Plagiarism On the Net

    Evolt.Org has an interesting look at plagiarism on the Internet, and I’ve either done or had done to me pretty much everything mentioned there.

    Idiots who mirror a site and then put it on their own server without permission are, in my opinion, the lowest of the low. Had someone do this to my site and put part of it up on a pornographic site, largely because Hotbot was returning my site in the top 10 for people who would search on phrases like “rape pictures,” even though the actual page was a dry look at criminal statistics.

    On the other hand, I am a design swiper. If I see a color or a format I like I’ll hit “View Source” and see if there’s any way I can integrate something similar in my site. I don’t think it makes sense to just wholesale swipe someone else’s design and just change the text as I’ve seen some people do, but I don’t think copyrights on specific design elements as opposed to a design as a whole make a lot of sense.

    The question I have wondered about ever since I started getting paid for writing many years ago is the whole plagiarism issue. At the extremes, everybody can agree. If I download a text file of a Dostoevsky book, replace Dostevsky’s name with mine and then upload it to my site, that’s clearly plagiarism (actually today that might be called art, but we’ll leave that for another day). On the other hand if I sit alone in my room and write a sentence that nobody else ever has, that’s clearly not plagiarism.

    But what about Shakespeare as Evolt.Org puts it? The author, Erika, notes that her English teacher warned students not to plagiarize, but at the same time instructed her on Shakespeare.

Of course, the plots for many of Shakespeare’s plays were based on the plots of medieval French folk stories.

Did that make Shakespeare a plagiarist? Did he take credit for someone else’s ideas? Or are folk tales simply the clip-art of literature?

    There is an amusing science fiction version of this problem that centered around the television show “Battlestar Galactica.” When it was released, George Lucas actually sued those associated with the show arguing that “Battlestar Galactica” was a rip off of “Star Wars.” Among other things, Lucas claimed he had a copyright on scenes depicting space battles between small fighters and large capital ships. The lawsuit also claimed that Lucas had a copyright on the veteran serious warror/wisecracking young hotshot relationship a la Ben Kenobi/Luke Skywalker, so the Apollo/Starbuck characters in Battlestar Galactica were a copyright violation. This is especially ironic given the fact that as even Lucas acknowledged, “Star Wars” was just a clever rip off of several other films, and was heavily influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s excellent films (which themselves are often updated retellings of folk stories).

    There are all sort of grey areas with the sort of political commentaries that I write. If you open a newspaper and read any opinion column, for example, you will find many sentences that contain information that are clearly not the result of original research carried out by the writer but you’ll never find footnotes and oftentimes you won’t find any sort of attribution at all for facts and figures. Add to that the fact that there are only so many ways to say the same thing and on a strict definition, plagiarism is an epidemic in the nation’s newspapers.

    When I was in college, for example, there was briefly an enormous controversy over a historian whose name escapes me who had written a very well received biography of Abraham Lincoln. A few years later someone emerged to claim that large passages of the book had been plagiarized. The case against the author fell apart for this reason: the plagiarism charge was based on having a computer hunt for similarities between the new book and several older biographies of Lincoln. Sure enough there were quite a few similarities, but the problem ultimately is that there are only so many ways to describe, say, the childhood of young Lincoln and it was inevitable that if I or anyone else writes an essay on Lincoln’s early career as a lawyer, it’s going to have a lot of similarities to the probably thousands of books and popular and scholarly journal articles that have described Lincoln’s legal career.

    Part of the problem is deciding just when a fact should be cited. A person I knew was universally reviled by her college students because she regularly gave them F’s on their essays if they didn’t cite even the most banal of facts, which to me always seemed extraordinarily absurd given the amount of things we know only because we have read about it or heard it somewhere.

    As with many things in life, I think the answer is just to use common sense, but there are a lot of minefields out there where it’s hard to know when you’ve cross the line into plagiarism.

Dennis Miller and Monday Night Football

Allen Barra totally dogs Dennis Miller for his Monday Night Football performance. I’ve actually enjoyed Miller’s commentary. Sure he can be obscure at times, but I’m also tired of these sports media critics who apparently think all football fans are morons.

That said, I can’t imagine Miller lasting into next season. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if ABC fired him before the end of the season if ratings drop too much.

On the other hand I have the perfect candidate to replace Miller. He’s not as funny as Miller but he knows the game a lot better and he is smart as a whip (he does sports commentary for NPR even): Tim Green. I know a lot of you are saying Tim who? That’s Tim Green, a first-round draft pick for the Atlanta Falcons who played defensive end and was one of the few bright spots on those horrible Falcon teams of the late 1980s to mid-1990s.

