Archive for the 'history' Category

The kids aren’t all right: plagiarism(!) edition

[by JSC5]

Another day, another curmudgeonly story about “kids these days”. Today’s complaint comes from the New York Times, which goes out of its way to blame plagiarism among college students on everything except the obvious culprit.

The article starts off on a prejudicial – if hilarious – anecdote:

At DePaul University, the tip-off to one student’s copying was the purple shade of several paragraphs he had lifted from the Web; when confronted by a writing tutor his professor had sent him to, he was not defensive — he just wanted to know how to change purple text to black.

Now, on a first reading, I figured this paragraph was trying to tell me that DePaul students aren’t the brightest of bulbs if they can’t see the big text color tool at the top of the Microsoft Word window. On a second reading, however, my Old Codger radar went off. This is more than just a funny story about a lone idiot and his lack of a moral compass; this sets the stage for how the author wants the reader to interpret the entire rest of the article. What explains plagiarism in college these days, the author asks? Why, the decrepit morals of the young, of course! The author even has anecdotes to prove it!

Then we get this gem of an explanation:

Sarah Brookover, a senior at the Rutgers campus in Camden, N.J., said many of her classmates blithely cut and paste without attribution. “This generation has always existed in a world where media and intellectual property don’t have the same gravity,” said Ms. Brookover, who at 31 is older than most undergraduates. “When you’re sitting at your computer, it’s the same machine you’ve downloaded music with, possibly illegally.”

On a first reading, I figured this was a story of a 31-year-old undergraduate misfit committing social suicide on the front page of the New York Times while engaging in some pop psychology. But no, this is supposed to be another piece of “data” on young people’s attitudes towards plagiarism, with the conclusion that kids these days just lack the moral compass of their forebearers when it comes to serious things like media and intelectual property.

Then the story brings in the academic set to try their hand:

“Ms. Blum argued that student writing exhibits some of the same qualities of pastiche that drive other creative endeavors today — TV shows that constantly reference other shows or rap music that samples from earlier songs. …  Our notion of authorship and originality was born, it flourished, and it may be waning,” Ms. Blum said.

This one’s harder for me to dismiss as just the lazy observations of a single student. Ms. Blum is a professor, after all — an anthropologist at Notre Dame. What I find hard to stomache, however, is the offhanded way in which Ms. Blum asserts that today’s media content is more pastiche-driven than previous generations. While I love a good mash up as much as the next guy, I’m not crazy enough to believe that Kanye invented sampling or that Family Guy invented allusions. I’m pretty sure that most creative works going back to antiquity have drawn on pre-existing works.

Finally, the article brings in the favorite boogey man of the Old Codger: the internet and its deliterious effect on the morals of our youth:

“Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author,” said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.”

Yeah, it’s possible to believe that cultural creations accessed via the internet have no author, just like it’s possible to believe that Star Wars really did take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

The difference is that we usually give moral actors who are not “kids these days” (like Star Wars fans) the benefit of the doubt and treat them like normal humans with thoughts, feelings, and beliefs similar to our own. The rules for “kids these days” are different, however. Lazy writers get to trash them at will.

Let me lay down what I think ought to be a fairly simple explanation for plagiarism:

  1. Kids today are no different from my slightly older generation, or their parents’ generation, or Shakespear’s generation. We’re all the same idiots and fuck-ups, geniuses and successes.
  2. Things like Wikipedia, YouTube, and the internet in general don’t erode our values to the point that people start commonly believing that “this information is just out there for anyone to take”. Please treat the younger generations as competent moral agents (see point #1)
  3. Instead, the internet reduces access and plagiarism costs. Copying someone else’s words no longer involves clickety-clacking them from a book to your typewriter or Apple II. Now you can Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V it (or use an entirely different and unintuitive keystroke, for my Apple folks out there). When costs fall, consumption tends to rise. In this case, ‘consumption’ is plagiarism.

Now, this explanation is boring compared with the sexy NYT article talking about the moral failings of the youth caused by “the Internet” (always capitalized, like Towne, Shoppe, or any Noun from ye olde Book of random Capitalizations). But it seems far more plausible, and has the added benefit of not treating the current youngest generation as a bunch of uniquely-monstruous idiots.

