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Updated: 37 min 16 sec ago

Faire de l’effet

Tue, 06/14/2016 - 15:23

Montréal a su se tailler une place enviable parmi les grands centres du multimédia depuis 25 ans. Main-d’œuvre qualifiée, culture distincte et avantages fiscaux ont tous servi d’ingrédients dans la recette de son succès. De nombreux diplômés de McGill contribuent à l’essor de ce secteur d’activité, qui se trouve aujourd’hui à un tournant décisif.

Le groupe rock Muse a fait appel à la firme Moment Factory pour concevoir les effets visuels d’une de ses tournées de concerts.

Le groupe rock Muse a fait appel à la firme Moment Factory pour concevoir les effets visuels d’une de ses tournées de concerts.

par Jean-Benoît Nadeau (B.A. 1992)

Quand on entre chez Moment Factory, il faut regarder où l’on met les pieds. Dans ce temple montréalais du multimédia, il y a des planches à roulettes partout – près de la porte d’entrée, au bas des escaliers, dans les corridors. C’est que les 150 employés – moyenne d’âge : 30 ans –  se déplacent en planches à roulettes dans l’immense entrepôt converti en studio situé en bordure du viaduc de l’avenue du Parc.

Bienvenue dans l’une des entreprises phares du secteur multimédia à Montréal. Avec Los Angeles, Vancouver, Londres et Paris, Montréal s’est hissée parmi les principaux centres mondiaux du multimédia. Dans les deux pôles, l’un situé à l’ouest du Vieux-Port et l’autre dans le quartier Mile-End, défilent producteurs hollywoodiens et artistes internationaux à la recherche du dernier raffinement en matière de scénographie ou d’effets visuels.

Plus d’un millier d’entreprises, surtout des PME, œuvrent aux effets visuels de la prochaine superproduction de Disney, imaginent le dernier jeu vidéo d’Ubisoft, conçoivent la prochaine tournée de Madonna ou raffinent la technologie de réalité virtuelle d’Oculus. Bon nombre de diplômés de McGill occupent des postes enviables – dirigeants, producteurs, directeurs, concepteurs – au sein de ces entreprises.

 Christinne Muschi)

Éric Fournier est le producteur exécutif chez Moment Factory (Photo : Christinne Muschi)

L’écosystème multimédia montréalais remonterait à Expo 67 et même avant, selon Éric Fournier (MBA 1991), producteur exécutif chez Moment Factory. « Très tôt, on a installé à Montréal de grands outils de production et de promotion de la culture, comme l’Office national du film, Radio‑Canada, la SODEC. Puis, au début des années 1980, plusieurs grands festivals ont insufflé une nouvelle dynamique. » Au milieu des années 1980, l’environnement était déjà assez fécond pour que s’installe dans le Vieux-Port une exposition semi-permanente, Images du futur, consacrée au multimédia sauce 1980.

Dans les années 1990, le savoir-faire montréalais commence à s’imposer à l’étranger grâce à deux entreprises emblématiques. Softimage et Discreet Logic inventent des logiciels de création numérique et créent les effets visuels de plusieurs superproductions d’Hollywood, notamment Jurassic Park, Titanic, Mission : Impossible et Forrest Gump. En 1994, Microsoft acquiert Softimage pour une somme évaluée à 200 millions de dollars, et quatre ans plus tard, la société californienne Autodesk paie 520 millions pour Discreet Logic.

Éric Fournier découvre le multimédia et Moment Factory alors qu’il est vice-président au Cirque du Soleil. La petite boîte travaille aux effets visuels de plusieurs productions du Cirque et se prépare à révolutionner la scénographie du rock’n’roll avec la tournée du groupe Nine Inch Nails. Dans les années qui suivront, elle travaillera pour tous les grands noms de la scène internationale : de Disney à Madonna, en passant par Bon Jovi et Arcade Fire.  « Moment Factory s’est placée dans un marché inexistant, entre le spectacle, le théâtre, le jeu vidéo, les effets visuels et l’architecture », dit Éric Fournier, qui deviendra le troisième associé de la firme en 2008 – et son 13e employé. Ayant amorcé sa carrière auprès de la firme-conseil en stratégie et marketing SECOR pour ensuite passer chez Bombardier, il a vite appris à mettre de côté son approche de gestion plus traditionnelle. « On a très bien fait de ne pas suivre un cadre rigide, car on aurait raté des occasions fabuleuses », dit-il.

Un écosystème fécond

Dans les années 1990, le secteur multimédia montréalais se résumait encore à un petit noyau de PME. Son développement doit beaucoup à une fiscalité très généreuse, notamment des crédits d’impôts avantageux. « C’était visionnaire. Peu de gens y croyaient. C’est comme ça que Montréal a réussi le pari de créer une masse critique », dit Jan-Fryderyk Pleszczynski (BCL/LL.B 2000), président et producteur exécutif de Digital Dimension, spécialisée dans l’animation et les effets visuels, à qui l’on doit les effets visuels de la série télé Quantico et une partie de ceux du jeu vidéo Assassin’s Creed.

Certains des effets visuels du très populaire jeu vidèo Assassin’s Creed sone l’œuvre de Digital Dimension

Certains des effets visuels du très populaire jeu vidèo Assassin’s Creed sone l’œuvre de Digital Dimension

À part la société française Ubisoft, installée à Montréal depuis 1997, ce sont surtout les entreprises locales qui ont profité de ces crédits d’impôt. Mais depuis 2013, plusieurs studios londoniens, tels Framestore et Cinesite, viennent profiter de la manne. « Le Canada offre les meilleurs crédits d’impôt du monde. Et ceux du Québec sont les meilleurs du Canada », dit Chloë Grysole (BA 1998), directrice générale de Cinesite Studios à Montréal, qui a passé cinq ans à Londres où elle a supervisé les effets spéciaux de plusieurs films d’Harry Potter. « Ils nous permettent d’économiser environ 42 % de la facture globale. » Pour Cinesite, l’avantage financier est tel que le studio londonien mise toute sa croissance des prochaines années sur Montréal. D’ici peu, la firme aura cinq fois plus d’employés à Montréal qu’à Londres! « J’embauche cinq à dix personnes par semaine. Nous serons bientôt 300, mais l’objectif est d’arriver à 750 employés. »

Toutefois, si la greffe du multimédia a pris à Montréal, et si les incitatifs n’ont pas créé une simple bulle comme en Bulgarie ou en Estonie, c’est parce qu’il y avait autre chose derrière, notamment une main-d’œuvre bilingue, bien formée et très adaptable.

« À Montréal, on est souvent les premiers à adopter des nouveautés, comme le passage du 35 mm à la haute définition dans les années 1990 », dit Isabelle Riva (BA 1997), qui se félicite d’ailleurs d’avoir fait une spécialité en Études culturelles l’ayant bien préparée au changement. (C’est d’ailleurs pendant ses études qu’elle a fait la connaissance de Chloë Grysole, et les deux amies se revoient régulièrement.) Productrice et consultante chez Rivalibre, sa propre boîte, la jeune femme, qui a travaillé à des films de styles variés, notamment C.R.A.Z.Y., et Race to Mars, a touché à presque tout : du montage à la production, en passant par l’animation et la recherche de financement. Elle cite le cas récent de la nouvelle coqueluche montréalaise, Félix & Paul Studios, petite boîte qui a carrément inventé une nouvelle caméra permettant de filmer à 360° en réalité virtuelle. L’entreprise travaille au développement de cette nouvelle technologie avec Facebook, Oculus et Samsung. « Grâce à de telles avancées, la main-d’œuvre montréalaise devient experte et extrêmement compétente, capable de recevoir des cahiers de charge très exigeants, qui alimentent plusieurs réseaux d’entreprises. »

Le secteur du multimédia profite également d’une très forte demande locale. « Les Québécois consomment beaucoup de leur propre production culturelle, en télé notamment et dans tous les arts. Ça crée une bonne assise. Mes amis torontois en sont jaloux », dit Daniel Ferguson (BA 1996), producteur chez Cosmic Picture, qui a réalisé de grands documentaires IMAX tels Jérusalem et Les Derniers hommes éléphants.

Natif de Toronto, ayant grandi également en Australie, Daniel Ferguson raconte avoir choisi McGill pour Montréal, où il vit toujours – dans le quartier Rosemont, près du Cinéma Beaubien. « Si on veut voir un film canadien, il y a de bonnes chances que ce soit un film québécois. À Toronto, tout le monde sait que le cinéma canadien est fabuleux, mais personne ne l’a vu. J’ai travaillé à Vancouver, sur X-Files et Millennium. Vancouver, c’est une monoculture dominée par les séries américaines. À Montréal, on va travailler à un projet européen, un projet américain, un projet québécois », dit le cinéaste. Daniel Ferguson a même convaincu plusieurs amis de Los Angeles de s’installer à Montréal pour faire du montage sonore et visuel.

Mélanie La Rue (BA 1994), productrice chez Rodeo FX, l’une des grosses boîtes québécoises d’effets visuels (Le trône de fer, Deadpool), est d’ailleurs revenue au Québec après un séjour de huit ans en Californie. « On n’a plus besoin d’aller à l’étranger. On a des projets de qualité. »

L’envers de la médaille  Christinne Muschi)

Mélanie La Rue est une productrice chez Rodeo FX (Photo : Christinne Muschi)

Le secteur multimédia peut compter sur de nombreuses écoles offrant de bons programmes de formation. « Elles forment bien et beaucoup. À Los Angeles, en Nouvelle-Zélande, il y a beaucoup de Québécois », souligne Mélanie La Rue. Or, le succès des boîtes montréalaises crée tout de même des maux de tête à ses artisans en matière de recrutement.

« Cette année, Moment Factory doit pourvoir 100 postes », dit Éric Fournier, qui recherche des architectes, des informaticiens, des ingénieurs, des gestionnaires capables de travailler à des projets innovants et complexes techniquement, et qui sont à l’aise dans l’environnement multimédia. « Le multimédia marche tellement que nous sommes actuellement en chômage négatif, dit-il. Il y a beaucoup plus de postes ouverts que de capacité d’embauche locale. » Et l’arrivée des gros studios étrangers depuis 2013 crée davantage de rareté et même une tendance à la hausse des salaires.

