Sunday, 29 December 2013

December 28, 1983

In the autumn of 1983, I was a lost Ph.D. student at the University of Waterloo. My thesis was floundering because my heart just wasn’t into the research subject. Although I was interested in parallel computing, it wasn’t the kind of topic that made me want to work obsessively at uncovering new ideas. Instead I had a hobby, and that is what I spent all my time on, to the detriment of my thesis. Games. Computer games. Specifically, building a world-class chess-playing program.

When I started my Ph.D. program I hoped to do research on new technology for enhancing the performance of computer chess programs (an area of the field of artificial intelligence). Unfortunately, my wise supervisor burst my bubble when he told me (paraphrasing): “It won’t add up to much. Do yourself a favor and work on something respectable.” Computer chess was out, and parallel computing was in.

Three years later, my thesis progress was slow, but I had one of the best chess-playing programs in the world. In October 1983 it competed in the World Computer Chess Championship, finishing in the middle of the pack. I knew I was at a crossroads; the current situation couldn’t continue.

I decided it was time to leave the University and get a real job. But then two fortuitous things happened. First, fellow computer-chess researcher Tony Marsland at the University of Alberta let me know that there was a lectureship position available starting in January. Might I be interested? It was an intriguing thought because I could teach, get paid a real salary, continue working on my chess program, and collaborate with Tony. But it meant moving to Edmonton. Isn’t it cold there? At least they had a famous shopping mall (West Edmonton Mall) and an up-and-coming hockey team (the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers).

Second, newly hired Waterloo Assistant Professor Randy Goebel gave me some intriguing advice. He said (paraphrasing): “After a couple of years, no one really cares what you do your Ph.D. in. All that matters is that you have the degree, and what you have done with it.” In other words, there was no harm in getting a Ph.D. in computer chess; it is what I did with the Ph.D. that ultimately mattered.

It took a few weeks but I made a bold decision. I would move to Edmonton temporarily to work. While there, I would do my computer chess research in my spare time and see where that got me. And, if I produced something, Randy agreed to be my supervisor (even though my research had little in common with his).

Early on the morning of December 25, 1983, I left the Toronto area for an almost 4,000 kilometer drive. Three days, two blizzards, and one close call later, I arrived in Edmonton. I entered the city on the Yellowhead Highway and eventually pulled off the thoroughfare looking for a place to eat. I finally settled on a Boston Pizza (I ate lasagna). Afterwards, I went to West Edmonton Mall and marveled at it (in those days it was an international attraction), before finding an inexpensive (i.e., dumpy) hotel in the west end of town for the night.

It was Wednesday December 28, 1983. I would start my new job as lecturer on January 2. Clearly this was just a temporary position while I looked for more interesting job opportunities and amused myself with my computer-chess hobby. Little did I know that my interest in research would soon ignite, my thesis on computer chess would be written within a year, and 20 months after my arrival I would become an Assistant Professor. I never imagined having an academic career. Coming to the University of Alberta was incredibly fortunate for me.

Yesterday I celebrated the 30th anniversary of arriving in Edmonton. I returned to the Boston Pizza that served me lasagna 30 years ago. It’s in the same strip mall, but has moved to a newer building. And the lasagna? I don’t think the recipe has changed in the interim.

Many people have made and continue to make my 30 (and counting!) years here so enjoyable. My career would not have been as successful without the opportunities and challenges provided to me by the University of Alberta community. As Dean, it is my job to help others – students, staff, and faculty members – uncover their destiny.
Watching an Oilers hockey game (but really reading email) while visiting Boston Pizza, December 28, 2013.

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