Alkahest my heroes have always died at the end

April 30, 2007

Which is worse – the cheating or the commentary?

Filed under: University Life — cec @ 10:52 am

The Chronicle of Higher Education (and others) are reporting the largest cheating incident ever at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke. 34 students were caught having very similar answers on a take home exam. 33 were convicted of cheating, one of lying to the judicial board and four were exonerated.

Cheating by students always amazes me. Back when I started college, an old engineering professor explained to the class that the most benefit you were likely to receive from cheating was, maybe, an increase of one letter grade. However, if he caught you, and he was likely to catch you, you would receive an F and be suspended from school. He encouraged us to “do the math” and understand that it wasn’t worth it. I think this may be the right approach. Rather than trying to drill an honor code into students, we need to do two things: 1) encourage them to think about it as a risk management exercise; and 2) have all students grade a set of 30 papers.

The second suggestion may need a little explanation. I have graded thousands of papers over the past 10 years. The basic process of grading is to sit down for a several hour block of time and work through them all. When you are focused on a set of papers for a relatively short period of time, you find that you almost always recognize an answer if you see it again. If the words are written in the same way, if the argument is the same. I’ve graded programs where the syntax of two programs was strangely similar and turned out to be a case of cheating – even though the variable names had changed. If students ever experienced grading, they would be more likely to realize how hard it is to get copied answers by the grader.

One final note. As bad as the cheating was, I have an even harder time with the following from the Chronicle article:

James R. Bailey, a professor of leadership at the George Washington University School of Business, said in an interview on Sunday that it is possible that business schools, by the nature of the material they teach, breed a certain amount of academic dishonesty. Mr. Bailey is editor of Academy of Management Learning & Education, which dedicated an issue last September to ethics in business education.

“Business schools generally have a culture of competition and self-interest,” he said. “In our theory classes, we’re teaching theories of advancing one’s self-interest.”

“All the formal mechanisms in the world — honor codes, having everybody read it during classes, an ethics class — can’t overcome culture,” he said.

Besides, he pointed out, if students are collaborating on a take-home test, they may be building useful skills — even if it is against the rules. (“The professor’s asking for it when you give a take-home exam,” he said.)

“They were enterprising, they took initiative, and they worked together,” he said. “Aren’t those all the qualities we’re trying to encourage of business school students?”

Professor Bailey’s response to the incident should embarrass him, the journal he edits and the entire business education community. To excuse, and even promote cheating, and to blame the professor for assuming the students were mature enough to handle a take home exam, is probably the best indictment I could find against our business culture. The “cheating is okay and expected” attitude in school is the same one which encourages businesses to try to get around regulations and to promote the bottom line at all cost. It’s the same attitude that will kill people by ignoring product and environmental safety laws once these students are in positions of leadership at large companies.

April 29, 2007

Weekend update (updated)

Filed under: Personal,Photography,Plumbing — cec @ 4:49 pm

Not a whole lot going on this weekend. A little shopping, a little work around the house, etc. Saturday, Bryn’s husband, Adam, came by and took a look at some trees that were worrying me. Having a master arborist tell you that, while they are dying, they won’t come down immediately was reassuring. I had this fear that they were going to come down any minute. We’ll probably still want to take them down this fall, but at least we get to pick the times 🙂

After that, I went out to the Lowe’s and picked up the makings for a few new projects, including toilet replacement. Our toilets came with the house and are as old. So I’m guessing we’re talking somewhere between 5 and 6 gallons a flush, as opposed to modern toilets that only require 1.6 gallons. Since we’re on a well, I dislike wasting that much extra water, salt, etc. So, I picked up two new toilets and installed one last night. I’ll put the other one in tonight. Hopefully, we’ll save a good 50 gallons a day.


Here is the installed, new toilet. I’ll spare you the old removed toilet.
Oh, we also saw our friend the red-phase southern hog nosed snake in the yard. A few pictures of her while I’m at it:

dsc_0597_m.JPG dsc_0630_m.JPG

Update: 9:15pm finished the second toilet.  The second install took only about 45 minutes – I’m getting faster 🙂 .  I’m now the proud owner of two old-style, wasteful toilets.  Before I haul them off to the Habitat for Humanity Home Store, does anyone want/need one?  You’ll have to install it yourself.

April 26, 2007

Moving to an ISP

Filed under: Personal — cec @ 8:32 pm

After migrating two other sites off of my desktop, it was time to move the main site.  I’ve now got running on the LinkSky ISP.  So far I’ve been very happy with them.  I still need to turn on ssh access, but I am thrilled that they offer it.  If anyone runs into any problems on, please let me know.

