Can Computers Detect Internet Cheating?

Duncan Smeed, who is an educator, worries enough about traditional plagiarism and notes that, “of course, the situation is further complicated by the ready availability of vast resources over the Internet.” He points to a group that is evaluating iParadigms’ electronic system that claims it can detect papers copied off the Internet.

Several comments. First, I don’t know about the situation in the UK, but in the United States cheating is endemic. A professor I once had held up a newspaper story reporting a poll in which 60 percent of American college students said they had cheated. “What about the other 40 percent?” he asked rhetorically and then quickly answered his own question, “They’re liars” which elicited knowing laughter from the class.

Although I’m not to proud of it now, I have to admit that when I was in college I helped numerous people who had more money than brains by “helping” them write term papers that I’m sure their professors would have probably thought crossed the line into outright writing their papers for them. IParadigms claims that, “Students themselves report that unchecked cheating and plagiarism by others undermines their own efforts and educational enthusiasm,” but most of the good students I knew were more cynical about the overall lack of academic rigor and didn’t feel that much guilt in helping people bend the rules in their classes (to put it another way, what does it matter if I help someone get a B when they’re going to get a C just by showing up and breathing?)

Anyway, leaving my bit of true confessions behind, the problem with the iParadigms approach is that as the amount of published works on the Internet keeps expanding, the usefulness of the sort of brute force comparison iParadigms is doing is going to lose its usefulness.

Consider a college freshman writing his first paper on Shakespeare’s MacBeth. How many tens of thousands of articles and papers are there going to be about MacBeth available on the Internet? Sure if somebody is dumb enough to just cut and paste wholesale you’re going to catch them, but most of the people I knew who were chronic cheaters were far more sophisticated than that and were perfectly capable of taking a paper written by someone else and modifying it and rearranging it to more closely mimic how they would write the paper if they could be bothered.

Using something like statistical sampling to test for originality is a great idea when you’ve got a relatively small number of documents to deal with, but when you start comparing a very small body of work, such as a single paper, with a huge document base of 1.4 billion and rising documents on the Internet (using Google as a measure for the moment), the risk of a false positive will likely be unacceptably high. Imagine what it will be in 5 or 10 years when we could very well be measure the number of discreet documents indexed by search engines in the tens of billions.

Surprise: Security Holes in Windows Media Player

CNN reports that Microsoft today released a patch to fix some security problems with Windows Media Player.

In my opinion, Windows Media Player is the biggest piece of crap software that I’ve had the misfortune to find on my PC in a long time. My wife and I bought a laptop a year ago primarily to use for light word processing tasks on the road. It’s got an AMD K6 233mhz processor and 32 mb of RAM. Not exactly high performance, but perfect running a text editor and doing some light web browsing. And, until I installed Windows Millennium, nice for listening to CDs with headphones while I’m working on an article.

Now, though, inserting a CD automatically starts up the Windows Media Player which just destroys any hope of actually using the computer — in fact WMP is such a resource hog that the laptop isn’t even able to play the CD except in fits and starts.

And it’s not just the laptop. WMP does run after a fashion on my 900mhz Athlon with 256 mb of memory, but again it seriously (unacceptably) degrades system performance.

One of these days I’ll get around to uninstalling it.

Eric Harshbarger’s Princess Mononke Sculpture and Other Lego links

  • Eric Harshbarger has a nice looking 5-plus feet tall Lego sculpture of Princess Mononoke.
  • Another Lego fan has some good looking, large Gundam Wing mechs.
  • Finally, Daily Radar has a glowing review of the Mindstorms Darkside Developers Kit (the Mindstorms kit with the Lego AT-AT).


A weblog I’ve been visiting a lot lately is Adam Curry’s site. To be honest, I always thought he was incredibly annoying on MTV, but his ideas about the future of the Internet and computing are almost identical with mine — his essay on a Last Yard-style server is exactly what I’ve been slowly moving to on my LAN at home.

Anyway, Curry recently mentioned sitting down with the Dutch prime minister to discuss some web-related issues. Curry writes,

Let me tell you, nothing more fun than explaining weblogs to the prime minister, who only one year ago was ridiculed publicly when caught on tape trying to move a mouse across the screen. Yes, literally move it accross the screen.

I saw something like this happen at the first job I had out of college. I was hired by a medical laundry facility that had just bought a computerized inventory system and needed someone to implement the system and train users in the many hospitals they serviced.

Anyway, the boss was always asking me to help him solve other computer related problems, and one day he buzzed me in my office saying there was something seriously wrong with the new Excel for Windows software that I’d installed earlier in the day on his computer. It wouldn’t let him select cells he said. So I meander over to his office and the problem is that he literally could not “click” the mouse. He sort of did this stabbing motion at the butotn where he held his hand a few inches above the mouse and quickly depressed the button like he was playing a video game. He quickly went back to his Lotus software running under DOS.

On the other hand, the man had a knack with people that I’ve never seen before or since. I used to have to travel all over the state with him to visit hospitals and he sped like crazy — and got pulled over by police regularly. But he never got a ticket. One time I swear he was pulling a Jedi mind trick on this one cop when he got off with just a warning after being clocked at 20 over the speed limit. And he knew it — he wasn’t cocky, but when he got pulled over he had this aura about him that it was simply inconceivable that he could be ticketed.

Random Musings About Death (and, of course, Life)

About two months ago my 3-year-old daughter finally grasped what death is. That conceptual shift was precipitated by the death of my father-in-law’s dog (the dog was very old). After visiting grandpa’s house and realizing the dog she loved to terrorize was no longer there, we simply explained that grandpa’s dog had gotten sick and died, while reassuring her fears that mommy or daddy might die.

It only took her a few weeks to realize that she had never met my dad and started asking questions about where my father was. Again, we tried to put the matter as simply and straightforward as possible, explaining that my dad had gotten sick and died a long time ago. For the most part she seems to accept those explanations without the anxiety both my wife and I were afraid of. Except for occasionally insisting that her grandfather’s dog is still alive, she accepted it just like she accepted our explanation of what buses and police officers do, and moved on.

Someday, though, she’s probably going to want more information about her other grandfather and that whole can of worms is a bit more complicated, especially since I barely knew my father (I didn’t attend his funeral and couldn’t tell you even what year he died, though it wasn’t too long after the El Paso Times article).

The one good thing I can say about my father, aside from the fact that he accomplished a lot of things in a very short life, was that he was extremely honest when you could get him to open up, even when he knew he was dying.

I never had a single discussion with my father about his illness or imminent death, but toward the end he sent me a letter describing the regrets he had about what he described as the selfish way he had lived his life. It didn’t make any sort of rapprochment possible, but it made me respect him for being able to admit that and made me realize how he garnered the loyalty of the men who served under him in Vietnam (where he earned a boat load of medals including a Silver Star for disarming a live grenade booby trap — of course he didn’t have much choice as the grenade would have blew him to bits if he hadn’t done so very quickly).

On the other hand, my early life was a poewrful lesson that professional success and personal achievement can be a prison if if pursued in exclusion to everything else. For the most part I’ve avoided making my father’s mistakes, but if I had I’d hope I would have had the courage to face up to them like my dad did.