Thursday, 22 November 2012

This page is set up by a few friends of Piotr Rudnicki in memory of him.

Piotr passed away on Sat Nov 17, 2012.

He joined the Department of Computing Science at University of Alberta in 1984. His research was mainly focused on the Mizar project, which was a long-term effort with the aim of automating proof verification.
Aside from his normal teaching and research activities, he was heavily involved in training undergraduate and graduate students for programming contests and he enjoyed this. Many of the UofA teams he coached for ICPC-ACM programming contest advanced to the world finals over the years (as far back as 1998). More recently he had devoted a lot of time training high school students for similar competitions. He was very passionate about these activities, and the programming club in our department was nurtured mostly through his efforts over the years.

Piotr was a computer scientist, a mathematician, a colleague, and more importantly a good friend. We all miss him and will remember him.

Lorna Stewart and Mohammad Salavatipour

(We leave the comments open as a guest book)


  1. For unknown reason, Piotr and I bumped into each other in the Dept rather frequently, and very often we commented that each other was going the wrong direction! He enjoyed taking a long walk in his neighbourhood, which includes the area where I live. On one deep freezing winter day several years ago, while I was shoveling the sidewalk, I saw Piotr walking towards me. We chatted everything from world politics to local events for easily over an hour until we could not withstand the cold temperature and the wind. Piotr was an honest and open person that is difficult to come by. I miss his friendship and his voice on many controversial issues.

  2. I never worked with Piotr, but I came to know him during my time with the CS department. Piotr always had a smile (perhaps because I wasn’t HIS student) and a good word or a joke or criticism of some current event. He was witty, and his sarcasm was biting. I remember the enjoyment of sitting and listening to him expand on various topics, though I particularly recall discussing yoga, physical activity, and the Soviet Union! I can’t say that we were close, but I think Piotr always had an extra smile for me in return for always pronouncing his name with a Slavic accent. I have a distant recollection of asking someone about him once with non-English pronunciation and getting back, “What? Who?” Talking with Piotr always left me imagining that he had many more stories to tell and opinions to share. I was always left wanting to hear a little more, and I will now remain in that state.

    When a person dies, everything they have done becomes past, but will never diminish. Piotr liked to solve problems, and has left us with a solution to the question everyone asks in life, “what kind of person will I be?” Now we know, and we are diminished by his loss.

  3. I knew Piotr for quite a long time.

    I first met him as a young undergraduate - he could be intimidating at first but after the first few lectures you realized quickly that there was a very sharp wit and keenly developed sense of humor behind almost every comment he made in class.

    I took junior, and eventually senior courses from him. He remains to this day one
    of my favorite professors. I've always said that to people when quoting something I heard him say once.. "There are two types of student, the self taught, and the hopeless".. I've had people ask me how the heck he could be a good professor with such an attitude, and I've told them, well, it's exactly the right attitude - It's just that most people wouldn't dare say it out loud - Piotr would.. Piotr never had a problem *helping* me as a student, and did *frequently* - he just also expected me to *help myself*. In other words, he was a professor who did not give you a fish, he taught you how to fish.

    Later years eventually had me interacting with Piotr as a colleague and friend. I've TA'ed his courses, Taught courses with and from his notes, and taken him fishing. If you are a Monty Python fan, you may be surprised that the best of the classic skits can be topped in hilarity by watching two Polish professors flailing away at a fishing hole, and juggling a small brown trout.

    Often as my career progressed I would run into Piotr on campus, and we would always chat about the issues of the day. His opinions, even when not mine were something I always valued, and chatting with him was something I could do endlessly. I often had to cut these conversations short to go on to more "important" things - I wish I'd had more time for many of these.

    So long old friend, I will miss you and your insights. Don't let them hand you any B.S. up there.

    1. What Bob didn't mention was the rest of Piotr's quote: "There are two types of student, the self-taught, and the hopeless. Our job is to turn the hopeless into the self-taught."

      Piotr challenged students to learn on their own, and only ask for help after a significant struggle without success. Students hated this until they started "getting it", and then you could see their sense of accomplishment.

