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Monday, May 26, 2003

  • Students flock to distance courses
  • UW research helps explain Harry Potter
  • Start of a brand-new week
Chris Redmond

Australia marks its Sorry Day


More duties: Alan George, the dean of mathematics, will also be interim associate provost (information systems and technology) as of July 1, the provost announced Friday. George will take over from Jay Black, who "has served with dedication and effectiveness for the past seven years" in the IST post, said a memo from provost Amit Chakma. George is "adding this portfolio to his already significant responsibilities", the memo went on. "His mandate will include conducting a campus-wide review of all computer supported services."

Students flock to distance courses

Enrolment in UW's distance education courses has gone up by more than a third in the past two years -- and it's on-campus students, not those at a distance, who are swelling the numbers.

To fit the courses they want into their schedules, full-time students are increasingly picking the "distance" version of a course rather than hoping for a classroom seat, says Don Kasta, director of distance and continuing education. The Quest student information system, which lists face-to-face and distance courses all in one database, makes that easier to do than it used to be, he noted.

There were 11,410 distance course registrations in 2000-01. Two years later, in the twelve months that ended with the recent winter term, the figure was 15,374.

Figures on how many individual students took distance courses are hard to come by, but Kasta's office can report that there were more than four times as many on-campus registrations in distance courses this year as there were two years ago. "When you compare winter '01 with winter '03," he says, "the number grew from 416 to 1,928.

"Our traditional DE audience has shrunk about 14 per cent in this same period.

"For the current spring term, the growth seems to have slowed, and we estimate we'll be about equal to last spring, when we had 3,277 students taking 4,373 courses. However, spring 2002 saw a growth of 27 per cent over spring 2001."

The figures also don't show how much of the total distance enrolment is in courses that are offered on-line. The number of online courses grows every term, although they're still outnumbered by distance courses offered using audiotaped lectures.

UW research helps explain Harry Potter -- by Barbara Elve

When UW professor Al Cheyne learned his research was being cited in the book The Science of Harry Potter, he figured he'd better find out what all the fuss was about.

[Harry Potter] Having never read a book by J. K Rowling or even seen a film about the young wizard, he went out and bought a copy of Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone. Cheyne was impressed. "I felt like it was really getting into the head of a nine-year-old."

In The Science of Harry Potter, author Roger Highfield turns to Cheyne and other scientists and academics to get into the science behind the magic of Hogwarts. As the dust cover explains, "Much of what strikes us as supremely strange in the Potter looks can actually be explained by the conjurings of the scientific mind."

In explaining such mysterious phenomena as how owls remember addresses or how the Nimbus Two Thousand defies gravity, Highfield attempted to create "a perfect guide for parents who want to teach their children science through the adventures of their favourite hero, as well as for the millions of adult fans of the series intrigued by the factual foundations of its marvels and mysteries".

That's where Cheyne -- soon to become chair of the UW psychology department -- comes in. In Chapter 9, he is one of the experts called upon to illuminate the workings of "The Greatest Wizard": the human brain.

One of Cheyne's research interests is sleep paralysis, a condition often induced by stress and accompanied by visual and auditory hallucinations, a feeling of pressure on the chest and the sensation of spinning or floating. It occurs just before falling asleep or awakening when the person is conscious and awake -- but completely paralyzed. He has studied some 15,000 cases from around the world in the Waterloo Unusual Sleep Experiences Survey.

"There is a good chance that Harry Potter, sleeping in his four-poster bed in the tower dormitory, may have also experienced the effect," notes Highfield in his book, referring to Harry's nocturnal visit by an old hag who ate raw liver in the Leaky Cauldron.

"The basis of the experience is very physiologically driven," explains Cheyne, who sees sleep paralysis as "a kind of spin-off, a misfiring of the dream mechanism." While the physical symptoms experienced by people around the world having sleep paralysis hallucinations are remarkably similar, "the only thing that varies is the cultural interpretation" of those sensations of dread and malevolent intent, he says.