« Le danger des crédits d’impôt sur la main-d’œuvre, c’est qu’on risque de déshabiller Pierre pour habiller Paul », résume Jan-Fryderyk Pleszczynski, qui redoute de voir les grands studios marauder dans son personnel. « L’arrivée des grands studios londoniens en 2013 était une excellente nouvelle, mais est-ce qu’on crée de nouveaux emplois ou bien on ne fait que les déplacer ? Je n’ai pas la réponse. »

D’ailleurs, pour utiles qu’ils soient, les crédits d’impôt ne sont plus suffisants pour financer le développement des entreprises québécoises, qui sont presque toutes en mal de capital. Le danger est de répéter les mésaventures des biotechnologies. Ce secteur a fleuri au Québec il y a 20 ans grâce à une fiscalité avantageuse, mais les étrangers ont acquis presque toutes les entreprises québécoises, une à une.

« Les sociétés de capital de risque québécoises sont trop prudentes », estime Jean‑Olivier Dalphond (BA 2005), associé et directeur commercial chez Pixmob. Cette entreprise, qui a vu son personnel passer de 13 à 70 employés en trois ans, a conçu un système pour relier des objets interactifs lumineux – bracelets, pendentifs – que les spectateurs peuvent activer en coordination avec la scénographie d’un spectacle. Il a été utilisé durant la dernière tournée de la chanteuse Taylor Swift et au spectacle de la mi-temps du Super Bowl 2014. « Nous tirons 97 % de notre chiffre d’affaires de l’étranger », dit ce diplômé en études internationales, qui craint de voir des entreprises québécoises se vendre à peu de frais pour assurer leur croissance.

 Christinne Muschi)

Jean Olivier Dalphond est le directeur commercial chez Pixmob (Photo : Christinne Muschi)

Création de valeur

Le succès mondial de la série de jeux vidéo Assassin’s Creed d’Ubisoft, c’est bien joli; Ubisoft Montréal est certes le plus grand studio d’effets visuels du monde, mais tous les profits partent pour Paris. « Actuellement, le multimédia montréalais, ça ne consiste qu’à des prestataires de service glorifiés », dit Éric Fournier. « Il faut passer d’une économie de locataires à une économie de propriétaires. Il faudrait arriver au stade où nous toucherons une redevance sur chaque billet. »

Il cite en exemple le spectacle de Moment Factory Ode à la vie, qui a illuminé la cathédrale Sagrada Familia à Barcelone, en 2012. Les droits d’auteur de ce spectacle appartiennent à Moment Factory, qui en exploite les produits dérivés. « Pour y parvenir, dit-il, il faut soulever la question de la propriété très tôt dans la négociation, évaluer combien vaut le droit d’auteur. Actuellement, bien des avocats québécois ne parlent pas ce langage. Bien des comptables ne savent pas mettre une valeur là-dessus. On part de loin. »

Isabelle Riva observe des changements. Elle note que des petits studios d’animation québécois, comme Frima (jeux vidéo) ou Budge (applications mobiles pour enfants), ont créé leur propre marque originale. « On est très fort en technique, mais en matière de contenu, on est encore dans l’enfance. Ça va prendre des bâtisseurs d’empire, le prochain Mickey Mouse, dont tous les profits reviennent ici. »

 Christinne Muschi)

Jan-Fryderyk Pleszczynski est le président et producteur exécutif de Digital Dimension (Photo : Christinne Muschi)

La transformation du secteur du multimédia montréalais passionne Jan‑Fryderyk Pleszczynski, aussi président du Conseil des arts de Montréal. « Il faut créer de la valeur. Le Québec ne doit pas juste être un invité à la danse. Il faut être plus ambitieux que ça. Il faut créer sa propre chance, et ce n’est pas avec des sociétés étrangères qu’on va y arriver », dit Jan‑Fryderyk Pleszczynski, qui négocie afin que Digital Dimension devienne pour la première fois coproductrice d’un film d’animation qu’elle a créé de toutes pièces.

« L’enjeu, c’est finalement que les boîtes d’effets visuels deviennent productrices ou coproductrices de séries accrocheuses avec des scénarios d’ici, dit-il. Un coproducteur minoritaire, ce n’est pas la même chose qu’un prestataire de service. C’est excitant d’être au Québec pendant que ça se passe. »

Jean-Benoît Nadeau est chroniqueur au Devoir et reporter à L’actualité. Il vient de publier The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed (St.Martin’s Press).

 

A bold experiment in open science

Tue, 05/24/2016 - 15:38
by Daniel McCabe, BA’89 c

The Montreal Neurological Institute will soon make all of its research data, including brain scan data and tissue samples, available to other researchers.

More than 80 years ago, when it first opened its doors, the Montreal Neurological Institute offered up a bold vision for the future of neuroscience. Clinicians treating patients and researchers examining different neurological disorders and diseases began collaborating more closely than ever before.

The Neuro is about to shake things up again.

The institute recently announced that it will embark on a five-year project during which all of its research results, and all of the data associated with that research, will be made widely available. The Neuro won’t pursue patents on any of its discoveries.

“We’ve been doing a lousy job of advancing neuroscience,” says Neuro director Guy Rouleau. He isn’t talking about the institute he leads, but about the field in general. “We just aren’t progressing quickly enough. Part of the reason is that the brain is so incredibly complex. We need to find ways to do things differently.

“If 100 people look at the data that I work with, some of them will be interested in different things than I’m interested in,” says Rouleau. “It’s not that I don’t think I’m smart, but I have my own particular point of view. Other people looking at the same data would ask different questions than I would and that might lead to something new.”

“This takes the principle of open science to a new level,” says law professor Richard Gold, BSc’84, an expert on intellectual property and the biotechnology sector. Gold has been advising the Neuro as it mapped out its commitment to open science and he plans to study the ramifications of the institute’s five-year experiment.

“We have seen some significant commitments to open science before, but they were always directed towards specific outcomes. I don’t think we’ve ever seen an entire research institute do something like this,” says Gold. The best-known example of an open science project to date would be the Human Genome Project, which mapped out the entire human genome and made its results freely available.

A more recent example would be the Structural Genomics Consortium, an international multi-partner collaboration between university and industry scientists that hopes to further advance our understanding of the human genome while developing new drug treatments.

“As an institute that is largely funded by public money, I feel there is an obligation for us to share our work broadly,” says Rouleau. But figuring out how to do that sharing could pose some challenges.

“It isn’t enough to make the data available,” says Rouleau. “It needs to be made meaningfully available. We can’t just tell people to jump on a plane and come look through our books. My lab alone has almost one terabyte of data. We need to build the infrastructure that would make [sharing huge amounts of research data] possible. We have to develop an open science platform that doesn’t exist yet.”

The Neuro’s McConnell Brain Imaging Centre (BIC) has some expertise in that area. BIC is already something of a poster child for the principles of open science. It shares its research datasets with more than 30,000 registered users worldwide. It’s a principal player in such international collaborative initiatives as BigBrain, the first brain atlas offering microscopic detail. “They’ve already been drinking the Koolaid,” says Rouleau.

“This is a very exciting time,” says BIC acting director Sylvian Baillet of the Neuro’s commitment to open science. “It’s an extraordinary experiment.”

Baillet says that BIC “has a long tradition of data sharing,” but acknowledges that expanding that approach to the entire Neuro could be tricky. “With brain imaging, the data is digital. That’s easier to share than, say, tissue samples.”

Guy Rouleau is the director of the Montreal Neurological Institute

Guy Rouleau is the director of the Montreal Neurological Institute

Rouleau says that the commitment to open science was made after more than a year of consultations with Neuro researchers and staff. Town hall gatherings, meetings, surveys and retreats have all focused on whether the Neuro should take this step and, if so, what issues needed to be considered.

“We will not force people to be open,” stresses Rouleau. “That being said, the principle was unanimously approved by the Neuro’s scientists.”

Rouleau says that Neuro researchers could still pursue patents on their research results if they so choose, but the Neuro won’t fund or facilitate the process.

“Most of the research that goes on here is at a very early stage,” says Rouleau. Such research isn’t likely to have any immediate commercial potential. But new data about a particular brain mechanism might attract the attention of a pharmaceutical company that was already looking at those brain mechanisms. “Industry is very interested in this model,” says Rouleau. “They want to know the right direction to [point their own efforts at].”

“It takes time and costs money to patent something and most of these things die out,” says Baillet. “Very few breakthroughs end up being profitable, even for industry.” Taking patents out of the equation, says Baillet, “means one less bottleneck.”

Rouleau says that there will be one important exception to the Neuro’s open science experiment.

Advanced stage clinical trials designed to test the efficacy of promising drugs and treatments that have already been developed – and patented by the companies that developed them – will still go on.

“That’s beyond the limit of what we think should be open,” says Rouleau. “We want to help get medicines to the market. That’s good for our patients and we’re good at it. We want those trials to continue to take place here.”

The Neuro’s plan is attracting a lot of attention. Both Science and Nature,  two of the most biggest and most influential research journals in the world, have published news stories about the Neuro’s commitment to open science. Companies have sent letters of support.  “There has been a wave of positive feedback,” says Baillet. “I think we’re taking a lot of people by surprise.”

“We think this is the right thing to do,” says Rouleau. “We want to be able to prove it.”

Gold will be involved in that process.

“We need to determine what success would look like,” he says. “The first measure would be: Did we actually do what we set out to do? Did we make the data available? Did other people use it? We need to look at other things too. What impact will this have on philanthropy? Will industry help support this model? Will companies come to Montreal, sensing new opportunities?

“The Neuro is very much viewing this as an experiment,” says Gold. “So, in that sense, even if it fails, it pays off. We’ll know if this model works.”

 

 

Urging action on pandemics

Mon, 05/23/2016 - 12:30
 Owen Egan)

Victor Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine, met his former mentor, Montreal Neurological Institute professor Hanna Pappius, while in Montreal to deliver the Andrew F. Holmes Dean of Medicine Distinguished Lecture (photo: Owen Egan)

by Andrew Mahon

Many McGill graduates go on to become top-notch researchers, accomplished academics, influential policy advisors or international leaders. Over the course of his remarkable career, Victor Dzau has checked off all those boxes and more.

Dzau, BSc’68, MDCM’72, is president of the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), formerly the Institute of Medicine. Based in Washington, D.C., NAM is a non-profit organization comprising professionals from health and medicine as well as the natural, social, and behavioural sciences, which serves an independent advisory body to the U.S. and the international community.