Green works for Fox now, but they usually give him the announcing jobs nobody else wants which is how I’ve become familiar with him because a lot of times he gets stuck announcing Detroit Lions games, and Fox insists on making me watch the Lions just because I happen to live a couple hours from Detroit.

Green would be excellent in the booth and would really complement Dan Fouts who, to me, is the really good news about the new Monday Night Football lineup. He’s not as good as Dan Dierdorf was but give Fouts enough time and he could be.

Of Course College Courses Are Too Easy

    The student newspaper here carried a story on a national poll in which some liked 65 percent or so of college students said classes were too easy. When I was in college I thought my classes were almost absurdly easy — the scary thing was wondering how the kid behind me failed and hoping to God I never had to rely on him for something crucial.

    My epiphanies about the nature of classes and my fellow students came during the Fall semester of my sophomore year. I had a basic introduction to political science class taught by the chair of the department. About two weeks into the course somebody stole my book (along with a briefcase it was in), and I was too cheap to buy another one. I also had a habit of sleeping in instead of going to class. I was convinced I was going to fail the first test.

    So I go in to take the test and I couldn’t believe how easy and pointless it was. These, for example, were the first three questions on the “test” (which were all multiple choice or matching).

1. The President is which part of the government:

a. The Executive Branch
b. The Judicial Branch
c. The Legislative Branch

2. The Supreme Court is which part of the government:

a. The Executive Branch
b. The Judicial Branch
c. The Legislative Branch

3. The Congress is which part of the government:

a. The Executive Branch
b. The Judicial Branch
c. The Legislative Branch

    After that I never went to class again except on scheduled test days and got a BA. The bizarre thing is it turns out that class had one of the highest attrition rates — something like 40 percent of the morons I was in class with got a letter grade lower than a C.

    The only classes I really enjoyed in college were taught by 80 year old men who hadn’t quite got around to realizing they were supposed to cater to the whim of students rather than educate them. Typically they’d have you reading a 250 page book a week and expect you to write long essays in class for tests (the words “matching” and “multiple choice” never escaped their lips). I happened by accident to run into a man who had been a history professor who only gave me a B but who I certainly learned a lot more from than all of the A’s I got in brain dead classes and got the opportunity to thank him for taking his job seriously.

    My wife, Lisa, is sort of like that even though she’s not a man and not 80 years old. She’s been teaching a class the past couple years while working on her Master’s degree and is already annoyed at the students who don’t show up for class and then beg her for extra credit work.

    Some of the other graduate students who teach the same class have the same view. One circulated a hilarious paper the other day retelling some of the answers given to test questions, the most hilarious being a multiple choice question on a quiz in which a large minority of students checked the box indicating that the setting for Beowulf was the Bronx.

Anonymity for Thee…

This press release from Annoy.Com is bizarre. On the one hand, the government went after Annoy.Com because it enables people to communicate anonymously, but on the other hand the government put a gag order on the very existence of the case for a year. This is almost as absurd as the habit some appeals courts have of never publishing their decisions.

It is sites like Annoy.Com that are going to kill online privacy and create popular support for government intervention. A story about the indictment includes a link to the anonymous e-mail greeting card that got this whole case started, though be warned it is pornographic. Actively helping people send unsolicited threats (and Annoy.Com has to be joking if they do not think that is clearly meant to be construed as a threat when sent unsolicited) is just feeding into the censorship frenzy, and it is just plain bad manners besides.

Animal Research Yields New Clues About Myotonic Dystrophy

    While animal rights activists were busy fire bombing the cars of researchers in Great Britain in early September, the journal Science reported a stunning breakthrough in understanding myotonic dystrophy thanks to a savvy neurologist and genetically modified mouse.

    Myotonic dystrophy afflicts about 40,000 Americans — it is the most common form of muscular dystrophy. The disease causes progressive muscle weakness that often starts by causing stiffness in the hands and eventually makes it extremely difficult for victims to walk, swallow or breathe. Almost nothing is known about the disease. In 1992 researchers discovered the genetic defect on the chromosome that causes the disease, but so far that knowledge hasn’t gotten researchers very far.

    The obvious solution was to create an animal model for the disease, but until the new research, the numerous efforts to create mice afflicted with symptoms of myotonic dystrophy failed. Neurologist Charles Thornton managed to succeed, however, where others had failed, and his breakthrough pointed to an immediate puzzle that might help break research into the disease wide open.

