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« Hands-On Research in Complex Systems | Main | Putting numbers on feelings »

August 24, 2010


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Narayan's response is dismally childish, flippant, and self-retarding.

First off, etymologies only describe the foreign language roots of a word, not modern implication or context. The logic he describes as deft is, in fact, hamfisted and glibly folksy.

Second, the assessment of Engineering students (and educators) is a sad indictment of the state of engineering as a discipline. We're not really training engineers, just crafty poseurs who repeat a lotta sh!t they overheard.

"Teachers, having come to their trade after themselves suffering and manipulating as students, ought to recognize that fairness in grading is a tenuous concept and entirely subjective, and that plagiarism is just another ploy to work that system."

Aaah, relativism, the second-to-last resort of the scoundrel! Is not fairness in general entirely subjective? That would make interpreting laws (aka the work of our Justice system) a tenuous concept and entirely subjective. So bribery and corruption are just ploys to work that system. No harm done! If you can't afford the bribe, that's just your fault for not being clever enough to anticipate it.

Overall, I'd say Narayan is presenting a depressing and socially apoptotic attitude that is regrettably common, particularly amongst desis. Do whatever it takes to get to the top, to hell with details.

How does Narayan's take on this differ from Fish's? Isn't Fish's thesis precisely, "What's the big deal with plagiarism?"

Not sure I get the difference between "just" and "fair," either.

Speaking of engineering... I like the bit about "writing" software, as if the endeavor were actually a creative one, productive of original work.

Sarkany, I will let you duke it out with Narayan on this one. But I did leave a comment for you the other day. Hope you saw it.

Dean, really! You don't think that writing software or doing engineering is creative? If you've been an engineer I'm really sorry that you've had such a poor experience.

Banerjee, I'm playing with you and with the themes of the post. Fish sets aside the question of originality as pertaining not to the professional ramifications of plagiarism, but to a philosophical matter much brooded upon during the heady '70s, '80s, and '90s in areas such as literary theory. I don't believe that creativity in software design is much like creativity in sonneteering, but that's another story, one that revolves around the distinction between two meanings of innovation. In one sense, it has to do with creating new ideas; in another, it has to do with creating new wealth, i.e., profits. The two senses are not mutually exclusive, but neither are they intimately connected.

Fish and Narayan may both have "who cares, no big deal" to say, but it seems to me that they get there in very different ways... and as usual, Fish's way of approaching the topic strikes me as a poor choice and consisting of irrelevant drivel.

Just yesterday I had an exchange with a writer on 3QD who didn't like a comment I wrote on his piece. My second comment addressed him directly and I concluded with "If you were paid by the Calgary Herald for your article I'd like to hold you to basic courtesies of journalistic ethics. You just can't go after individual readers who take issue with your writing." While there is an obligation to correct factual errors that have been identified, a writer, in my opinion, must stand pat and not engage directly with readers in dispute. On occasion I have sent critical notes to writers on the NYTimes; the stock response has been, "Your comments have been forwarded to the author / Thank you for your interest." That's the way it should be, notwithstanding Plagiarism - Part 2 by Stanley Fish.

It is Sarkany's right to say what he wants about my piece, and it is is my obligation to take it on the chin. All bets are off, however, if I were to meet him in a dark alley.

Joe! Joe! Joe! I understand Fish can be, and often tries hard to be, irksome. That's how he strikes me much of the time, particularly in his collections of essays on lit-crit, the law, or the professions in the humanities. (I'm mostly ignorant of his work on Milton.) One comes to anticipate his next move, or at least that some kind of move is shortly due. Ultimately, I can't blame him for these occasional lapses from his usually high standard (not one of rigorous philosophical argument, but of a kind of flair of style and tone), and I love reading him sometimes precisely because he so transparently toys with his readers. But how is his approach here irrelevant? He's churning his familiar theory-practice dialectic, this time respecting the emptiness of a moral justification for academic plagiarism, but the familiar and the redundant don't render this one irrelevant. And drivel?! How so, when it's pretty charmingly humorous of him to acknowledge without irony the inefficacy of his own mere theory talk about free speech to the "real" world of law and justice?

- "Besides, there was surely some code of ethics at play, since the ones who did the assignments on their own would only give chosen others the right to cog."

This is an incisive point, whose accuracy anyone who's studied in systems more tolerant of cheating can attest to. You exchange homework with people at roughly your level of competence; people who can help you as well as take from you. You don't bother taking from the incompetent, and people much better than you don't want to be mooched off of.

- I must say, at least at CERN, the Europeans, especially the Spaniards, Portuguese and Italians, find the American attitude to copying over-zealous. These are students (and faculty and post-docs...) who're *quite* used to the Indian way of doing things. Somehow European traditions of academic excellence have managed to not get destroyed.

- As Narayan points out, everywhere in the world the grade is determined almost exclusively by things other than homework assignments. It's the papers, exams, presentations, projects and such that determine the (difference in) scores, and so long as you clamp down on cheating there, you might as well not care how students do their homework, and let them take charge of their (non?) learning. Also, in equilibrium it doesn't matter that much anyway. At my school the teachers knew perfectly well there was copying, and simply assigned more homework, taking for granted that student groups would divvy up the work.