Don’t get me wrong: plagiarism is a terrible thing. But the fix seems to be pretty easy. The only way students could think they’ll get away with copying and pasting Wikipedia entries without attribution is if their teachers are in the habit of accepting long entries of text including information, analysis, and theories that the student clearly was not born knowing. Start treating shitty writing that doesn’t reference its information like it deserves — by giving it a failing grade — and you’ll be well on your way to fixing plagiarism. One can’t help but wonder how awful the teachers are if their students think that merely copying and pasting Wikipedia articles would get them anything but a swift kick in the ass and a big fat goose egg on the top of the paper — even if the actual plagiarism is never caught.

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English, do you speak it?

That title was just so I can throw this classic out here. Best use of 6.5 minutes ever.

Back to the topic at hand. If you travel a fair amount, you notice a wide range of English ability around the world. Some countries are a breeze to get around in with just English, while in others you’re stuck pointing a lot and learning the tricks of the mime trade. I’m amazed that there isn’t some more universal standard to measure this, and that every guidebook ever written sticks to saying something to the tune of “English is growing in popularity among young people” to summarize the state of English in every country, but I digress.  What I’m most interested in is what causes this variation.

Continue reading ‘English, do you speak it?’

Top 8 influential books

Tyler Cowen, a libertarian economics blogger at Marginal Revolution, wrote up a list of the top 10 books that had most influenced his thinking, prompting a wave of similar posts from intellectual bloggers across the Internet in the last week. I might as well chime in. The list below isn’t of the best books or authors, but of the books and authors that most influenced my way of thinking and being at crucial times in my life. I’m probably leaving out a couple key books, but here they are, in no particular order, my top 8 most influential books:

  • Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: I read this at a ridiculously young age (2nd or 3rd grade), and though I clearly didn’t understand everything in it at first reading, it still left me obsessed with the all-pervasive cool-ness of the universe. It’s incomprehensibly large, fantastically complicated, and inherently fascinating. What we see in everyday life is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s lots to learn, so get busy.
  • Richard P. Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Feynman wasn’t just a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, he was a constant puzzle-solver, prankster, and amateur enthusiast in dozens of scientific and artistic disciplines. Reading his autobiography early on (5th grade?) really imparted to me the sheer joy of learning and instilled in me the desire to acquire the habits of inquisitiveness. I fell in love with what Feynam shows is a really attractive culture of playful intellectualism. I guess if Hawking showed me how fascinating the world is, Feynman gave me a rough idea of how one can make a socially and personally fulfilling life by investigating it. Taken together, these two books really put curiosity at the center of my emerging identity as a kid.
  • Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game: This one’s a classic for ambitious, smart kids, and I’m almost embarrassed to include it, but I think I have to if I’m being honest with myself. I must have read it some time around 4th to 6th grade. The book really made the archetype of the heroic individual — who uses smarts, hard work, and the help of good friends to do good and important things– attractive to me. That’s ironic, since in the end it turns out that Ender was a pawn of large, amorphous, adult powers beyond his control, his individual greatness wasn’t absolutely essential to victory (see the Bean prequels), and his supposedly heroic work was actually morally dubious. But there you have it.
  • Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: I must have been about 12 when this book came out, and it really had a profound effect on me. The process of understanding why things are they way they are always seemed like a straightforward process, when it came to the physical world. But I had never really been exposed to a rigorous attempt at explaining why things are the way they are in the human world of societies, culture, and so on. Diamond’s work helped set me on a path of thinking a lot more about causes in the human world than I ever had before.
  • Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: These books are really as much about politics as they are about science fiction. As the best sci-fi does, Heinlein’s classics used the sciency part (space travel, future tech, etc) to put humans into new and interesting social contexts in order to investigate how the wide variety of human characters would respond. I learned to imagine a new set of social norms that would be normal in their own societies, and confronted issues I’d never seriously grappled with, like sexual politics and imagining alternative structures to human society: plural marriage, temporary sexual liaisons, age differentials in inter-personal relationships. But beyond this low and local politics, the books also deal with ‘high’ politics in a compelling way that makes it seem much more immediately important and interesting than the newspaper ever does. Heinlein put things like the structure and function of government, self-determination, colonialism, authoritarianism, violence, revolution, and liberty into new literary context.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morality: A fascinating combination of epistemological modesty (there is no privileged, objective vantage point or absolute and eternal truth or first principle) and the absolute necessity of making decisions and evaluations, and forging an authentic personal existence. Nietzsche was the first to really get modern angst, and his books (particularly this one) really made me think about and deal with these concepts in a serious way. It’s an interesting addition to the optimism and joy I got from Hawking and Feynman, though not actually all that incompatible. It also lines up nicely with the Ender-inspired image of the heroic individual, I guess.
  • John Irving, The World According to Garp: I think what was so influential about this book (and many other Irving books) for me was its focus on the personal and the quotidian.  Family, friends, and neighbors become the main setting for failure, success, tragedy, and normalcy. The majesty of the universe, the heroic individual, the big questions of life — those are all great (see influential books listed above), but a huge part of what makes life awesome is just the interactions between characters. People talking to people. It’s enough to drive great stories (see Irving, John), and it’s enough to drive real life, too.
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude: I think Marquez (along with many others, but Marquez stands out to me right now), gave me a needed sense of perspective on the role of the individual and the ambitious life. One thing that makes this book so great is the rolling sense of repetition, stylistically and within the plot itself, in which character traits are transmitted between the generations, and the same ambitions are partially satisfied and partially thwarted time and again. The Buendia family rises to riches and falls and rises again. Illicit passions persist for entire generations, spawn tragedy, suddenly die, and then spring up again in the next. Nothing is new under the sun, and yet places and people continuously change. It’s a story of triumph and tragedy within the context of infinite recursion. I guess one lesson is the power of history (both grand and personal), and the ultimate smallness of any single person, action, or desire. The other big lesson is the appreciation of dark humor.

