An old Jedi mind trick

A new bit of research news has brought up old memories for me today. Researchers at the University of California have found that an area of the brain called the perirhinal cortext may help with the formation of associative memories.

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Ohio University student expelled for plagiarizing Wikipedia

An Ohio University senior was expelled for plagiarizing three phrases from a Wikipedia article, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported today. Worse yet, the student was on a study-abroad trip in Greece when she was expelled and was told to make her own travel arrangements home.

The student, Allison Routman, said she didn’t know she had done anything wrong by copying the three phrases (not whole sentences) from the online encyclopedia for a research paper. Routman also claims the committee that ruled on her expulsion did not give her a fair chance.

Also here.

Routman copied three almost anonymous phrases (“when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa,” “German speakign minority outside of Germany” and “who had just been released from a concentration camp”) from the Wikipedia article on the film Europa, Europa.

This makes me wonder where we draw the lines when it comes to plagiarism, at whole sentences, whole clauses, whole prepositional phrases? At some point, don’t we have to allow that there’s no better or meaningfully different way to write something, other than with the phrasing that’s already in the Wikipedia or in some other source?

Another wondering: How on earth did Routman think this was okay for a research paper where she was asked to cite her sources? How could she have thought this sort of copy-and-paste mentality is okay in any academic setting?

Maybe things were a bit different back when I started out in college, in those heady, pre-9/11, pre-blogosphere, pre-Wikipedia digital days, but I didn’t copy and paste from sources online. I knew it was plagiarism — and since then I’ve learned that even more subtle shades of borrowing can be considered plagiarism. Why didn’t Routman, a senior at a large university who was smart enough to be accepted into this study-abroad trip not realize that what she was doing was wrong?

Computer program developed to detect art forgery

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports researchers have developed a way to use a computer and image software to analyze a painting and determine whether it is genuine or a forgery.

The experiment was performed on 101 high-resolution scans of Van Gough paintings from museums in the Netherlands. The program analyzed the artist’s brush strokes and create algorithm to describe Van Gough’s style.

The researchers told the CHE that while the algorithm was pretty successful, it could still be confused by the variety of brush strokes that the artist would use in a single painting.

An algorithm to describe the way an artist paints. It reminds me of the idea that a million monkeys sitting at a million typewriters will eventually produce Hamlet; it’s one of those attempts to rationalize artistic expression, to quantify it and explain it. All the better to sell it with, I suppose.

Blog update

My categories list is too long, so I’m going to be simplifying it over the next few weeks, when I have the time. I hope to narrow it down to about five or six broad categories, which I’ll supplement with WordPress’s built-in tagging system. Wish me luck.

Edit: I’ve included a few other minor changes that no one will really notice but which I am very proud of.

Is Google making us ask unanswerable questions?


British neuroscientist Baroness Greenfield points out that prescriptions for drugs like Ritalin and diagnoses of ADHD are on the rise. She correlates that with an increase in computer use over the past decade, asks a few open ended questions and implies that computer use is rotting children’s brains.

I don’t doubt that computers will change how we think. I don’t doubt that they already have changed how we think. I, too, read Nicholas Carr’s essay in the Atlantic and silently nodded in agreement for most of it. Yes, I find it harder now than I once did to sit down a read for extended periods of time or to read without skimming paragraphs that seem unimportant — but I owe that to years spent in grad school and not to years spent on the Internet.

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Fooled you, Olympics viewers, world

Talk about tricksters. Several news agencies are reporting (here and here, for example) this morning that some significant portions of the opening ceremony of the Olympics were faked. The cute little girl who sang the Chinese national anthem was lip synching; the real little girl singer, it seems, had crooked teeth and wouldn’t look good on TV.

And the stunning fireworks display that spanned the length of Beijing was both real and faked. While observers on the ground saw the real fireworks, computer-generated versions of it were interspersed with live television footage. That means that most of the world saw a Michael Bay-like opening ceremony that the a Chinese special effects house spent the past year perfecting.

All those involved say the substitutions and trickery were in the national interest; most of them have now been threatened with prison time for squealing, too. Meanwhile, the Chinese version of the Internet is buzzing with criticism; at least the situation is provoking some online debate, even though the posts are being deleted as fast as they can be posted by the country’s online censors.

Plagiarism fallout in Texas

The Texas press has picked up on the Bulletin plagiarism scandal, and some of the facts from the small paper’s side have emerged.

The Houston Chronicle reported that the Bulletin’s publisher, Mike Ladyman said he “didn’t take Rosen more seriously because he didn’t realize the extent of the allegations.” The Chronicle’s article also lets us know that the accused plagiarist, Mark Williams, was a freelancer who had worked for the Bulletin for the past six years.

Now, according to the Houston Press, the Montgomery County paper will be shutting down for the time being, partially thanks to the dozens of nasty e-mails publisher Ladyman has received. Ladyman told the Press about his paper, “It’s dead right now. I’m not bringing out another issue. I’ll just close it up.”

Ladyman went on in the Press interview to say that Slate writer Jody Rosen’s article about the plagiarism was “an attack, an attention-grabbing hatchet job” and that Rosen never showed him more than the first three examples of plagiarism before publishing the Slate article.

Ladyman described the circumstances around Rosen’s accusations from his point of view, saying that he was on a deadline when Rosen first called and could not talk for as long as Rosen wanted. Later, when Ladyman took the examples of plagiarism to Williams, the accused writer told his publisher that he had simply copied material he’d received in press releases. “I don’t know if I believed him fully,” Ladyman told the Press.

Now, and I hate to borrow too much from one source, especially given the nature of the story, the Press also published a letter written by Williams in response to Rosen’s accusations.

You have done an exemplary job of exposing the seedy underbelly of duplicitous small town weekly newspapers and the evil doers that run them. You have indeed brought us to our knees

…[Y]ou have most definitely garnered the attention of the bloggers that you evidently crave in abundance with this manufactured scandal. So my advice, if I may offer a small slice, is to enjoy the spotlight while it is yours — have yourself a ball! You are the victor, so do enjoy the spoils.

…It must have taken years of seasoned investigative know-how to push me off my lofty perch. It takes a dogged, intrepid journalist to expose the alleged wrongdoings of a 44-year-old college dropout who drifted from one lousy media job to another for 20 years; it takes courage to debase someone with a mouthful of cut-rate dentures who, up until 2007, lived in his parents’ home for seven years due to near-fatal bouts of clinical depression; it takes a journalist of a certain caliber to torpedo a pathetic hack who has barely squeezed out a living for nearly a decade at seven cents a word.

He goes on to say that Bulletin has done some good work in its time, such as keeping “a hateful rogue element of the local Republican Party from taking control of our county library system and ripping the Constitution to shreds.” Apparently that justifies immoral journalistic practices. I guess you have to break a few eggs, right?

Good grief, Williams. Even a 20-year veteran hack should know the difference between what words of a press release you can use and which ones you can’t. And, by god, depression or not — and especially after your little diatribe about your egalitarian aims — lazy journalism is never, ever OK.