      Some students never "got it", because they didn't have the time to invest, or the ability, or the interest in challenging themselves. The latter was the biggest sin, and if you were not interested in challenging yourself, Piotr would tell you that you don't belong at a university and were wasting his time and the money of your parents and Alberta tax payers.

    2. I had forgotten this quote, and I wish I hadn't. It's the perfect synposis of the advice that I've given to countless other undergraduates asking about what he was like as a professor. When invariably asked prior to each term, I always gave the same reply. I told them that classes with Piotr will be tough, but they will make you a better computing scientist. He made you do the work, and if you were willing to put in the effort, he would ensure that you understood what you needed to know.

  4. I have had more interactions with Piotr as a colleague than I suppose many people realize. Because I have been involved in University governance for a while, we often talked about the topic of the day. When it comes to governance Piotr's sharp mind and opinions were a force to be reckoned with. Most of the time he could see through the announcements and double-speaks. I have often benefit from his counsel. Sometimes he was pushing me to be more combative or to do more on a given issue and I had to explain to him my reasons for restrain. He was very understanding of other point of views in such cases. This year, after several of such conversations I suggested that he should take a position in the General Faculties Council and I nominated him to such a position. He was elected and I was looking forward to his questions to administration. Unfortunately his health did not allow him to participate in governance through GFC and he got the ultimate call before he could fulfill this role. I will miss his council and his opinions for years to come.

  5. During my first undergraduate year, I took the course “Formal systems and Logic in Computing Science”. Piotr was teaching the course, but I was not in his class. Nonetheless, I brought a lot of my questions to Piotr, and Piotr enthusiastically answered all of my questions (knowing that I was not in his class). For a few times, my questions took more than an hour of his time. Piotr would smile and asked me to setup another time to come back.

    Piotr gladly helped the first year undergraduate students, like me, who were not even in Computing Science yet. He was never too busy to help. Piotr is definitely in my list of best teachers. I will miss him and remember him.

  6. As other have said here, to "get" many of Piotr's comments, with respect to different domains, demanded a certain "acquired taste" due to its sharp sense of humor and inherent sarcasm, and that did contribute to making him look like an intimidating person to many, in particular students. Nonetheless, behind that image there was a well-rounded human being from whom one could always learn a thing or two. I'd like to share two stories here that reflect how much of a good person he indeed was. After returning from one of the programming competitions he gave me a t-shirt from my alma mater's team. I never asked him for that, he just told me he remembered I was from there and he thought I'd like it, and then he left. Almost before I had time to thank him. The other story was that shortly after I arrived at the UofA, Piotr asked me to get him a copy of a Brazilian movie ("Macunaima") he had seen many years ago still back in Poland. I never managed to find a DVD of this movie for him (and I did look for it). One day he comes to my office and in his peculiar (read non-soft) way, and he tells me: "Mario, don't bother looking for Macunaima anymore! I found a copy in Poland myself ... and here's a copy for you!" That's how I remember him. A good person, the Piotr way.

  7. I have never taken a course from Piotr, but I have had the privilege to train under Piotr's guidance. I remember when we started in 1998, the idea of seriously competing in a programming contest was a brand new concept to all of us. Piotr spent countless hours with us. What I remembered is that he didn't really do much---he gave us a set of problems, sat back, and maybe read the newspaper or marked papers. And of course once in a while he went for a smoking break, or to the "thinking room". But all this time he was watching and listening, and interrupted us at the right time with the kind of comments that only Piotr can make (humorous, sarcastic, to-the-point, and effective all at the same time). I was happy that he wouldn't try to protect my feelings and let me know that I am stupid when I fully deserved to be called out. :) Under his guidance the U of A went from having no contest experience to one of the more accomplished Canadian universities in this competition. Since I have moved to the other side and became a coach myself, I have appreciated what he has done for me even more. Even now I often draw on his wisdom to coach my own teams, telling my own students some of the experiences that I had with Piotr and how he trained our team to be successful. Piotr once told us that debuggers are useless if you don't have good "inbuggers", and therefore we were forbidden to even start up the debugger during a contest practice. To this day I try to make my students do the same.

