The Instructor of the Month

If you’re perusing the Faculty of Science website this month and happen to come across the “Instructor of the Month” section, you’ll see a familiar mug looking back at you. (Spoiler: It’s me.) I don’t know who nominated me, but thank you. In keeping with the behind-the-scenes theme of this blog, I'm going to take you, well, behind the scenes of the photoshoot.

These kinds of things are decided way in advance. I first learned of this award last July. A communications person from the Faculty of Science let me know, and asked me to answer the questions you see on the website. Happily, what you see on the website are my answers, unedited. (OK, not totally true. In answer to the question, “what do you think is the key to connecting with your students?” I first said, “I don't know--maybe you should ask my students!?”)

The next step was to set up the photoshoot, which was scheduled for August. (See? Way in advance.) It felt a little weird dressing up in a shirt and tie in the middle of summer when I wasn’t even teaching classes. (Notice my tie? Like it? Want to buy one? Sorry, it’s out of stock. But ThinkGeek.com has lots of other cool themed ties.)

If you look at some of the other photos accompanying Instructors of the Month, you’ll see that they were taken in a range of locations--in the field, in classrooms. Since it was a nice sunny day, I think the plan was to shoot the photos outside. But when the photographer, John Ulan, stepped into my office, his eyes got big and his head swiveled around checking out all the stuff that my wife won’t let me keep at home. Terminator 2 head. Simpsons poster. Count Chocula/Boo Berry/Frankenberry cereal boxes. Batman bobble-head. It seems shutterbugs like to shoot interesting things, and yeah, I guess my office is pretty interesting. So John decided to take my photo in my office. (Heck, my office looks way more interesting than me.)

Here’s a breakdown of the things you can see in the photo. In the background is my Legion of Super-Heroes (v4) poster from 1993, drawn by Canadian artist Stuart Immonen. Below that is a drawing by my eldest daughter. There’s a lot of stuff going on in that picture; if you look closely, you’ll see a My Little Pony pegasus. On the shelf is the Sigmund Freud action figure that I mentioned in the article. In the foreground stuck to my filing cabinet is the Ravenclaw magnet that I bought when Harry Potter: The Exhibition was at the Telus World of Science three years ago. Because Ravenclaw. The magnet is holding up a gag Back to the Future $1,000,000 bill that a friend bought for me. What you can see in the photo is only a small fraction of the geek stuff  in my office. You can’t see the autographed photos of Billy Dee Williams, Dirk Benedict, Lee Majors, and Nena. Or the collection of thank-you cards I’ve received from students over the years.




(So why do I have all this junk--I mean valuable memorabilia in my office? Aside from the fact that my wife won't allow it in the house? I enjoy watching behind-the-scenes features on my favourite movies, and I love listening to all of the commentary tracks (even the ones with the second assistant director and the key grip). On Pixar's old DVDs, they would show the workspaces of their employees--a lot of desks with computers. But there were always tons of toys, models, and cool knick-knacks everywhere. They claimed that having all of this clutter made them more creative. Sounds good to me (and look at how creative and innovative Pixar is). So I've done the same. Has this boosted my creativity? I dunno. But it's made my office a whole lot more interesting.)

Although there's only one photo in the article, many, many more were taken. It's a bit...embarrassing to have this kind of attention. I don’t think I’ve done anything special to deserve all this--just doing my job (and happy to do it). And look at the company I’m in. Two other outstanding psychology instructors have been given this honour already (Anthony Singhal and Michele Moscicki), not to mention a couple of other amazing instructors I worked with on Science 100 (Gerda De Vries and Vincent Bouchard). Wow. Now I’m really going to have to up my game.

Okay, time to get my head out of the clouds and get back to work.

Why aren’t you studying?

The SAS

"SAS" stands for many different things. In this case, SAS stands for Student Accessibility Services at the University of Alberta. (Yes, as of this writing, their URL is still “SSDS,” reflecting their former name, Specialized Support and Disability Services. Maybe they’ll update it.) If you’ve never heard of SAS, it’s probably because you don’t require their services, and this post is not for you. If you want to know more, check out their website.

