mail Jan. 23. The issue, he said, is not that Canadian manufacturing has lost ground since the Canada-US free-trade agreement of the late 1980s – in fact, export shipments to the United States soared. It is how some Canadian companies met that demand.

Daly’s research suggests the most exposed group is small manufacturers with fewer than 500 employees. Since 1995, these companies have been more inclined to add workers, rather than new technology, to meet surging production needs. “Relative to the US productivity in manufacturing, our performance has been poor for a long time,” Daly said. Now that the Canadian dollar is approaching 80 cents, a large component of industry is at risk of shedding the jobs it once so freely added.

Nurses need a cure for employment ills

She can be found, on most days, working 12-hour shifts as a student “shadow” to a mentor nurse in the labour and delivery ward of Scarborough’s Centenary Hospital – with not a dime ever coming her way. It is the price York/Seneca nursing student Meghan Cholette must pay on the road to becoming a registered nurse in this province, along with the strongest of likelihoods that it will dead-end with no job ever being offered, reported the Toronto Sun Jan. 23. At York University, where Cholette is finishing her fourth and final year, there are at least 600 fellow nursing students who face the same dilemma – many of them already behind schedule in finding the mandatory “shadow” internships at local hospitals. Without those 432 hours of “volunteer” service, the final registered nurses’ exam cannot be written this coming June. “And many are having trouble finding those placements,” said the 22-year-old Cholette. “It can take three to four months to put in the required hours.”

Rioux spent holiday volunteering in India’s slums

Projects funded by the Canadian International Development Agency offer unique experiences for professionals with special skills, reported the Toronto Star Jan. 23. Last year, for example, Marcia Rioux, head of York University’s School of Health Policy & Management and director of the university’s new graduate program in critical disability studies, gave up her summer vacation and headed off to the slums of India’s Mumbai to help co-researcher Mithu Alur develop education plans for children with disabilities. Rioux, who will return this year for the second phase of the project, receives a modest sum for her work but what the children have taught her is priceless, she says. “The whole place is a beehive of activity,” she explained. “The spirit is just incredible.”

York offered first rock and roll courses

A Guelph Mercury columnist Jan. 10 scoffed at a Canadian Press story that found the University of Manitoba’s decision to offer a course in (gasp!) rock and roll novel. The study of rock and roll has been going on in Canadian universities for at least 20 years, wrote Eric Vomers. University of Guelph music professor Matt Vander Woude suggests that studying popular music started at York University in the 1980s when cutbacks were hitting universities hard. Smaller departments, like music, needed ways to entice students to their classrooms. The solution was offering a course that studied rock and roll, wrote Vomers.

Shalom-Salam represents silent majority

A new pro-peace student society called Shalom-Salam uniting Jews and Muslims has been created at York University, reported Centennial College journalism students in torontObserver Jan. 22. At its first public event on Jan. 21, it hosted former Canadian ambassador Michael Bell, who spoke about the prospects of peace in the Middle East. Miriam Yosowich, the group’s co-president said the event’s success – all 350 tickets were sold – gave her hope that a more peaceful era is dawning at York. She credited the good turnout to the fact that Shalom-Salam represents the silent majority of Muslims and Jews at the University. “It’s usually a handful of people at the extremes that shout the loudest,” Yosowich said. “I think the majority on both sides want to work for peace.”

About Shalom-Salam, Sara Horowitz wrote in the Canadian Jewish News Jan. 22: “Like the Muslim and Jewish students at York University who have committed themselves to talking with one another under the rubric of Shalom/Salam, those who create networks of research and collegiality are betting on the possibility of coexistence.”

Technology finds new home in York University

York University and Seneca College of Applied Arts have opened what they claim to be the most technologically-advanced teaching facility in Ontario, at a ceremony on York’s Keele Campus, reported Digital and sister online publication Silicon Valley North Jan. 21. The $88-million Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) Building features wireless communications, multimedia lecture halls and computer laboratories that will be used by 4,000 York and Seneca students. “The TEL Building’s state-of-the-art technology redefines the classroom by allowing teaching and learning to take place outside of their traditional limits,” said Lorna R. Marsden, York’s president and vice-chancellor. “It also offers us the great opportunity to work more closely with Seneca College, benefiting both institutions.”

Steady hand pours out a full shot of history

Alcohol as a wide and diverse – and often divisive – social phenomenon is presented quite remarkably in Booze: A Distilled History, an omnibus tome on the history of alcohol in Canada, said the National Post reviewer Jan. 24 of York history Professor Craig Heron’s new book. In Booze, Heron has created a book that, whether you sip at it occasionally or gulp it all down at once, provides a fascinating account of Canadian drinking, a deeper understanding of the impact and oddities of beer, wine and spirits and a continuing wonder at the early settlers’ attraction to spruce-bough beer.

On air

  • Brendan Quine, space scientist and professor in York University’s Faculty of Pure & Applied Science, discussed new developments from two different missions to Mars, on CBC Newsworld’s “CBC News” Jan. 23.
  • Debra Pepler, psychology professor in York University’s Faculty of Arts, discussed how victims of bullying often fail to report the problem, giving the bully a free hand to continue abusive behaviour, on CBC Radio’s “Ontario Today” Jan. 23.
  • Public transit to York University is one of many urban issues that could surface when the mayors of Canada’s 10 biggest cities meet to form a common front to get better federal government funding, said a Toronto Star reporter interviewed on Toronto1’s “Toronto Today” Jan. 23.
  • Martin Lockshin, director of York’s Centre for Jewish Studies, discussed monogamy and polygamy in Jewish history and law, on “Passages” Jan. 25, and martyrdom in Judaism and Christianity, on “Faith Journal” Jan. 17, on CTS in Toronto.
  • Paul Delaney, astronomy professor with York University’s Faculty of Pure & Applied Science, discussed why the behaviour of the Spirit Rover is troubling NASA, on “CTV National News” Jan. 22.
  • Dianne Martin, professor at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, talked about several high-profile incidents of corruption and racism in Toronto and Ontario police forces on “Dave Rutherford” on CHQR-AM in Calgary Jan. 22.