Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Reactions to two American Prospect articles

Got my April issue of TAP the other day...

One: Kevin Mattson writes a long, thoughtful article on the relative triumphs and failures of the liberal activist movement and the conservative activist movement, in the 60's and today. Very much worth reading. It really frustrates me to see so many members of my generation investing so much energy in protests that, ultimately, have zero probability --- zero --- of ever influencing the policies of any government, here or elsewhere. If all those activists would clean themselves up and invest that energy going door-to-door, learning how to patiently argue with people who disagree with them, learning how to adapt their message when their listeners aren't ready for the most radical and confrontational version, they could change the world far more decisively. But that would, of course, be far harder than simply lining up with a herd of the like-minded and letting out your emotional frustrations in front of cameras.

Two: Sarah Blustain reviews three books relating to lingering gender-correlated differences in career and life outcomes. My honest reaction: if you're a woman, and balancing career and family is running you ragged --- if, when you marry your husband, the time you spend doing housework increases 17% while his time decreases 33% (an actual statistic from Blustain's article) --- then your man is not picking up the ball. Duh.

The modern workplace is not designed to accommodate "the needs of men, their bodies, and their social roles"; it is designed to accommodate people who can offload many of the duties of having a family. We don't need "difference feminism" to solve this problem. It's trivially obvious that men and women are different; it's trivially obvious that this difference plays out in statistical differences between male and female life choices; it's trivially obvious that family and career cannot simultaneously occupy 100% of a person's life. None of this implies that workplaces should make special arrangements for women more than men. It implies that women who want both a family and a demanding career must choose to marry men who compromise more, who can help women avoid running themselves ragged. (This all sounds sort of familiar...)

Of course, it would be icing on the cake (or, more accurately, a whole other, additional cake) if there were some sort of change in social norms that made more room for family in people's lives generally. It would be nice, for example, if standard work weeks consumed fewer hours, and vacations were longer, and if something akin to the academic sabbatical system were a feature of more careers. However, that requires us to solve a pretty big collective action problem. Each individual business has an incentive to squeeze individual workers for all the labor they've got; only collective action can really reverse this trend. The choice of which man to marry, on the other hand, remains in the hands of individual women everywhere, and can proceed incrementally.

NYT and WaPo drop ball on Grokster

The Grokster case makes for infuriating/exciting times in the land of intellectual property. Both NYTimes and WaPo have come down on the wrong side of the case, and in both cases the editorial was so poorly reasoned that I have difficulty understanding what's going on.

The NYTimes and WaPo editorials both amount to the same argument: that Grokster is different from previous "infringement-enabling" technologies like the printing press, the photocopier, and the VCR because Grokster is designed to facilitate "theft". This statement is plainly false: Grokster is a content-neutral technology, just like the Web, just like the VCR, just like the photocopier and the printing press. Grokster carries whatever bits its users put on the network. The only evidence that Grokster was designed to facilitate "theft" is that some substantial fraction of existing traffic does, in fact, consist of copyright infringement. But look at the history of the VCR, the photocopier, and the printing press, and you can see that infringement was always a major (if not predominant) use early in the technology's history. But gradually, some combination of laws and social norms brought the usage back into balance again. The Grokster case is about preemptively banning certain technologies before they are even brought into market, before that balance can be found.

I literally cannot understand --- I cannot understand, it does not compute --- how any disinterested and thoughtful person could honestly make the arguments that NYTimes and WaPo are making.

So, if reason's not the driving force here, I can only conclude that social-network-based groupthink plays a role. The editors of the NYTimes and WaPo move in social circles where they work with, play golf with, have dinner with, etc., people in influential positions in the big media conglomerates. Bill Keller, and other top editors at major newspapers, do not socialize with Richard Stallman or Lawrence Lessig; they socialize with people who write, promote, or distribute books, magazines, movies, television shows, and music. And so by social osmosis, they absorb the mindset and values of these people, and not the mindset of people who actually, you know, understand the technology and the law.

It's a sad and cynical conclusion to draw, and I would love to be proven wrong, but it's the only one I can draw when these editorials contain such ridiculous tripe.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Undergraduate cheating

It's been a long time since I linked to a MeFi post. Oh, here's one.

Actually, the real reason I'm posting this is that I want to mention one salient fact that, oddly, none of the 200-odd comments mention: at most universities, even when a student is caught cheating in the most blatant and silly fashion, it is pretty hard for the instructor to convince the administration to punish the student harshly. Usually, the penalty for cheating is a slap on the wrist --- a zero grade on the one cheating assignment (not even the whole course!), perhaps a mark in the departmental file (which future employers usually do not see). Cheating is so pervasive in most places that when I hear about undergrads cheating, I'm not surprised that they're cheating; I'm surprised that they were caught. The net result is that it is quite rational for a student to cheat, because the expected utility of cheating is high. Given this environment, almost any escalation of negative consequences for cheaters is probably an improvement.