This post has been written for students in my classes who write their exams under SAS supervision. Specifically, it’s to explain some gaps in SAS’s procedures, and how we can work together to ensure that exams run as smoothly as possible for you, for me, and for the rest of the students in the class.

First, give me your letter. You know the one. The Letter of Accommodation. This introduces you to me, and lets me know that you would like to write your exams with SAS. You can give me the hardcopy or send a PDF, but you must give me the letter--as soon as possible, if not sooner. I've had students write exams at SAS without giving me the letter. This is not good. The letter does not tell me what to do. Rather, the letter is your way of asking me if I will permit you to write your exams at SAS. (From SAS: "Without the letter, the professor can refuse to accommodate the student.") After scolding a student about not giving me the letter sooner, they told me "I'm writing the exam at SAS because of my ADHD, and my not giving you the letter is a manifestation of that disorder." Don't be that person. Don't make excuses. Take responsibility for yourself.

I send my exams to SAS via their secure website, called Clockwork. (I believe I was the first instructor ever to email them exams in PDF format over 15 years ago to help accommodate a vision-impaired student.) After exams are written, I ask that they are returned by the student in a sealed envelope to the Department of Psychology General Office, BS P-217, which is in the Psychology wing of the Biological Sciences Centre. (Here’s a map. Click on the Biological Sciences Centre and you can choose Interior Maps to see the exact location of the office.) The person receiving the exam at the General Office will sign a receipt slip. Do not lose this; it’s proof that you returned your exam. It is extremely important in cases of lost (er, misplaced) exams.

When returning your exam, please note that the hours of the Psychology General Office are a bit different from other administrative offices on campus. They are open from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. every business day, year-round. If you finish your exam at SAS at 11:59 a.m., well, don’t bother running to drop it off--you’ll have to wait until the office reopens after lunch.

What if you finish your exam, but there’s not enough time to return it that day? Say you finish at 3:55. There’s no way to make it to the office by 4:00. In that case, my instructions are for you to return the exam as soon as possible the next business day. (I don’t know if SAS allows you to keep the sealed exam in your possession overnight; check with them on that.)

It’s very important for me to get your exam back as soon as possible for a couple of important reasons:

1) I calculate a lot of exam statistics. Really, a lot. If your exam gets to me too late to include with the rest of the class, I have to mark it by hand. That means it’s not included in any of the exam statistics for the class. I don’t like having incomplete data; I want to get the most complete picture of a class’s performance possible--not leaving anyone’s data out. Plus, I hate hand-marking multiple choice exams and am prone to errors, despite my best efforts.

2) I process and post exam results quickly. Very quickly. My goal is to be faster than anyone else on campus. I have, on more than one occasion, posted exam results the same day. To do that, I bring all of the exams to TSQS personally as soon as possible after the exam. However, if students are writing their exams at SAS, they are often given extra time. That means I have to wait until you’re done, and have delivered your exam to the General Office so I can include it with the rest of the class. In other words, not only am I waiting on you, but the rest of the class is also waiting for you to deliver your exam.

On more than one occasion, a student has had the exam with them after completing it, but didn’t deliver it to the Psychology Office because it was closed for lunch or closed for the day. Then they forgot about it. Only after several days passed did they remember and drop off the exam. In the meantime, I’m frantically calling SAS to find out where the hell your exam is. They don’t have time to search their records for who did or didn’t write an exam, and they get pissy about it if you ask them to do so. Maybe they’re pissy because I’ve asked them “Where the hell is the exam?”