April 24, 2007

99 Luftballons

Filed under: Personal — cec @ 7:43 pm

etselec has her dreams to help her figure out what’s going on in her subconscious. I don’t dream. Okay, for all of you pedants, I do dream – I just never remember my dreams. Instead I have music. I find that almost any time I ear worm myself with a song that I haven’t heard recently, it’s my subconscious trying to tell me something.

So what does it mean when you start thinking about a song where the protagonist is singing about her country turning into a war zone and being accidentally nuked by it’s ally, the U.S.? It probably means that I have reservations about forming a business relationship with a company that gets most a good chunk of its business from the DoD, DARPA and the Air Force.

Regardless of how that pans out, here’s my own version of the Daily Eighties:

YouTube Preview Image

April 18, 2007

Javascript and Form Saves

Filed under: Technical — cec @ 6:06 am

As I’ve been working on the web front end for the PWC database, we ran into an interesting problem. Our patient records are implemented w/ a “tab” style for the display of different parts of the record. Unfortunately, the folks using the database kept tabbing over to a different part of the record which wound up not saving any of the changes they made. My original quick fix for this was to have the tab buttons also save. But that made me nervous. I worried that if someone accidentally changed things or if I was giving a demo, a change to a new tab would save bad data.

I probably could have fixed this with some javascript so that all of the tabs were really part of the same webpage and they would be dynamically hidden or displayed using javascript to manipulate the CSS classes. But that didn’t occur to me until just now. Instead, I implemented a system to note changes in the form and alert if you navigated off the form without saving. Just as a reminder to myself, here’s what I did.

1. Create a confirm_exit.js file with the following:

var needToConfirm = false;
var fieldsChanged = “”;

window.onbeforeunload = confirmExit;

function confirmExit()
if (needToConfirm)
return “The following fields have changed and are not saved:\n” + fieldsChanged;

function fieldChanged(fieldName)
needToConfirm = true;
fieldsChanged = fieldsChanged + ” ” + fieldName + “\n”;

When the script loads, it creates two new variables: needToConfirm and fieldsChanged. needToConfirm starts as false, meaning no need to prompt the user before leaving the page. fieldsChanged is empty since nothing has changed. I also set a trigger on the window: onBeforeUnload, which occurs any time the page is about to be unloaded. For example, close the browser, navigate to a new page, etc. This trigger sends you to the confirmExit function.

2. This is loaded into any webpage that has a form I care about

3. Each form element needs to have an onChange trigger: onChange=”fieldChanged(‘descriptor’);” When the form element changes, the function is called. We set needToConfirm to be true and update the list of fields changed in the form with the descriptor.

4. Finally, we bless the save buttons on the form page by adding an onClick trigger: onClick=”needToConfirm=false;” Having needToConfirm as false prevents the confirmExit() function from prompting the user when they hit the save button.

Voila! Forms that prompt you to save before leaving.

April 17, 2007

Duke LAX

Filed under: Personal,Social,University Life — cec @ 7:48 am

I never planned to comment on the Duke Lacrosse rape case, but one observation keeps running through my head and it’s probably best to get it out.

Back when I was in high school, I remember being told that, in a Shakespearean sense, tragedies were uplifting and comedies were depressing. That struck me as backwards for a while until I had watched/read more plays and understood that the tragedies, where the protagonist dies, often display the best elements of human character. There is nobility or love or honor in the characters as they face a universe that is, not hostile, but merely indifferent to the concerns of mankind. On the other hand, a comedy, where the main characters survive the play, often shows the pettiness of people: the bitterness, the backstabbing, the prejudice, the lying, etc.

With those two definitions in mind, I don’t think that you can call the Duke Lacrosse rape case anything but a comedy (again, in the Shakespearean sense). The key thing to remember when you see any of the coverage is that there were no good guys in the case. There were no heroes you could root for. The best you could do was to hope that justice would be served. Consider the participants:

