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Letters to the editor, August 2017

Letters to the editor, August 2017

Here are just a few of the letters we got in response to our technology issue. Plus...remembering David Kemp and Marion Meyer.

Digital dreams

I was very happy to see the article “Digital dreams: empowering women to code.

I graduated from Queen’s in 1979 with a BSc (Honours) in Computing Science and Mathematics. In some classes I took to get my degree, I was the only woman. Funnily, I didn’t think that strange.

I was hired immediately out of university as a software engineer, but for many years I was the only woman on a project.

In 1999, I started on my second career as a technical writer. I got that job with little writing experience because I had been a coder/tester and documentation of APIs was pretty much what software people did. I realized, years later, that even at my first job in Toronto in 1980 I was writing user documentation.

I’ve noticed, through reading the Queen’s Alumni Review, that until recently the percentage of women in computing was still low, say 5 to 10 per cent. I wondered why. Now I see that we weren’t
ready to take our place. We certainly are now!

Thank you again for the article. It was worth the wait.

Catherine Woods, Artsci’79

The techno-ethicist

[illustration of 'robo-ethicist'
Illustration by Tine Modeweg-Hansen

With autonomous cars for the public and autonomous war machines for the military emerging from development labs around the world, Dr. Millar introduces the problems inherent in having machines make decisions in situations where there is no “right” answer, for example the self-driving car that faces an unavoidable crash but has the choice of hitting a wall, likely injuring or killing passengers, or plowing into a crowd of kids, again with high prospects of injury or death. This question, and others like it, leaves the world of philosophical musing and enters the real world as you or I climb into a car that has no driver and no steering wheel. Are you going to be comfortable with the answer should a situation arise?

Dr. Millar goes on to suggest solutions to assuage society’s concerns. In the case of the driverless car, he proposes that technological ethicists join product development teams, either as additions to the teams or in the form of engineers well versed in ethics as well as technology. At least it sounds like a solution. It leaves unanswered issues such as who is going to pay the cost of these extra resource and, likely, prolonged development cycles? Engineering teams may have broad creative scope to their work, but it is the management and executives – who will decide what is going to be profitable, provide a good return on investment, etc. – who will ultimately control decisions made, or not. Will ethics rise to the highest priority? It is not clear why it would.

We have an example today, referenced in the article, which has the same allure of ethical input to complex problems, namely informed consent in medical treatment. The theory is excellent where a well-informed patient participates in the decision process of managing and treating their condition. In practice, many doctors simply produce a list of options for the patients and direct them to choose. Whether through lack of skill and understanding on the part of the doctor, or perhaps encouraged by legal advice to avoid malpractice suits, the reality of informed consent often falls far short of its ideal.

Simply put: translating and integrating high-minded ethical considerations into our complex world is a monumental task, far exceeding the effort to create the theory in the first place. An analogy would be climate change, an established fact, and its denial or minimization by some of the most powerful people in the world. This article has barely dipped a toe in the sea of issues that technology is presenting today, and which will be a veritable tsunami tomorrow.

David Kister, Sc’69

The IBM 360

I chuckled when I saw the photo of the IBM 360. Fond (and not so fond) memories of walking to Dupuis Hall with boxes of punch cards to have them processed, and then having to wait a few/ several hours to obtain the print-out (for which you had to walk back to Dupuis Hall to retrieve). Two years ago I was invited to make a presentation in Banff at the Campus Alberta
Student Conference on Health (a student organized event by and for graduate and senior undergraduate students training in community health sciences and public health in Alberta) about mentors who had influenced my decision to work in public health in Canada and overseas. One of my mentor stories was about Dr. Roly Tinline of the Queen’s geography department, who taught and mentored me and other grad students to create and use simulation models to examine the spread of disease across geographic space – the “early days” of medical geography. When I mentioned the IBM 360 and punch cards, the students were stunned. They asked: How could anyone do anything with such small computing power and punch cards? It was satisfying for me to share with them that, in fact, we achieved quite a lot with very limited (by today’s standards) computer technology and a lot of human input.