What if you’re sick or something comes up and you don’t write your exam at SAS after all? One thing’s for sure: I don’t know about it. SAS doesn’t call or email me to say that you didn’t show up. All I know is that I don’t have your exam. This is bad when it comes to midterms, but it’s even worse for final exams. Say you miss a final exam for a legitimate reason. You do what you’re supposed to do: go to your Faculty office and apply for a deferral of the final exam within two working days of the originally scheduled final exam date (NOT the date you write the exam with SAS). Great. But in the meantime, I don’t know where the hell your exam is. Do you have it? Does SAS still have it? Did you even write it? I don’t know. And I can’t ask SAS. (See “pissy” above.) So the pile of final exams from rest the class sits and waits. I would love to process the final grades--students are starting to pester me about why the results haven’t been posted yet--but I can’t, because I’m still waiting for your exam.

(You might be wondering why I don't just go and pick up the exams from the SAS exam office myself. I've tried that, several time. One year, I had an impending flight with my family, so I did not want to rely on students to get the exams back to me. The incident involved multiple exams written at different locations, misplaced exams, and a whole lot of running. It did not go well.)

If you do NOT write your exam with SAS for any reason (incapacitating illness, severe domestic affliction, religious belief, or you just decided to write it with the rest of the class in the classroom), TELL ME as soon as possible. Email is preferable; this gives me a record that I can refer to, if need be.

If I have sent you an email asking you to read this post, now’s the time for you to send me a reply email acknowledging that you have read and understood this post, and agree to the conditions that I have specified. Thanks.

If I haven’t asked you to read this post, well...

Why aren’t you studying?

The Computer Breach

This post is about a serious breach of computer security that occurred in the last weeks of term last year, affecting thousands of UAlberta users, including me. This post has been created by drawing from numerous sources, including mass emails, news reports, and official blog posts and news releases. There are, however, still unanswered questions that I will explore, and some of the implications of this event.

The Breach
Between November 17 and December 8, 2016, a breach of computer security occurred on the UAlberta North Campus. A forensic analysis determined that 287 computers in 20 classrooms and labs in the Knowledge Commons, CSC, and CCIS had keylogger malware installed on them. This breach was detected on November 22, 2016, and potentially compromised the security of 3,323 passwords belonging to students, staff, and faculty. A further investigation by EPS and the UAlberta IST forensic team determined that another 17 computers were affected, potentially putting another 19 people’s passwords at risk.

The Notifications
A total of 3,304 students, staff, and faculty who had logged into the affected computers during this period were notified of this breach by mass email on November 23, 2016, sent by the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) of the Office of the Vice-Provost and Associate Vice-President (Information Services and Technology).This message confirmed most of the above information and recommended a course of action that included changing our passwords and monitoring our accounts for suspicious activity. After changing my password, I replied to that email, asking for more information about the malware; I sent the same message again on December 1, 2016 because I did not receive a reply to my first message. I got a reply from the CISO on December 7, 2016 that assured me that no actual information had been obtained due to the workings of the security software (more on this below). The delay in responding was for security reasons, because the investigation was still underway.

So imagine how badly I was freaking out the morning of December 19, 2016, when I wasn’t able to log in to check my email. Or any UAlberta account. My first thought was that the attacked had not only taken my old password, but the keylogger was running on the computer I used to change my password in November. I immediately called IST, where there was an uncharacteristically long delay. The thought, “I have a bad feeling about this” kept racing through my mind. This, however, just turned out to be a mandatory password reset for everyone who had potentially been exposed to the malware; in case you ignored the previous advice to change your password, you were now being forced to change it. Er, no advance warning or anything?

All along, information about this breach was hard to come by. In fact, I’ve gotten much information from articles by CBC Edmonton and the Edmonton Journal, and only rarely from official UAlberta sources. Finally, on January 5, 2017 there was a positive gusher of information sent in an email, as well as posted to the IST blog. I suspect the timing was not a coincidence: the Edmonton Journal had just published an article about the security breach in that day’s newspaper.

