What is wrong with plagiarism?
Yeah, part of it is my own damn fault. After all, could I have picked a more boring topic? I mean, really--haven't they already had this crap pounded into their heads for 4 years of high school? Well, maybe I could have made it more interesting for them. But dammit, I've got my own shit to do. I'm supposed to be a grad student, and this is my damn side job. Yes, I'm trying to do a good job here, but I also need to graduate.
What about the ESL student, who really struggles even to write a sentence? What about him? How's he ever going to learn how to write if he doesn't do it? I know, I know, no one's going to expect this guy to write, as long as he programs the damn computer, or tests the viscosity of the fluid, or whatever his technical job asks him to do. But I've got a job, too. If the fluid isn't viscous enough, it's my job to say so. But damn this sucks.
Oh, the pain!
It reminds me of a story I heard once. I have no idea if it is actually true, though. This guy is walking along a beach in Spain. In the distance, he sees another man drawing a picture in the sand with a stick, using deft, authoritative strokes. As he approaches the drawing, at first it seems like a random assortment of shapes and lines. But then he begins to see other things in the picture. He begins to realize that it is a masterwork, a work of art unlike anything he has ever seen. He turns to ask the artist a question about his sketch, but he has already begun to stroll off down the beach. Finally, the man recognizes the artist's profile: it's not just any artist, it's Pablo Picasso, and he has created a priceless work of art! But now the tide is beginning to come in; already some portions of the bottom of the image have started to wash away. The man looks around in vain for some way to preserve this great work, but he has no camera, no means to even make a sketch of what he sees (and even if he could, it certainly would bear no resemblance to the great work before him).
His mind races... perhaps a plaster casting could be made of the great work... or he could build a dam out of sand to stop the onrushing tide... but even as he thinks, another great wave washes out the bottom third of the work. As wave after wave slowly erodes this masterpiece, the futility of the situation becomes more and more monolithic. Even Picasso's footprints in the sand begin to wash away in the onrushing tide, as the man's tears form tiny craters in the strip of sand that remains.
Okay, so I'm not Picasso.
But it's still damned depressing.
Today we went to see "Let me Sing" at Charlotte's Booth playhouse. It's kindof a history of American musical theater all in one play. Not a bad show, but it hits you a little over the head with the race issue. Five second summary: The whites stole "American" music from the African Americans.
I think there's no doubt that without the influence of African Americans, music as we know it today would be completely different. On the other hand, I think the show implicitly diminishes the real talent of composers such as Gershwin and Berlin. Gershwin, I know, was careful to acknowledge the influence of the African American muscial tradition, but from the perspective of this show, Gershwin was an out and out thief.
Other than that, there were some pretty good performances in this show. Some very noble efforts, too, such as a duet that combined "Can't stop lovin' that man of mine" with -- oh, now I can't remember, but it was a completely different song. It kind of worked, but the two songs got a little muddled.
Anyway, it was good fun. I do think the show had an important message, but it would have been better if the show could have made its point a bit more subtly.
I lift the glass to my nose, swirling the amber liquid more clumsily than I should. There's not too much of a smell to this wine. A hint of must, perhaps a piney aroma. The color of the wine is pale yellow, with not a lot of shape to it--I don't see much difference in color from the deep center of the glass to the edge where there is less wine.
The first sip. I let the wine flow between my lips into my mouth. As it first pools into my tongue, I get my first taste. The pine becomes stronger, overwhelming the must with its crispness. There is also a lightness to it. Slightly sweet, like green grapes, or kiwi, but with a much sharper texture. As the wine slips over the edge of my tongue into the base of my mouth, the flavors intensify, and the wine warms through contact with skin. The wine slides down my throat, with a hint of dryness. Again pine is the most prominent taste.
After about a half a glass, I can feel my headache begin to slip away. This is a wonderful way to take the edge off of a busy Saturday afternoon!
I was fairly big into rap music in high school. I remember not liking Grandmaster Flash as much as Whodini, Egyptian Lover, and L.L. Cool J. But of course what made Grandmaster Flash different is that they covered more "serious" topics such as drugs, crime, etc. in some of their raps, so they are the ones that got noticed by the intellectuals. Compare:
Street kid gets arrested
Gonna do some time
He'll get out three years from now
just to commit more crime
My radio, believe me I like it loud!