    We have become very good friends since my participation in the programming contest. Like many others have mentioned, he had opinions on many subjects. We talked about anything from Japanese cultures to James Bond movies. A few years back he had started to explore nature a bit more in the summer, and he has visited me in Lethbridge a few times on his way to the mountains. And whenever I am in Edmonton I always find time to visit him. I have always enjoyed our times catching up with each other.

    Piotr, you have been a great mentor to me. You will certainly be missed.

  8. I remember Piotr for his thought-provoking, sharp but pleasant opinion on many subjects. Once the conversation was on car and traveling, and I was impressed by his deep interest in listening to plays and audio recordings in his car and that he had an audio system set up that made this possible in a more theatrical setting. His reasoning that we spend most of our (free) time in our cars and it must be a place to enjoy was also original. We often chatted on world politics with references and examples from Poland and Iran and I always admired his way of thinking. After acm programming contests, he always had a story to tell me about how he met the team from Sharif and their coaches (knowing that I had a Sharif connection).

    I am going to miss him and his deep voice, but I will always remember him as a good colleague and friend.

  9. Ah yes, If you can do "debuggging" then it logically follows that there must be an "inbugging" process in the first place.. another Piotrism I will remember fondly :)

  10. It is hard to believe Piotr is gone.

    This past summer (July?) I bumped into Piotr in the hall --- we each have our office in the same corridor of Athabasca Hall --- and told him about a walk with Annie at Jasper's Edith Cavell Meadows. He smiled, and excitedly started telling me about a *more* beautiful hike just outside Jasper Park I should try some day. For the next few minutes we were looked over google maps as he told me about his ridge-walking.

    I next saw him two weeks later. The smile and sparkle were gone --- maybe he was in shock. A small pain in his chest was cancer, and it had spread. A few days later he left campus to spend his last months with his family.

    I met Piotr in 1999 when interviewing here for a job. We talked about Mizar, the theorem-proving system that was one of his research interests. I remember his enthusiasm. He loved all things related to proof, to algorithms.

    We both frequently taught CMPUT 272 --- formal systems and logic, a.k.a. computing math. He was great to bounce ideas off of. With his expertise with Mizar, and his experience with the programming contest team --- for years, he was spending 3-5pm each Friday, often 11 months a year, supervising students while they worked on algorithmically challenging problems --- he had a great grasp of the strengths and weaknesses of students as they struggled to formulate their first non-trivial proofs.

    He loved teaching --- especially to anyone who showed interest. He felt strongly that the best teaching was in small groups. Hence his passion for the programming contest team --- usually under a dozen students. And the Saturday morning programming club he started for local high school students.

    He felt strongly that the students in the CS Department's theoretical computing courses ---
    where students learn to think and reason and prove --- were being shortchanged by not getting enough practice solving problems. So he changed the seminar requirements for CMPUT 272, from 1 seminar hour per week (in addition to the 3 lecture hours) to 3 seminar hours. And of course he thought that the best person
    to teach the seminar would be the prof, not the TAs.

    I was not thrilled by this --- this kind of extra teaching in a course counts for almost nothing in our annual performance evaluation --- but Piotr didn't care, because he knew it was the right thing to do. I was thinking of him this past week, when I was leading a seminar, and guiding a student through a problem, and they said "aha" and started smiling as they realized they had solved the problem.

    Piotr loved kids. My daughters recall the time they came to work with me and he gave each of them a puzzle: for Annie (10?), he took a 3-d puzzle and smashed it on the floor and asked her if she could put it together; he game Emily (7?) a tilting maze puzzle. He came over for dinner one time, and what Liz remembers is all the time he spent talking with the kids, giving them mind teasers that he had given years earlier to his kids. He laughed a lot that evening, often self-deprecating, but he laughed a lot.

    He was a great colleague. He was fearless in his criticism. He was blunt-spoken but with a sense of humour.

    He kept this feedback from a student's course evaluation on his webpage, and on his door, and he would proudly show it off while smiling:

    " Some days I would have cheefully strangled Prof. Rudnicki, for his abruptness and tactlessness but it isn't his job to be always agreeable, and in the end it's refreshing that an instructor insists that I stretch (painfully) to reach the material, rather than acquiescing to complaints and watering down the material.