The Accused/The Charges
According to news reports, the accused is 19-year-old UAlberta student Yibin Xu. Xu was not named in any official announcements from UAlberta. A search using the UAlberta Directory did not turn up any matching person. Perhaps this student’s status as a student--or, at the very least, their UAlberta computing privileges--were revoked. According to EPS, Xu has been charged with mischief in relation to computer data, unauthorized use of computer services, fraudulently intercepting functions of a computer system and use of a computer system with intent to commit an offence.

Xu was to appear in court on January 10, 2017. I have not been able to find any information about Xu’s plea on this date.

The Protection
UAlberta classroom and lab computers are protected by antimalware software, including Zemana Anti-Keylogger. In the email I received directly from the CISO, there were “blank logger output files resulting from the encrypted inputs” making this incident, technically, a potential breach, not an actual breach. This makes me feel a bit better. However, I have not been able to obtain the name of the malware. Although this might seem like an, er, academic exercise, it’s important for at least three reasons. 1) I want to be sure that all of my anti-malware specifically includes the signature for the malware that I potentially encountered, 2) I would like to know more exactly how the malware works and (more importantly) how it spreads, and 3) whether this was existing malware used by a script kiddie or (much more seriously) custom malware deployed by the accused, specifically tailored to penetrate the UAlberta defences.

The Implications
The last point is important. Why would someone go to 304 different computers, installing keylogger malware on each one? Aside from the time investment required to craft, modify, or at least obtain the malware, how long would take it take to load this software on all those computers? Did Xu have to go to each computer, installing the malware from a thumb drive (which would not require any identifying logon or authentication). Say it takes 30 seconds. That’s a time investment of over 2.5 hours. It’s not clear whether the harvested data would be automatically uploaded, but that’s the most likely scenario. Then, however, you have to sift through all of that data looking for someone logging in. That’s got to take a while, too.

Here are three plausible reasons to go through all this trouble. First, just to prove it could be done. Yeah, malware writers do things for dumb reasons like this; bragging rights. But bypassing commercial anti-malware software doesn’t have to be done on campus, where you’re risking quite a lot for not very much. Thrill of the chase? Maybe, but I doubt it. Virus-writing has come a long way since those early days of macho competition.

Second, a desperate need. You’re failing courses badly. You need some kind of “competitive advantage.” If only you could log into your fellow students’ account, you might be able to steal their lab reports, computing science assignments, and more. While you’re at it, you could also grab some instructors’ credentials. Maybe log in to their accounts at the end of term and...tweak your grades. (Hey, David Lightman did it in War Games!) But isn’t that a lot of work for very little reward and high downside risk? Wouldn’t it be better to spend all that time, say, studying? If you get caught, you’ll be tossed out of university, stuck with a criminal record, and face potential jail time. (If the accused is a foreign student, they may be deported and not welcomed back.)

So that leaves the third possibility: What if the accused is working on behalf of someone else, like a criminal organization or even a nation state? China and Russia are known to have been behind state-sponsored malware attacks. I don’t think I want to know how many criminal groups are happily writing ransomware and other nasty shit--witness recent attacks on Carleton University and the University of Calgary last year.

I’ve been hit by malware before. Once, years ago, my computer contracted the Chernobyl virus, which managed to bypass Norton Internet Security. I actually had to bring my computer in for service to kill that one off--one of the few times I’ve ever had to pay someone to fix my computer. (If I ever see Chen Ing-hau, remind me I owe him a punch in the face.) Another time, my office computer was somehow infected with a rootkit, which took many frustrating hours to remove. Now, I’m armoured to the teeth with firewalls, anti-virus, anti-malware, anti-keylogger software, which do NOT give me any false sense of security. I continue to abide by best practices. But none of us need the worry and hassle of malware on university computers. As far as I’m concerned, they oughta throw to book at Xu.

Lastly, I know I’ve tossed many brickbats IST’s way. They’ve deserved them. But this time, I offer a bouquet: Nice job. Detecting this serious problem in 5 days, and managing to identify the culprit (sorry, accused) means that we at UAlberta don’t end up in the same situation as UCalgary. Because nobody wants to end up like Calgary. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Why aren't you studying?

