Online study kits irk one Florida professor

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus Blog reported today on a professor at the University of Florida who is upset that an online company, Einstein’s Notes, is selling notes and quiz answers from his wildlife ecology classes. The professor, Michael Moulton, and his textbook’s publisher have sued Einsten’s Notes, claiming that the company is violating copyright by selling study kits online.

In the CHE interview, Moulton said that grades in those classes have been going up since the study kits became available and that some students are using them as a means to avoid attending class. He said that other, harder-working students also buy the kits, feeling that they must have every academic advantage lest they lose their scholarships.

An added wrinkle is that sometimes the study kits are wrong, Moulton said, which costs students points on exams. The situation has forced Moulton to change the ways he makes class materials available online. In addition to recordings of his lectures, he now puts (correct) outlines of notes on the Web and has ceased giving out old quiz answers. Moulton told the CHE, “If they don’t want to come to class I can’t make them come, but I’ll be damned if I help [Einstein’s Notes] sell answers to questions if they don’t want to come.”

Most of the comments on that CHE blog post criticize Moulton, saying that if students can improve their grades simply by having the class notes then the course is poorly designed. While there is no doubt more to this story, I can see Moulton’s point. While the grade at the end of the course is what matters to most students, there is something deeper that most of them do not see — something that professors want them to see. That is: Academic work is hard work, and it’s about more than just the grade. It’s about the journey.

I’m inclined to think that many college students these days are in college because they think they have to be there (like another few years of high school). They are there because of the paycheck that will come from the degree they earn. The age-old essence of hard work and carefully learned study habits is over their heads. I applaud Moulton for defending that point of view. (Of course, these are the words of someone who once taught English 121 – College Writing to freshman, none of whom wanted to be there. Take that by way of disclaimer.)

Paper Money Discriminates

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has ruled 2-1 that paper money discriminates against the blind, the AP reported this morning.

The ruling upholds a district court ruling from November 2006. That case, American Council of the Blind v. Paulson, was criticized by various journalists and even by the National Federation of the Blind, who said that the ruling will only reinforce blind stereotypes:

[The ruling] argues that the blind cannot handle currency or documents in the workplace and that virtually everything must be modified for the use of the blind. An employer who believes that every piece of printed material in the workplace must be specially designed so that the blind can read it will have a strong incentive not to hire a blind person.

The ruling could force the U.S. to redesign its paper money so that denominations can be distinguished by touch. This could include different sized bills or raised markings on the surface of the bills, the AP said. The appeals court ruling made no mention of how the decision would affect businesses and the economy or U.S. counterfeiting prevention.

Microsoft and Yahoo may yet do business

A new transaction may soon be on the table between Microsoft and Yahoo, one that does not involve Microsoft acquiring all of Yahoo, the companies announced Sunday.

In a written statement, Yahoo said that Microsoft “is not interested in pursuing an acquisition of all of Yahoo! at this time.” At the same time, Yahoo is still open to “any transaction which is in the best interest of our stockholders.”

Microsoft confirmed this in its own statement saying, “Microsoft is not proposing to make a new bid to acquire all of Yahoo! at this time, but reserves the right to reconsider that alternative depending on future developments and discussions that may take place with Yahoo! or discussions with shareholders of Yahoo! or Microsoft or with other third parties.”

The software giant initially offered Yahoo $31 per share in late January, a little more than 150 percent what the Yahoo stock was worth at the time. Microsoft withdrew its initial bid to buy Yahoo on May 3 after negotiations between the two companies stalled.

‘Baby Mama’ suffers from overwriting

So, we saw the movie Baby Mama this afternoon. It’s not often that I sit down to write reviews, but the more I think about the movie, the more I think it deserves… something.

The film stars Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, both Saturday Night Live stars, but of course you knew that those ladies were in the film already — if you’ve seen any of the trailers. What you may not have known is that other quality stars like Greg Kinnear, Sigourney Weaver and Steve Martin have significant roles in the film. They make the film more enjoyable, but not even Martin’s random, Zen-following, name-dropping, surfer, hippie boss character can save the film from some fundamental flaws.

The film was written by SNL writing staff graduate Michael McCullers, whose pen also brought us the wit that was Undercover Brother and both Austin Powers sequels. McCullers also makes his directorial debut with Baby Mama, and while I’m no expert, I think his first-time jitters show a bit in the final cut of the film.

