Thursday, November 30, 2006

The NSTA has some explaining to do

Think Progress recently reported that the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) rejected 50,000 free copies of An Inconvenient Truth. An op-ed by one of the producers of An Inconvenient Truth includes the NSTA's response:
In their [the NSTA's] e-mail rejection, they expressed concern that other "special interests" might ask to distribute materials, too; they said they didn't want to offer "political" endorsement of the film; and they saw "little, if any, benefit to NSTA or its members" in accepting the free DVDs.
That seems like pretty dubious reasoning (it's a movie about climate change for goodness sake), but the NSTA didn't stop there:
Still, maybe the NSTA just being extra cautious. But there was one more curious argument in the e-mail: Accepting the DVDs, they wrote, would place "unnecessary risk upon the [NSTA] capital campaign, especially certain targeted supporters." One of those supporters, it turns out, is the Exxon Mobil Corp.
The NSTA has some great resources for educators available on their website, and has been very involved in moving science education forward in the US. However, I don't like the sounds of this one bit; professional science organizations should be independent of their corporate sponsors, not beholden to them.

The NSTA has an official response on their website, wherein they include this statement:
"Before we accept any funds from outside groups (corporate or otherwise), and as a condition of any support, we make it clear that NSTA is solely responsible for developing, directing, and implementing the programs we offer to teachers."
While that sounds good, it doesn't address the accusation that they rejected the videos because they were afraid they'd lose corporate sponsorship. In fact, nothing in their official response attempts to explain why they rejected the videos.

If the NSTA is censoring (or otherwise regulating the content of) the materials they distribute to members in order to protect corporate sponsorship, I have absolutely no interest in being a member of their society in the future.

They've got some explaining to do.

(via PZ Myers)

Update 12/1/06:

The NSTA has updated their press release to include more justification for why they didn't distribute the DVDs to their members. Apparently the NSTA's board in 2001 adopted a policy "prohibiting product endorsement":
NSTA established its non-endorsement policy to formalize our position that the association would not send third-party materials to our members without their consent or request. NSTA looks forward to working with Ms. David to ensure that there are many options for publicizing the availability of the DVD to the national science education community, and to broaden the conversation on the important topic of global warming.
They've also published a letter wherein they discuss how they could facilitate distribution of the DVDs to their members while still holding to their policy of not endorsing products:
1. Providing a link on NSTA’s website (two million page views per month) that will enable middle level and high school teachers to obtain a free copy of the DVD from your distribution center.
2. The opportunity to purchase our mailing list for your distribution.
3. Announcing the availability of your DVD through a number of our channels to science teachers, which include the NSTA Express, our weekly email blast (circulation 250,000); NSTA publications (circulation 55,000 plus pass-along rate of an additional 50,000); and the NSTA Building a Presence for Science network online newsletter (circulation 40,000).
4. Providing your representatives the opportunity to exhibit at the National Conference on Science Science Education in St. Louis, MO. This would be an additional opportunity for you to interact with the attendees, distribute the DVD, and share the educational material supporting it.
5. Creating an online message board that would focus on the issue of global warming. The message board would be open to both NSTA members and nonmembers worldwide.
I only have one question: does the NSTA sell their mailing list to anyone who comes along and wants it? I sure hope not (I don't want to be getting "The Benefits of Oil," "Global Warming: Liberal Myth," and "Creationism: It's Pure Science" videos if I'm an NSTA member), but if they don't sell their mailing list to everyone, aren't they tacitly endorsing the companies to which they do sell their mailing list?

Thanks to Sean, who pointed out the update in the comments.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Creating and posting videos with xvidcap in Ubuntu

One of the reasons I'm excited about teaching online is that there are so many tools I can use to help me share information with students. Animations, videos, audio recordings (e.g., podcasts), blogs, discussion boards, PDFs of readings, textbooks, and plain ol' HTML pages can all be combined to make a course that is (hopefully) more interesting and accessible than just a textbook and HTML pages. So, in the coming months I'm going to be trying out various programs to see which ones I can use while creating content.

For the past few weeks I've been exploring different methods of creating videos. There are two specific things I want to do with videos in my course:
  • Create videos of tasks being performed on the desktop (screencap videos), primarily to create tutorials to help students use Excel, browse my course website, and other such things.
  • Create animated mini-lectures on key topics, probably based on PowerPoint (or OpenOffice Impress) slides. These will ideally be less than 5 minutes each and contain a combination of text, images, and animations.
There are many non-free, non-open-source products available to help with this, such as Camtasia and Articulate Presenter. While I'm sure they're good programs (they are widely used), they're hideously expensive: Camtasia Studio runs around $300 and Articulate Presenter costs at least $500. I've seen some Articulate Presenter videos - they've got an excellent navigation system built it, and are seamlessly cross-platform, but before I go spending $500 on a glorified screencapture program I want to explore the free solutions first.