I'm the man with the box that can rock the crowd,
Walking down the street
to the hard core beat
While my J V C vi-BRATES the concrete!
The first is in the Smithsonian. The second set up L.L. Cool J for a career in TV and movies. Sadly, in sync with the lowbrow tastes of the rest of America, I have to say I prefer L.L. Cool J too!
Rain. It's a good thing.
Now, sitting in my dusky kitchen, I stare out into my glowing gray backyard, droplets of water glistening on our bare maple. Every so often, a car whizzes by on the road behind the Leland Cypruses, with that familiar sound of tire on wet pavement.
So many times as a child, I woke up to that sound, the only notice that it had been raining. So many times, I walked down dark chilly stairs, onto our squeaky porch, and began unbundling newspapers for dark morning delivery. So many times, I remember putting an old paper atop the stack as I carted them up 75th street, raindrops creating mini supernovas atop yesterday's news.
Here, now, I can only dream about those days. The damp drips are familiar, as are the tires. But the maples and cypruses and sweetgums are not. The cardinals and bluebirds are not. If a mallard or a seagull waddled by, things would seem more appropriate. But there are no papers to deliver on my front porch. There are no mountains behind the clouds. Those things gradually fade into memory, only to be reawakened some other day, drip by shimmering drop.
I think a key to a productive life is simply to not to ever slow down. It really could work--just never stop for a rest, simply move from one tough task to the next. The question is, are we then reduced to the status of automatons? I've just finished grading literally hundreds of student essays. (Okay, it was actually about 40, but you get the idea!) My immediate inclination is to sit down on my comfortable green couch, uncork a bottle of cheap wine, and channel-surf my way into oblivion.
On the other hand, attractive as a persistent vegetative state may seem right now, in six months I would be knocking myself for having achieved nothing. I find myself thinking that platitude to which I was first introduced reading the "Thomas the Tank Engine" books to my son: "a change is as good as a rest." That's a pretty believable lie! A truer statement: "a rest is as good as a rest!"
Boy, reading over what I've just read, I can think of only one thing to add: Welcome to my aphorism hell.
Yes, it's challenging, but it truly drains your brain. It's not menial labor, not by a long shot. It's not even semi-menial--it's full-fledged, high-octane, thinking work. Of course the answer, given how little they're paying me, is to drop down the octane a couple of notches. To coast. Unfortunately for me, I have too much respect for my students to do that. One thing I can say for sure is this is the last time I'm going to promise to do all my grading in two days. It's a minimum of a week from here on out.
Grading, Grading, Grading
[Sung to the tune of "rawhide"]
Grading, grading, grading,
Let's keep them papers grading,
grading, grading, grading, away!
Write 'em up, move 'em out, roll 'em up, send 'em in,
Write 'em up, move 'em out, grading!
It's blood and sweat and typos,
It's rolling, dangling participos,
It's incomplete sentencos, grading!
Write 'em up, move 'em out, roll 'em up, send 'em in,
Write 'em up, move 'em out, grading!
Write 'em up, move 'em out, roll 'em up, send 'em in,
Write 'em up, move 'em out, grading!
I'm about 1/5 of the way through grading 40-some-odd essays about "kids these days." Whew!
Oh, yeah, a DAILY journal!
I rode a bus to school from the fifth grade on. I guess this would be one good reason for me to support public education today, but I'm afraid public education in Mecklenburg county in 2003 is not what it was in Seattle in 1980. The only class I ever had in a trailer was music in fifth grade. More than half of Bradley Middle school (where my son will likely be assigned) is in trailers. Class size is 35, compared to 20 at the private school we're considering.
But look at the good news in today's Charlotte Observer! Our property taxes will be going down! At least we won't have to pay more for our crappy public schools!
Menial versus semi-menial labor
Whew. Almost forgot!
After the men fell all over each other trying to lose the national championship, the women got in their and laid down one awesome performance after another. You could almost make a legitimate case that Michelle Kwan and Sarah Hughes could have split the title, they both skated so perfectly. That's what sweet Peggy Fleming said anyway. Don't make me laugh, Peggy. Michelle skated a flawless routine, and Sarah lumbered through an easier one, just barely avoiding mistakes all the way through.
