Archive for University Life

Copyright infringement on campus

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.

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A subversive proposal

A few years ago, I was an assistant research professor in a department whose college was undergoing its accreditation process. This happened, I believe, every five years or so and was a generally grueling process. Faculty were asked to maintain student work and submit it, anonymously, to the accreditation committee. We were asked to keep track of a representative set of students considered to be good, middle and poor performers. Labs spaces were evaluated. The process for determining curriculum was examined, etc., etc.

Of course, the college, and department, did pass its accreditation, but we had to put a significant amount of effort into it. I was on the outskirts of the process, but we had several associate and full professors dedicated to the process for pretty much the entire academic year.

Given all of that effort, I was interested to hear about the efforts by the Department of Education to revise the accreditation process. Their stated goal is to focus on student learning outcomes rather than proxies for university quality. I don’t think that anyone disagrees with an accreditation process focused on student learning. The problem is, how do you measure it? Consider the diversity of higher education. You have everything from community colleges with a two year program focused on specific, skills-based, knowledge to full blown research universities with four year, masters and doctoral programs. For many colleges and universities, the goal is less to educate to a specific set of skills and more to teach people how to think creatively and to expose them to new ideas about the world. It doesn’t matter how much businesses want colleges and universities to ensure a basic set of skills for their future employees, the goal of higher education is much broader than that.

All of which brings me to my proposal: stop accrediting colleges and universities and start accrediting the individual faculty members to teach specific courses.

Such a process change is probably impractical, but it would have an amazing effect. Students would could get approval for a specific curriculum, perhaps from someone accredited to design curricula, and could take classes from anyone accredited to teach the course. All it would take to start a new college or at least a new department would be a handful of accredited faculty working together. Alternatively, faculty could choose to go it alone. Students could take courses from any accredited faculty member and it would apply to their degree. Popular teachers could charge more for their classes. This might also solve a common problem in universities: no one wants to teach. With this accreditation system, faculty interested in teaching could work on that and be rewarded financially to the same degree that faculty currently interested in research are. Research faculty could focus on research without the hassle of teaching.

I know that this would a) be highly impractical; and b) would never happen, but it’s an interesting thought nonetheless.

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The limits of education

There’s a saying about education (I would call it a joke, but it hits too close to home for that), the process of education is learning more and more about less and less until finally, you know absolutely everything about absolutely nothing. This is pretty close to the truth. For a period of time in the 90s, I was one of the world’s foremost expert on the subject of using artificial neural networks for image and video compression – talk about your niche subjects. If you read the titles of dissertations, they are all extremely specific. For the most part, PhDs are specialists and generalists are few and far between. In fact, I was once approached to interview at Sandia National Labs because I was one of the few PhDs they had a resume for who was a generalist (I turned down the interview since I had just started in my current position).

Given the nature of PhDs, I was amused by this article in the Washington Post about officers in the military with PhDs, advising on the war in Iraq. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t doubt that these officers are all very intelligent and are well qualified. But one shouldn’t assume that because the advisers have PhDs, they will be independent or will give you new ideas. Petraeus has found a set of educated advisers that will almost certainly confirm the ideas he already has – that’s probably why they were picked. It doesn’t mean they are right. You could just as easily find other officers with PhDs having entirely different ideas. The PhD is a credential. It does demonstrate that the officers are intelligent, but it doesn’t mean that their specialty is necessarily relevant.

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more like this please…

I mentioned several months ago how academic journals were mostly a scam perpetrate by the publishers on universities.  One of the things that I briefly discussed was how the entire editorial staff of the journal Topology had announced their resignation.  Well, 2006 wrapped up and the former editors of Topology have announced that they will create a new journal called the Journal of Topology (not very creative, but what do you want, they’re mathematicians, not writers).

The new journal will be published by a mathematics society and not Elsevier.  It’s cost?  About 1/3 or Elsevier’s: $570 for an annual, university subscription.

I like this – we need to see more stories like it.

