Monthly Archives: September 2006

Internet cheating, again…

I tried to enter an answer to the concerned professor (Slashdotted) who wondered what to do about Internet-enabled cheating, but you have to register to enter a comment etc., etc.  So here goes:

It is not that hard to solve (or, at least, significantly reduce) cheating. Here is what you do:

  1. Have students turn in papers electronically through a service which checks for plagiarism (Personally, I use Blackboard’s SafeAssignment, which works fine, though Blackboard itself is crap). Yes, it will cost the university money. Control mechanisms do. Consider it an investment in academic reputation.
  2. Institute a rule that any student submitting a term paper can be subjected to an oral examination about it within a specified time, making paper outsourcing risky. My institution has this in their student handbook.
  3. Use multiple methods of evaluation, including class participation. This makes the whole course an evaluation, encourages preparation throughout the course, and might teach you something new.
  4. Use fresh examples and/or new and ingenious questions every year, so that the pool of available papers to plagiarize or ready-made Wikipedia entries to amalgamate is reduced.
  5. Design the content and teaching of your courses so that they value insight and deliberation rather than repetitive fact checking (for which you should use sit-in exams).

It’s not that hard. It just means structuring the control mechanisms to the content of your course, and getting to know your students well enough that you have a multidimensional view of their abilities.

PS: Incidentally, here is a to-the-point comic (removed, link rot) about this issue. Trouble is, not enough college professors read Wikipedia.

PSPS: The comments to this piece seem to take the same viewpoint, aside from lamenting the fact that teaching college has gone from scholarship to babysitting. It has, and that is lamentable. But if you are going to do babysitting, at least do it well, in a way that does not punish the real students…

Reality check

I have lived in the US for six years, have worked for US companies since 1994, have a daughter who is an American citizen, and consider the country my second homeland. Can somebody please explain to me how something as bizarre as this came to be? Most (come to think of it, all) people I know over there consider President Bush somewhat out to lunch, but the proposal to "reinterpret" Article III of the Geneva convention is, quite simply, evil. Not to mention that the President’s articulation of whatever it is he is trying to say leaves a lot to be desired:

This is not the America I know and love. At least a number of US politicians – from both sides – seem to recognize that.

Causality and Zipf’s Law

Chris Anderson has an interesting post about Zipf’s law, which posits that the frequency distribution  of words in the English language follows a power law. He shows that if you set up a process that generates random sets of characters, you end up with the same distribution.

I am wondering if we aren’t putting the cart before the horse here – might it not be the case that the words we use more often have become shorter, precisely because we use them more often? If language evolves over time with an aim to increase understanding and reduce bandwidth consumption, this is what we would expect.

The words "mama" and "papa" are common throughout many languages because when a baby starts babbling, that is what he or she will say first. So, we made words out of babble, representing what proud parents would want them to represent. Similarly, we reserve the shortest words (single vowels, diphthongs, or combinations of one vowel and one consonant) for the concepts we need most frequently.

Saves bandwidth. Just ask any kid with an SMS thumb.

Forking Wikipedia?

Nick Carr sees no reconciliation between "deletionists" and "inclusionists" over how Wikipedia should continue to evolve.

Wikipedia was originally started to generate content for a more traditional encyclopædia, called Nupedia. It seems like it worked according to plan. Perhaps it is time to generate Nupedia.

For my part, I remain a "delusionist" a little longer, betting on people’s ability to vet out incomprehensive or incorrect information. It seems to me that people deal with information differently when they are in search mode – and that what Wikipedia needs is some sort of disclaimer to alert people that, though it may have a very high Googlerank, anyone can write and the vetting process taking place is the one done by those who read it before you. Given simple and powerful search, however, the process of validation should be quick and simple. I can live with that.


HP logo  …seems to be the new word for what used to be called social engineering. Or lying. Brought to you courtesy of the board of Hewlett Packard.

The last word in this story isn’t said yet, but for now it looks like there will be some changes in HP’s board. HP used to be about great products (remember HP calculators and laser printers?) and innovation in its many divisions. You could trust products bought from them because of the solid engineering culture. Now it increasingly is beginning to look like a hollow shell, making most of its money on printer cartridges (for the last 8 years or so). Now the Board seems preoccupied with spying on each other.