Today I spent nearly the entire day in front of the computer, either recording student grades or paying bills. Basically, I was an accountant for a day. There's one career to scratch off the watchlist. Talk about dull!
Actually I don't mind doing menial tasks on the computer--it's the semi-menial ones that truly bug me. I could do data entry for hours on end (and I did, in college--that was my work-study job). But recording student grades is a pain because you have to kinda semi- pay attention to what you're doing. And you need to make sure you don't skip anybody, and you have to sort through e-mails asking for tonight's homework, etc. etc. It's a semi-menial job. Same with paying the bills. You have to at least pay enough attention to remember if you paid that bill last month, or what you spent $46 on at Target last month. Then you really need to pay attention when the checkbook doesn't balance, or you put the wrong bill with the wrong check or something. Classic semi-menial job. Give me straight data-entry or word processing over that stuff any day. Either that or hard core, serious, to-the-bone thinking. None of that inbetween stuff for me!
Yet another Journal entry
Happy to be here after a rough first week of classes. Martin Luther King, I am eternally grateful for you having been born in early January. No class until Wednesday! I think mainly the teaching is what's exhausting me. I can handle taking several classes, but teaching them truly wears on my soul.
That said, I think I'm becoming a better teacher--more demanding of my students, but more understanding of what they're going through.
All this journaling has me writing more than ever. Commontext Blog, this blog, posting on kairosnews. I don't know if I'm saying much of importance, and I don't know how long I'll keep it up, but for now it feels good.
Where to begin? I'd say the beginning, but I've already written about that elsewhere. How about just describing my day so far? The day started off poorly because the wife and I stayed up too late last night. No, we weren't doing THAT! Get your mind out of the gutter. Actually we were watching a really bad movie from 1988: "Satisfaction," with Justine Bateman, Julia Roberts, and Liam Neeson. Guess who got top billing? Hint: it wasn't Julia or Liam. I have to admit I had a mighty big crush on Justine in the mid '80s.
Anyway, we were being "good" and turned the TV off at 11:00 (halfway through the movie--don't worry, we've got the rest on TIVO), but then we sat talking and drinking wine until past midnight. At 35, I can't get by on just 6 hours of sleep anymore, so when the alarm rang at 6:15, I got up, woke up my son, and instead of going for the usual morning run, went straight back to bed. By 7:15 the kids were up and dressed. We ate breakfast with them in our bathrobes.
Since then it's been work, work, work. If you want to see what I've been up to, visit the commontext blog.
More on trolls
But what if the comment had not been repeated? Does commentary such as this promote healthy debate, or is it merely a distraction from the more compelling issues at hand? If members of the community have a known set of values, doesn't it make sense for them to exclude those who don't share their values? Should a gun-club admit gun control advocates to its membership? The main point of the club in this instance is to share with other gun owners--obviously there is a time and a place for gun control debates, but probably not in the day to day workings of the club.
On the other hand, users rely on slashdot not only for camaraderie, but also for news and answers to technical questions. Perhaps an open exchange of views is important in such a context.
In the end, it's important to remember that slashdot is in many ways self-defined, but it's also still a constructed community. Its editors created the code that runs the sited, including the moderation system itself. Editors select the stories that appear on the slashdot front page. Yet in certain critical ways, the editors have chosen to place much of the control of the site in the hands of its users, making it a very unique community indeed. I hope my analysis has shed some light on the workings of this fascinating community--a community I will continue to be a part of in the forseeable future.
Any front-page story on slashdot will inevitably be bombarded with trolls. Simply changing the moderation threshold to -1 reveals a whole new world of crude, even hateful posts. Many of these are immediately moderated down by the site editors, and others are quickly caught by community moderators, but occasionally such a comment slips through the radar, giving the slashdot community an edge rarely seen in mainstream journalism.
Perhaps the most notorious troll is the hideous goatse link. Someone has apparently registered the domain "http://goatse.cx" and used it to host an obscene image. I won't include a link here, but if you're brave, type the url into your browser address box to see it. Trolling comments would include a link to this site in an otherwise innocuous statement. Venemous flame wars ensued.
Because slashdot makes it easy for anyone to post a comment anonymously, and because of the site's popularity, these acts of vandalism are probably inevitable. Like the red-light district of a city, the world of trolls is an intriguing place to visit. I'll probably spend a few more entries discussing them.