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It’s taken me a bit to write about Admiral Poindexter’s visit and the small group talk we had with him. Let me start by reminding folks that here’s a guy who was convicted of lying to congress. The conviction was later overturned on a technicality. He’s also very politically savvy. I once asked my father if he would ever pursue becoming a general in the army. He told me that he was hoping to make full colonel (he later retired as a lt. colonel), but that becoming a general required a literal act of congress and that you needed to become a politician. I would assume the same thing is the case with an admiral and doubly so in the case of Poindexter who managed to become the highest ranking geek in government. All of which is to say take my impressions with a grain of salt.

When I met Poindexter, he came across as a very kind, gentle and grandfatherly figure. He smokes a pipe and was more than willing to tell stories about his career. It seems that he started in the Navy in college, finishing up with a degree in engineering (w00t!). This was around the time the soviets sent up Sputnik. The first Russian satellite caused something of a panic in the US and, arguably, did more to encourage investment in science and engineering than any other event. The military’s response was to select 5 men from the army and 5 from the navy to pursue graduate degrees in science or engineering, anywhere in the country. Poindexter chose physics at Cal-tech. After discussing he trials getting into and then through grad school, he notes that he’s never taught physics, never been in a lab, never really used his degree, but it did give him a solid understanding of the scientific method.

After gradschool, he had several different positions and in each, he played the role of technology evangelist. One of the first to use computers in the Navy, set up the first video conferencing system among the nation security counsel offices, first to use email (on a mainframe!) in the whitehouse, etc. Like I said, the highest ranking geek in government.

Shortly after September 11, Poindexter was asked to head up the DARPA Office of Information Awareness (OIA) projects. In talking with him, I definitely have the sense of a man who loves his country and truly believes that terrorism is the greatest threat it has ever encountered. I disagree with him regarding the extent of the threat that terrorism presents, and so he and I may disagree on the appropriateness of the OIA, but unlike many politicians, I don’t think that he’s using the terrorism to advance other goals. I don’t believe that he’s hypocritical about his work.

So, what is his work? One of Poindexter’s chief complaints is that he (and TIA) were unfairly maligned in the media. If you recall, TIA was presented as a giant “Hoover” of a database. The government would collect information from a number of private sources and perform data mining on it in order to identify (potential) terrorists amongst us. Lots of us whom are concerned with security and privacy were worried about this. The privacy angle is disturbing enough, but from the security stand point, you are creating an attractive nuisance. The first hacker that comes along and can get through the governments security measures is going to have a huge amount of data. Consolidating databases also increases the likelihood that the businesses involved will use the information. For example, can you be denied insurance if you are overweight, but grocery records indicate you buy junk food?

Beyond the privacy and security concerns was the very real question of how this was going to work, i.e., would it really keep us safer? Traditional data mining techniques find statistically significant patterns in large data sets. Terrorists (one hopes) are not statistically significant – unless there are a lot more of them. This is actually one of Poindexter’s complaints – that his proposal should never be called data mining, data mining won’t work. He was working on a “data analysis” system.
In his presentation, Poindexter tells us that the media got it wrong. He never planned a single huge database. Instead, he planned to leave the data where it was and to build a distributed database on top. Each participating database would make use of a “privacy appliance.” The privacy appliance would be connected to a query system and would anonymize the data before sending it to the query system.

To detect terrorists, he would have a “Red Team.” This is the group that is intended to think like terrorists. Their job is to hatch plots and to determine what it would take to implement the plots. For example, blowing up a building might require large amounts of fertilizer and fuel oil. Purchasing these supplies would leave a footprint in “information space.” The Red Team would pass this step along to the analysts who would then query the system with this pattern to find anonymous individuals matching it. Of course, purchasing fuel oil and fertilizer would flag every small farmer in the country. So the Red Team would go back and look at step two, perhaps renting a large van. New query pattern, new search. Repeat until you either don’t find anyone, or until you are specific enough to get a legally authorized search warrant.