"In one sense, it has to do with creating new ideas; in another, it has to do with creating new wealth, i.e., profits."

No distinction of that sort will get to the position that sonnet-writing is creative, while the RSA algorithm, or the iPhone interface, or 80 characters of unix incantation that do just what you want somehow aren't! Also, the distinction between commercial and non-commercial culture is not related to the distinction between engineering/science and the humanities. Linux is free. The later works of TS Eliot (still) aren't.

"No distinction of that sort will get to the position that sonnet-writing is creative . . ." Exactly my point. Innovation is a loaded word, connoting economic added value, while importing the pretty notion of new ideas, which 80 characters on a command line followed by Enter are decidedly not. Good poems (or good paragraphs of Fish) are good because they don't do just what anybody wants (Fish included). Linux free? Really? No cost whatsoever? As in beer? Eliot, on the other hand, can be had at your local public library.

- Have you encountered software in any capacity other than as user? To take just algorithmic procedures for one moment, I find it hard to understand how anyone could consider linear programming, the fast fourier transform, quicksort, or search trees other than creative. To say they're not is to call applied mathematics "uncreative."

- Re free/non-free, I want to try again. Do you actually think the commercial/non-commercial split follows the engineering/humanities one? The only broad rule of thumb I know of is, what's created by the university system (in any department) or by people working in their spare time tends to be free at least for non-commercial use, while what's made by a corporation is usually not.
Exceptions abound to even that, but is it your sense that commerce is a more dominant motive in software design than in say literature or cinema or music? Have you encountered the mafiaa? For that matter, it beggars belief to suppose that money, fame and acclaim aren't front-and-center in the mind of your typical poet. I am of course stipulating that you're right about there being a fundamental difference between creativity inspired by money-like incentives and other kinds, though this is far from straightforward (there are, after all both mass and niche-markets)

"Good poems poems are good because they don't do just what anybody wants."

- Really? I claim if you asked a panel of fifteen eminent poets to state concisely what's great about a good sonnet, that wouldn't figure in one of the responses :D
But say that's right. Fine, and the iPhone refuses to use Flash, which just about everyone except Steve Jobs wants. Some poems are "easy", others are hard, and they all seem to attract their audiences. What does this criterion have to do with good interface design or good poetry, except that it's a pat response to the last of my three examples?

- Of course you can get free-as-in-beer linux! That's most linux distros.

Software: I first learned programming in 1976, but never progressed beyond being a rudimentary student. I ran a system and a network during the '90s, admittedly not without a lot of hand holding, and with some, not much, interaction fiddling with the OS, router setups, firewalls, etc. I'm perfectly capable of considering the creative aspects of software design and programming, but I draw the line at the wrong-headed redemption-by-association imputed to it by popular science writer types, among others. I'm referring to those who imply that programming, being "creative" like painting or musical composition or poetry, ipso facto partakes of their beauty. You know, the "math can be so sublimely elegant!" posture. Programming is "like" poetry as football is "like" dance or poetry is "like" debugging, namely, it takes little intellectual wherewithal to identify, for argument's sake, points of comparison between the two or, for that matter, between any A and any B. But A being like B in certain respects (e.g., requires problem solving, counting, etc.) doesn't entail A sharing others of B's characteristics (e.g., having aesthetic worth, producing new ideas).

I'm not really barking up the free/non-free tree at all. Of course money prompts great artists. Rossini? Or take John Ashbery, an eminent and quite successful poet: who says fame and acclaim are special motivators for his poetry? But I mentioned two meanings of innovation not to categorize varieties of endeavor. My point was, again, to illustrate how innovation as profit in industry is regarded implicitly as sharing in the less readily definable nature of cultural innovation and artistic breakthrough. Proponents of technological innovation who spin the term are being either sloppy or deceptive when they equate new widgets on the market with the tangles and subtleties of new modes of creative expression. (This mirrors Fish's point, too, inasmuch as he is criticizing the importing of the moral parameters of plagiarism into a professional context that has its own rationale for prohibiting the behavior.) But, yeah, I'd say money drives more of the population of software developers than it does clawhammer banjo pickers. Cinema? That's not an art, and I wish people would stop treating like one.

To heck with eminent poets. They do what they do for their own as well as other's reasons. But don't you think that many poets are intensely aware of the utter uselessness of their work? They are not in the business of solving problems or improving efficiencies or increasing output. Assuming for the sake of argument that poems accomplish anything at all, whatever it is they supply is not targeting a demand. If they work at all, they do textual work, the labor of ink on paper (or some analogous medium), fixing (more or less) into language the vagaries of language, a weird tool. It so happens that interface design is troubled by many of these and similar vagaries, but that doesn't render it sufficiently "like" poetry to merit an ascription of beauty. I happen to think, crudely, that interface design is about where the painters at the caves of Lascaux were relative to later innovations in perspective.

Sure, Linux distros are free to acquire. But actually using Linux takes time and effort. (As does driving to that public library for that volume of Eliot.)

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