Under Dzau’s leadership, NAM has wasted little time in making an impact on world health issues.  In January, NAM’s independent Commission on a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future released a report which has resonated around the world and, in the wake of the Ebola crisis, served as a cautionary tale for governments and global health agencies

“The most important message is that people have historically seen pandemics as a health problem but it’s really a global security problem,” said Dzau during a recent visit to Montreal. “We lose a lot more lives to pandemics than to wars and terrorism.”

There’s also the financial dimension to consider.

“We did a study with Harvard researchers and estimate a total of about $60 billion a year in economic losses due to pandemics over the past 10 years,” added Dzau. “We’re going from pandemic to pandemic rather than thinking about the big picture.”

The answer, according to Dzau, is to strengthen national health care systems, ensure an effective global response from the World Health Organization and generate serious investments in R&D, vaccine development, new drugs and diagnostic tools.

It’s a message which Dzau is taking to global audiences like the World Economic Forum in Davos (where he met fellow graduate and McGill principal Suzanne Fortier) and the G7. That’s a long way from the McGill campus where Dzau began his studies in the sixties as a shy, young man newly arrived in Montreal from his home in China.

“I’d say McGill was foundational in influencing both my professional and personal life,” said Dzau. “It was my very first experience outside the comfort zone of my home.”

When Dzau talks about his McGill experience, he talks about the “kindest people who gave me support,” especially his first lab director, Hanna Pappius, BSc’46, MSc’48, PhD’52.

“Professor Pappius was the person who encouraged me,” recalled Dzau who, while visiting Montreal for the Simnovate International Summit and the Andrew F. Holmes Dean of Medicine Distinguished Lecture (he was this year’s featured speaker), was reunited with his mentor (now in her nineties) on campus.

In fact, mentorship has been a thread for Dzau throughout his studies at McGill and his academic career at Harvard (where he was inspired by colleagues like Dr. Jim Kim — now president of the World Bank Group — to work on global health), Stanford and Duke University.  In addition to his current duties at NAM, Dzau is chancellor emeritus and James B. Duke Professor of Medicine at Duke and the past president and CEO of the Duke University Health System — where he created the Duke Global Health Institute.

Then there’s his ground-breaking research in cardiovascular medicine and genetics, and his work with renin angiotensin system (RAS) which led to the development of RAS inhibitors as lifesaving drugs. Dzau is also recognized as a pioneer in gene therapy for vascular disease, and his innovative work in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine.

“I’m still an active physician scientist and still run a research lab working in the cardiovascular area,” said Dzau, “but most of my work now at NAM is about policy: how do we actually inform Congress, the White House and agencies about the right decisions, and how do we use this commission to address some of the important world issues.”

 

A shoe insole that could save lives

Sat, 05/21/2016 - 13:30
by Linda Sutherland Breanne Everett was one of the first six Canadians to receive the new Governor General's Prize for Innovation

Breanne Everett was one of the first six Canadians to receive the new Governor General’s Innovation Award

There is a valuable new tool for the estimated 19.5 million people in North America who develop peripheral neuropathy as a result of their diabetes.

This serious complication, caused by chronically high blood sugar levels, damages nerves that carry messages between the brain and the feet. For those afflicted, the consequences can be catastrophic: ulcers, infections, amputation, and even death.

Breanne Everett, BSc’06, a Calgary-based entrepreneur, and the co-founder and CEO of Orpyx Medical Technologies, has developed the SurroSense Rx – a specialized shoe insole with sensors that wirelessly alert users when pressure-induced damage is occurring, so that they can move their feet to improve blood flow.

This unique wearable technology recently earned Everett one of six inaugural Governor General’s Innovation Awards. The new national prizes celebrate innovative, entrepreneurial risk-takers, whose novel ideas and products are having a meaningful impact on Canadians’ quality of life. The selection committee for the prize included former McGill principal Heather Munroe-Blum, Cirque du Soleil president Daniel Lamarre and Facebook chief privacy officer Erin Egan.

“This new award gives a terrific boost to Canada’s innovation ecosystem, and is a reminder of what can be achieved when we are encouraged to take risks,” says Everett.

Born and raised in Bragg Creek, Alberta, Everett was encouraged by her parents to pursue her creative and entrepreneurial impulses. At the age of eight, she started selling her handmade jewelry, and by the age of 10, her creations were appearing on the CBC television show North of 60 and in several films.

By secondary school, Everett’s interests had shifted towards science, and she set her sights on becoming a doctor. Thanks to a prestigious Loran scholarship, she was able to choose where she wanted to study; and her choice was McGill. “I knew that McGill has a highly respected biochemistry program and I was eager to experience living in Montreal,” she recalls.

After earning her undergraduate degree in 2006, Everett returned to Alberta to attend medical school at the University of Calgary. While doing her medical residency in plastic and reconstructive surgery, she was alarmed by how many of her diabetic patients were suffering from severe complications caused by peripheral neuropathy.

Everett came up with a remarkably simple idea: a sensor-based shoe insole that takes pressure readings and sends signals to an electronic watch to remind the patient to shift position. Encouraged to bring this idea to life, she decided to take a hiatus from her residency and in 2010 she co-founded Orpyx Medical Technologies. “We chose the name Orpyx – an anagram of ‘proxy’ – to convey the idea that our company develops products that are a replacement for a deficiency,” she explains.

In a recent interview with The Globe and Mail, Everett explained that developing the tech for her device was fairly straightforward — except for one particularly tricky complication. “The shoe is a very hostile environment. It is sweaty and is constantly being punished with mechanical forces.”

Recognizing that she needed to build her business knowledge to successfully run Orpyx, Everett enrolled in U of C’s two-year executive MBA program, after which she went on to complete her medical residency.

Over the past six years, Orpyx has grown to employ 12 staff. Since introducing the Surrosense Rx, the company has been developing a device that will send foot pressure signals to a pad strapped to a person’s back, giving them real-time tactile feeling. “This product functions on the basis of the brain’s ability to rewire itself – or neuroplasticity,” says Everett. “Users will actually come to feel their feet again.”

Everett believes there should be more emphasis on innovation in the medical profession. Speaking at a TedX event in 2012, she said, “We have come a long way in embracing the scientific method in medicine; but that doesn’t mean we have to leave creativity by the wayside, or deny ourselves the mechanisms of change that have entered other areas of our lives.”

Today, the young entrepreneur is optimistic that change is coming: “Since we are the first generation of medical practitioners who grew up with information technology, we are the ones who must create an environment that encourages innovation.”

 

The sweet taste of success

Fri, 05/20/2016 - 15:21
 Juliette & Chocolat)

Juliette Brun’s devotion to high-quality chocolate is the not-so-secret ingredient behind her popular chain of restaurants (Photo: Juliette & Chocolat)

by Patrick Lejtenyi, BA’97

“I was brought up on chocolate,” says Juliette Brun, BA’02. She says it earnestly, a rare break from the usual smile and laugh that seem to be almost her default mode.

Sitting on a banquette at her restaurant at St-Laurent and Prince Arthur, the founder of chocolate specialty chain Juliette & Chocolat says she’s always been drawn to food, especially sweets. It’s a trait, she says, that runs in the family.

“My mom is a chocaholic, it’s crazy. So were my grandparents. We never finished a meal without chocolate, never, ever, ever, ever. You never had coffee without chocolate.”

Brun was born in Brazil to French parents and grew up internationally, thanks to her father’s career in finance. Wherever her family was, they made sure they always had access to the highest-quality chocolate. Nothing less would do.

That standard of quality, she says, “is very European. And when we’d travel back to Europe—we would travel there once or twice a year—we would come back with our luggage full of chocolate bars. We’d stock up, because we never knew if we were going to have enough to get back to the States or Syria or wherever.”

Wait a minute. The States or Syria? The chocolate markets in those two countries were comparable? There wasn’t any chocolate in the US?

“Well, not good chocolate,” she says. Not at that time, anyway.

Being brought up in a family appreciative of high-end food sparked a lifelong interest and, eventually, her decision to commit to the food industry as a career choice. But what kind of food?

After completing her McGill degree in 2002, she knew she had to narrow her focus. So she took a careful look at what was already available.

Coffee chains and cafés were exploding around the city, so coffee wasn’t seen as a viable option. There was no point in entering a field that was already so packed with competitors. Smoothies? Montreal is too cold for too long. “So I said, we need hot chocolate. We need something that’s comforting. And then,” she laughs, “my mind started dreaming. I have a very vivid imagination and I could picture a store just filled with chocolate things and I thought, ‘Oh my God, that would be amazing—let’s do the same thing [all the cafés] are doing for coffee, but do it for chocolate.’”

Brun left Montreal for a year, first to study cooking in France (earning diplomas in chocolate and crepe-making) and then to work in a Paris restaurant, learning everything she could about the restaurant industry, from cleaning washrooms to preparing menus. By February 2003, she was back and ready, she says, to “conquer the world.”

And so Juliette & Chocolat was born, in a 1500-square foot store on St-Denis Street in Montreal’s Latin Quarter. Thirteen years later, she is planning to open their eighth. They have an industrial-sized kitchen on the South Shore to stock her stores and around 300 employees. A cookbook is in the works and an online boutique is doing well.

“McGill was really the starting point for me in Montreal,” says Brun. “It was a great experience. It was my first time without my parents, learning to be an adult.” She believes that Montreal’s cultural flavour— that distinct mix between European and North American influences — proved to be the perfect kind of incubator for the business she now runs.

Juliette & Chocolat takes its devotion to chocolate seriously. One Australian travel writer, marveling at the chain’s variety of chocolate drink options, declared that the selection “is more detailed than some wine lists.” The Mangaro, for instance, with chocolate from Madagascar, “offers hints of caramel, gingerbread and honey.” While the restaurants are focused on chocolate — in brownies, pastries and pralines and on crepes — there are savoury, non-chocolate options on the menu too (one of the salad dressings, however, is a  dark chocolate vinaigrette).

The company’s success, says Brun, lies in its commitment to hand-crafting its products. “Flavour is enhanced if you let something sit, chocolate especially. If we’re in a rush and we’re preparing chocolate for the same day because we’ve gone through so much chocolate in a day, the chocolate won’t taste as good. It tastes better the next day. And we cook it for a really long time, to let the milk evaporate and the sugars develop. We use real chocolate and cocoa, because we obviously want the taste of chocolate and the taste of cocoa. It’s a long process. We still make it in house and it’s all hand-made, so you’ll never get exactly the same thing. It’s a tricky process, but it’s what made us famous.”

