Cheating on tests October 28, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A school district in Newfoundland has decided on a controversial policy: They will give students who are caught cheating on tests or assignments the opportunity to re-do the assessment at a later time. A student caught cheating will not be awarded a grade for the illicit work; the grade will be taken from the make-up work instead.
The measure is justified on two grounds:
- The policy will detach assessments of student knowledge from assessments of student behaviour. Reductions in grades for cheating, in other words, distort the picture of the cheater’s academic ability.
- The policy will encourage wayward students to complete their assessments.
“We want to encourage students to do their best work and not to give up,” said Rice [chief executive of education for the Eastern School District]. “We are a district that believes in hope and second chances and we want our policies and practices to reflect that.”
Viewed as a measure directed at an individual case of cheating, the policy seems to make sense. An educator learns little about the knowledge that a student possesses from work that was plagiarized, say. Provided that the make-up assessment is not similarly cheated, better information can be obtained. And, indeed, the student is given a second chance.
Of course, problems may arise that are more easily viewed from a broader perspective. For example, the policy will create more work for teachers, who may well have to set and grade more work per student than before. Will teachers be given more time and resources, or smaller classes, to compensate for the new policy? (I doubt it.) If not, the policy may discourage teachers from making the effort to identify and deal with cheating students.
Also, the policy may actually incentivize cheating. Suppose that a student is unprepared for a test. The option of writing the test honestly will likely result in a low mark. However, the option of cheating will likely result in a higher mark. If the student is caught cheating, then there is always a second chance. By providing a possibility of over-achieving, this policy may have the effect of inflating the performance of cheating students instead of measuring it more accurately.
Also, consider the potential effect on other students who do not cheat. The procedure will probably strike them as unfair (from the article’s comments):
I get 70 on test and not cheating You get 69 for cheating and not studying .given a second chance and you make 80 HMM .Society is disinergrating with morals and values now we are teaching in school that its ok to cheat.Whats wrong here?
The inflation of some students’ marks will be seen (rightly) as unfair to the honest students, which will demoralize them. As a result, they may become less invested in achieving well, which would bring down their performance. This result will also distort the information that the school board is hoping to measure more accurately.
So, there are plausible grounds to fear that the policy could both incentivize cheating and disincentivize the detection of cheating on the whole. If the result is to inflate the grades of dishonest students and to reduce the grades of honest ones, then the policy cannot achieve its stated ends. Worse still, honest students may decide that they have to cheat as well, in order to stay ahead of the dishonest ones. In that event, the moral value of honesty in the classroom will be cheapened.
I think that the motivation of the policy is laudable. It strikes me as an example of a maxim endorsed by Ghandi: Hate the sin and not the sinner. In other words, we should deplore cheating but try to help cheaters. Although well-intentioned, this policy strikes me as apt to backfire and harm all students, cheaters and others, through unintended consequences.
Affordable architecture October 27, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Here is a good piece by Allison Arieff on architecture for affordable housing. One problem that sometimes crops up with the design of affordable housing is that it obviously looks like affordable housing. That is, the design and/or finishing “screams” low-budget. Have you ever noticed how affordable housing in your area has a certain look to it?
Arieff explains the reason why architects produce such designs: Affordable housing should not look expensive, they think, otherwise it will look “too appealing” to its clients, preventing them from moving out when that might be appropriate. Perhaps. It may be that designing affordable housing is not a valued pursuit among architects and so fails to attract good or imaginative people. And designers may also be in the grip of deeply held stereotypes about decorum. Decorum in dress requires people to wear clothing that reflects their social status. Likewise, decorum in architecture requires buildings to reflect the social position of their occupants.
In any event, Arieff presents several intriguing examples of thoughtful or even splashy affordable architecture. She has also recently discussed work on trailer parks as an effective and yet pleasing model of affordable housing.
One possible criticism of this approach to affordable housing is that it runs the risk of “fetishizing” poverty. Samuel Mockbee, architect founder of the Rural Studio, saw providing dignified, affordable housing as a calling of his profession. However, the unique structures created by his students have been criticized as a means of dressing up poverty rather than alleviating it. Some visitors travel long distances to view the structures he helped to build, as if they were museum pieces. Andrew Freear, his successor at the Studio, has deliberately moved away from arty design partly in response to this view.