  • Duke Lacrosse team. These are not the good clean cut boys that show up on television every few months. On campus, they are among the rowdiest of the athletes. They believe that they own the campus. They are generally the privileged children of parents in the north east. They grew up expecting everything and often got it. On the night the alleged event occurred, they were having a loud party that involved strippers and, probably, under aged drinking. According to public records, after the party one of the athletes composed an email to the rest which, while not illegal, was crude and disgusting and gives you a sense of what they might consider humorous.
  • The accuser. A woman who has been in and out (okay, mostly in) trouble with the law for well over a decade. Multiple arrests. Stolen property. False allegations in the past. Drug use. etc.
  • The police. For the most part, the police have gotten a pass in this one, but they are among the worst offenders. The investigating officers held a grudge against Duke students. One or both had arrest rates of Duke students that were much higher than the average. They generally went in with an attitude that the students must be guilty. They created a photographic lineup that was guaranteed to identify one or more Duke students as the alleged rapists, in violation of their own procedures. They accused staff of the university of being willing to destroy evidence – at times, they refused to actually tell staff what they were looking for in fear of the staff willfully destroying evidence.
  • The DA. The DA has gotten a lot of flack in the media and it is justly deserved. Nifong was running for re-election in a city with a large black population. He was running against a popular female attorney (whom had successfully prosecuted a very public murder trial) and a very well qualified black candidate. Nifong was concerned that if he didn’t score some points with the black community, he would lose the election. So he made horribly prejudiced statements to the media, he ignored exculpatory evidence and generally railroaded the students.
  • Duke Athletics. Here are a bunch of folks that knew the lacrosse (and other teams) were a problem waiting to happen. They had heard reports of general “bad behavior.” They knew about the drinking and the loud parties and never chose to do much about it.
  • Duke Administration. There were a number of ways the administration could have gone. The smart one would have been to: remind the public that these are allegations and not facts; tackle the general issue of the behavior of athletes; take no disciplinary action against the students for the alleged rape until after the prosecution was finished. This would have upset a large number of people, but it would have been a principled stand. Instead, the administration chose a middle course and upset everyone. They suspended the students, essentially presuming guilt. That upset all of the supporters of the athletes, but didn’t go far enough for those that wanted them expelled.
  • Group of 88. These were the faculty that came out against the students, assuming guilt based on the allegations. They endorsed a statement published as an ad in the Chronicle. These are faculty, they should know better than to presume guilt.
  • Other Supporters of the Alleged Victim. While not in the same position of responsibility at Duke as the group of 88, a number of people in the local community and nationally treated the allegations as fact. They assumed that just because a woman made an allegation, it must be true. After all, why would she make something like that up. Never mind that from the beginning, it was clear that all of the facts didn’t add up. They seemed to say that she was an underprivileged black woman, they were overly privileged white boys, of course they raped her. Other supporters harassed the students. They put up web pages with their names, pictures, home addresses and parents. Another person or group of people sent forged email to the students, the police or NCCU, trying to get the students in more trouble.
  • Supporters of the Lacrosse Players. If the supporters of the alleged victim and the group of 88 were bad, then you could at least hope that the supporters of the athletes were the good guys. You would be disappointed. While there were principled people saying that these are allegations and we should wait for the trial (if the case is brought forward), many of the supporters launched personal attacks against the accuser or the group of 88. Some of the more harassing and racist messages I’ve seen in a long time came from supporters of the players and was directed at the accuser and the group of 88.
  • The Media. The media, of course, did what it has been doing for years now – not just in Durham, but all over the country. They were quite happy to report what the participants said, but seemed disinclined to actually investigate what happened. Since Nifong was the person making the most statements at the beginning, it was the Nifong show. When Nifong finally realized he should stop making speeches to the press, the defense attorneys had the press to themselves. I recall very little real investigation by the media. Certainly none by the local television stations.

In short, the closest thing we got to a “good guy” in the whole mess was attorney general Roy Cooper. After Nifong recused himself, the AG’s office took over the case. They did their jobs. They spent three months quietly looking into the evidence and came to the conclusion that there was nothing to prosecute. If this had been a Shakespearean comedy, Cooper would have played the beneficent king that comes in at the end and makes everything right. And, as with any comedy, I’m left a little more depressed with the nature of mankind.

April 13, 2007

It’s quiet, too quiet…

Filed under: Personal,Technical,Wildlife Rehab — cec @ 9:26 am

I haven’t been so much with the blogging lately. For me, that is generally a sign that things are busy enough that I’m living life rather than blogging it [ed note: For all of you young readers, this is what is known as irony. When I have the most to say, I have the least time to say it in; conversely, when I write the most, I have the least to say].