 

 

Treating trauma on a city-wide scale

Mon, 05/16/2016 - 19:23
 Sarah Mongeau-Birkett)

Associate professor of psychiatry Alain Brunet (Photo: Sarah Mongeau-Birkett)

by Jonathan Montpetit, BA’03, MA’16

Memory operates like a strip of film. Bonded to one side of a film strip is the sound track, to other the optical track; together they make a movie. In much the same way, memory is composed of parallel emotional and episodic elements. When the emotional side is intensified, our memories can become unbearable, as if someone has jacked up the sound track so that images of our past are accompanied by screeching feedback.

That is how Alain Brunet, an associate professor of psychiatry, explains a traumatic memory. “If we could diminish the emotional power of the memory then we would be able to help people with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],” he says. Brunet has spent the better part of the past decade perfecting a treatment that does just that.

His treatment builds on research that found a common blood-pressure regulator, propranolol, interferes with the brain’s ability to consolidate and reconsolidate memories. Given this effect, Brunet wondered if the drug could be used to reduce the emotional intensity of a given memory. He began administering propranolol to patients suffering from PTSD, then asking them to write down recollections of the traumatic event. When this process was repeated over the course of six sessions, as many as two-thirds of his patients were able to recall the event without displaying symptoms of traumatic stress.

The treatment – sometimes referred to as the “Brunet method” – brought the McGill researcher a certain renown. Maclean’s described him as a Canadian “making the world a better place.” QS Magazine included his work on its 2008 list of the top 10 discoveries of the year. But while the Brunet method was tested successfully in several clinical trials, it had never been used on a large scale.

That opportunity came in the wake of the November terrorist attacks in Paris. Militants tied to the Islamic state killed 130 people, and injured more than 360. But that is only the tip of the damage wrought by the attackers. It is estimated a further 3,000—5,000 people are suffering from PTSD, or will develop symptoms in the coming months.

France hasn’t been the site of such deadly violence since the Second World War, and Brunet knew its health services would be overwhelmed. So he cashed in his frequent flyer points and boarded a plane for Paris. There he met with officials from the city’s large network of hospitals. He convinced them that his method for treating PTSD could help ease the strain on their resources. “It was the most important sales pitch of my life,” Brunet says.

Over the next two years, Brunet and his team will train about 100 French psychologists and psychiatrists. The hope is that, armed with the Brunet method, they will be able to significantly increase Paris’s ability to deal with the psychological wounds of the attacks. French public health authorities have already started the process of recruiting the first 400 patients for the project.

The advantage of the Brunet method is efficiency. It has roughly the same success rate as other PTSD treatments. But psychotherapeutic approaches tend to have high relapse rates, and so are cost and time intensive. Pharmaceutical approaches, meanwhile, have high dropout rates because of the unpleasant side effects associated with many of the drugs used to treat PTSD. “They are efficacious but not efficient,” Brunet says of these methods.

His method, on the other hand, is less time and cost intensive than psychotherapy, and it doesn’t suffer from high dropout rates: “We can get the same results, but with an economy of means.” It allows a health system to treat more PTSD patients, and to deliver that treatment more rapidly, than the other approaches. Psychiatry is generally ill-equipped to deal with mass casualties, Brunet notes. He believes his method overcomes that weakness. “It democratizes treatments for PTSD.”

Treating PTSD as a public health concern is a relatively recent phenomenon. Its effects can be devastating on individuals, and is linked to depression and substance abuse, among other health problems. In severe cases, it saps the desire to engage with the outside world; its sufferers imprisoned by perpetual flashbacks of often violent events. “For people suffering from PTSD, it’s like the event happened yesterday,” Brunet says. “That’s very different from the normal destiny of an emotional memory.”

If Brunet’s project in France proves successful, he hopes the model can be exported to other cities forced to reckon with similarly devastating events. He imagines it as part of the standard frontline care delivered in the days and weeks after a terrorist attack or natural disaster. “Many people suffering from PTSD don’t know that effective treatment exists,” he says. “People don’t have to stay that way.”

 

 

The rigors of The Revenant

Thu, 05/05/2016 - 12:50
by Brendan Kelly, BA’85 Art director and production designer Michael Diner earned for his work on The Revenant

Art director and production designer Michael Diner won an award from the Art Directors Guild for his work on The Revenant

You wouldn’t think studying geology would be the ideal path to becoming a successful Hollywood art director and production designer. But that’s exactly what happened to Michael Diner, BSc’87. Well, sort of.

He did major in geology at McGill in the eighties and he is indeed an art director and production designer with a wide range of high-profile Hollywood projects on his resumé, including recent Oscar winner The Revenant, Fifty Shades of Grey, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Night at the Museum: Battle at the Smithsonian, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the new X-Files series.

But it was a later degree that led more directly to his current day job. He worked as a geologist for a few years after graduating from McGill and then got an architectural degree from the University of British Columbia. It’s not unusual for trained architects to make the jump to production design in film.

Still, there are some parallels between geology and working in film production design.

“There is a link between the logistical challenges of a geological survey and film production,” says Diner. “Film is a very physical business and there’s a lot of scouting-location work, particularly [for] a film like The Revenant which is very much an outdoors type movie. The kind of skill sets I learned in that [geology] career, starting at McGill, helped me definitely to understand the types of environments we were going to have to live in and be comfortable in making films. So those links are there. Many epic films are made in epic environments.”

I suggest that working on a film like The Revenant, set in the wilds of early 19th century Montana and South  Dakota, might have been something like a geological expedition.

“In fact, Jack Fisk, the production designer, hired me as soon as he heard I did a geology degree,” says Diner. “For him, that was enough. All of the resumé was fine, but the fact that I came out of a scientific method of looking at the world, was enough for him to give me the job. He’s a person who’s looking for authenticity in the way he designs film. It’s a naturalism.”

Diner was the supervising art director on The Revenant, the 2015 drama directed and co-written by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñarritu and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as frontiersman Hugh Glass who is left for dead in the Dakotas. It was a difficult shoot for all concerned.

“It was a long and challenging shoot on remote and difficult terrain,” says Diner. “It was one where we did a lot of manipulation of the environment. It wasn’t just building sets. It was creating forests and painting forests. Building rocks and moving rocks. It was changing the physical environment in a subtle, but natural way so it worked with the storytelling.”

The production process was notoriously difficult. The Hollywood Reporter called it “a living hell,” while The Telegraph described it as “the toughest film shoot ever.” The cast and crew endured temperatures of -30 through much of the filming and the elements wreaked havoc with the equipment being used to shoot the movie. But those aren’t the only reasons why the experience was grueling.

Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from The Revenant, described by the Hollywood Reporter as "the film shoot from hell."

Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from The Revenant, described by The Telegraph as “the toughest film shoot ever.”

“It was tough,” acknowledges Diner. “I wasn’t sure I’d survive, 10 months in. And many didn’t, actually. Everybody survived their life, but not everybody survived the project. There were huge egos on that movie. In this case, the two biggest egos were the director and the cinematographer [Iñarritu and Emmanuel Lubezki]. It was an Oscar-quality production. The kinds of people who do that are very strong-willed, because they’re not just making blockbuster movies. They’re trying to make art as well. Art and commerce at a very high level is what you’re after. So on a movie like that, there’s very little room for misunderstanding. It could cost you your job and it cost many people their jobs on that movie.”

Iñarritu makes no apologies for being hard on the people who worked on the film.” As a director, if I identify a violin that is out of tune, I have to take that from the orchestra,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. DiCaprio, Iñarritu and Lubezki all won Academy Awards for their work.

Diner describes the experience as “a healed scar.” He and his team won an Excellence in Production Design Award from the Art Directors Guild for their contributions to The Revenant.

Art directors and production designers are “responsible for the overall look of the film or television series,” explains Diner. They collaborate closely with the director, cinematographer and producer to craft the visuals essential to the story that’s being told. Building sets and finding the right locations for filming are key elements of the job.

An important early production for Diner was the Vancouver-shot TV series Da Vinci’s Inquest. Diner says the gritty crime series was a major step forward for him in his career.

“There was a fearlessness that that show had and the fearlessness was to shoot really in the heart of the poorest part of the nation at the time.”

Diner says his work on the show has had a lasting influence on how he approaches his work. He is attracted to projects that try to emphasize a sense of realism and authenticity.

 

In defence of psychiatry

Tue, 04/19/2016 - 15:25
by Daniel McCabe, BA’89 David Goldbloom is the co-author of How Can I Help? a book that offers an inside look into the world of psychiatry.

David Goldbloom is the co-author of How Can I Help? a book that offers an inside look into the world of psychiatry.

While most fans of The New Yorker regard the magazine’s famously clever cartoons as a treat, they often irk David Goldbloom. To be precise, there’s a specific type of New Yorker cartoon that troubles him, but it’s one that turns up regularly. “You’ll have a middle-aged psychiatrist sitting in his chair — usually a balding man, often with wire-rimmed glasses. And you’ll have a patient, usually a woman, lying on a chaise longue. And one of them will say something that’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Goldbloom, MDCM’81, DipPsych’85, is one of the most prominent psychiatrists in the country. The former chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, he is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and senior advisor at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. The man has a sense of humour. He prides himself on being a funny guy. Before accusing him of being thin-skinned on the subject of his profession, hear him out.

“It points to a portrayal [of the mentally ill] as buffoons, as hopeless neurotics. Why is it alright to single out the mentally ill and the professionals who treat them in a manner that simply wouldn’t be acceptable for any other type of disease? Why does that happen?”

It happens because we’re scared, says Goldbloom. It’s a way to defuse our fears. “It’s a defense against the threat that mental illness represents to our identity and personal integrity,” he says.  As he writes in his best-selling new book How Can I Help?, “If you break your leg, you’re still you. If your brain is broken, are you still you?”

Though Goldbloom understands where the jokes come from, they still bother him. He sees patients contending with devastating disorders on a daily basis. He sees the toll it takes on them and their families. They don’t deserve to be laughed at. It’s one of the reasons he wrote How Can I Help? with co-author Pier Bryden. He wanted to give readers a better sense of what he does for a living and of the people he encounters and tries to help. He wanted to quash some myths.

“One of those myths is that the mentally ill never get better,” says Goldbloom. “People with mental illnesses do get better. I see people’s lives improve each and every week. We have treatments that work.”