    Karate Kid: But it hurts! I'm tired! Let me quit!
    Sensei: Feel good.
    Karate Kid: It hurts!
    Sensei: Feel good.
    Karate Kid: When?!
    Sensei: When finished. "

    Piotr, you are so missed. May you rest in peace.

  11. I'm grateful that I had the fortune to take Compiler Design with Piotr. I remember one late night, just a day or two before the project deadline, our group was frantically pounding away at our compiler. It was late December, so the building was sparsely populated. The only others around were the few students who still had projects left to complete, including many of his compilers students. My group had hunkered down into one of the glass-walled labs on the first floor for our last stand against the beast of a project. At some awfully late hour, some motion caught my eye.

    There he was.

    As impossibly late as it was, he was standing on the other side of the glass, watching us. His expression spoke volumes. He knew it was hard. He knew this was not a pleasant experience. He knew we would rather be anywhere else. He knew we were stressed and grumpy and resentful. But we were there, doing the impossible thing.

    He was there too, watching us. He was there to let us know that he knew we were working that hard. He was there to give us one last chance for clarification or instruction. He was there because we were there. When almost everyone else had gone home, Piotr Rudnicki showed up on the other side of a wall and said a lot to me without uttering a single word.

    He made me a better computing scientist, and I'll never forget that.

  12. During my exchange internship in Edmonton in the early nineties, I had an idea to apply to the graduate program at the UofA. But the deadline for financial support was long past, and my Canadian visa was about to expire. I contacted Piotr, and together with Jim Hoover they generously provided me with an RA support from their own grants. If not for that, I might have never become an academic.

  13. Everyday, I had to pass his office first before getting to Mohammad's office. Then he would follow me to come and take a bite of what we had for the afternoon snack, he knew I bring home made pastries and bread. He always said "if you need a tester, you know who you can call". Every time that we were going to Iran he asked us to bring him "Sohan".
    I was planning to bake him some of his favorites when he is well enough to accept visitors ...
    He left us soon, way too soon. Rest in peace Piotr.

  14. My wife Jo and I visited Alberta in October, 2011, and Piotr -- whom I have admired for a long time due to his Mizar work -- took us to Banff National Park where we spent several days hiking. That is how I'll remember him: hiking in the mountains he loved.

  15. Piotr was a very kind, humorous person with a sense of justice. Well loved by the admin staff, he was very friendly and always willing to share his ideas and thoughts with people. One day he came to my office with a huge calculator. After using the calculator to teach a class, he said that I was the best person to keep this calculator. The giant calculator is still hanging on my office wall. I will miss him.

  16. It is hard to believe that Piotr is no longer with us...

    His classical music will not spill in the corridor of the Athabasca third floor, his student-evaluation comments will not be posted on the notice board right next to his door, he will not call out our mistakes in the department-council meetings, he will not critique classic greek tragedies with us, he will not give puzzles to the kids visiting their parents in the department (Ryan's, Jim's, mine, the younger ones to come).

    Our small world is poorer without him; all of us, who have known his humour, his stern authority, his integrity, and his kindness, will miss him and we'll remember him in our stories, for a long time to come... RIP

  17. I had Piotr for CMPUT415 and he was a great professor! Several years later he even let me listen in on the Programming Contest Meetings while I was student at NAIT. He was always very nice to me! Piotr was one of the best professors at the University of Alberta and definitely one who I will always remember fondly.

  18. Piotr had the smartest cats in the world.

    I had the privilege of working across the hall from Piotr for many years back in the days when the Algorithmic's Lab was in Athabasca Hall. One day near the end of the term a student came down the hallway to visit Piotr during office hours for final exam prep. As other have mentioned, Piotr was a kind soul wrapped in a crunchy exterior, who unfailing took the approach of helping the motivated learners to learn, and to guide the others to find the path of self-motivation around learning. After a few minutes in Piotr's office the student basically scurries out of the office, and the colouring of my memories recalls a sniffle or two as they retreated. Piotr walks into the lab and we ask what transpired. He proceeds to tell us that this C201 student, the week before the final exam, came into his office to ask him what an array was. Piotr responded "Do you have your text book? Good. Bring it out." The student complies. "Now open it to the section on arrays." To which the student responds "I don't know where that is." Piotr then proceeds to explain the purpose of an index and instructs the student to find it at the back of the book. Upon opening the book you could hear the spine crack for the first time -- it was clear the book had never been used. "Ok, now that you have found the Array section, flip to the page number and read the section about Arrays" says Piotr. A few minutes pass and the student says "Wow. I totally understand arrays now." Which is when Piotr drops the bomb "Yes, with this book even my cat could understand arrays." And that, dear friends, is but one example of why Piotr was one of my favourite professors and how I came to realize he had fantastically smart cats.