"People made sense of them by drawing on what seemed plausible at the time," Cheyne is quoted as saying in The Science of Harry Potter. "Hundreds of hears ago, these interpretations included witches forcibly taking victims for a ride on a broomstick. . . . Today, people are more likely to report alien abductions if they have seen movies or read books discussing the topic."

Cheyne hypothesizes that such a dream state represents a "simulation mode" in which neural circuitry can be exercised while the body is paralyzed. As children use play to practice moving the body in space in protected situations, to explore limits in a relatively safe manner, perhaps dreaming is also a kind of test of the real world, he suggests.

Cheyne isn't sure how Highfield found out about his sleep paralysis research, but he was happy to have been included in the text. "It's important because people have the experience and worry about it," he says. The explanation in The Science of Harry Potter may allay some of those fears; it may also generate new volunteers for his sleep studies.

[Clear plastic garbage bags]

Passé: "Grebel has made the final step into the information age," writes Jennifer Konkle, communication coordinator at Conrad Grebel University. "Today we recycled the library's whole card catalogue." (Grebel is part of the tri-university Trellis electronic library system.)

Start of a brand-new week

"We're seeing a lot of mail these days from support@microsoft.com that's really an e-mail virus," says Reg Quinton, the security specialist in UW's information systems and technology department. I can confirm that -- there were about twenty such messages in my incoming mail last Thursday. The virus is classified as W32/Palyh@MM, according to IST's virus alerts web page. Says Quinton: "I have configured the sendmail access list on ego.uwaterloo.ca to refuse all mail from 'support@microsoft.com'. We're discussing the issue within the Security Working Group -- the consensus seems to be we have to block this one." Something similar was done with the address 'big@boss.com' a few months back, he notes.

A one-day conference on "Horticulture and Complementary Therapies" in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease is under way today at the Ron Eydt Village conference centre. "It is designed to illustrate innovative approaches using horticulture and complementary therapies to enhance the quality of life of people with Alzheimer's," said Michael Sharratt, dean of applied health sciences. At 4:00 this afternoon, a new Alzheimer's Research Exchange web site will be officially launched, jointly sponsored by several agencies including UW's Alzheimer research and education program.

Tomorrow morning, there's a joint meeting of two UW senate committees that are about to become one. The graduate council and research council have been meeting jointly for a few months, and last week's senate meeting gave approval for them to reorganize as a single body, since graduate studies issues and research issues overlap so much. They'll get to work tomorrow morning at 9:00 in Needles Hall room 3001.

Also tomorrow, there's this special event, as described by Karen Rittinger, who's posted to the faculty of mathematics by the counselling services department:

It's called "Assisting Students in Distress: A workshop for faculty and staff", to run 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. in Math and Computer room 5158. We'll discuss signs that indicate a student is experiencing difficulties; types of distress students tend to experience; how to be helpful (as staff or faculty); six steps for dealing with students in distress, and when and where to refer or consult. You may remember announcing that my colleague, Christine Tauer Martin, offered a similar workshop for the science faculty, I think in February. If people want to know more, they can contact me at ext. 5622.
I attended one of Tauer Martin's workshops in science in the winter, and reported on it briefly in the March 17 Daily Bulletin.

Latest technical note from the registrar's office: "Class enrolment appointments for fall 2003 continuing undergraduate students will occur June 2-28 using Quest, and appointment dates and times have been posted in Quest. Class enrolment period for undergraduate students enrolling for the first time will occur July 7-26. Open enrolment will begin July 28."

The Black Knight squash tournament will be held this weekend, and tomorrow's the deadline for entries, at the athletics department office. . . . Renovations on the first floor of Needles Hall are coming along nicely, including an angled wall and broad door that will be the new main entrance for the office of research. . . . Janis Zimmer, who received her master's degree in civil engineering last fall, will be this year's winner of the Governor General's Gold Medal, to be presented at convocation next month. . . .


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