What I Did on my Christmas Holiday (2016 edition)

I hope you had a good Christmas holiday period! (That's the official UAlberta name for it, by the way.) Campus looks pretty for the holidays. Back when I was a student, there were no decorations like this.

Since you're wondering, here's what I did during the break.
(Why do kids have to get up so early on Christmas day?)

One thing I did over the break was get my car fixed. As I was heading to work for my last office hour of Fall term, I stopped for a yellow light--but the person behind me decided to go through it. Yeah, you can guess what happened. No, no one was hurt (except my poor car). The other person decided to pay for my repairs himself, rather than go through insurance. This can be dicey. I'm glad everything worked out, though. It was good (?) this happened between terms, so I wasn't stuck without a vehicle. The worst part about this? Remember that I was going to work for my last office hour? Guess how many people showed up to my office. Yeah: zero. Ugh. I should have stayed home.
(Crunch!)

Holiday time means I get to spend time with family and friends. My eldest daughter was super excited to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Me, not so much--not after last year's Episode VII. (No, I didn't didn't like much; I felt betrayed by it, as a long-time Star Wars fan. Although it felt repetitive--like watching Episode IV from a parallel universe--I think I know why. The short answer is, well, you have to read Mike Klimo's Star Wars Ring Theory. If J.J. Abrams is clever enough to be extending the ring through this new trilogy, I may change my mind about it. Especially if Rey is both a Kenobi and a Palpatine...). Oh, as for Rogue One? Loved it.

Since my kids were off school, we did some family activities, like sledding:
(No, I didn't actually get on a sled and risk breaking my neck.)

We also made a recipe from a book that I've had since I was a kid: Possum's honey bread:

(Mmm, the smell of fresh bread on a cold winter's day!)

I spent some time catching up with some reading, including Wired DesignLife, a gorgeously designed magazine about gorgeously designed things. Looking at these artistically created products on a screen is nothing like holding the thick glossy pages of a magazine in your hands.
(I still prefer the feel of paper in my hands.)

Break time wasn't all about sleds and breads--I did a lot of work prepping for Winter term courses. I'm going to be trying some new things this term that I hope work out. If not, well, I tried. I don't just want to be doing the same old, same old all the time. I guess it's fitting that I spent much of the end of the year looking ahead to the new one.

Are you glad it's 2017? Many people are. There seemed to be so many lousy things going on (Brexit, the Fort McMurray wildfire, the economy, celebrity deaths, and don't even get me started on Trump. No surprise that so many people couldn't wait for 2016 to be over.

(John Oliver, Last Week Tonight: F*ck 2016)

Let's hope for the best in 2017!

Why aren't you studying?

The Awards: 15

It's that time again, the Department of Psychology's Spring and Summer Teaching Honour Roll--er, six months after the course ended. (To be fair, it's only--er, four months after summer term ended.) Okay, whatever. I'm just happy to be nominated, etc., etc. Oh, and I'm also happy to have gotten on the Teaching Honour Roll with Distinction. Woot!

Thanks to those who do complete the online form. If you think doing so is a waste of time, I would ask you to reconsider. Teaching evaluations form an important core of the evaluation of instructors every year. If there's no data, it can affect future teaching.

Important note: The Department of Psychology will no longer be offering courses in Summer term. Only Fall, Winter, and Spring. Adjust your plans accordingly.

Here are some selected comments (danger: some replies may contain sarcasm!):

“The course was fun and interesting. However, the note taking was tricky. Sometimes, I wished the Professor had the words that we needed to copy down underlined. I would often find myself deeply engrossed in the material being taught only to realize that I had missed a few words.”
(Yeah, I hear this a lot. I've tried underlining the fill-in words in my PowerPoint slides, but this had the unintended consequence of students paying attention only long enough to fill in the word. Then they went back to chatting, or doing unrelated stuff on their laptops and phones. Later, when they realized they didn't actually understand anything, they wanted me to explain it all to them. Which I already did in class. That kind of takes a lot of the fun out of teaching. So look, if you miss a word or two, come up at the end of class and I'll give you the words you missed. I'm not going to be grouchy about it or anything. That's why I end class a couple of minutes early, BTW.)