Jim Chauvin, Arts’73, MA’79 (Geography), MSc (UBC), HonFFPH (U.K.)

Changing times

Congratulations to the Review on its most recent issues. The topics have been progressive and educational without being pedantic. Over the past two years you have tackled such sensitive issues as mental health and cancer and done justice to all of them.

Some time ago I had occasion to read copies of the Review from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. In the utterly forgettable words of a cigarette advertisement from that era, “You’ve come a long way
baby!” Keep up the good work and give yourselves a pat on the back.

Doug Rigsby, Arts’70, Law’73

Remembering David Kemp

David Kemp, former head, Department of Drama, associate dean, Faculty of Education (and co-founder of the Artist in Community Education program), died April 26.

I have just learned of David Kemp’s passing. David filled the room when he entered it. His positive ways inspired and delighted this young McArthur student. He gave us confidence to perform at our highest level and instruction on how to gain such success.

On a personal level, he was one of the first supporters to purchase my sculptures. Early in my career he encouraged me to become an associate teacher – and I did. Now retired after a long teaching career, I realize David was a beacon (to my success). He reminded me to hold the room with positive and creative planning and humour. After all, the classroom is a grand stage and the most important one.

In closing, I would like to mention how much I owe to four Queen’s professors: David Kemp, Robin Wood, Peter Harcourt, and Ralph Allen. What a wonderfully fertile ground they provided for the imaginative mind. There is so much cross-pollination with stage, film, and studio arts; so much to be gained. They made the arts come alive. I am forever grateful.

Brad Johns, Arts’71, Ed’73
Visual and dramatic arts teacher (retired), Carleton Place High School

Remembering Marion Meyer

Marion Meyer, retired professor (Sociology), died April 26.

Our first essay in Sociology 080 was due early in the fall of 1968. In a common beginner’s mistake, I explained to my tutor, Marion Meyer, what was wrong with the discipline as a whole. That earned me a D grade, but it caught my attention. Mrs. Meyer was a diminutive, greying woman who spoke with a trace of German accent. She was good-humoured and liked to tease us gently, while disrupting our expectations about the world. She generated lively discussions. We had no inkling of her remarkable life history. We knew nothing about the diaspora of German Jewish intellectual refugees at the New School for Social Research, where she had done her MA. We didn’t know that she was a multi-linguist who had been a child prodigy, driven out of Germany and then out of France by the Nazis. She did not speak about such things at all, as far as I can remember. She did comment that my third paper, “On religion and prejudice,” was too general, adding “to speak about religion … about prejudice and not to speak about its influence upon the identity of the discriminated indiv[idual]” was not enough. As she well knew!

Mrs. Meyer showed us how to do sociology. As only a good teacher can, she got us to take critical distance from our own experience by applying sociological concepts to it. We learned about social roles and institutions. We were sent into the community to observe and to use our concepts to analyze a social scene. I spent quite a few evenings drinking coffee in a downtown greasy spoon, watching the owner/waiter at work. Mrs. Meyer wrote on “George: Interaction” “What’s George’s address? I’d like to meet him” and gave the paper an A. I gobbled up our textbook and aced the final.

Mrs. Meyer became Marion at some point during my degree and I was pleased and honoured by her regard. In 1973–74, as the Sociology “super tutor” at Queen’s, I found myself doing the work for beginning students she’d done for me. That work and Marion’s example inspired me to seek to teach things with real substance, to promote self-reflection, to combine patience with good humour, to encourage signs of creativity – however unpolished – and to deliver needed wake-up calls judiciously.

Bruce Curtis, Arts’72 (MA, PhD, U of T), FRCS
Dr. Curtis is professor of sociology and history at Carleton University, a member of the Institute of Political Economy, and the author of two award-winning books on historical sociology, The Politics of Population and Ruling by Schooling Quebec.

[cover graphic of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 3, 2017]