Poindexter also notes that this was a research and not an operational program. That the “total” in TIA was meant to encourage researchers to think broadly. Finally, that the reason the privacy part did not get off the ground sooner is that none of the researchers were interested in this aspect – they only received two privacy proposals.

Interesting idea. A few problems:

  1. I’ve gone back through the documentation available at the time and I see nothing about either red teams, distributed databases or privacy appliances. The early architecture diagrams all seem to indicate a monolithic database.
  2. It’s still not clear to me that this will work. The red teams will have to come up with millions of patterns and even then, you are not guaranteed to come up with everything.
  3. Regarding research vs. operational. This is a lovely thought, but at the time, iirc, there were reports of TIA receiving real data. In fact, even as a research project, it would need real data in order to test.
  4. Regarding the “total” in TIA – that was a pretty scary logo if that was the case.

So, it may be that this is a refinement of the original ideas. In which case, they seem like a good refinement. From the privacy and security standpoint, this seems to be better suited that the original ideas. However, I don’t think that Poindexter was being entirely forthcoming.

All in all, a very interesting data and a very interesting man.

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Admiral John Poindexter to speak at Duke University

In case you are looking for something interesting to do next week, go to Love Auditorium at Duke University on November 15th at 5pm. Admiral John Poindexter will be giving a talk: “A Vision for Countering Terrorism Through Information and Privacy Protection Technologies for the 21st Century.”  It should be an interesting and thought provoking discussion of where Poindexter draws the line between security and privacy.

I’ll be meeting with Poindexter and a small group at 3pm – quite the birthday present.

Finally, since I assume that TIA exists, I’m guessing that Poindexter is reading this as I’m posting it, so, “Hi!  Looking forward to meeting you on Wednesday.”

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the high cost of academic journals

Publishers of academic journals have a sweet deal going. The content is written by researchers. The publisher hires a few academics to edit the journal. The editors then identify reviewers in the academic community. The reviewers cull the wheat from the chaff and make suggestions to help turn the later into the former. For the papers that are finally selected, the researchers/authors sign over the copyright to the publisher, so they now own the intellectual property. The publisher solicits ads and then prints the whole thing. Once printed, the publisher sells the journal to everyone involved and their schools.

The cost to buy a journal is extremely high. For an individual, it could be $15 – $20 per issue. For a university, the cost can be several thousand dollars a year per journal. As a researcher, it’s important to have access to the key journals in your field. It’s also important to publish in these key journals. Because of this dependence on peer reviewed journals, academics often feel locked into this cycle and have to pressure their university to buy the journals. Publishers are the middle-men raking in the money.

For a long time, this situation has been getting worse. However, the Internet may be finally bringing things to a head. If the physical costs of publishing go to zero, then it’s hard to justify the middle men. This question of what is it that the publishers add that’s worth the prices they charge seems to be what caused the entire editorial board of the mathematics journal Topology to announce their resignation effective the end of the year.

Hopefully their resignation will result in either the recognition by the publisher that they can’t keep raising their rates; or the broader recognition by the academic community that the services of the publishers is not worth their costs and that with the Internet, we no longer need the publishers. If that doesn’t happen, then universities are going to have to start making hard choices about which journals they’ll subscribe to and which they won’t.

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Women faculty at Harvard

The Chronicle of Higher Education today notes a report from Harvard regarding the number of women being offered tenure track faculty positions and the number accepting.  In 2005-2006, women were offered 39% of the tenure track faculty positions.  Unfortunately, only 20% of those accepting positions were female.  This compares to 2004-2005 when 40% of those accepting tenure track faculty positions were female.

There are two conclusions you can draw from this:

  1. The sky is falling, women are no longer accepting faculty positions at one of the most prestigious insitutions of higher education in the country world.  We need to examine the factors involved and take immediate action; or
  2. Recognize that the sample size is likely to be exceedingly small and therefore the percentages don’t mean much unless there is a much longer term trend.  A simple t-test would tell you how likely it is that these two percentages (20% and 40%) are drawn from the same pool.  Unfortunately, the article doesn’t tell us the sample size or the standard deviation.