This is not to say that affordable housing design should revert to its default, clunky mode. It is simply that designers of affordable housing need to navigate between the Scylla of drab or soulless boxes and the Charybdis of monuments to their own virtuosity.
Your google record October 24, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
Our Internet searches certainly say something about us. That something is not always admirable.
Consider the news that Mohammad Shafia of Montreal and his sons Tooba and Hamed are accused of the “honour killings” of his first wife Rona and their daughters Zainab, Sahar, and Geeti. Allegedly, Mr. Shafia felt that his daughters had shamed him and the family through licentious conduct. The method chosen to restore family honour was to kill the daughters and first wife, a traditional practice in some parts of the world.
No, Google did not make him do it. Instead, police have turned up incriminating evidence by searching the laptop that they seized from his son:
Forensic experts found evidence of a Google search 10 days before the deaths.
“The words entered were: ‘Where to commit a murder,’ ” Lacelle said. A few weeks earlier there had been a search on the computer for, “Can a prisoner have control over their real estate,” the prosecutor said.
Of course, such evidence may be taken out of context. Someone might read about a murder in a news article and then enter a similar search in order to find out more about the topic. Even so, it does not bode well for Mr. Shafia.
There is currently a similar situation before courts in the UK. There, a Dutch engineer named Vincent Tabak is suspected in the death of Joanna Yeates. He also has been found to have carried out suspicious Google searches prior to the event:
Among the phrases Tabak Googled were “sexual offence explained” and “definition of sexual assault”, the jury was told.
Next day he looked at online maps and images of Longwood Lane, the road three miles from her Bristol flat where her body was discovered.
Later, the jury was told, he researched subjects including: “How does forensic identification work?” and the location of CCTV cameras in Canynge Road, Clifton, where Tabak and Yeates lived.
He researched “body decomposition time” and an article about a man who strangled his wife and pleaded diminished responsibility.
Perhaps Mr. Tabak was cooking up a story in case he was questioned by police.
These incidents display the trade-offs of services such as Google. I take it we are all familiar with the advantages brought by the access to knowledge that Google provides. Not all of that information works to the good of society, such as information about how to commit crimes, or where. Of course, the default of recording search terms does help police to gather relevant evidence after a crime has been detected.
Does Google have any obligations to society in cases like these? Should it, for example, censor search results to prevent potential criminals from finding information useful to them? Such censorship would interfere with rights to freedom of expression and would likely hamper public discourse on the topic of murder or other controversial subjects. Perhaps Google could be required to flag suspicious search histories. Banks are required to flag transaction histories that seem suspicious. It was apparently a record of suspicious transactions that brought former NY governor Elliot Spitzer to the attention of police. Should a similar standard be applied to Google? Perhaps, although the problem of dealing with false positives looms large: Any writer doing research for a murder mystery or even simple public discussion of prominent crimes would bring suspicion on many innocent people. In the end, the default of recording search histories in browsers may be the best approach available.
If Rubik’s is right, do you ever want to be wrong? October 19, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV205 , comments closed
When the chess Grandmaster Gary Kasparov lost to Deep Blue, the IBM chess computer, in 1997, someone had to move the pieces for the computer.
Fourteen years later, watch as a Lego-Smartphone hybrid solves a Rubiks cube faster than the human record of 5.66 seconds, without a human moving the pieces:
Note that a normal Rubik’s speedcubing contest, the participant is allowed to study the cube for some time before they solve it, and can map out a strategy in advance of turning a side. This contraption does both in only 5.352 seconds. Undeniably impressive, and it seems unlikely that humans will ever reclaim the title of world’s fastest solution of Rubik’s cube. From now on, for that competition there must be two classes: machines and humans.
Traditionally, the response to such machine triumphs goes something like this
“Gah! The computer robot overlords are here and we’ll all be out of a job soon.”
“Don’t worry! These are specialized technologies with limited external applications, so jobs are still pretty safe.”
An odd coincidence then that an intriguing report appeared in the Globe and Mail today, pointing out that:
For decades, American workers and their machines advanced in tandem. As companies invested in technology, more workers were needed to operate machines.
That relationship is now looking unsteady.
Since 1999, business investment in equipment and software has surged 33 per cent while the total number of people employed by private firms has changed little.
Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics and an astute observer of the relationship between humans and machines, observed over 50 years ago that if machines were not integrated well into society, then they had the power to eliminate blue-collar, manual labour as much as white-collar, intellectual labour. And though there was quite a bit of fear of computers in the post-war decades, that fear gradually dwindled as it became clear that computers were not (yet) replacing humans and most people grew quite comfortable using them.
But how about today and for the future?
Clearly, a world-record setting Rubik’s cube solving Lego robot is not the sign of the Singularity (when Artificial Intelligence will supplant human intelligence). It’s a fairly straightforward, if also extremely clever, application of known Rubik’s cube algorithms and the servo motors from a toy. Tinkering at its best.
But I wonder if it is somehow symbolic of something else. This is, after all, a machine designed to restore “perfection”. Notice how in the video that the inventor has the randomize the cube first. Humans make the mistakes, and the machines clean them up. Humans that make mistakes are imperfect; humans are imperfect. It fits within a certain kind of dread some people share, that living in a machine age compels this kind of perspective and orientation towards the world, and that we must orient ourselves towards the needs and requirements of machinery. As George Grant said, “Technology is the metaphysics of the age, it is the way being appears to us.”
That a machine can solve a Rubik’s cube faster than a human really shouldn’t impress us. I’d be disappointed if it couldn’t. I think I’d be more impressed with a Rubik’s solving machine that did it the same way a human would: haltingly, tentatively, one side at a time, until giving up and leaving it on the shelf for a few years before trying again. Without the inevitable perfection, and happy getting just one or two colours done.
Which brings me back to another IBM supercomputer: Watson, the trivia master that won on Jeopardy earlier this year. It did need special circuitry to bypass the hand-held buzzer, but least it wasn’t always perfect. Indeed, it was, occasionally and amusingly, spectacularly wrong.
A magazine is an iPad that does not work October 19, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Below is a cute video that is making the rounds. It shows a 1 year-old girl playing with an iPad, then a magazine, then an iPad. According to the father, Jean-Louis Costanza, the video shows how profoundly her experience with the iPad has “coded” his infant daughter.
It might be interesting to test more systematically the claim that exposure to an iPad will frame the expectations that children have of any old picture that they run across. However, the claim is plausible enough. And it does provide an amusing illustration of one of the themes of this blog, that technology is not just a tool. In this case, the introduction of an iPad has enabled the girl to interact playfully with pictures that then respond to her touch. In addition, it has changed (or, at least, conditioned) her perception of other things, such as photographs in magazines. The result, as her father puts it, is that a magazine becomes an iPad that does not work. In short, the iPad does not merely afford a new activity, it also affects how users treat affordances that were available before.
The murse October 18, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Being a man can be difficult, largely due to the difficult fashion choices that we are called upon to make. I recall last year reading about the problem of how men could carry an iPad around without compromising their masculinity. The iPad is, after all, too large to fit into a shirt pocket. Carrying one in a bag would be one solution but some men are uncomfortable with the notion being seen holding what looks like purse.
“Women, they have purses to put this kind of stuff in; men don’t,” said André von Houck, a 22-year-old programmer from San Francisco. “I don’t want to carry any bags.” His solution: he simply leaves his iPad at home. “I don’t carry it anywhere.”
A solution one person found was to purchase a WWII era Swiss ammunition case. Military gear is suitably masculine, but some men might balk at entering a coffee shop with what might be mistaken for mal-intent.
However, a solution is now at hand! It seems that the era of the man purse has come. Isabel Wilkinson discusses how a the man-purse, or “murse”, is becoming socially acceptable. Manly men like soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo have been seen carrying a Gucci clutch bag, and Jay-Z has taken a liking to his Louis Vuitton.
The murse must be distinguished from the man-bag, which has enjoyed some cachet recently. The man-bag is essentially a fashionable satchel, a riff on a bag that is was already alright for men to carry in public. The murse is the real thing: a purse-sized bag for carrying the essentials, utilitarian and stylish all at once. Now a man can carry around his iPad in his murse tucked under his arm!