Why can’t they just say what they mean?

My father recently became interested in constitutional law. As a genuine, gun-toting liberal, he was particularly interested to read Scalia’s majority opinion and Stevens’ dissent in the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision, [which established 2nd Amendment rights as individual rights and applied the ruling to all federal enclaves but not the states]. First he read Scalia’s opinion and found himself persuaded. Then he read Stevens’ dissent and thought his argument, too, was persuasive. His ultimate complaint fell against the Founders: “Why couldn’t they have just said what they mean?” This is a typical complaint against laws in general and the Constitution in particular. Wouldn’t life be simpler if these documents just said what they mean?

Maybe that’s asking too much. Keep in mind that the Constitution is two things at once: 1) our founding document and basic law, and 2) a political compact, the result of negotiations rooted in a particular historical context. Clarity and precision might be desirable for a constitution, but it can be anathema to political compacts. The Founders were trying to entice the separate states into a permanent political union with each other, a complex negotiation that required drawing in the disparate geographical regions, economies, social classes, races, ethnicities, cultures, and religions then present among the states.

As any negotiator can tell you, specificity can be essential to bringing agreement. The 3/5ths compromise on representation (a boon for the southern slavocracy) was balanced against the prohibition of the slave trade after 20 years (a boon for the anti-slavery faction north and south, as contemporaries thought that slavery would never survive through natural population increase). Specific constitutional provisions were needed to entice these two opposing factions into political union.

But sometimes specificity can be an obstacle to political compromise. One big sticking point during the constitutional convention and later during ratification was the philosophical disputes between the federalists and the anti-federalists on the nature and duties of government. Very briefly, Federalists like Hamilton thought that securing specific rights in the Constitution was unnecessary (since non-enumerated rights were still reserved to the people) and antithetical to the idea of a democratic government (since only under monarchies did people negotiate with their rulers to carve out liberties). Anti-Federalists like Jefferson and Madison were very concerned with securing an enumerated list of the people’s liberties that was as complete as politically possible in order to prevent tyrany of centralized government.

Short of solving this age-old philosophical debate in the few short years of negotiation, ratification, and initiation of the federal government (which is clearly impossible), how could the Framers entice these two sides into a political union? One answer seems to be the artful use of ambiguity. Agree to enumerate a brief Bill of Rights in the first Congress, but make the Bill brief and vague enough to be open to interpretation. After all, that’s why you went to the trouble of creating a judiciary based on common law in the first place. Like any good negotiator, when the Founders were faced with an intractable problem, they did their best to satisfy people’s deepest concerns, and then kicked the can down the road to let the judiciary sort things out as best they could in the future.