I tend to expect that it’s the second, but confirmation will require more data.  In either case, I think that the lesson we should draw from this is that it is time for a televison show that’s a cross between the movie Real Genius and 80s sitcom Bosom Buddies.  Kip/Buffy Wilson and Henry/Hildegard Desmond could go back for their PhDs in engineering, only to find that geeky white guys are over represented in the faculty of their field.  They could then cross dress in order to land tenure track positions at Harvard.  They would work to earn the respect of their peers while being under paid, looked down upon, and hit on by male grad students and other faculty.

Hrm, on second thought, maybe we should just encourage more women to pursue degrees in science and engineering by making the environment less hostile.

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Piled higher and deeper

Last week a friend pointed me to a comic that accurately described my life for four and a half years. Piled Higher and Deeper is a PhD comic strip. After reading just a few, I couldn’t help but think, “how did I miss this for all these years?” It turns out that the comic started publishing just before I graduated and by the time it became (relatively) popular I was out of grad school. Anyway, a few of my favorite strips from the archives so far:

A spoof on Kurt Vonnegut’s graduation speech


A Janis Joplin spoof

A series on grad students as an anthropology reseach subject

Newton’s Three Laws of Graduation

Young Nicholas as a grad student

I’m only through mid-2002, so another four years to go!

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Dr. Strange-Opinions: or how I stopped thinking and learned to attack the straw

You can bet that any article written by a conservative that starts with “Liberals don’t value a college education?” will be full of crap. The only relevant question is “what kind of crap will it be full of?” In the September 22nd issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Chronicle Review,” Anthony P. Carnevale writes an opinion piece titled “Discounting Education’s Value.” The first couple of paragraphs give you a flavor of his arguments:

Liberals don’t value a college education? Since when? Since a growing chorus of pundits, all with elite-college credentials, decided to prove that a college education may no longer be what’s best for other people’s children. While their predecessors fought to open college doors to members of minority groups and working families, influential voices on the left today allege that a college education may no longer be a pathway to equal opportunity. Such claims deny decades of evidence.

Last winter The New York Times pundit Paul Krugman, a Princeton University professor with a B.A. from Yale University and a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, proclaimed that “a college degree has hardly been a ticket to big income gains.” The notion that education provides increased income is comforting to politicians, Krugman said, but improving our educational system is not the most important way to mitigate inequality.

followed by:

The problem is not that those who discount the value of college in providing economic opportunity are wrong to press for more direct measures of economic inequalities. The problem is that their argument has the unintended effect of validating an elitist view that “not everybody needs to go to college” — with dire consequences for “everybody” who doesn’t. In America, “everybody” usually means the children of poor and minority families.

Discounting the value of college in order to make room for more direct interventions into the economy also creates a moral hazard. I’ll bet the farm that those elite-college men don’t tolerate talk of dropping out around their own kitchen tables or counsel their own children to forget about college and get a trade. Until they do, their public pronouncements just add up to a lot of bad advice for other people’s children.

Carnevale’s argument is that Krugman and the other liberals are claiming that a college degree is not worthwhile. He then goes on to show how census statistics indicate that increased education leads to a higher salary. Therefore, liberal economists are either wrong or lying. Q.E.D.

Unfortunately, this is a strawman argument. Nobody, literally nobody, is claiming that education is not positively correlated to salary. What Krugman and others are claiming is that education is not a sufficient explanation for wage inequality. The problem these economists are trying to address is why is the mean income rising, while the median income is falling? When you dig into the problem, you find that unless you are in the top 5% or higher of wage earners, your income has been falling with respect to inflation over the past several years.

Having a college degree is (almost) a necessary condition for being in the top 5%; however, it is not sufficient. A college degree is no guarantee that your salary increases will keep pace with inflation. A quick show of hands – how many of you with college degrees received a raise of at least 4.1% last year? If your raise was less than 4.1%, you are making less money this year than last due to the effects of inflation.

Of course, you are still better off with a college degree than without; but that has nothing to do with the wage inequality issues being addressed by most economists.

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