It is unclear that the murse will really take off, however. Rappers do provide a potent model of edgy masculinity, so it is plausible to think that the murse might become acceptable for men who follow their lead. Yet, the feminine associations with the purse will be hard to dislodge. Rappers and movie stars can afford to appear eccentric but not so the man-in-the-street. It might be that the murse would stand more of a chance if it became associated with a cause. Here, I am thinking of Pink shirt day in Canada, on which it is acceptable for boys to wear pink shirts in protest against bullying in solidarity with their schoolmates.
Well, the prospect of a murse is worthy of discussion. How would you design a murse that you (or a man in your life) would be willing to carry?
Guest Post: Do you “like” Facebook? :) or :( October 17, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : Uncategorized , comments closed
Today we have a special guest post from an STV student! For personal reasons that will be obvious, they’ve asked to remain anonymous here.
I used to use Facebook fairly liberally in the past, but have now scaled back as I have come across the phenomenon of “Facebook Depression”. Facebook’s explicit quantitative indicators – the famed Like button – along with the comments that follow – or the lack thereof – can potentially propel a person towards depression.
On this social networking megalopolis, many users typically post photos, links, and updates about their social lives. I didn’t really post aspects of my social life, rather, I tried to encourage good deeds or foster knowledge sharing. In encouraging good deeds, I once posted a link about donating to a charity, and subsequently realized how lonely I can feel when people don’t Like or Comment on my links.
When I posted the charity link, I got Zero Likes and Zero comments. Zero. I received absolutely no support in this virtual space, and then realized that Facebook gives very explicit quantitative indicators of social support. By doing so, Facebook subconsciously makes you engage in “upward social comparison”, the age old idea of “Johnny got 100% on his test, and I got 80%”. Except in the case of Facebook, it becomes, “Johnny got 10 Likes, I got 0 Likes, Don’t my friends support me?”
Too much upward social comparison can potentially lead to depression, and in the case of Facebook, like my case, that is very true. It makes me feel that either people don’t like me, people don’t support me, or they’re not listening to what I have to say. Inevitably, this made me depressed, and I’m not alone in this observation. As this article points out, “Facebook can enhance feelings of social connectedness among well-adjusted kids, and have the opposite effect on those prone to depression.” To those prone to depression, Facebook’s quantitative indicators and social comparisons can make things worse.
I guess this is what happens when we transplant social activities onto the digital realm. You get an “in your face” number of Likes and Comments, and if that number is Zero, it can be a very painful feeling. Especially if you were expecting some support.
“Likes” on social networking sites or search engines or newspapers are all ways of quantifying what that was previously quite difficult to measure. However, as this person notes, these quantifying processes can produce unexpected and undesirable results. I’m sure there are benefits to the entities distributing and collecting “Like” buttons across the web, but there are costs as well, particularly to those people who might not measure up. Another way of putting it: if ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise…
Thanks to the student who contributed this observation. I’d invite any of our readers or STV students to contribute their own thoughts or ideas for future posts!
Peer-to-peer sharing and design October 14, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
The uptake of collaborative consumption (CC) seems to be progressing well. The basic idea of CC is that people can make money (or earn other rewards) by sharing their things with others, often through a Web-based interface. An established example would be Zipcar, a service that allows members to rent cars from a local pool on short notice and for short periods of time. Newer services, such as RelayRides, allow people to rent out their own vehicles to others on a short-term and ad hoc basis.
The point of such services is to allow people to squeeze more value from their gear. Your car, after all, probably does absolutely nothing for most of the time you own it. That is, it simply sits in your driveway or your parking spot depreciating. Why not exploit its potential through a rental arrangement? Another benefit of such schemes would be increasing sustainability of the vehicle fleet: All the trips that people want to make could be accomplished with a much small fleet of vehicles. So, the vehicle fleet on the road would be far more efficient and thus sustainable than it is currently.
A recent article in Atlantic Cities notes that GM has announced a plan to team up with RelayRides in order to make peer-to-peer rentals easier for owners to arrange. In brief, they plan to modify the OnStar system to make it easy for owners to sign up with services such as RelayRides.
This development raises a more general question: How might the design of gear be modified to make it easier to share it through peer-to-peer services? A cars become Internet objects, it makes sense to load them with software that would facilitate CC. In the near future, more of our stuff will join the Internet of things, so we can start thinking about how to integrate them with CC services. It might be useful to plan for sharing as part of the basic design process.