How Can I Help? follows Goldbloom during a typical (in most respects) week in his life. The fact that a  typical work week for Goldbloom is so multi-varied (he likes it that way) makes it an interesting read. We watch as he treats patients with a broad range of conditions and as he observes a senior resident do the same. We visit a telemedicine facility that he uses regularly to assess patients living in remote regions with little access to medical specialists. We’re a fly on the wall as Goldbloom works a shift in an acute care unit, making tough decisions about when to hospitalize patients against their will or use restraints to prevent them from harming themselves or others. Along the way, Goldbloom takes the time to explore the history of his profession and how our understanding of certain disorders evolved.

In one memorable chapter, we see Goldbloom use electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to treat patients. Goldbloom addresses the stigma surrounding ECT head-on. He knows it’s seen as “an antiquated treatment” and that unsettling images of Frankenstein and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest spring quickly to mind. In How Can I Help? he describes how an ECT treatment is administered. It’s performed quickly and efficiently. Patients are done in a matter of minutes. Though convulsions do occur, no one writhes in agony (minor memory loss is often a side effect).

For some patients wrestling with severe depression, it’s the one thing that helps when nothing else does. “The only reason it’s still around is because no other treatment has come along that surpasses it,” says Goldbloom, who administers ECT treatments once a week.

According to How Can I Help?, psychiatry is “the most misunderstood – and mistrusted – specialty in medicine.” Some of that scorn is understandable and even deserved, acknowledges Goldbloom. The history of psychiatry includes more than a few troubling episodes — the overcrowded asylums of the late 19th century, the “savage rush toward psychosurgeries in the U.S. and Britain from the thirties to the fifties.” But he is quick to note that most other medical specialties have problematic periods in their pasts.

That doesn’t stop doctors in other specialties from cocking a wary eyebrow when the subject of psychiatry comes up.

“When I was a medical student at McGill, the reaction I got [from peers] when I announced my intention to go into psychiatry ranged from pity to ridicule,” recalls Goldbloom. “One colleague at the Royal Victoria Hospital told me that she could never imagine going into psychiatry, that it just seemed too depressing. And she was in oncology.”

Goldbloom, not surprisingly, has a very different take on his profession. How Can I Help? describes psychiatry as “medicine’s most intellectually challenging, eclectic, and diverse specialty.” Blood tests and imaging technologies aren’t as helpful in determining psychiatric conditions as they are for other illnesses or woes. Taking the time to gain a thorough understanding of patients and their lives is essential for sussing out the symptom patterns that point to particular disorders.

He sees psychiatry as something of a role model for other medical specialties.

“Patients are already complaining that doctors are looking at the screens and typing when patients talk, [instead of] looking at them. When someone says, ‘I have a really good doctor.’ what do they mean? Are they in a position to gauge someone’s technical skills, diagnostic accuracy, judicious test ordering and interpretation? No. Often they mean, ‘My doctor really takes the time to listen to me and really seems to pay attention.’”

The book has now spent nine weeks on The Globe and Mail‘s bestsellers list for non-fiction titles. It has also been optioned as a possible TV drama. As an alumnus of Montreal’s defunct Dorothy Davis and Violet Walters School of Drama (William Shatner went there too), Goldbloom playfully suggests that he could play the lead.

“They would save a fortune on prosthetic noses!”

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Bird-brained, but awfully smart

Tue, 04/19/2016 - 12:18
by Megan Jones  Bernie Mireault

Illustration: Bernie Mireault

Living in the city makes you smarter – if you’re a bird that is. According to research by Jean-Nicolas Audet, a doctoral student in the Department of Biology, urban birds are bolder, healthier and more intelligent than their rural counterparts.

Audet and his colleagues, University of Sydney postdoctoral fellow Simon Ducatez and McGill biology professor Louis Lefebvre, did their research in Barbados, where they tested 53 bullfinches that had been captured on the Caribbean island. Some of the feathered creatures came from developed areas, while others were taken from regions that were nearly untouched by humans.

The researchers led the bullfinches through a series of cognitive tests. Urban birds were faster to approach a bowl of food when it was presented to them by a human who then hid (which is how boldness was measured). They also demonstrated stronger problem-solving skills—the city slickers were speedier when it came to learning how to open a drawer to access seeds, for example.

The researchers were surprised to find that on top of their smarts, urban birds had one other advantage: their immune systems were more robust.

Since birds have limited resources to fuel their bodies, the team initially believed that urban bullfinches’ cognitive abilities would use up a lot of energy, at the expense of the creatures’ immunity. But it turns out winged city-dwellers have the best of both worlds.

“In cities, being able to solve a problem can be advantageous, as it can potentially give access to new food sources,” Audet explains. “Having a better immune system can also be an asset in urbanized areas, where parasites may be more abundant.”

 

Looking for love on a laptop

Sun, 04/17/2016 - 15:48
Illustration by Ethan Rilly

Illustration by Ethan Rilly

by Mark Reynolds

According to Jui Ramaprasad, an assistant professor in the Desautels Faculty of Management, digital dating can be remarkably – and dishearteningly – similar to off-line interfacing.

“We still see these off-line social norms. Our results are derived from the idea men make the first move and that women leave this weak signal. It was more than surprising, it was disappointing – you would have hoped we have evolved beyond that.”

The “weak signal” in this case was a notification that one party had visited another’s profile: its equivalent in the offline world might be a meaningful look or flirtatious hair-toss. In a recent study, Ramaprasad’s team worked with a major online dating site to offer anonymity to 50,000 selected users, so that they could visit profiles without leaving a digital trail. It’s a feature without an obvious equivalent in the real world.

“I can’t go to a party and check out everybody in a way where I can learn enough about them so that I can make a decision about whether I want to talk to them. People know when you’re looking at them,” says Ramaprasad.

Opting into the feature changed users’ behaviors in noticeable ways: both men and women visited more profiles over all, and more profiles of socially riskier matches – interracial partners for instance. Both men and women were also far more likely to visit same-sex profiles under the cover of anonymity.

However, users’ success in finding a match was dramatically reduced when using the anonymity feature, by as much as 14 per cent for women. With no way to leave a hint that they might welcome contact from a potential partner, women had to make the first move themselves – which, even online, they are less likely to do.

“This is considered to be a premium feature, and I don’t think people realize that it is decreasing their chances,” says Ramaprasad. “It turns out that leaving this weak signal is an additional mechanism to find people, or to increase the likelihood of finding a match.”

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Research network focuses on kids with brain-based disabilities

Sun, 04/17/2016 - 13:50
0401 city children

Annette Majnemer, BSc(OT)’80, MSc’85, PhD’90, director of McGill’s School of Physical & Occupational Therapy, was recently appointed principal investigator for CHILD-BRIGHT, a new national research network focused on children with brain-based developmental disabilities, and their families. The project will involve more than 50 researchers from across Canada, as well as many social service organizations.

Majnemer is a researcher at the Montreal Children’s Hospital’s Division of Child Neurology, where she studies the developmental, functional and quality of life outcomes of children with disabilities.

It’s a pressing issue; it is estimated that 10 to 15 per cent of Canadian children suffer from these types of disabilities, which include conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorder (ADD).

CHILD-BRIGHT will be headquartered at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, and was created with $25 million in funding, half provided by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and half from other sources, including the foundations of several Canadian children’s hospitals.

McGill News contributor Sylvain Comeau recently spoke to Professor Majnemer about the scope and goals of the new network, the stakeholders involved, and her hopes for this new initiative.

How does CHILD-BRIGHT fit into your own research work?

In addition to my research on the factors associated with children’s outcomes, I’ve been involved in knowledge translation efforts, which will be one of the keys to CHILD-BRIGHT’s work. We want to gain an understanding of which aspects of research are known to researchers, but haven’t yet been taken up and used by health care providers, such as rehabilitation specialists. Knowledge can take up to 15 years before filtering down from the lab to the practitioner.

We will also be concerned with translating that knowledge to stake holders, like clinicians and families. We will take the research and package it in a way that is understandable, without jargon, and using real-life examples. We want to empower them to be more effective care-givers.

Will there be a central source of information for families, clinicians and others?

Yes, we will set up a website that will be a hub of information, and direct [people] to other sites that contain credible information. We will also establish an online community for parents, through Facebook or another electronic platform. Using online formats, we want to provide a forum for peer mentorship, peer coaching, sharing of knowledge and mutual support.

But not everything will be online; we will also have face-to-face opportunities, including scientific cafés in different regions of Canada, our annual meetings, and events like lectures and scientific conferences.

What are the major issues and challenges surrounding brain-based developmental disabilities in children?

There are numerous challenges, such as access to services and enabling children to participate in society. There are barriers to both of these, particularly as people get older — these are chronic conditions, a life-long challenge. There is a big push of intervention early in life, but as children transition from one stage of development to another, new challenges come up, and they are not necessarily getting the support they need.

In order to prioritize the research for CHILD-BRIGHT, we had face-to-face meetings with different stake holders: researchers, clinicians, policy makers, and families. We  also did an online survey of parents and their priorities, and within a week we had responses from over 900 parents. They uniformly validated that the directions we are taking are highly important to them.

Can you explain those directions?

We will pursue three major research themes, with several projects under each. The first is promoting brain plasticity and organization, for example using brain stimulation techniques, which can create permanent changes in patients with cerebral palsy.

Permanent?

Yes, because in the first years of life and into adulthood, the brain is still developing and rewiring. So during that time, there is an opportunity to enhance that development. MRIs have shown reorganization of the brain, which is associated with better functioning, in patients who have had brain stimulation coupled with intensive rehabilitation.

What about the other research themes?

We have five research projects looking at behavioural, social and emotional well-being, and mental health of the child and family. Many children with developmental disabilities have a [related] behavioural problem. It could be aggressive behaviour, anxiety, depression, or irritability. This could be a symptom of the condition itself, or a secondary result, because of factors like frustration or social isolation. Behavioural problems are very common, and are not always well managed in the health care system.

One project, called Strongest Families, offers web-based training for families, on how to cope with behavioural issues common to developmental disabilities. It also offers a coaching model, in which families have access to someone who is specifically trained to give them guidance and answer their questions. This is someone who knows the landscape of a particular community, knows the services available, and what will meet the needs of families at different points in a child’s life.

Coaching is integral to the the third research theme?