“Perhaps make clicker participation worth a bit more? Sometimes the pace was a bit slow, so it was easier to get distracted, but otherwise this was an excellent course and
professor!”
(Thanks for the feedback on clickers.)
“I honestly really did not like the textbook for this course. It overlapped with the lectures maybe 30% of the time. So we had to teach ourselves at home the material in the textbook which I understand is fair but it should at least overlap with lectures a lot more than it did. It made the workload for this course double which made it hard to focus on what to study for the exam.”
The issue of having to teach yourself textbook material is a separate issue (but an important one). The class rated the textbook 4.1 out of 5. This edition has an average rating in my classes of 4.25. Although it's not the highest-rated textbook I use (the one I use for PSYCO 367: Perception), it's a strong rating. The overlap is not (all) the textbook's fault. Sometimes it's lacking important research and theories (tsk!) which I feel obligated to make up for in class. Other times, though, there are just things I'd prefer to talk about that are not the in textbook. Anyway, you wouldn't want me to just duplicate textbook material in class. Trust me on this.

“I think its a lot of material. Maybe the last section of cognitive engineering could be removed especially because the course pack section of notes is very outdated and was really hard to get through. Maybe instead the section of AI/Human intelligence could be expanded instead.”
I'm looking for a more recent coursepack reading on HF/E, but nothing at the right level so far. I'll keep looking. It's important to me to keep this section in the course: it's my area, and it's all about the direct relevance of psychological research to the designed world we live in.

“Dr. L is one of the best professor at the U of A and should be in the running for next year's Last Lecture. He is the only reason I took this course. This course was NOT a requirement for my degree and was taken for pure entertainment and enjoyment. Instead of watching TV or sleeping in, I thought taking this class with Dr. L would be more fun and a great reason to get out of bed in the morning! Even though I am an average student at best, Dr. L presented the material in a way that I could understand and apply to everyday life. This is the sign of a great teacher! I could get a "D" in this class and I would still be happy with what I learned from Dr. L's entertaining teaching style. Like the old cliche goes...he could read the phone book and it would still be an awesome experience!”
(Wow, thanks. Is there anything you didn't like about this class?)
“The only thing I didn't like about this class...”
(Hah! I knew there was something!)
“...was the last set of readings on Applied Cognitive Psychology. It was dated and absolutely painful to read. The author was horrendous! Another bad thing that happened (which had nothing to do with Dr. L) is having the first midterm near a construction zone. It was absolutely distracting and definitely threw my first midterm grade off.”
(First, do NOT nominate me for Last Lecture. No thanks. Those lectures are amazing. Like the 2016 one. Wow. But there's no way I could talk for an hour. I mean, I can teach a course and go on and on and on. But talk to a general audience? Nope.

Yeah, the worst thing about this class was that construction business. Many of us have...issues with the building manager (who was not only unable to find the source of the construction noise, but was unaware that there was construction happening at all--even though the people at Classroom Bookings new about it). My sincere apologies for the disruption.)

“I feel like more assessment could be added to the course (small assignments etc) in order to provide more testing. Some practice exams would also be useful. For me, this course was a bit too dense and long to be offered as a spring course; I find it would be much better in the fall or winter terms.”
(It's hard for me to reconcile your comments: 1) the course is too dense and long, and 2) you would like a greater workload. Um, those are mutually exclusive. This is something that I've struggled with. It's still a 3-credit course, and there are the same number of classroom hours as a Fall/Winter course. So the course should be academically rigorous, and not watered down in any way. But then--it is offered over 3 weeks, which severely curtails the kind of work I can expect from students (one of the reasons why I do not teach PSYCO 282: Behavior Modification in Spring--it's impossible).