Moderation and slashdot
Moderators, chosen from the pool of registered users based on their previous contributions to slashdot, are periodically given five "points" with which to moderate the comments of others. They can use the points to moderate a comment up or down. They can also choose from a set of descriptive words ("insightful," "interesting," "funny," "off-topic," "troll"). Users build "karma" by having their comments rated highly. "Karma" used to be an actual numerical value which was increased for positive moderations and decreased for negative moderations. However, it is now represented only as a qualitative value ("good," "positive," "negative," "excellent"), apparently an effort to reduce the number of users who view slashdot as a "game" you can "win" with more karma ["karma whores," in the slashdot vernacular].
Okay, now let's see how this system works in practice. I've chosen to analyze a portion of a discussion about a news story
describing a successful test of a military laser capable of destroying
artillery shells in flight. Here's a link to the archived conversation:
Laser Shoots Down Artillery Shell In Flight
The first poster starts off with a relatively interesting question:
wouldn't the momentum of the projectile still carry it forward to its
target? The first respondent, "kbonin," offers a fairly reasonable
response--the laser would cause the explosives within the projectile to
detonate, completely destroying it. The next response, by "Anonymous
coward" [respondents who post anonymously are automaticaly given this
shameful moniker], mentions that s/he has seen a television show
explaining that lasers destroy missiles by igniting the fuel that
propels them. The fact that this comment was posted just two minutes
after kbonin's response probably means that "Anonymous Coward" was
in the process of writing his/her own response when kbonin's
response was posted.
The conversation really starts to get interesting with ceejayoz's
response to Anonymous Coward. "*sigh* Insightful?" is a dig at the
moderation of Anonymous Coward's response. Then ceejayoz corrects the
factual error in Anonymous Coward's response--we're talking about
artillery here, not missiles.
MonadicIQ takes the conversation in another direction with a joke about
Captain Kirk. Apparently the moderators weren't as impressed with
MonadicIQ's original comment as they were with charlesbakerharris's
response: "That's a *phasor*. Lasers are so 2280." But in the end (not
the end of the conversation, just the end of the small portion I've
arbitrarily selected), the moderators are most impressed with TheSync's
observation that missiles kill with shrapnel, which the laser would
cause to fall short of the target.
What's interesting about slashdot is that the conversants are aware of
the varying levels of expertise of the individual participants, but
also that they have enough confidence in the slashdot system that they
believe the correct response will eventually be generated. The system works because the participants have implicitly agreed
to a set of conventions.
What complicates the scenario for online discussion is that the
"discussion" itself is not the same as a normal discussion--rather than
two participants, there are thousands, and there is no assurance that
anyone is "listening" to anything you "say." Indeed, in the snippet of
slashdot discussion I examine here, no one person speaks more than
once. What's most striking to me is that even though it's clear that
the online discussion is very different from a "real" one, the
participants instinctively act as though it is real, and they trust the moderation system to out those who flout the conventions of actual conversation.
Time in slashdot
Another reader, dtml-try MyNick, attempts to point out that this story is a duplicate of a previous slashdot article. The moderators aren't buying this one, however--the previous article on slashdot linked to a different outside news source.
Within the comments section on individual articles, time can be an even more confusing concept. As the default, articles are displayed in the threaded mode. In this mode, the oldest comments are displayed first, which makes some intuitive sense from the reader's perspective. Reading from top to bottom, the comments play out like a conversation. The reader gets the sense the ideas are being built and developed. This chrono-logic begins to fall apart when we realize that slashdot has thousands of users, each of which may be replying to the same story simultaneously. Consider the following three comments, each posted to a story about Microsoft's attempt to preserve the brand name "Windows."
Comments 1 and 2 were posted at 12:17 p.m., with comment 3 posted at 12:18. Certainly the authors were writing their comments simultaneously--each had an "original" comment--yet the third commenter (Captain BooBoo) acknowledges that his comment is already "redundant" in a subsequent post!