  19. Some great stories about Piotr have already been shared here. Thanks for those.

    I have two tidbits to add: During the 2008 ICPC (i.e., programming contest), I had a small organizing role and ran into Piotr a bit during the contest in Banff. It was clear that Piotr was well respected by the whole ICPC community (not surprising since Piotr had won a coaching award from ICPC). It was also fun to hear Piotr's colour commentary about the various teams and their coaches.

    Also, Piotr came to some of the sporadic dim sum lunches with CS professors. As it was with his stories and comments, Piotr was more adventurous and colourful with his food choices than most people. We will miss him at those lunches, and in our lives.

  20. I last saw Piotr at ITP in August; and, he seemed diminished: he still spoke with great authority and wit, but less often. He was a great mentor in helping us get the USask teams effectively competing in the ICPC. Based on (significant) people's deference at the World Finals in Banff, Piotr was much respected and respected: the UPE award was largely a result of his dedication. Despite my length time at UAlberta, I never received a course from him; I suspect I missed out. Now, I will miss him.

  21. From Piotr's Memorial on 2012-11-29

    Last week I got an email from Michal Rudnicki with the

    Subject: What did Dad do?

    in which he said:

    "What did my Dad do for 30 years at CS? We knew he had an office, he claimed to have lectures to give and occasionally students to meet with. But have only a vague idea what those lectures were about or what knowledge students hoped to glean from him."

    I think I can give a partial answer to Michal's question since Rudnicki and I had many discussions over the years about what our jobs were all about. They often began with Rudnicki announcing from his office:

    "Hoover, come here and look at this nonsense ..."

    My remarks today are much abbreviated from their original draft, which is appropriate since we strove for brevity in the papers we wrote together. I note that it was always harder for me to make our texts shorter. Rudnicki would simply use

    Polish trick of dropping articles from sentence.

    What was it like to have Rudnicki as a professor?

    The first time we really worked together is when we completely revamped two second year core courses in the late 1980's. Both of us had done very theoretical PhD theses, but also had massive amounts of programming experience. We both felt that good computer scientists needed a strong foundation in both theory and practice, and that they should be taught together.

    So into these courses, one on systems (201), the other on rigorous reasoning about programs (272), went our mutual brain dumps of everything we thought a student should know in order to really begin to learn about computing in third year.

    Looking back, I don't know what we were thinking. There is no way that our current politically-correct feelings-sensitive institution would expect a student to master that much material. But Rudnicki still did. And he is right. We do a disservice to our students by setting low expectations. Set the bar high, they will hate it, but invariably come back to thank you later. Over the years, many of them came back to visit Rudnicki.

    continued in part 2 ...

  22. Part 2 ...

    Rudnicki and I taught different sections of the same class many times over the years. We would always compare notes after lectures to see what worked, and what didn't, so that at least one of us managed to get things right that week. One day I was ranting about how badly my students were doing, having just threatened the class that I would make sure they never graduated because they were such a disgrace to the discipline. Rudnicki replied in his usual calm voice: Dear Professor Hoover, you have to realize that

    "There are two types of student, the self-taught, and the hopeless.
    Our job is to turn the hopeless into the self-taught."

    Rudnicki challenged students to learn on their own, and only ask for help after a significant struggle without success. He would refuse to help unless the student had already put in the effort and were truly stuck. Students hated this until they started "getting it", and then you could see their sense of accomplishment.

    Some students never "got it", because they didn't have the time to invest, or the ability, or the interest in challenging themselves. The latter was the biggest sin, and if you were not interested in challenging yourself, Rudnicki would tell you that you don't belong at a university and were wasting his time and the money of your parents and Alberta tax payers. Or that his cat was smarter than you.