    Like human beings with myotonic dystrophy, the genetically modified mice suffer from a degenerative stiffening of the muscles. Thornton’s research team added a genetic defect into mouse chromosomes that closely resembles the genetic defect in human chromosomes (in normal genes, a particular base sequence is repeated about 30 times, whereas in the genes of those who suffer from myotonic dystrophy, the base sequence is repeated literally hundreds of thousands of times).

    The results were fascinating — the muscle stiffness in the mice was caused by an accumulation of messenger RNA (mRNA) in the nuclei of the muscle cells of the mice.

    This, to my knowledge, is an unprecedented discovery. Messenger RNA is supposed to be little more than an instruction manual for building DNA. Think of RNA as a sort of robot builder — it collects the proteins it needs in the environment and then assembles them according to its instructions to create a DNA strand which it then sends off to do the job of building the body. Genetic diseases occur when the RNA has faulty instructions and thus builds faulty DNA.

    What Thornton’s team found, however, was that large numbers of mRNA were somehow accumulating in the nuclei of the muscle cells and causing damage to those cells in ways that will require a lot more research to understand. As Thornton put it,

Normally, messenger RNA transmits genetic information out of the nucleus and into the main part of the cell where its instructions are carried out. That’s its only job. In this case, it seems to stay in the nucleus, and it’s doing something entirely different that’s harmful. The messenger itself is actively making cells sick.

    This is the sort of basic science discovery that would be very difficult to arrive at relying solely on experiments with human beings — in fact decades of research on muscular dystrophy never even came close to suggesting the possibility that RNA of all things might be capable of damaging muscle tissue. As Thornton eloquently described the benefits of using mice in a press release,

Why all the fuss over mice? Well, it is possible to test dozens or even hundreds of potential treatments in mice in a short span of time. Without an animal model, it takes several years and some risks to test just one treatment in people. I’m hopeful that these mice will accelerate the discovery process.

    Thornton’s discovery opens up a whole line of previously unknown areas that have implications not only for myotonic dystrophy, but for diseases such as Huntington’s and Fragile-X syndrome which are caused by similar genetic defects.


New mouse marks latest stride in muscular dystrophy research. EureakAlert!, press release, September 6, 2000.

Very Good, Basic Article on MPEG-4

Slashdot recently linked to this excellent article on MPEG-4, which is an extension of the MPEG-2 video and audio compression scheme that is currently used to compress video in DVD format.

Why should you know about MPEG-4? Because although it is somewhat difficult at the moment, MPEG-4 can be used to take an MPEG-2 encoded movie on DVD which typically takes up 3 to 4 gigabytes for a full length movie and compress it to fit on a CD-ROM with surprisingly little loss in quality. If you put them side by side, you’ll notice a quality difference between your MPEG-2 encoded DVD and the MPEG-4 version, but its still far superior to the enormously successful VHS format and its far more portable.

The real downside at the moment is that MPEG-4 is extremely processor intensive. The article at Tom’s Hardware notes that it can take up to 10 hours to encode a DVD into MPEG-4 format even on a very fast machine, and you’ll want a pretty serious system for playback too, but since even Best Buy’s selling 800MHZ Pentium III machines for $1,300 these days this is less of an issue than it would have been a couple years ago.

Thanks to the controversy over MP3s, inevitably the discussion about MPEG-4 is going to come back to piracy issues. A 650mb to 700mb file might seem a lot to transfer today, but the students at the college I work at regularly use the fast pipes here to download new DVD releases in MPEG-4 format. My attitude toward movie piracy is the same as it is for music piracy — DVD’s are dirt cheap for most new releases.

What I’m really excited about is the possibility of creating a supercharged media server sometime within the next 12 to 18 months. I’m envisioning a tower system with a 1GHZ or better processor, a DVD-ROM, high end sound card, 384 mb of RAM, an AGP video card like the Matrox products that has both analog video in and out ports, and four 100-gig ATA/100 hard drives in a striped RAID array (yes I know there are no 100 gig hard drives out yet, but they are not too far away).

That way you’ve got 100 gig for MP3s (even encoding at 256 like I do, that’s room for about 1100 CDs worth of music), 100 gig for storing DVDs converted to MPEG-4 format (enough room for about 140 films depending on the length), set aside another 150 gig or so for using Matrox card as a TIVO type system and capturing television shows you want to see (imagine having the entire run of Babylon 5 on a HD by recording it off the SciFi channel), and just leave 50 gig to spare for the heck of it. Connect it to your home audio/video system and you’re in business.