“The class was enjoyable - not boring at all. Lopelmann's silly humor and videos served as a nice diversion. Overall, this is a course and prof I highly recommend!”
(It's spelled L-o-e-p-e-l-m-a-n-n. And I'm not "silly." Hmph. I'm more...goofy.)
“n/a”
(o/k)

Hm. Not so much sarcasm after all. Must be the eggnog. (More nog than egg.)

Why aren't you studying?

The Lost Exam

In 22 years of teaching, I’ve maintained a perfect record: I have never lost anyone’s exam, quiz, or assignment. Until last week.

There have been some close calls. More than once--despite pleas and instructions--students have tucked their Scantron sheets back into the exam booklet. When the proctors, TAs, and I are madly scrambling to accept everyone’s exams when time runs out, we sometimes miss separating the sheets from the booklets. The student will later complain that they wrote the exam, but there’s no mark for them. That’s when we start digging through the bookets, one by one.

I make the proctors count the number of students at the exam. I don’t want anyone coming to me claiming that they certainly did write the exam, yes indeedy, and the absent-minded prof must’ve lost it, yup, uh-huh. So far, no one’s tried pulling this one on me, but I’ve heard urban legends...

Typically, after multiple choice exams come back from Test Scoring, I carefully go through the results, and note which students are lacking exam data. Maybe they were sick, or maybe they wrote their exams at SAS (Student Accessibility Services). If students write an exam at the SAS office, I have them hand-deliver their exams back to the Department of Psychology General Office. (Don’t worry, the exams are sealed in an envelope to prevent monkey business.) Sometimes, students don’t deliver their exams back until the next day. This is awkward, because I try to get exams scored as soon as possible (I walk them over to Test Scoring myself immediately after the exam). If I wait for exams from SAS, that delays the results for everyone.

Last week, I sent out notices to the students who were lacking data from Test Scoring, reminding them that I need documentation for any absence. One notice went out to a student who wrote the exam at SAS--and they replied right away, saying that they had delivered their exam immediately. I went back to my mailbox to check; nope, no exam. Strange. Was the student lying? Nope--the student had a return receipt with the signature of one of the Psych Department’s admin assistants: the exam had been delivered. It was just...lost.

I scanned instructors’ mailboxes in the Psychology Office. Maybe the student’s exam was put into the wrong mailbox? Nope, nothing in the boxes beside, below, or above my box. Drat. Then I started looking through everyone’s mailboxes: profs, instructors, grad.students, staff. One prof had a big stack of envelopes from SAS in her mailbox. I looked at them, but they were all addressed to her, not me. Double drat.

I went back to my office, where I had three other envelopes of exams from SAS. Was there another envelope stuck to the others? Stuck inside another envelope? On the floor? I spent half an hour scouring my office. Lots of dust bunnies on the floor. But no exam. Triple drat. My mind raced as I considered what I would tell the student. “Someone lost your exam, but it wasn’t me.” “Would you mind writing the exam again?” (Not allowed.) “Your final is going to be worth an extra 22.5%, is that OK?” (Ouch.)

These thoughts led me back to the Psychology Office. If the exam wasn’t in my office, maybe it was somewhere in the General Office. But where? Logic dictated that I look again in everyone’s mailboxes. But I looked already--didn’t I? I decided to look again, more closely this time. What about the prof with all those SAS envelopes in her mailbox?

I pulled the stack of envelopes out, looking closely at them. I saw one envelope had a sticker with the name of the student I was looking for, and then another one envelope from the same student. Both envelopes were hand-addressed to the other prof. Wha--? This one student couldn’t possibly have written two exams for that prof at the same time. Looking more closely, I saw the sticker on one envelope had a different course number on it, and the sticker on the other envelope had my course number on it. There is was: the lost exam.