Yes, this theme is focused on redesigning the health care system. As children move from one stage of development to another, parents often feel lost. They often ask: where do I go next? What services does my child need now, and how do I access them? There is a lack of coordination of care, from one stage to the next. So we will be looking at the coach model, at three stages of development. We want to develop ways that the health care system can provide guidance to parents about what to do next, which would also be more cost effective then the current system. As it is, parents often go to the wrong place, end up on waiting lists, or use too many services that they don’t need, and not enough of the ones that they do.

The coach is a new position in the health care system?

This is a model that has worked well in complex care, which is required for patients who are very fragile due to multiple medical problems. We will tailor this coaching model for patients with developmental disabilities.

After the initial five years, do you see this network continuing?

We established a sustainability committee, which is already looking at year six. We are looking at fund-raising efforts, and ways of determining where our impact is greatest, with an eye to maintaining that momentum in the long term. We don’t intend to drop the ball after five years.

What are the advantages to a research network, as opposed to researchers working separately, but in the same field?

Networks are cross-disciplinary, so there is a diversity of expertise. Every medical specialty and health profession surrounding these disabilities is well represented. We will also benefit from a broad spectrum of methodology, from very fundamental research, to population-based and health services research.

You’ve consulted parents at every stage. Are they experts, too?

Yes, they know their children best. We want to make sure that the treatments we develop are feasible and acceptable to them, and that the outcomes we measure are  relevant. As researchers, we have the scientific approach, but we don’t have the life experience. That’s where the families are the real experts.

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Taking the “creepy” out of online shopping

Tue, 04/12/2016 - 14:59
by Maeve Haldane VarageSale's "chief mom" Tami Zuckerman

VarageSale’s “chief mom” Tami Zuckerman

Tami Zuckerman, BEd’02, likes to stay busy. So when her doctor advised her to go on a preventative maternity leave in 2012, the primary school teacher approached nesting mode with a vengeance. In the process of decluttering, she ended up launching a new multi-million dollar business.

As Zuckerman went about paring down her belongings, she found that selling items on Craigslist was “creepy.” You never really knew who you were dealing with and Craigslist has been linked to more than 100 murders. Other options for buying and selling things online struck her as clunky and poorly organized. She started thinking about what might work better. As her ideas solidified, she turned to her in-house tech support – her husband, Carl Mercier is an experienced programmer. Together, they devised a new virtual garage sale system and they called it VarageSale.

Users need a Facebook profile to register (to prove that they’re who they say they are). VarageSale members download an app to easily check postings of what to buy or sell. The system is organized by neighbourhoods and the first community group to go live was in Vaudreuil-Dorion where Zuckerman lived (as their business expanded, the couple moved to Toronto). Today, there are hundreds of VarageSale communities. Most are in Canada and the U.S., but VarageSale has a foothold in other countries like Australia and the United Kingdom. There are more than 350 VarageSale communities in California alone.

On any given day, about 50 per cent of VarageSale’s members use the app — an enviable level of “stickiness” in the online world. That kind of devotion attracts attention. VarageSale has received $34 million in venture capital funding from Sequoia Capital and Lightspeed Venture Partners (you may have heard of other companies they’ve backed, like Google, YouTube and Snapchat).

Zuckerman believes that VarageSale has been so successful because it solves a problem. “I built it as a mom, as a woman, to feel safe to buy and sell stuff.” Members are vetted by an administrator, which helps to create an accountable community.

“The secret in the sauce is that I use VarageSale all the time,” says Zuckerman. “I use it too much!” She was recently delighted to snag a Tommy Hilfiger jacket for her son, tag still on, for $20, thanks to the handy notification app that alerts her to new listings in her son’s size.

“It’s interesting to watch how users hack your app,” she says. In New Orleans, 500 VarageSalers meet at a parking lot every Sunday to buy, sell and swap. Communities adapt the app to their needs. In Vaudreuil-Dorion, you can spot Rubbermaid bins left on porches as goods and cash are exchanged through an honour system.

Zuckerman, who describes herself as VarageSale’s “chief mom,” says her McGill education degree and her 12 years of teaching experience have played an important role in how she has built her business. “It surprised me, the parallels that existed between running a classroom and running a company. Both require very clear goals and direction.”

VarageSale isn’t just about buying and selling, says Zuckerman. It’s also about nurturing community bonds. The messaging component of VarageSale makes it easy to connect with others, and friendships can form and neighbourliness can blossom. She regularly receives notices about how VarageSalers have joined forces to do things like raise money for their local schools. “The best part [of creating VarageSale] was building a community,” she says.  “Now I get to build communities all over the world.”

 

 

Managing millions – while still in school

Tue, 03/22/2016 - 16:18
 Owen Egan)

Desautels Faculty of Management professors Adolfo De Motta (left) and Jan Ericsson chat with one of the students involved in managing a fund at Desautels Capital Management (Photo: Owen Egan)

by Kate Sheridan BA&Sc’14

About 35 people will walk into a $3.5-million investment management operation and begin to work as analysts this summer. But they won’t be recent grads – well, not alums of finance programs. In fact, they’ll just be beginning their degrees in finance at the Desautels Faculty of Management.

These students will be the first cohort of the Faculty’s newest master’s program, the masters of management in finance (MMF). Once they arrive, they’ll start classes and be handed the keys to a fund at Desautels Capital Management (DCM), the only university-owned and student-run licensed investment firm in Canada with external, independent investors.

Within a few weeks of the program’s announcement in December, about 350 people expressed interest in the program, says MMF director Adolfo De Motta, and nearly 200 people attended the program’s first information session in Montreal. “We’ve seen over the years that there was demand from undergraduate students in other areas of the University, to take courses in management and in finance particularly. Students were demanding a master’s program,” De Motta says.

The one-year program is designed for people who want to transition into a career in finance as an asset manager, investment banker or consultant, even if they’ve never worked in finance before. The program serves as a stepping stone to these careers for people who received an undergraduate degree in any another field, but it might hold particular appeal for students with previous experience in quantitative analyses — graduates from programs like economics, computer science or engineering. 

Experience at DCM has been a vital part of many students’ experiences at Desautels since 2009, helping them to break into the workforce after they graduate. Students in the Faculty’s undergraduate honours in investment management program, as well as some MBA students, work as the firm’s traders and analysts for about 20 hours a week, on average.

Student-analysts track the markets, prepare reports to investors and develop pitches for their fund, says Michael Fishman, a current undergraduate at Desautels and a DCM analyst. Analysts aren’t paid for their work, Fishman says, but the experience is “invaluable” and enriches his education. “It puts everything we learn into so much context. I’ll learn something that’s extremely theoretical in a finance class, and I’ll see it materializing in an investment pitch I’m making.”

That’s the point, says Alex King, a development officer in the Faculty who helped get the program off the ground with then-dean Peter Todd and former professor Peter Christofferson. While nearly every school has a program or club where students manage money, McGill’s is one of the few where students manage real investors’ money and must report back to them, says King.

Due to regulations, the funds are only available to investors deemed sophisticated or those who are accredited by securities regulators. If investors ask King why they should put their money in the hands of students, “I tell them look at our track record,” King says. Since the program began, investors earned a 10.8% gross annualized return on their investment, according to DCM’s 2014 annual report. “[Former DCM students] are all doing really well. They’re a hot commodity, and the program has a really good reputation with employers,” adds King.

DCM alumni work at companies around the world, including places like the Canadian Pension Plan, Fidelity and the Baupost Group. Some students, like Debra Kelsall, BCom’15, even head to Wall Street. Now an analyst at Goldman Sachs, Kelsall says the program and the budding DCM alumni network helped in her job search.

“DCM definitely started to prepare me for a job,” Kelsall says. “It’s real people’s money that you’re managing.”

MMF students will be working on their own, separate fund. Applications for the program have been coming in “fairly steadily” ahead of the May 1 deadline for Canadian citizens and permanent residents, De Motta says. (The deadline for international students was March 15.)

For the program’s first year, De Motta, academic director Jan Ericsson and others reviewing the files are focused on selecting the best applicants to get the program off to a good start. “On paper, we have some exceptionally good looking [applicants],” says Ericsson. Soon, they will decide which of the prospective students look to be the the best investments for the new program.

 

A champion for First Nations children

Tue, 03/22/2016 - 16:15
by Jonathan Montpetit, BA’03 BlackstockC

Cindy Blackstock

Cindy Blackstock, MMgmt’03, stood amid the snow-dusted plots of Ottawa’s Beechwood Cemetery one day in late January, carrying a teddy bear.

She trudged her way to the grave of a civil servant who died long before she was born, but with whom she feels a deep bond.

There, before a tombstone belonging to Peter Henderson Bryce, Blackstock broke an oath of secrecy.

She read aloud an embargoed decision by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which shook the country when it was released two days later: a ruling that found the federal government racially discriminates against aboriginal children.

But in those quiet moments in the cemetery, Bryce was the only other person who could have grasped the magnitude of Blackstock’s achievement.

He too had collected damning evidence about Ottawa’s treatment of aboriginal children. And like Blackstock, Bryce also faced a series of nasty reprisals from the government.

As the Department of Indian Affairs’ chief medical officer, Bryce wrote a report in 1907 that revealed almost one-quarter of children in the 35 residential schools he studied died of tuberculosis. He implored his superiors to take action, but was ignored and eventually forced out of his position. He died in 1932.

Blackstock considers Bryce a hero. In him, she found a source of inspiration for her own fight to defend aboriginal children.

***

In the fall of 2002, Blackstock completed a master’s of management degree for national voluntary sector leaders at McGill. Funded by the McConnell Foundation, the program’s other graduates include YMCA Canada president Scott Haldane, BA’74, MMgmt’02, and Marlo Raynolds, MMgmt’03, now the chief of staff for Canada’s minister of environment and climate change.

Blackstock appreciated the program’s creative approach to learning. She arrived on the first day of class, prepared to take notes on the fundamentals of accounting. Instead the students were asked to dance the Argentinian tango with each other, as a way of making them appreciate the complementary roles of leadership and following. She remembers thinking, “this course is right up my alley.”

She credits the program with bolstering her self-assurance.

“I think the thing that was the biggest contribution to me was  just having the confidence in myself to realize that I can’t allow my own insecurities, if you will, the sense of not being the right person to do it – to interfere with giving [something] a shot anyway.”

After finishing up at McGill, she arrived in Ottawa to take over the leadership of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, a national non-profit dedicated to research and advocacy.