The movie revolved around Fey’s character, a single, mid-30s VP of an organic foods company who wants to have a baby. When her fertility doctor, played deftly by the PC guy from the Apple commercials (John Hodgman), tells her she’s got a one in a million shot of conceiving, she hires a surrogate womb, personified by Poehler, reveling in immature, club-hopping, junk food-addicted glory.

From there, the plot degrades into something involving a con job, a new organic market, fruit smoothies, random snatches of Steve Martin, karaoke and a doorman. Sure, you can follow the plot through to its inevitable, family-friendly ending, but you might wonder what all that other business was about along the way.

The film suffers from too-much-going-on-for-its-own-good-itis. We learn that Kinnear’s smoothie shop owner was a former corporate lawyer who quit because of his conscience and likes to stay up late concocting strange new recipes. Poehler develops a strange friendship with Fey’s building’s doorman, who treats Fey like she’s the only person living in the building. Weaver, who plays the owner of the surrogate service, plays an overly-fertile woman in her 40s and the butt of more than a few age-related jokes.

Meanwhile, Poehler’s trashy common law husband, played by Dax Shepard, shows up from time to time to remind us that a) he’s a redneck who just wants to take Fey for her money and b) he’s still in the movie, somewhere — as are Maura Tierney and Holland Taylor as Fey’s sister and mother, though you wouldn’t know it from the random assortment of gags, bits and scenes congealed into Baby Mama.

Oh, there’s even a courtroom scene. Did you see that one coming? Neither did I. Although, you might see the odds-defying end of the movie coming about a half an hour before credits roll.

Is it funny? Sometimes. Enjoyable? Sure. I’d even recommend it if you can’t get tickets for the Narnia sequel or don’t want to watch Iron Man again. However, if you’re looking for a good, coherent film, wait for Indiana Jones next week.

Grade: C-

Wikipedia may soon be more useful for students

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported today that Wikipedia’s staff will soon decide whether to add a feature that would make the publicly-editable encyclopedia more useful to students and scholars.

The new feature would allow versions of the encyclopedia’s articles to be frozen so that experts could the verify the information contained on them. The resulting articles, which exist outside the normal timeline of article edits, would be tagged as vetted and expert approved. A similar version of this feature is already being tested on the German Wikipedia to certify articles as free of vandalism.

This could help students cite the pages more reliably, since the information on those pages would not be vulnerable to sudden and complete revision by a passing Wikipedia user. And since many students already use Wikipedia in their bibliographies, even against the advice of the site’s founder Jimmy Wales, this could be a significant addition to the popular site.

Alphabet Soup: CBS buys CNET

The Financial Times (and every other major Web-news outlet) reported today that CBS has bought CNET for $1.8 billion. The move by CBS is one in a string of older media companies, which are slowly losing customers, buying Web portals, which are gaining customers. CNET, whose family of sites includes News.com, claims a monthly audience of 160 million.

Gas Problems

Gas prices have hit $4.006 per gallon in Alaska, AAA reported Wednesday. It’s the first state in the nation where the price of gas has crossed the $4 barrier. The average price of a gallon of gas in the country on May 12 was $3.722, according to the Department of Energy or $3.758 according to AAA.

Okay, these numbers get a lot of attention, but the number that doesn’t get a lot of attention is the price of diesel, the fuel that America’s shipping industry relies on. Six months ago, USA Today reported that the cost of shipping had gone up about 20 percent; at the time the article was written, the cost of diesel was $3.30 per gallon. This week, AAA says the average price of a gallon of diesel is $4.419.

In March, the owner of a nine-truck freight company in Ohio told the New York Times , “It’s killing us. Every day, I come in here and wonder if I have enough money to buy fuel.” Another trucker in Ohio, Ricardo Caraballo, told Times that the same $505 that once kept his truck on the road for two weeks now only fills half his tank.

The Times explains that the rising cost of diesel may have something to do with its increasing popularity around the world and points out that there are some money-saving solutions available to U.S. truckers (solutions that cost a lot of money, mind you). However, none of these explanations overwrites the fact that the very people who keep our country’s goods moving — often small, private companies and independent operators — cannot afford some of those expensive upgrades.

And we wonder why the price of everything is going up.