Friday, August 31, 2012

Honor Codes?

A further interesting question that has come out of the as-of-yet alleged cheating scandal at Harvard is whether Harvard should have an honor code.  The question is particularly interesting since Harvard attempted to institute a voluntary "freshman pledge" last year, that met with "controversy" (see here, here for example).  Harry Lewis wrote a detailed opinion of the pledge on his blog at the time.  Indeed, Harry Lewis in fact has spoken consistently on this issue for some time -- here's a 1996 Crimson article where he is quoted:
"Our understanding is that in registering at Harvard students agree to abide by the rules of the community they are voluntarily entering. It is not clear why a special signed agreement of another kind would be needed, or would add anything."
As if often the case, I agree with Harry's opinion above.  Also, I'd much rather have students discussing the issues and coming to grips with what are sometimes challenging ethical questions rather than signing a pledge.   

Come to think of it, I'm not sure if freshmen are to be asked to sign the pledge again this year.  (The pledge is not an honor code per se, but has been called the "kindness pledge".)

But back to the question.  Should Harvard have an honor code?  Why?  What would it add?  More empirically, do honor codes actually reduce bad behaviors, like cheating?  Is there evidence of it?  I note that many cheating scandals have occurred at schools with honor codes -- like the Naval Academy and Duke -- though apparently some researchers suggest an honor code could reduce cheating.

A natural question:  should punishments be more severe for cheating if cheating is part of an honor code?

Clearly, the question of whether we should have an honor code is going to arise at Harvard this year.  Any opinions in advance?

Max Flows in O(nm) Time by Orlin

Just saw Suresh point to this talk (and paper) about a new result for max flows in O(nm) time by James Orlin.  I'm listening to the talk he has on line this afternoon, but it seems buzzworthy and I hadn't heard about it, so I thought I'd add some buzz.  

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Academic Dishonesty Cases

I have a bunch of half-written blog posts, none of which I have felt pressed to finish, so the blog has languished over the summer.  But then, something has come up worth writing about.

The Harvard Gazette has an article up about a cheating scandal at Harvard;  apparently, in a large class last spring, a large number of students worked together on the final exam.  The first two paragraphs read:
The Harvard College Administrative Board is investigating allegations that a significant number of students enrolled in an undergraduate course last semester may have inappropriately collaborated on answers, or plagiarized their classmates’ responses, on the final exam for the course.
An initial investigation by the board, the faculty committee charged with interpreting and applying the rules of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to the undergraduate student body, touched off a comprehensive review of the more than 250 take-home final exams submitted at the end of the course. That review has resulted in cases before the Administrative Board involving nearly half the students in the class.
This is reminiscent of other past scandals (MIT, Duke) and general trends found in examining academic dishonesty (Stanford, MIT).

There's not much information out there right now on this story -- Harvard has not even released what class is involved.  There aren't that many classes with an enrollment > 250, so it might not be too hard to piece together;  I imagine some newspapers will find out soon enough.  (Update:  The Crimson tweets that the class is Introduction to Congress.)

There are a number of ways to look at this story, and I imagine I might write a few posts on it.  One issue is the fallout for the students.  Harvard has a very tough policy on academic dishonesty compared to other schools, from what I've heard.  A standard punishment is that students are required to withdraw for one year for cases of plagiarism.  "Improper collaboration" is perhaps a bit fuzzier an issue, and I am not sure how the Ad Board will choose to handle it.  But it will certainly be a stressful and trying time for all involved as it gets sorted out, and for those with more severe punishments, well afterwards.  I note that it's not just the students who have to deal with the stress of it all;  it also takes the toll on the administrators who have to administer these decisions.

Are Harvard's remedies for academic dishonesty too strict?  These are the rules of the Faculty, and we could change them.  Is withdrawal for 1 year for standard cases suitable?  I've heard many arguments (generally from students) that that is too harsh a sentence;  on the other hand, it's meant to strongly deter what should be (but doesn't seem to be) a rare transgression.  It's an interesting issue to consider, and I'd enjoy hearing reasoned views in the comments.

Interestingly, there's been a lot on higher-up academic dishonesty of various sorts of late, most notably Fareed Zakaria (Yale Daily Newsone of many Shots in the Dark Posts) and Niall Ferguson (Brad DeLong's blog,one of many Shots in the Dark posts).  So these topics seem ripe for larger-scale discussion.    

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Important IP Case

For those of you not following the Apple-Samsung case going on right now, it's fascinating.  Since I do expert witness work, it's interesting to me from that perspective, but just in terms of the technology and issues involved, there seems to be a lot involved in the case.  FOSS patents has detailed coverage, although it's also getting plenty of detailed coverage from business and tech news sites.

In particular, the latest things that really interested me:

Harvard's own Woody Yang (Electrical Engineering) was a witness for Samsung
(It's been several years since it happened, but when I started at Harvard, I ran into many uninformed people who didn't seem to know that Harvard had computer science and engineering.  So when a Harvard prof shows up in such a high-profile context, it still makes me smile.) 