She came to the position having spent nearly a decade as a front-line social worker in downtown Vancouver, confronted on a daily basis with the lack of resources available for aboriginal children. Before taking on the new job, she was given a piece of advice by an elder, which she has never forgotten.

“He said I never want you to fall in love with your business card, never fall in love with the Caring Society. Only fall in love with the children, because one day you might have to sacrifice both those things for them. And that day came.”

***

Blackstock speaks in a matter-of-fact tone, but it breaks easily for jokes and colourful anecdotes. When she speaks publicly – as she often does – she pivots back and forth between witty asides and devastating social analysis.

This ability to speak in different tones may be a product of Blackstock’s eclectic background. She is proud of having four different degrees from four different universities. Unlike many activists, Blackstock publishes regularly in academic journals. And unlike many academics (she is also an associate professor at the University of Alberta), she engages in advocacy on a full-time basis.

The thread that connects these varied activities – social worker, activist, academic – is an unwavering concern for the fortunes of First Nations children, “the kids” as Blackstock likes to refer to them. She traces this, in part, to her own childhood growing up in Northern British Columbia, experiencing racism as a member of the Gitksan First Nation. “Not much was expected of me other than to grow up and be a drunk.”

After completing her BA, Blackstock began working in a Vancouver group home. A social worker’s lot is often a constant struggle to find resources to help people in crisis. But when, one day, Blackstock walked onto a nearby reserve she suddenly realized that the basic services she took for granted off-reserve were nowhere to be found.

The more Blackstock worked with First Nations communities, the more the effects of this imbalance became apparent. “My heart was breaking because what I saw was the children starting to internalize it,” Blackstock says. “They started to feel like they weren’t worth the money.”

***

After moving to Ottawa, Blackstock spent several years working with a number of researchers – including Nico Trocmé, the director of McGill’s School of Social Work – compiling evidence about the inequality in child-care services available to aboriginal children.

“The strength she brings [to research projects] is a constant reminder what the big picture is,” says Trocmé. He expects her work to influence generations of social workers. “I make reference to it all the time.”

The evidence compiled by Blackstock and her research partners painted an alarming picture. By one estimate, aboriginal children are up to 12 times more likely to be placed in foster care. There are currently more First Nation children in care than there ever were in residential schools.

One of the central reasons, according to the research undertaken by Blackstock, Trocmé and their collaborators, is that there are simply fewer social services available to aboriginal families.

Since the seventies, social workers have known that funding prevention services – such as counselling and treatment programs – can significantly reduce the need to remove children from their homes. For most Canadians, these services are funded by their provincial government.

But for First Nations, they are funded by the federal government, which has failed to match provincial investments. The funding gap has been pegged at more than $100 million. With less money for prevention services, more aboriginal children end up being taken from their homes and placed in foster care.

Blackstock, along with leaders from the Assembly of First Nations, took this evidence to then Minister of Indian Affairs Jim Prentice in 2006. This wasn’t the first time aboriginal groups had lobbied Ottawa to address the problem. But Blackstock felt that with their latest research, their demands would now be impossible to ignore.

“We don’t want to file a legal case,” Blackstock told Prentice. “We want to give you one last kick at the can to do the right thing.” But when the Conservative government demurred, despite posting a $13 billion surplus that year, the Caring Society and the AFN decided to force the issue by filing a human rights complaint.

The advice the elder had given Blackstock was about to be tested.

***

Less than a month after filing the complaint, the Caring Society had its federal funding cut entirely. At the same time, the federal government spent several million dollars attempting to derail the complaint process, filing a string of motions to have it thrown out.

And then things got personal.

Two federal departments began spying on Blackstock, collecting personal information from her Facebook page and circulating it among dozens of government officials. The Privacy Commissioner ordered the government to stop and awarded Blackstock $20,000 in damages.

When the hearings finally got underway in 2013, Blackstock brought a teddy bear with her everyday to represent the children she was fighting for. She often angled it at the government lawyers.

It is difficult to underestimate the significance of the tribunal’s decision, which acknowledged the funding balance, and called on the federal government to “cease the discriminatory practice and take measures to redress and prevent it.” Trocmé calls it “enormous,” with implications that could affect education and health funding as well.

The Trudeau government has indicated it won’t appeal, but Blackstock is still waiting for concrete action. While the new government in Ottawa has sent out strong signals that it wants to engage with First Nations communities in a much more constructive way, Blackstock was largely unimpressed with its first budget. While the budget pledged almost $635 million for child welfare on reserves, Blackstock says most of that money won’t be spent until 2019.

A younger version of herself, she says, would have been angry that public concern subsided quickly after an initial surge in the days following the tribunal’s ruling.

“I now realize that it’s a process because Canadians can’t hear it the first time, or even the second time,” Blackstock says. “These stories have to pile up on their consciousness until one day they can’t turn away.” It’s a process that began with people like Bryce, willing to sound the alarm about the government’s treatment of aboriginals. That alarm has been sounding for a long time. If it rings long enough, Blackstock believes Canadians will have no choice but to wake up to the problem.

“My real hope is not with the adults, it’s with the kids,” she says. The leaders of tomorrow will be much more sensitive about the damage done by systematic racism, she predicts. “Kids don’t make excuses for injustice, they don’t turn away. They look at it and do something to make it right.”

 

 

How AlphaGo (and two McGillians) made AI history

Tue, 03/22/2016 - 15:31
1 victory. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File)

Professional Go player Lee Sedol takes stock after losing the final match of the Google DeepMind Challenge Match against Google’s artificial intelligence program, AlphaGo, in Seoul, South Korea. Two McGill graduates were part of the AlphaGo team (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

by Erik Leijon

For seven days this past March, millions of people around the world had their eyes locked on Seoul, South Korea and a computer program capable of doing something no other artificial intelligence had been able to do previously.

AlphaGo, the first computer program to beat a professional player at the popular Asian strategic board game Go, competed against Lee Sedol, considered the best player in the world at the more than 2,500-year-old game. AlphaGo not only held its own against Sedol, but it ultimately emerged victorious, winning four games to one. It was a battle of wits between man and machine that enthralled the world in a similar fashion to the famed Deep Blue chess matches against Gerry Kasparov in the nineties.

AlphaGo was created by a team of around 20 at Google DeepMind in London, England. Two of the team members are McGill graduates: Marc Lanctot, BSc’03, MSc’05, and Arthur Guez, BSc’09, MSc’10. Neither could be considered Go experts, but they said the game was chosen instead of chess for a reason.

“If you take an introductory course in AI [artificial intelligence], Go is always used as the example of something computers can’t do because the branching factors are so huge. You must rely on more abstract thinking and conceptual things that computers are allegedly bad at,” says Guez.

Although Go isn’t well-known in Canada, its tremendous popularity in Asia also made it an obvious choice for Google DeepMind. Google said 60 million people in China alone watched the first game with Sedol, which was broadcast online.

It was expected that it would take a decade to create a Go AI with the machine learning capabilities to defeat a player of Sedol’s ranking, known as a 9 dan. Instead, it only took two years. AlphaGo combines Monte-Carlo tree search – an algorithm often utilized for the types of decision-making associated with game play – with deep neural networks in order to self-improve. “We don’t tell it what kind of decisions it should make. It learns through experience what it should do,” says Guez, adding that AlphaGo can predict an opponent’s move 57 per cent of the time.

Go is a game that looks deceptively simple – players are trying to surround their opponents or capture their stones – although there are more possible moves in the game than there are atoms in the universe. AlphaGo has been lauded for making moves human players generally hadn’t considered before, and pro players around the world took notice.

Fan Hui, the first professional Go player to lose head-to-head against AlphaGo, described one of the moves the program made in the second game against Sedol as “beautiful.”

“When you’re playing at such a high level, those unexpected moves become possible. We could watch AlphaGo play an amateur and not see many of these because the moment didn’t arise, but it would take someone as capable as Lee Sedol to get into a situation where such a move would be possible,” says Lanctot.

Despite AlphaGo’s resounding victory in Seoul, neither Guez nor Lanctot went into the series against Sedol confidant about the outcome.

“I didn’t know what to expect, and I was just happy to be here for this historical moment in AI,” says Lanctot. “I was happy to see we could get to this level of artificial intelligence. A good demonstration of what machine learning is capable of.”

Guez was in Seoul for the games, and says AlphaGo’s victory dominated headlines there.

“I thought after the first win, ‘we can lose the rest, but at least we won this one game and it was historic.’ People were expecting us to lose 5-0,” he says.

Before moving on to the next project, Guez, Lanctot and the Google DeepMind team will carefully analyze the results of the games in Seoul.

“One of the big things that makes AlphaGo different is how general it was,” explains Lanctot. “Any problem you can formalize as a sequential decision-making problem – the same techniques can be used here. Deep learning is used a lot already in Google products, so any advancements we can make in efficiency can help.”

Rewriting the book on hockey analytics

Tue, 03/22/2016 - 11:30
iStock_000019283420_Medium

More than 3,000 events take place in any given NHL game. Sportlogiq, a company co-founded by two McGill graduates, keeps careful track of each of them. So far, 10 NHL teams have signed up for their services.

by Tracey Lindeman

Craig Buntin, MBA’13, doesn’t sleep much. As the CEO of a Mark Cuban-backed hockey analytics venture that works with 10 NHL teams and two major sports broadcasters, he can’t afford to.

“If you’re watching hockey in Canada right now, you’re seeing our stuff,” says Buntin, a former Olympic figure skater.

By stuff, he means data — and a lot of it.

Between 3,000 and 3,500 events happen in any given professional hockey game, from passing, to body checking, to blocked shots. These events are carefully tracked by Sportlogiq’s computer vision-driven analytics software, which interprets live game footage and turns it into a series of data points.

While the NHL regularly collects data on shot attempts during games, Sportlogiq does far, far more, says Christopher Boucher, the manager of its hockey analytics department.

“Our system… tracks every pass, deke, dump-in, dump-out, shot, blocked shot, blocked pass, stick-check, body-check, deflection, and includes a time stamp, player ID and XY coordinate for each of these events,” says Boucher.

“This allows us to quantify each player’s impact on possession. In other words, while traditional hockey analytics focus on the result — shots — our system breaks down the process that leads to all shots.”

Though the company can’t disclose which NHL teams it works with, Buntin can say Sportlogiq has contracts with broadcasters RDS and Sportsnet to provide pre-game reports, player performance profiles and things to look for in an upcoming game.