Let me conclude by saying this is a feature, not a defect, of our Constitution. A handful of rich, old, white men working in a short span of time cannot sufficiently answer every single constitutional question that will face a nation of any longevity. They can do the best possible given their cognitive, temporal, and political constraints, and then leave the task up to us to continue. That’s why they can’t just say what they mean. They don’t know exactly what they mean, and some things are best left ’till later.

Update: It’s nice to get some back-up from someone who’s actually an expert on conlaw. Here’s Justice John Paul Stevens’ take on political compromise, ambiguity, and the role of the judiciary from a great profile in the New Yorker:

[Stevens] recalled an incident involving an antitrust law: “I remember explaining one of the tricky problems in the statute to one of the members of the [House] committee. I got all through it, and he said, ‘Well, you know, let’s let the judges figure that one out.’ ”What that told [Stevens] was that “the legislature really works with the judges—contrary to the suggestion that the statute is a statute all by itself,” Stevens said. “There is an understanding that there are areas of interpretation that are going to have to be filled in later on, and the legislators rely on that. It’s part of the whole process. And you realize that they’re not totally separate branches of government—they’re working together.”

The internet is a Toyata-thon of Death — or is it? [philosophy edition]

Life sometimes seems like a Toyota with a stuck accelerator, thanks to ever-improving communications media. Saying that the internet speeds up life is pretty banal, but sometimes it just strikes home in a way that makes you stop and think that maybe there is hope for us after all – if we can figure out how to harness it.

Take philosophy. In an effort to prevent atrophy, I was reading through Isaiah Berlin’s classic essays on liberty the other day. My edition starts off with an Introduction by Berlin from the 1969 edition, which collected earlier works, including the 1950 work ‘Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century’, a controversial 1954 essay on determinism, ‘Historical Inevitability’, and the seminal 1958 essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. The first interesting thing about Berlin’s 1969 Introduction is how directly he responds to his critics, more like a blogger than a philosopher.  The second, and more important, point of interest in the Introduction is how long it takes for Berlin to respond in the first place. He devotes most of his time in the 1969 Introduction to responding to critics of his 1954 determinism essay, particularly arguments advanced by:

  • Amartya Sen, 1959, ‘Determinism and Historical Predictions’ [fun side note: Sen was still teaching at Harvard as recently as 2008 when one of my best friends took a grad seminar with him. The man is a machine.]
  • J. A. Passmore, 1959, ‘History, the Individual, and Inevitability’
  • Ernest Nagel, 1959-60, ‘The Structure of Science’
  • Edward Hallett Carr, 1961, ‘What is History?’

Just to highlight the chronology here, Berlin writes an influential essay criticizing determinists for being inconsistent in 1954. Several prominent determinists write cogent and not-so-cogent responses from 1959 to 1961 — i.e., more than 5 years after Berlin’s original essay. Berlin then waits another 8 years or so to publish his own responses defending his original essay and engaging with the arguments of his critics. That’s a 15 year response lag.

Maybe I’m being unfair in using publication dates here. Academics attend conferences and chat, so maybe the first critiques came much earlier than 1959 from these authors, and perhaps Berlin’s responses in the 1969 Introduction are just compiled bits of rejoinder from the past 15 years. But knowing the insularity and stately pace of life in academia, I’m inclined to believe that the time lag really was one the order of years.

There are two main points I want to draw out here:

  1. Response times have narrowed across the board in the last 20 years, in news, many sciences, politics, policy, and personal communication. These days, even my mother feels guilty when she misses a call on her cell phone. RSS feeds, email alerts, and social networking mean we get notified when something of relevance to us happens in the world, and similar technologies let us respond quickly.  This gives us all the ability to speed up debate (witness the flame wars on the Internet).
  2. More importantly, because debate can be faster, there’s a growing ethos that is should be. We all have a limited number of days, so productivity gains are individually important. We are still only a short way along the information superhighway, so productivity gains are socially important (in nearly the same way that economic growth is socially imperative given the need around the globe). Centuries ago it took a lifetime to copy books, borrow books, read books, respond, have responses copied and lent out, and have the process start all over again. The pace of knowledge discovery was very limited. Fifty years ago the world was much more connected, and responses came in 15 years — just half a generation! But these days, 15 years seems like an inexcusably long time to wait. True, high-level academics is often complicated and it takes expertise and time to formulate proper theories, critiques, and responses. But it’s not that complicated, and, excluding issues of data-gathering, there’s nothing involved that would take a competent grad student more than a couple months to cobble together.