In fact, let's analyze the cheating problem from a Law and Economics point of view. Under a L&E analysis, the aim of law enforcement should be to maximize total social welfare, which means, roughly, minimizing enforcement costs while maximizing compliance. Now, model the student as a rational actor that tries to get the maximum expected grade with the minimum effort (yes, this is a pretty insulting view of students, but there definitely exists a minority of students who take exactly this attitude), and calculates the expected grade by multiplying the probability of getting caught by the grade demerit for cheating, yielding the expected grade demerit, and subtracting that from a B+. It's clear, then, that there are exactly two ways of getting students not to cheat:

  1. Increase the probability of getting caught.
  2. Increase the penalty for cheating.

Now, the ideal would be to increase the probability of getting caught to 1, in which case the penalty for cheating could be relatively small --- the student would see negative expected benefit from cheating, even if the penalty were trivial (like getting a zero on the cheated-upon assignment). Of course, that's impossible. The next best thing would be to increase the probability of getting caught to some figure "sufficiently high" as to create a perception of "reliable" enforcement. But --- and this is the key point --- reliably catching the form of cheating that Pahl engaged in would incur extremely high enforcement costs.

The dumb student who copies-and-pastes a few incongruously out-of-place paragraphs off a Google search can be caught with relatively little effort (although if you multiply that effort by 100 papers, it still adds up to a large amount of time that the instructor and teaching assistants can't spend on improving the quality of instruction). But how do you catch somebody who hires somebody else to write a paper? Pahl chose a particularly stupid way to go about hiring a surrogate writer, but online paper mills have institutionalized the service. Presumably, over time, the relative quality of these services will get sorted out, and that knowledge disseminated through undergrad folklore. The countermeasures that occur to me fall into two categories. First, one could co-opt the paper mills somehow: pay them off, either to send a copy of each paper they generate to the university, or to turn in students directly. Second, one could compute grades based solely on work that can be done while the students are under surveillance: grade based only on in-class exams, or move to an apprenticeship system where the master assesses student mastery through extensive one-on-one interaction. All such measures exact high costs from the university, in either cash, labor, or educational quality.

So the rational thing, from the university's point of view, is to choose the other option: increase the cheating penalty. This keeps enforcement costs low, and, in theory, has the same deterrent effect as increasing enforcement. Of course, one wouldn't want to institutionalize Kushner's methods exactly, but it seems to me that public shame might be an important element of an effective deterrent system.

On the other hand, if the probability of getting caught is too low, and the penalty too severe, then the whole business starts to look like an inverse lottery, at which point human psychology outweighs rational calculation, and students will probably cheat willy-nilly even though the expected return is negative. Basically, human beings have almost no intuitive grasp of very large numbers or very small fractions, so they can't rationally calculate in such circumstances. So maybe the entire analysis above is bunk. However, in that case, I think the only reasonable alternatives vastly increase the cost or reduce the quality of undergraduate education.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Incinerate your old hard drives

Cory at BoingBoing points to unsurprising research finding that lots of sensitive personal information can be recovered from used hard drives. Unfortunately, he includes a link to a software utility which purports to do secure file deletion, probably giving readers the impression that using such a tool will protect you adequately from people who want to harvest your data. Actually, that's not true.

Peter Gutmann wrote the definitive analysis on this some years ago, and if you read the whole paper then you learn that, basically, it's impossible for any software to erase data beyond all hope of recovery. If you don't want to read the paper, consider that you can pay high-end data recovery services (for example...) big bucks to recover data from hard drives that have been damaged by flood, fire, and vandalism, to say nothing of mere overwriting of the blocks. The magnetic record on a disk block is surprisingly robust, and remains detectable by sufficiently sensitive tools even after significant damage or overwriting. The best you can hope to do is to force the attacker to pay these exotic services rather than just running some off-the-shelf software. This will deter casual attackers, but not determined ones. If you really care about secure deletion, then toss your old hard drive into an incinerator and make sure it burns down to a pile of ash.

UPDATE: In comments at Bruce Schneier's blog, theorbtwo suggests using a belt sander, which I suppose will also work well. The important thing is to reduce the magnetic platters to dust.


Astro. Chicken. Seriously.

(I figured I should take a break from all the Times bitching. How I came across this: while writing the previous post, I thought of other people I'd like to see on the Op-Ed page, and the Dyson clan came to mind, and...)

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Tierney gets Times Op-Ed slot says Mok at Julie Saltman, whose blog showed up in referrers. Oh joy. At least Safire was sort of insane and evil in his semi-original way. Tierney, I suspect, will just obediently bark whatever line's coming out of his preferred think tanks this week, perhaps adding a sprinkling of breezy, supercilious rhetoric on top.

I mean, look, is Judge Posner or somebody really not wooable by the Times? It's hardly an accident that Krugman's one of the best current Op-Ed writers, and he's also a world-class expert in economics. Instead of tapping a senior writer whose major qualification consists of a long career cranking journalistic prose on short deadlines, get someone who's utterly brilliant, insanely prolific, and highly credentialed in a demanding field to do the Op-Ed columns. (Hence, Judge Posner.) Or, better still, get six people like that to write one column a week each, and cut down the quota for Brooks and Dowd and the gang --- and watch the intellectual quality of Op-Ed page skyrocket, both because the average brain power level will rise sharply and because the current batch of pundits won't be stretched so thin producing two columns a week. The Times Op-Ed page is prestigious enough that they could probably pay a pittance to the new writers. There might be some administrative overhead in hassling so many writers to submit their stuff on deadline, but, seriously, you could hire some administrative interns at a pittance whose sole jobs would be to hound these writers. It's eminiently doable.

Of course, it's also a freaking pipe dream, because Bill Keller's vision for the Times seems to involve making it increasingly resemble USA Today, only with a more subdued color scheme.