“How many times have you watched sports and heard commentary on something and said, ‘That’s not true’?” Buntin says. “A lot of the thought in hockey is that it’s such a dynamic sport that you can’t pull direct stats out like in baseball.”

Yet Sportlogiq’s software and in-house hockey experts’ quality control processes have a combined 99 per cent accuracy rate, he says. And the data is not only correct — it’s also extremely fast.

Through near-real-time camera calibration, the team is able to turn data around in 37 seconds — down from the 12 hours it took this time last year.  “This is one of the major technical advancements that we had,” says Mehrsan Javan, PhD’15,  Sportlogiq’s chief technology officer and the company’s co-founder, along with Buntin.

The computer vision backbone of Sportlogiq was developed from Javan’s doctoral research at McGill, and he continues to collaborate with professors Martin Levine and Gregory Dudek at McGill’s Centre for Intelligent Machines.

Sportlogiq works by processing video from any single camera and using computer vision, statistical analysis and machine learning to extract and calculate game and player statistics.

In turn, the information derived from these datasets allow teams, broadcasters and scouts to evaluate and compare players on a multitude of competencies, as well as compare teams and strategies, and project scoring chances and game outcomes.

One sports-savvy investor who likes Sportlogiq’s potential is Mark Cuban, the owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and a regular on the TV series Shark Tank. Cuban, who recently visited the Sportlogiq offices, invested after Buntin cold-emailed him to introduce himself and the company.

Buntin says the data generated by Sportlogiq can be hugely influential when it comes time to reorganize a team, pointing to last month’s NHL trade deadline.

“It was clear that our data was behind a lot of [the trades],” Buntin says. “There were direct recommendations we had made, and cases we had made for specific players in specific instances.”

He also says he wouldn’t be surprised to see analytics influence how teams play in the long run: “You’re going to see teams changing the way they play the game based on quantitative, objective decisions.”

 

A computer’s perspective on how literature works

Mon, 03/21/2016 - 15:37
 Owen Egan)

Andrew Piper is the director of .txtLAB, a project that uses data analysis software to explore some of the inner workings of literature (Photo: Owen Egan)

by Andrew Mahon

Consider the phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night.”  For many, it’s a cliché, a hokey line used in the Peanuts comic strip, a funny example of bad writing.  The phrase and its author (popular 19th century novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton) have been consigned by readers and critics into the dustbin of literature.  How did that happen?

McGill’s digital humanities lab, .txtLAB, may be able to provide answers to questions like this.

“This is exactly what computation is good at detecting – when a phrase or image is over-used,” says .txtLAB director Andrew Piper.  “Lytton was a hugely popular writer in his day and his tics as a writer became part of popular culture. Over time, those phrases become clichés. Computers can help us see these tendencies with greater clarity and reliability. They can’t tell us what they ‘mean’, but they give us a sense of what a culture is talking about.”

.txtLAB was launched five years ago as a result of a $1.8 million partnership grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Its chief mission is to explore what makes novels unique compared with other kinds of writing, but other questions relating to genre, style, plot, character, and narrative will also be examined over the course of the project’s seven-year mandate.

The lab itself occupies two rooms on the fourth floor of 688 Sherbrooke Street West and is home to some 12-14 students, a mix of graduates and undergraduates in humanities, social sciences and computer science.  Students use data analysis software to mine texts looking for new insights into literature, a novel approach which comprises some intriguing challenges.

“The key question is: how do you treat a piece of literature as data?” says Piper, an associate professor of German and European literature and a William Dawson Scholar. “It’s an important new area of discovery for researchers in the humanities.”

Computer analysis is an excellent tool for researchers who want to think outside the ‘Norton Anthology box’ and expand their examination of literature to include vast numbers of authors from diverse backgrounds and across many genres and eras. .txtLAB projects cover a wide range of topics from studying patterns of punctuation in 20th century poetry to examining varying levels of sentimental vocabulary in fiction to figuring out what makes a best-selling novel.

“I think one of the big revelations for me in this process is the realization that there are numerous important quantitative dimensions to literature of all kinds,” says Piper. “Books are composed of thousands of repeating marks, signs, words, and sounds, all of which we can measure and model. Our goal is to understand what underlies all of the things we love about reading literature — the words and patterns beneath things like theme, plot, pacing, surprise.”

The goal is accomplished through machine learning; teaching computers to recognize patterns that match some category of interest. Once a computer has been trained on a sample of texts, it can make predictions based on those categories.

For example, in order to identify bestsellers, previous bestsellers are fed into the computer to allow it to discover the distinctive patterns.  Then the computer can predict bestsellers it hasn’t seen before. The accuracy of the predictions provides insights into a given category. The computer has an 82 per cent success rate in predicting bestsellers.

Last October .txtLAB attracted widespread media attention when Piper invited his students to use data mining techniques to predict the winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Piper’s own computer prediction correctly selected Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis, but he decided to second-guess the computer’s choice (it will be a dark and stormy night before he does that again).

And, earlier this year, the books editor of Le Devoir launched a writing challenge inviting well-known Quebec authors to use .txtLAB’s data-driven guidelines on how to write a bestseller. The result was 1,200 word submissions from five novelists including Monique Proulx and Daniel Grenier.

The winner was Daniel Grenier, adhering most closely to .txtLAB’s advice (short sentences, simple actions using active verbs, descriptions of facial expressions and characters who like technology and have a mystery or violent crime to solve).  He also managed to avoid non-bestselling attributes (complex emotions, uncertainty, nature description, tea, rats, giants and bears).

Beyond the contests and the headlines, there’s a fundamental and valuable research objective driving .txtLAB’s many ventures even though, for some in the humanities, there still exists a visceral bias against quantification and computation.

“There’s a feeling that literature or culture is this ineffable thing that can’t be quantified or measured — and yet it has all sorts of quantitative dimensions,” says Piper. “I think some fear the loss of interpretation or subjective engagement but that’s not how this research works. There is still plenty of room for personal engagement and trying to understand meaning. We just do it at a much broader level of scale than before.”

 

Big thinking for small spaces

Thu, 03/17/2016 - 13:41
 Pablo Enriquez)

The micro-apartments in New York’s Carmel Place measure 260 to 360 square feet  (Photo: Pablo Enriquez)

by Mark Lepage, BA’86

Cities are known for their buildings and their skyline signatures – and that’s especially true for Manhattan. Eric Bunge, BSc(Arch)’89, BArch’91, has added his own signature with a new project that might have an immense impact on how people live in New York.

Bunge, the co-founder of  New York-based nArchitects, co-designed Carmel Place, a project that built “micro-unit” apartments in Manhattan to serve the rising population of single people, many of who cannot afford the housing that currently exists if they want to live alone.

New York is famously expensive. Manhattan’s average rent was recently reported at $3,873. Housing in the city was largely built for families; however, they now make up only 18 per cent of the Manhattan population, while single households are up to 60 per cent. “People are being priced out, because you either have to share, which they may not want to do, or they are living in illegally subdivided apartments,” says Bunge. It isn’t atypical to find five college students crammed into a two- or three-bedroom apartment that quickly becomes a dorm-slum. Some subdivides are as small as 90 square feet.

A  research initiative and competition called AdAPT NYC was launched a few years ago to help search for solutions. Michael Bloomberg, then New York’s mayor, gave the initiative his high-powered support. A call went out for proposals for micro-apartment buildings that could accommodate a “small household population.”

Monadnock, one of the developers interested in taking part in the competition, reached out to nArchitects. After seeing some of the work done by Bunge and his collaborators, “apparently they thought we could wrap our heads aground micro-units and modular construction,” says Bunge. The proposal put forward by Monadnock and nArchitects emerged victorious.

The resulting building, Carmel Place on East 27th Street, will open on April 1. It has a stacked-terrace look and is the only building in New York exclusively composed of micro-units. The AdAPT NYC competition relaxed building codes, including a requirement that apartments be a minimum 400 sq ft. The Carmel Place units designed by nArchitects measure 260 to 360 sq. ft.

While the project has attracted plenty of interest, some have been voicing reservations about creating such small dwellings. New York writer Fran Leibowitz was critical of the AdAPT NYC competition when it was first announced. “People shouldn’t live in a shoebox,” she declared.

The nArchitects team used high ceilings, natural light and overhead storage to give the micro-apartments a sense of being bigger than they actually are. The American Institute of Architects’ New York chapter was clearly impressed by the efforts of Bunge and his collaborators. Carmel Place was just awarded the AIA’s Design Honor Award, its highest distinction.

Bunge believes that Carmel Place and buildings like it could play a pivotal role for the future of major cities. “We gravitate towards projects that will affect a broader publics – in plural. Even though [this was] for a private developer, it’s also for the city. It affects the city through its role as a prototype, in changing the zoning codes, in changing the civic imagination about how we live.

“I think cities need to continue growing to remain vital,” says Bunge. “It’s the best chance we have I think for a sustainable future – to live in dense, walkable cities with good infrastructure and livability.”

Bunge founded nArchitects in 1999 with his wife, Mimi Hoang (the two met at Harvard when Bunge went there for graduate school). It is now ranked among the top 50 architecture firms in the U.S. by the AIA’s Architect magazine. Another major project for the firm right now is the redesign of the  3,300-foot long Navy Pier, a major landmark in Chicago.

“There’s nothing more exciting than being a fly on the wall and seeing people use – or misuse – the work that we create in the office,” Bunge says. “We don’t want to dictate how people use the work.”

Bunge loves New York because “it’s diverse, welcoming, engaging, never boring, walkable, and close to Montreal.” The proximity to Montreal is important because Bunge’s parents still live there. Both are familiar names to McGillians. His father Mario is a prominent philosopher and McGill’s longtime Frothingham Professor of Logics and Metaphysics. His mother Marta is an emeritus professor of mathematics and statistics at McGill.

Bunge describes New York as “a beautiful city full of ugly buildings.” He is firm about avoiding projects that would add to the ugliness. Bunge and his nArchitects partners don’t take on commissions for high-end residences or retail. “There are a lot of calls we haven’t taken – a lot of shady developers.”

A parting thought: Let’s say the phone rings and a certain billionaire New York real estate mogul and presidential candidate is on the other end saying, “Eric? It’s Donald. Listen, I want you to build me a YUGE elegant, understated purple skyscraper on 5th Avenue, covered in neon and gold leaf, with…”

“Never” comes the reply from a smiling Bunge.