So my prediction is that while a 15-year response time may have been perfectly reasonable for Berlin’s generation, the new generation of scholars is going to live and die by response time. My worry, though, is that academics is permanently hampered by medieval (or maybe just pre-modern) institutions like trade journals and academic presses. Compared to the infestation of non-academic blogs, academic blogs are few and far between — and often grow up in and are contaminated by the milieu of their non-academic cousins. Truly academic blogging is rare (and just in case you’re wondering, no, I certainly don’t count Joint Stock Company as a truly academic blog). If we really want to unleash the power of the Internet-as-Toyota-thon-of-Death model, we need to kill the journal/academic press system – or at least its worst excesses – and make revolutions in technology relevant to our thought-leaders.

Update: Does anyone know of any good studies that try to measure response times in academia or in the broader blogosphere? It’d be great if we could measure response rates over time and break down the information by discipline, to get a handle on what we’re talking about. I’ll add this is the Questions page.

Alaska: not such a great deal?

Alaska may not actually have been that great a deal, financially speaking, for the U.S. I’ve added a new question to the list of potential research questions page asking some follow-up questions. Maybe the U.S. expanded too much? Or should we have expanded a little more while the gettin’ was good?:

Did the U.S. expand too far? Should it expand more? Economist David Barker put out a paper recently that complicates the typical view that Alaska was a great deal for the US, which purchased the state in 1867 for $7 million USD. Alex Tabarrock at the group economics blog Marginal Revolution has a brief write-up on the article, which concludes that discounted net present value of Alaska at the time of purchase probably didn’t reach $7 million. The article goes further at the end and asks: “The results of this paper suggest new lines of inquiry in the history of the West, such as: Has westward expansion been worth the price? What have been the costs and benefits? Should expansion have been less or greater than it was? Should United States expansion continue? Should the United States shrink by cutting ties with its remaining possessions?”

This seems like a good application for a little firm theory, trade theory, comparative government wonkery, and M&A number crunching. We’ll probably have to narrow the question down to physical chunks of territory that changed hands at a certain price as the result of actual negotiations, just to make sure we have a solid purchase price to compare to a discounted cash flow or other model of value. Although, let’s not forget that territory is often conquered by force, and the price of potential wars can be estimated within certain bounds. Also, for territory that was relinquished freely or never sought after in the first place, estimates may be made based on the value of what the US got in return (say, by maintaining good business ties and peaceful relations, for example).

Of course, the question is moot because as everyone knows we were just exercising our Manifest Destiny.

As always, if anyone has any thoughts on a good way to approach this question, post in the comments.

Star Wars vs. Star Trek: hyperdrive, take 2

One quick follow-on to my previous post on how the Star Wars hyperdrive really should make the Star Wars universe much different than it is.

In addition to the economic, political, and social effects noted in my last post, there is the issue of the broader universe itself. We all know that Star Wars takes place “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” … and the action really is confined within that far away galaxy. But should it be? If we assume that the average spacing between galaxies is ~30 times their average diameter, and if we assume the time to travel across the galaxy in hyperdrive is 2 days, then the Star Wars hyperdrive technology should be able to propel us to a neighboring galaxy in just two months.

It took Columbus 3 months to sail from Spain to the New World in the late 15th Century. Even though that was a rather long travel time, the radical differences in technology levels between the New and Old worlds meant that Europeans had a big effect on New World societies from the get go.

We would assume that, since the Star Wars galaxy is teeming with life forms, other galaxies would be similarly-endowed. And given the large number of galaxies in the universe, we’d also assume a broad distribution of technology levels among them, with all the disruption that entails. So where are all the other galaxies in the Star Wars universe? Just another way in which the modesty of Star Trek’s Warp Drive rescues that universe from such complications.


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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