Books require only minor modifications to be shared via libraries. Today, that means RFID tags identifying books and their institutional owners. I suppose that my garden tools and patio furniture could be treated in much the same way. But how would you design a swimming pool, say, if you were planning to rent access to it to your neighbors?
Traffic lights October 7, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Traffic lights have become “mythic” in the sense that we simply take them and their basic design for granted. (See here for Neil Postman’s use of the term mythic in this sense.) It is interesting, then, to find a public service video from the 1930s that tries to explain traffic lights and their operation to the general, car-driving public. Have a look!
One interesting aspect of the video is that it captures a time when traffic lights were in widespread use but were only starting to be standardized nationally. Some lights had two colors, green and red, whereas others had three or even four. Some lights also had semaphores that said “Stop” or “Go”. Some systems had amber lights come on while green or red lights were still lit. Other systems allowed only one light on at a time.
It is amusing to consider how the design of traffic lights embodies a kind of social contract regarding how motorists should share an important resource, namely street intersections. An automatic regulation system allows people the liberty of the public roads while requiring them to acknowledge and respect the same liberty of others.
Interestingly, the video segment does not explicitly touch on the pro-social aspect of traffic lights. Instead, it concentrates on the more selfish reasons to adhere to the new rules: If you obey the traffic lights, you will get to your destination sooner and with less wear-and-tear on your car. Indeed, the traffic lights themselves tend to detach the attention of drivers from the motorists on the intersecting streets. It is the relation between each driver and the traffic light that matters; relations with other drivers are mediated by the signal system. Contrast this form of control with the traffic circle (which you see more of in Waterloo Region these days) in which each driver is forced to reckon directly with the others using the intersection. Traffic circles force drivers, however fleetingly, to think about how they are obligated to share the road with others.
Biotechnology and the philosopher’s stone October 5, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed
One of the most active areas in current gene therapy research concerns enhanced longevity. That is, researchers are attempting to find ways of extending the human lifespan, e.g., by boosting the expression of Sir2 genes, which appears to have extended the lives of experimental worms and mice by somewhere between 10 and 30 percent.
Longevity research is particularly interesting from a social perspective because it is a project that, so far as I know, has no therapeutic value. Research on genetic therapies for building up muscle tissue, for example, can be used to return to normal people who have experienced muscle loss due to injury or genetic mutation. Of course, the same therapy can also be used to enhance the muscle tissue of athletes, thus improving their performance. Such uses of genetic enhancement have already been banned by the International Olympic Committee.
By contrast, longevity research does not appear to have any such application. That is, it is not being developed as a treatment to aid those people with unusually short lifespans. Instead, it is simply a product that people with enough money might well be tempted to buy.
Concerns over what effects such a product might have on people abound. Perhaps longevity treatments will give rise to a gerontocracy, that is, rule of the elderly, as people wealthy enough to afford the treatment live longer and thus amass more treasure and influence. Or perhaps such claims are completely overblown.
Setting aside issues of social equality, another concern might be the effect of longevity treatment on the character of the individuals who opt for it. Here, I am reminded of the effect of their mortality on the main protagonist and antagonist of the Harry Potter series. On the one hand, there is Harry Potter himself. He is, as it turns out, marked for death: The scar on his forehead connotes his pursuit by the murderous Valdemort. He was born to die, like all mortals. Harry’s response to this situation is admirable: He faces his fate with courage. He risks his life in the pursuit of noble ends and to help his friends and others. His mortality helps to make him a virtuous and admirable person.
On the other hand we have Valdemort. He is also a mortal but tries in every way possible to thwart death. This fear of death causes him to do terrible things, such as killing unicorns; it also causes him to seek the power of death over others. Killing people helps him to feel that he has some control over death, temporarily relieving but ultimately compounding his problem.
So, my question is: Will the pursuit of longevity through genetic enhancement have a similar effect on people as the pursuit of the philosopher’s stone etc. had on Valdemort? Anxiety over health seems to have increased even as public health and the effectiveness of modern medicine have improved. In short, increases in lifespan so far seem to have made people more anxious over their health instead of less so. I doubt that genetic enhancement of lifespan will propel the rise of you-know-who but it could affect the way people respond personally to risk, and how they want risks distributed in society. Will the enhanced demand more stringent licensing for drivers? Special medical insurance from the government? Separate hospitals?