Whoever had hand-addressed the envelopes at SAS had put the other prof’s name on the envelope containing the exam meant for me. It was simple human error. I was just relieved it wasn’t my errror.

My record still stands: 22 years without a single lost exam.

Why aren’t you studying?

The Reading List (Summer, 2016)

I'm always reading something. Over the spring and summer, there's more time to read. I'm trying to make a dent in the stack of books I have. I thought ebooks were great (less clutter in my office!), but they have a downside (more clutter on my iPad!). Although I usually listen to podcasts when I'm commuting, sometimes it's nice to change it up and listen to an audio book. The Edmonton Public Library has a great selection at low cost.

 
Steven Levy has been one of my favourite technology writers since I read Hackers (1984) about the early computer counterculture, which he released online for free. Insanely Great (which is not free) is his account of the development of the Apple MacIntosh. I haven’t used a Mac in 25 years, so why would I bother reading this? First, it’s like stepping into a time machine back to the early 1990s, remembering what computers were like. Floppy disks--ha ha! Plus, Levy tells a great story, and he was there--interviewing insiders at the time.text
Think Like a Freak collects some of the most interesting stories from the Freakonomics podcast. Author Stephen J. Dubner is a great storyteller, even if I have heard the stories before. (Er, twice before. Not only did I hear the stories in the podcasts, I ended up reading this book two times for some reason. It seemed awfully familiar...) Don’t believe the title: it won’t "retrain your brain" or change the way you make decisions or solve problems, but you’ll encounter fascinating stories about the hidden side of eating contests, Van Halen’s strange M&M’s requests, and the bizarre research on stomach ulcers.
http://d1exhaoem38lup.cloudfront.net/a/s/as8m/as8m-square-400.jpgWhy haven’t I been aware of Jim Gaffigan before now? I mean, his dad-humour is right up my alley. Heck, I could help him write his material. (Or, well, I could just steal his jokes. Whatever.) I played the audiobook (read by Gaffigan himself) in the car and my kids loved it--starting with the title: Dad is Fat. Ha ha! Funny! (I wasn't sure if my kids were referring to me or not.) You may not find this book funny if you’re not a dad, or if you’re not a kid, or if you never were a kid. But you should at least watch his Hot Pockets routine on YouTube.
I’ve said before that Neil Gaiman is probably my favourite fiction author. The Graveyard Book was published way back in 2008, but I wanted to wait until at least one of my kids was old enough so that I could read it to her. The beginning is a bit grim (the best fairytales are, and it is Gaiman after all), but it’s not a horror book. It’s about kids being resilient and not giving up in the face of adversity. The Graveyard Book won a bunch of literary awards, and deservedly so; it is not a book just for kids. My 11-year-old loved it.
The Brain: The Story of You is the companion book to the PBS series The Brain with David Eagleman. You might be wondering what I’m doing reading a popular book about the brain. Don’t I know all this stuff already? OK, yes I do. But I want to see what neuroscientist Eagleman is up to, and how he presents the workings of the brain to a general audience. It’s not bad, but it’s not revolutionary, either. There’s a bit too much of “your brain does this” and “your brain does that.” Um, I am more than just my brain. Maybe it’s a subtle distinction between “I woke up” and “my brain woke up”, but it’s a meaningful one. Let’s not reduce ourselves to just being our brains. (Would you say, “my brain was eating lunch” or “my brain was having sex”?)
Tony Biglan is a behavioural scientist with decades of experience working in prevention research and public health. With so many seemingly overwhelming problems facing society, it’s enough to make you think that finding solutions is hopeless. This book will convince you otherwise. The Nurture Effect shows that behavioural sciences research has proven effective (both in terms of efficacy and cost) in reducing antisocial behaviour and substance dependence. It will take changes in individuals, families, and social policy, but there are evidence-based solutions.
Have you read anything good lately?

No? How about reading your textbooks then?
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