Quick highlights of things that are going on:

  • I received an odd email two weeks ago. It was from a professor that I knew, but never worked closely with, in the ECE department. He has a research company that is gearing up for a project that is security related. He wanted to know if I knew of anyone that might be interested in either a full-time or a consulting position. There are two ways that kind of thing can go. He might be asking an honest question or he might be looking to see if I’m interested. As usual for me, it’s easier to play the straight man. I listed a few folks I knew that might be interested in positions, but included myself as one interested in consulting and maybe more. I spoke to the professor last week. The work sounds interesting. They have lots of money, so I agreed to come by in a couple of weeks to see the place, give a talk, meet some people. Or, as I put it to K, we agreed to go on a first date. Last night, K asked what happens after the first date? I told her that depending on how that goes, we might engage in heavy petting. At which point K decided that she had enough of my metaphors. 🙂
  • I think I mentioned that we were pulling wall paper off of the kitchen/breakfast room wall. The wall paper and the backing are now all off and we’ve picked a paint color. I just need to finish cleaning the paste residue off and do a skim coat of sheetrock mud and we’ll go ahead and get it painted. I’m still not certain about the color, but what the heck – paint is cheap.
  • K used some birthday money and bought a couple of day/night mini-cameras designed to go in bird houses. The plan is to run them out to the cages out back. Unfortunately, the cameras only came with 100′ of cable. When we measured off the length last weekend, we realized we needed 300′ of cable each. I volunteered to buy some generic cable and splice it in, but K is risk averse and decided to just buy the extension cables. This weekend, I’ll try to build some small boxes to house the cameras and keep them out of the rain (and away from squirrel teeth).
  • The Leadership Program I mentioned earlier did come to campus.  I was planning on reviewing the 5 minute talk I was going to give on Wednesday night since we were asked to speak on Thursday.  So, I’m sitting in my office working on the laptop when someone on my staff comes in with someone attending the program.  They were wondering where we all were?  It turns out that they (or maybe me) had the date wrong and they were hoping we could come speak to them right away.  Fortunately, I had thought a bit about what I wanted to say – I just hadn’t polished it up.  I went in and winged it from there.  Overall, I think it went pretty well.  I just wish I had the extra prep time.
  • I’m moving all of my domains off of a desktop computer and on to an ISP. Hey, $8/month, unlimited bandwidth, multiple databases, etc. is definitely worth it. I moved a friend’s site that I was hosting first:, then K’s domain and email. hasn’t been moved yet, I’m hoping to move the pwc patient database off of it first and on to the pwc main site. Of course, that’ll mean getting an updated version of php from our ISP. Once that’s done, I’ll move which will make me happier than leaving it on a desktop machine (is it still a desktop if it is under my desk?).
  • Finally, I’ve spent a huge amount of time working on the Piedmont Wildlife Center’s patient database. I tried to get board members and staff to help me write the functional specifications right the first time so that the programmer we hired could actually implement what we wanted. Unfortunately, what they gave me wasn’t really what they wanted. So now I’m going back and reworking a lot of the database. Fortunately, the whole thing is written using a model/view/controller (MVC) method of programming and it’s very easy to make changes. I’m also taking this as an opportunity to learn a lot more about the w3’s document object model (DOM), how it can be manipulated with javascript, and ajax while I’m at it. So far, my favorite pieces are the ajax bit to remotely pull/post database stats on the pwc main website and the dynamic form that allows you to automatically create new rows using javascript 🙂

April 4, 2007

Icon Rules!

Filed under: Personal — cec @ 9:32 pm

Okay, this is too cool.  Icon has put together an audio clip of the old Sesame Street Martians listening/responding to the telephone.  For the first time ever, I’ve actually put a ringtone on my phone instead of using the boring default!

Thanks Icon!

April 2, 2007

Copyright infringement on campus

Filed under: Social,Technical,University Life — cec @ 10:33 am

I can’t turn around anymore without hearing something new about how colleges and universities are public enemy number 1 with the copyright industry.  In early February, the Recording Industry Association of America released a top 25 list of the schools to which they have sent notices of alleged copyright infringement.  Right after that, they started announced that they would start suing students and that they were going to send “pre-subpoena” and “settlement” notices to campuses.

The “pre-subpoena” notices try to circumvent the normal process of data destruction that happens at any provider of internet services.  The service provider only needs the information for a short period of time, so after that time has passed, the information is automatically destroyed.  The pre-subpoena notices try to put a burden on universities to preserve data because they now know that the information is likely to be subpoenaed if there is a lawsuit.  To my knowledge, these are, at best, questionably legal and even with recent changes to the Federal Rules for eDiscovery are not likely to place a real burden on colleges.  You’ll notice that the RIAA hasn’t sent anything like a pre-subpoena notice to non-educational internet service providers such as Verizon and Time Warner.