A further wrinkle is added when comments are displayed as "threaded." Any response to a comment appears directly below the comment. Generally this makes a lot of sense--then we can follow a "thread" of conversation about a particular aspect of a topic. But what it means for the sense of "time" in the overall discussion is important. I could post a comment at 1:00. Someone else can then post a separate comment at 1:15. Then at 1:30 a third person can respond to my original comment. This third comment actually appears second in the list of comments. Of course, experienced users know to look at the time stamp appearing on each comment, but with often dozens of replies to a single comment, breaking down the timing becomes more complex. The "simple" act of reading through a list of responses to an article becomes more difficult, and what seemed like an intuitively sound way to organize comments starts to look more like a labyrinth than a coherent conversation.
Though readers [and moderators] typically are able to keep track of all this fairly reliably, savvier users (such as Captain BooBoo) above acknowledge the difficulty of keeping track of conversation, and offer cues to other readers: important both for saving face--showing that they understand the "rules" of the "game"--and for preserving the illusion that a "real" conversation is taking place.
Basic description of slashdot
Slashdot originated as a technology news web site: editors would post links to other interesting technology sites, providing a sort of central clearing house for tech news. The difference was that slashdot allowed its readers to post comments about the story being covered. Eventually thousands of computer nerds began to virtually congregate there to discuss the latest news on technology and science. Often the most popular news stories would accumulate hundreds of comments. For the most part, comments were interesting, informed, and on-topic, but after a while, a few troublemakers began posting deliberatly misleading or off-topic comments.
Being nerds, the slashdot editors developed a very technical way of managing online discussions to separate interesting comments from worthless ones--in technical terms, they described it as separating the signal from the noice. Here's the system they came up with: comments are "moderated" by the site's regular readers. The best comments can be ranked as high as 5, with the worst comments moderated down to -1. Moderaters can also add descriptive words, such as "interesting," "insightful," or the damning "troll," signifying a comment that is obviously only looking to pick a fight. The trick to this community-level moderation is that a given reader only gets a few "moderation points" at a time, and they can only rate a single comment one time. Otherwise, moderaters themselves might abuse the system. There are many more rules to moderation, but this is enough to give you the idea.
The more important point is that moderation allows Slashdot to "shape" knowledge. Highly rated comments carry more authority, and so a reader can use the ratings to sift through hundreds of comments, with the option to choose to view only comments rated at a certain level--say 1 or 2. Does it work? Though there are frequent disagreements, it's generally true that by the time an issue has been thoroughly discussed, the reader comes away feeling that they have a good sense of the "truth," or at least the range of opinions on the issue.
Ethnographic Analysis of Slashdot
All right, first question. What is an ethnographic analysis? Frankly, at this point, I don't have much more of an idea than you do. However, a quick Google search points to an article which appeared in JAC: an interview with Clifford Geertz, the most famous and vocal of the proponents of enthnographic research.
Here's my 99-cent summary of the method, based on what I gleaned from the interview, as well as what I found in a book I happened to find on my shelf: The Interpretation of Cultures by -- you guessed it -- Clifford Geertz [I don't know where it came from -- I certainly didn't buy it. Maybe it was required for one of my wife's college classes. Oddly, the spine hasn't even been cracked :-) ]. Geertz is critical of earlier anthropologists who claim that a ethnographic researchers should attempt to be completely unbiased, making as minimal of an impact on the community they observe as possible. Geertz argues that this proposition is preposterous. How can a nerdy, milk-white professor-type visit a balinese village and not have an impact on the community? It's impossible for such research to be objective, so rather than throw his arms up in dismay, Geertz chooses to embrace the subjectivity of the method.
Geertz says in the interview that his description of a balinese cock fight is his most famous example of ethnographic analysis. Fortunately for me, this episode happens to be included in The Interpretation of Cultures. I've just read a good chunk of it, and it truly is a fascinating read. Geertz takes pains to point out how the people of the balinese village he visited didn't really accept him until the entire village had been raided by the police for conducting a cock fight. Geertz and his wife were questioned by the police in the presence of some of the village elders, who rose to an eloquent defense of the couple -- despite the fact that everyone in the village had ignored them for weeks before. Clearly their impact on the village had been profound, even before anyone had officially taken notice of them.
The slashdot community is a much more vast and sprawling one than the tiny village Geertz observed. In this sense, I doubt my research will have the same level of impact. But you never know! My plan is to keep my "field notes" in the form of this slashdot journal. That way, any visitor to my journal can easily see what I'm up to and (if they care enough) even comment on each entry. Should be an interesting ride.