Andries van Dam used Mitsubishi Electric Research Lab's Diamondtouch as prior art for the snap-back patent.  (See here, here, here.)  I spent a good deal of time at MERL around that time period, and remember they were (rightly) very excited about it as a technology, so it's interesting to see it come back as a piece of prior art in this case.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Mail Issue

Last week I had an issue where I sent an e-mail to someone (non-work-related), and a while later got the response forwarded to me from my wife, with a note that Harvard was rejecting the response e-mail.  It seemed to be a one-time issue -- I was getting other e-mail -- so I assumed it was a spurious issue and ignored it.

Last night, it happened again -- both of my brothers had their mail to me bounced from Harvard, with the same error message.

The commonality was easy to spot -- all were using Yahoo mail accounts.

I sent mail to IT, who quickly found that yes, a firewall upgrade last week had somehow made mail from undeliverable.

It's always a little disturbing to me when I find these problems.  For historical reasons I think I'm on a mail server that doesn't involve a large number of people at Harvard, but still, nobody noticed for a week that mail from Yahoo wasn't being delivered?  Perhaps it says something unfortunate about how many people still use Yahoo mail accounts these days.

It's also an example of something I feel I always have to explain to people:  e-mail is not a 100% reliable delivery service, and shouldn't be thought of as such.  Yes, most of the time if your e-mail is dropped it is a "me issue" (you can either view it as my laziness/irresponsibility, or view it from my standpoint -- I get 50-100 e-mails a day and yours fell off the end somewhere);  and sometimes these days it's a system issue (your mail looked like spam, and never reached my eyes).  This time at least there was an error response so it was known that the mail didn't get through.  But always best to be wary of your e-mail system, and use the phone if it's something important you need a response to.


Thursday, August 09, 2012

Distracting Videos

Jeff Erickson gets the blame for pointing out this amusing/disturbing video on counting.  I feel like I should make it a background video before my undergraduate class one day.  Catchy tune.  

My wife liked this backyard roller coaster video, which apparently creates discussion about whether this is the best dad ever (let me repeat:  backyard roller coaster) or completely irresponsible and dangerous parenting (let me repeat:  backyard roller coaster).  

David Malan gets fun videos up to advertise CS50.  So any Harvard students reading this, point the freshpeople over to and run the video.  (In this case, I will not justify the choice of music.)  Expect more CS50 goodness and news on the blog as it's one of the initial HarvardX courses.  

I found my library had all the Sarah Jane Adventures DVD sets.  (Trailer here.)  For those who don't know, Sarah Jane Smith was one of Doctor Who's companions back in the 1970's;  only three decades or so later, they finally gave her a spin-off show, which is a lighter and somewhat more kid-friendly version of Doctor Who.  My kids (who also like Doctor Who, though they're occasionally creeped out by it) were instantly addicted when we visited London a few years ago.  So this last week or so I've been forced to watch many, many happy hours of perfectly summertime TV with the kids.  (My youngest only wants to watch Scooby Doo, so I've also been catching the new episodes of Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated -- EVIL PIZZA ;  while I'm really, really, really burnt out on Scooby Doo at this point, I have to say, the Mystery Incorporated series seems like the best incarnation of Scooby Doo ever.)

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Article about DEC Folk

Interesting Wired article talking about a bunch of people I worked with back when I was at Digital Systems Research Center, and their big effect on Google.  It's great to see them get credit for all they've done.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Like a Movie Meteor...

The new semester is hurtling toward me.

This semester I get to teach one of my graduate courses, the one I named Algorithms at the End of the Wire sometime over a decade ago, when that seemed like an appropriate title.  Students seem to have learned that the appropriate subtitle for the course is something akin to:  "Things Professor Mitzenmacher is working on, is interested in, or otherwise likes."  Standard topics therefore include ranking and search engines (Pagerank + variants), data sketches and summaries, coding, and compression.

Since I teach it every other year, I try to introduce new topics into the mix where appropriate.  Generally, I'm looking for two things:

1)  Topics that have an interesting mix of theory and practice.  The class is based on paper-reading, so it's particularly fun (for me) to try to find a topic where I can assign one theoretical paper and one practical paper.  This yields interesting room for comparisons and contrasts, induces (I can only hope) interactions between systems and theory students in the class, and (again I can only hope) ensures that everyone gets something out of at least one of the papers.
2)  Topics in my bailiwick.  Networking (including social networking!) is always good;  connections between "EE theory" and "CS theory" are nice;  big data topics, including database or cloud style applications are very welcome.

So what papers in the last 2-3 years, say, really need to be added to the class reading list?  Where are the new and exciting places where theory and practice are meeting to produce exciting breakthroughs (that, ideally, can be covered in couple of lectures)?  Or, as another way to think about it, what should I really be learning about?  Please let me know in the comments.    
PS:  Yes, I haven't been blogging much.  I've been having a perfectly enjoyable summer without blogging.  I've been busy with vacation, kid time, other lazy time, consulting work, the occasional bit of "Area Dean" administration, and, of course, my day job -- a few papers have been submitted, a few more are at various stages in the pipeline.  But I suppose with the summer tailing off I'll have more reason to be blogging again.