Waking up to change 

Jim Jonkman, Tom Schultz, Greg Bakker, Jonathan Schaeffer

Everything was microchips, microchips. This team of graduate students — Jim Jonkman, Tom Schultz, Greg Bakker, Jonathan Schaeffer – drew publicity in March for work on a chip to speed up the computations of chess-playing computer programs. (The photo was actually taken in 1982)

Frankly, I slept through most of 1983. I was exhausted after the alarums and excursions of 1982, and besides, it was thoroughly depressing to see the way your university was chewing up the green space north of Columbia Street as it had chewed up the south campus twenty years before. Columbia had been "a mental barrier as well as a physical one", your space planner commented when he announced that the university was bringing in the bulldozers to clear a North Campus Road. Thank the Creator for the barrier, I thought, but bulldozers are tougher than a weary troll's willpower, and the desire to play hockey is a pretty strong force too. So the road went in and the Columbia Icefield went up, its giant laminated rafters being hoisted into position in mid-year and the Zamboni chugging across the ice by December.

One of the times I woke up in the course of that year, I found a giant hideous eye staring at me from the direction of the Optometry building, and that was a nasty shock, I can tell you. It turned out to be a new window, put in when the visitors' reception centre moved into Optometry from wherever it had previously been - giving the centre both visibility and a view. Just try fitting a contact lens on that, I thought, noticing a piece in the Gazette about the new long-wear lenses that were being tested by some of the faculty members in optometry. I went back to sleep comforting myself with the reflection that, with the Canadian economy still down in the dumps, at least it would be a long time before any more cornfields were sacrificed to the so-called "research park" that the university wanted to build north of Columbia.

(Down in the dumps? Yes it was. There was ugly publicity across Canada after the co-op department reported the worst term in its history, in the winter of 1983, with almost a quarter of co-op students unemployed. In a further discouraging sign, the provincial government promised the universities a 7.5 per cent increase in their grants, then said it might have to reclaim some of the money, after Ottawa announced "restraints" on the money it would transfer to the provinces for education. I don't claim it was the first time the two levels of politicians had traded blame, but as you know from reading the newspapers any day, it certainly wasn't the last.)

It seemed as though every time I woke up in 1983 there was some new, supposedly exciting development in the world of computerization. Wake up in January, and IBM was giving Waterloo three 4341 mainframes, not to mention a cartload of microcomputers. (By the end of the year, the Micronet system connecting those microcomputers was being packaged and offered for sale by, naturally, IBM.) Wake up a little later, and there was a fuss over whether your computer might blow up if you typed a four-letter obscenity on the command-line. Wake up again, and one of the research groups in the math faculty was announcing the first two sales of a new software product called Waterloo Maple. Wake up again, and NSERC was giving Waterloo the biggest "strategic" grant in its history to support the development of "very large scale integrated" computer chips. . . .

I thought I was dreaming when I heard Doug Wright's voice talking about the Oxford English Dictionary, that century-old compendium of all that is obscure, archaic and Eurocentric in the huge vocabulary of the English language, rather than about computers. But then I realized that I was awake again, and that what he was saying was, inevitably, that Waterloo had something to offer to Oxford University Press as it looked for a way to computerize the information behind the OED and work towards a second edition. Apparently the book's original editors had accumulated something like six million little slips of paper showing uses of the various words in the language, filing them in hundreds of pigeonholes in a warren that would have done even a troll proud. It took months before the Waterloo-Oxford deal was definite, and by that time Wright was excited about other international projects as well, such as possible links between Waterloo and the "fifth generation computer" project in Japan. By that time, too, I had fallen asleep again, and apparently I missed some of the year's other big digital events, such as the arrival of a Vax computer donated by, well, Digital.

I'll tell you, though, I woke up with a start when Susan Musgrave hit campus that fall. The woman's a witch, you know, or at least that was the reputation she brought along from her seaweedy home on the west coast when she arrived to be writer-in-residence. Trolls and witches absolutely do not mix, and there she was at St. Jerome's College, a mere toad's throw from my creekside home. Fortunately the Canadian student debating championships were held on campus just a few days later, and I was comfortably lulled back to sleep.

So I missed a number of other changes on campus, such as the vote in which students agreed to pay a new $7.50 fee each term for the construction of a gigantic student pub, to be called Federation Hall. I also missed the appointment of a couple of new deans (Horst Leipholz for graduate studies and Jim Bater for environmental studies) and the announcement that, after 26 years in charge of the university's money, Bruce Gellatly was leaving for a bigger challenge at the University of British Columbia. There was a modest reorganization after his departure, but most of his responsi bilities settled on Pat Robertson, one of the real old-timers in the administration, who became a vice-president in his stead.

Another evidence that the old order changeth, et cetera, was the arrival of a board of governors chairman from a new generation -- Trevor Eyton of Brascan, succeeding Page Wadsworth of the Bank of Commerce. (Wadsworth may have thought he was retiring from Waterloo as well as from the bank, but somebody had other plans: before long he'd be back at UW, this time as chancellor.)

If there were any important academic innovations that year I must have slept through those, too, but I did pick up the ironically gratifying news that the failure rate in first-year engineering had fallen to an unprecedented low, and that even that was a problem: more students were making it into second year than the schedulers had counted on. You can never please engineers, I suspect, but then engineers can never please anybody else, either. One of the more delicious affairs of 1983 was the controversy over the engineering student paper, EngiNews, which got more and more raunchy and silly. One issue published a couple of nude photos of women, as well as some pretty coarse humour; another issue had a photo of a man, nude except for an EngSoc T-shirt covering a small strategic spot. Enough is enough, said the vice-president (academic), Tom Brzustowski, himself an engineer, although the police said, perhaps with regret, that there was nothing for them to act on. Before the year was over, EngSoc had dropped its sponsorship of the paper and given its support to a new and more sober publication, Iron Warrior. I know because I found a couple of stray sheets of it blowing past me as I yawned and stretched one breezy autumn day.

And that was about it for 1983, so far as I know, apart from a controversy over big fee increases for international students, and apart from a happy remark by a local politician who said at a council meeting that in case of nuclear war, the University of Waterloo was one of three known major targets in Canada. "Known" by exactly whom wasn't clear; the president of the university, asked to comment, said he doubted it, since wiping out the university would hurt the country "ten years down the road" but would hardly have any immediate military implications. Nuclear attack, indeed, right here on the Schweitzer farm. It's more than I, for one, would care to imagine.

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