The second new type of notice is a John-Doe settlement offer.  It is sent to a university and references an IP address and a time and alleges that copyright infringement occurred from that computer at that time.  No evidence is included.  The notice asks the university to forward these settlement offers to the students whose computers are referenced.  Students receiving these settlement offers can go to the referenced website, enter the case number, check the box that says they will sin no more and enter a credit card for absolution.  It’s like the selling of indulgences by organized crime.

Some schools have taken the position that they should not forward the notices, however, they are complying with the pre-subpoena notices above.  This seems likely to put their students at even more risk because they won’t be able to settle before being sued, however, you are purposefully keeping the information that will allow them to be sued.

While all of this has been going on, the copyright industry has been meeting with congress, decrying the evils of college campuses and what we aren’t doing (which incidentally is exactly what commercial ISPs aren’t doing).  There have been two recent, interesting outcomes from these hearings.  The first is that the copyright industry has been pushing campuses to install network devices that prevent copyright infringement, preferably by blocking all peer to peer programs.  Most colleges have refused to do this for a number of reasons: cost, lack of reliability, the potential to damage our safe harbor for “conduit” activities under the DMCA, and the fact that p2p programs have substantial non-infringing uses.  Congress is trying to remove at least one of these with a bill that would allow schools to apply for grants to fund copyright compliance programs – code for devices to block p2p.

The second item of note is that congress requested the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) produce its own top 25 list using the same methodology as the RIAA.  That list was released and we are on it.  Of course, as with the RIAA’s list, the MPAA can send however many notices to schools that they want.  Being on or off of the top 25 list doesn’t say anything about the amount of actual infringing going on, just how much you were notified about.  Both industries tend to focus on recent content: new music, new movies, new television shows.  Given the current state of music, it may actually be a complement to the taste of our students that we were on the MPAA’s list, but not the RIAA’s.

I suppose at this point I should note that I am not in favor of copyright infringement.  My main concerns are:

  1. Why is Congress and the copyright industry singling out academic ISPs?
  2. Copyright law, as written, does not meet the needs of consumers.

Colleges and universities should be treated like any other internet service provider.  This is how we are defined under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).  Under the DMCA, as an ISP, we are given a number of safe harbors from liability, including a limitation of liability on any infringing activity for which we are a conduit.  That is to say, any activity that we did not initiate nor interfere.  If the RIAA or the MPAA or Congress wants to limit copyright infringement, then it should address the infringers themselves.  If they don’t want to do that, then they should address all ISPs equally, commercial and academic.  After all, the RIAA sued 18,000 people last year and only 1,000 of them were college students.

For years, copyright infringement was a subject that only conglomerations of copyright holders cared about.  The industries met together, balanced each others needs, wrote the rules together and then had congress sign off on what they wrote.  That worked pretty well up until the point that we had peer to peer filesharing.  P2P as a general technology fulfills one of the great promises of the Internet.  It breaks away from the old client-server model of computing allows all computers to become both client and server simultaneously.  This allows an individual computer to be a peer to what required a server before and completely changes how we should approach copyright law.

Copyright law was founded on the belief that you had to preserve the rights of an author in order to encourage progress.  This was extended to preserving the purchased rights of producers and distributors.  Now that all computers can be content distributors, copyright law needs to be updated.  You can’t hold a 17 year old kid to the same level of responsibility that you would a large commercial operation designed to print CDs/DVDs and sell them on the streets of New York.  We’re not talking about counterfeiters, we’re talking about average people.

Copyright law has been written to protect the profits of multi-billion dollar corporations.  It wasn’t written to protect the rights, or even the long-term interests, of citizens.  That needs to change and until it does, we will continue to hear about lawsuits, extortion and questionable tactics from the RIAA and the MPAA.

Oh, and to answer my earlier question, the RIAA and the MPAA are going after colleges because that’s where the greatest bulk of young people are.  They believe that if they can head it off there, then perhaps they can get a handle on the general p2p problem.  They also believe that they will get more traction in congress by beating up on colleges.  If the RIAA and MPAA went after all ISPs equally, then congress would see it as a question of the competing interests of two businesses and would probably decide that the DMCA struck a reasonable balance in terms of the limitations on liability.  But colleges and universities are seen as in loco parenti (surrogate, as opposed to crazy, parents), so we are responsible for the actions of our students.  However, we are also a business and can be compelled to install software or devices that would never be required of a student’s real parent.

Powered by WordPress