    Rudnicki will best be known for building our ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest team. Over ten years, from 1997 to 2008, he took us from nothing, to qualifying for the World Finals nine times, placing in the top 15 five times, and winning three bronze medals. It was not unusual for his team to beat other schools such as Waterloo, MIT, or Stanford.

    More recently he started a Saturday morning high school computing club. It is so unfortunate that enthusiastic young students have been deprived of his mentoring.

    We will all miss Rudnicki in different ways. He will be over my shoulder keeping me intellectually honest, always ready to say

    "Professor Hoover, why are you doing this nonsense?"

  23. I mostly know Piotr by being his TA for the discrete structure course. We used to talk a lot about what we were teaching how to make it better understandable to students. He was so enthusiastic about doing that and was always happy to involve in the discussions. More importantly he was open to talk about anything else like history, politics, etc . For example he knew a lot about my home country Iran.

  24. I met Piotr last term (January, 2012) in the class "intro to formal logic." At first he seemed a little intimidating, but once I got to know him I could see that he was an incredibly caring, intelligent, funny, passionate human being. He wanted his students to learn, but he wouldn't give away the answers; we had to work for it. Anyone who talked with Piotr for long enough has experienced his wit and humour. I remember him telling us about how the class average on the midterm was misleading: "It's like having a comfortable average body temperature, but meanwhile your feet are in the freezer and your head is in the furnace."

    I got to know Piotr throughout the term and mentioned to him that I have a math degree and am working
    on a Computer Science after-degree. Upon hearing this, he mentioned that he may have a job opportunity for me, and sure enough offered me a summer job a few days later. I worked on the Mizar system, a project Piotr has been heavily involved with for roughly 40 years. It is based on a formal computer language used for checking the accuracy of mathematical proofs, and with a long term goal of "developing software to support a working mathematician in preparing papers." My work this summer was the most intellectually
    difficult task I have ever done, but with Piotr's guidance and support I was able to achieve my goals. I will
    always cherish our time working together on proofs in his office and the memories of him getting angry at
    the "dumb machine" (his laptop) for not doing what he wanted it to. The summer job finished very well, and we even spoke
    of possible future collaborations. I gained much knowledge, confidence and inspiration through our time
    working together.

    Piotr is one of the most honest and genuine people I have ever met. He always gave his honest opinion and
    never sugar-coated things. This was one of my favourite things about him and something that took a little
    getting used to. When I talked to him about the final exam in the course I took with him, I told him I made
    some dumb mistakes. He replied with, "yes you did."

    I am so thankful that I had the chance to get to know and even work with such an amazing person. Our
    time together was brief, but I will never forget it. I am proud to know I was his last student, in a long line
    of students he has mentored and cared about throughout his life. Piotr never spoke to me about his health concerns, so the news of his passing left me shocked and saddened. I wish I had a chance to say goodbye and thank him one last time for the opportunity he gave me, and for the faith, confidence and trust he showed in me.

    Thank you Piotr. I will miss you.

  25. Let me join commemoration of Piotr. I am a Pole. Piotr, his wife, Anna, and theirs two sons, Mike and Nick have been the Friends of my family in Poland for more of three decades. We have been not only the closest friends but also good neighbors. Just simply, we have being living at the same condos in Warsaw, Poland. Me and my family at the fith floor and the Rudnickis family at the first one. Ours both families have spent with each other lots of time, either the Rudnickis at our apartment or us at theirs. I remember Piotr as an extremely cordial, friendly, delightful, helpful, with sense of humor... guy. When I was a schoolboy (now I'm 43), Piotr has helped me in maths and in physics (his second profession was engineering), thus probably I was a first Piotr's student. To some extent Piotr and his family have treated me as theirs third child, the same as my parents have treated Mike and Nick as theirs next sons. When they left Poland (in early eighties) I couldn't accept that for long time. I felt then like I'd lost a serious part of my family. For the long time I suffered a lack of all of those good Piotr's traits.

    Piotr, why?

    I hoped to meet with each other....

    + Requiescant in pace +

    Marcin /aka Martin/ Daniecki