How the mighty have fallen. And kudos to Tom Perkins for having some sense of ethics.

(Via Scoble, Techdirt, and just about everyone else)

Update: Now Perkins’ letter is available at The Smoking Gun. That’s a web site I would love to see here in Norway.

Hippopotic hysterics

In today’s department for things worth reading we bring an excerpt from Stephen Fry’s The Hippopotamus, which could be described as a comic mystery novel – though there is no crime involved, only some vaguely magical healings with an ingenious solution in the end. Howlingly funny and full of little side stories like this one, which you will find towards the end:

When Gordon Fell was knighted in 1987 he threw a celebration binge afterwards at the Savoy.  Not the Dominion Club of course, as it should have been, but the Savoy. During the party he described to us the ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Gordie hadn’t been the only man there that morning to be knighted, naturally. The Queen contrives to process dozens of candidates in one hit. They are disposed, it would seem, in rows of chairs, as at a lecture, while a band of the Guards plays anus-contractingly inappropriate tunes like “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” in the background. Gordon was due to kneel and be dubbed next in line after the self-important fool sitting beside him. This pompous little pip-squeak had wriggled his way into the chairmanship of some large charity or another and was now coming to collect what he regarded as his due reward.
The figure introduced himself with pride and whispered, after Gordon had told him his name, “And what do you to, then? The diplomatic, is it?”
“I’m a painter,” Gordie said.
“Really?” said the fellow. “Not one of those awful moderns, I hope.”
“Oh no,” said Gordon. “Of course I am not a modern painter. I was born in the sixteenth fucking century, wasn’t I? I’m an Old Master, me.”
Not quite Buck House language, perhaps, but justifiable under the circumstances. The chap turned his shoulder on Gordie, disgusted that he could be sharing an honour with such an animal. Gordon pointedly scratched his groin and yawned.
Anyway, the turn came for the charity weasel to kneel and be serviced. It so fell out that this investiture into the Knights Commander of the Crawling Toads, or whatever order it was that he was in line for, took place unaccompanied by melody, the band being engaged in taking the sheet music of “Consider Yourself” off their stands and replacing it with “Born Free”. her Maj’s sword tapped the man’s shoulders in hushed silence and he rose to an upright position with becoming dignity, bowing his head with a crisp snap that would have shamed an equerry. As he did so his nervous, uptight and excitable system delivered itself of an astoundingly sustained and quite startlingly loud fart. The monarch stepped backwards, which was all part of the programme as it happened, but which seemed to everyone present to be an involuntary reaction to the man’s violent rip. The expression on his face as he trailed miserably down the aisle was one of deepest woe. Every person in the room stared at him or, worse, waited until he was level with them and then averted their eyes. Gordon, passing him in the aisle as he made his own way to the steps of the throne, murmured in a growl audible to all, “Don’t worry, old boy. She’ll be used to it. Keeps plenty of dogs and horses, don’t forget.”
The lips of the Queen, according to Gordie, were seen to curve into a smile at this and she detained him in conversation for longer than anyone else. When he returned to his seat next to the still-scarlet farter, Sir Gordon rasped out, in time with the band which was now operative again, “Bo-orn free, a-free as the WIND BLOWS.”
Being the vindictive sod that he is, Gordie didn’t stop there, naturally. In the mêlée of press that gathered outside the palace and especially around him, he was asked how the occasion had gone.
“That man over there,” Gordon said, pointing at the chap, who was standing with his wife and only a photographer from a local Hampshire newspaper to bolster his self-esteem, “let out the most extraordinary fart, virtually in the sovereign’s face. Quite astonishing. Some kind of anarchist, I suppose.”
The pack flew to the spot like flies to a cow-pat and the pathetic creature was last seen streaking down the Mall, his silk topper bouncing on the pavement behind him. He lost his hat, his reputation and in all probability his wife in one Gordon Fell swoop. Never insult a painter. Not worth it.

Highly recommended!