The predominant free open source video capture solution for Linux seems to be xvidcap. The program is completely free; it can be downloaded from xvidcap's Sourceforge page. They even have a .deb file that installs in seconds on Ubuntu; to install it all you have to do is download the .deb file and then double-click on it in the file browser (Nautilus), which will bring up a dialog that installs the program.

Using xvidcap is fairly straightforward; it has a small control panel and a little red box. Once you hit record on the control panel, xvidcap records everything that occurs in that little red box. The box can be resized to fit whatever you want to record using the eyedropper tool, which allows you to either click and drag to move the box or click into a program window to have the box sized to fit that program's window. The box is attached to the bottom of the control panel by default, but can be undocked from the control panel by hitting the lock button.

xvidcap screen shot
Screenshot of xvidcap; the program records everything that occurs in the red box.

The preferences are accessed by right-clicking on the filename (to bring up the main menu) and then clicking "preferences." Xvidcap can either save a series of screencaps to a directory (what xvidcap calls single-frame recording, which lacks audio) or can record a full-motion video with audio (multi-frame recording). The preferences window allows you to set all sorts of preferences - you can choose your output file format, video and audio codecs, video and audio quality, and frame-rate. Choosing wisely here is key, as too high a quality or framerate will result in videos with skipped frames (which will look and sound bad) or files that are unplayable on most computers (e.g., Microsoft Windows doesn't have DIVX codecs installed by default). As a minor note, some codec and framerate combinations are not possible, which unfortunately is often reported to you solely in the form of a program crash (but it's easy to reopen).

xvidcap preferences screen shot
Screenshot of xvidcap's multi-frame capture preferences.

My computer is old enough that I needed to lower the video quality and reduce the framerate as low as possible (7.5fps for the Microsoft DIVX 2 or MPEG DIVX codecs) to enable 700x700 video recordings without frame skippage. Reducing the size of the recording window does enable me to make higher-quality recordings, but there's only so small you can resize something before you lose important details.

Once you've got the options set, recording a video is about as easy as hitting the record button. When you're done recording, xvidcap will pop up a little screen summarizing the video that you just captured; pay attention to the framerate - if it's significantly lower than what you were hoping for, you will probably have to re-record the video (lowering the quality or recording area size). Practice recording with various settings to see what works best on your machine.

As a final note, if you're recording directly to flash video you may want to make note of the movie dimensions, as you may need that information to properly embed the video in a webpage.

Microphones and audio

Xvidcap will record audio along with your video; all you need is a working microphone and xvidcap takes care of the rest. This allows for easy narration of videos, something I plan to do regularly.

I'm using a Sennheiser PC 150 stereo headset with noise canceling microphone; it's probably not the best microphone out there, but it seems to work well. Setting up the microphone in Ubuntu was easy, if non-intuitive. I had to open the volume control (by right-clicking on the speaker in the task bar), go to the preferences in that control (edit/preferences), put a checkmark by all the microphone options ("microphone", "Mic boost", and "mic select"), unmute the microphone on the capture tab, and then turn on the "Mic boost +20db" option in the switches tab. As I said: easy, but not intuitive.

Choosing video codecs and creating Flash video files

Xvidcap has a number of codec options, and I'm still trying to figure out which codecs work best; here's what I've found so far (with very limited testing only only a couple of computers):
  • The MPEG 4 DIVX and general AVI file (DIVX, mpeg) work well for me on Linux, but don't seem to play well on Windows or Mac computers by default (they need DIVX codecs)
  • The Microsoft DIVX 2 and Microsfot avi file format seems to works well on Linux, Windows, and Macs.
  • The mp2 audio codec seems to work well on Linux and Windows, but not Mac. Unfortunately, I can't seem to get the mp3 codec to work with the Microsoft DIVX 2 codec.
  • Flash videos (.flv, what YouTube uses) work very well cross platform, but require a flash player to play.
Flash video seems like it's probably the most cross-platform and browser-independent format currently, so that's what I'm looking at using for now. There are two choices for making flash movie files in xvidcap:
  1. Create the flash files directly from xvidcap
  2. Create the movies using another codec and then convert them to flash files
The first option is probably the easiest, but since I might also want to distribute the videos in a number of other formats (and don't know how lossy the flv codecs are), I wanted to at least explore how to convert other formats to flash videos (.flv files).

Converting from the DIVX MPEG4 codec to flash files was relatively easy using mencoder (a component of mplayer). The command line to convert the files I eventually settled on (thanks to the mplayer manual) was:
mencoder inputfile.mpeg -o outputfile.flv -of lavf -oac mp3lame -lameopts abr:br=56 -ovc lavc -lavcopts vcodec=flv:vbitrate=500:mbd=2:mv0:trell:v4mv:cbp:last_pred=3 -srate 22050 -lavfopts i_certify_that_my_video_stream_does_not_use_b_frames
This conversion step also allows you to scale the size of the video to whatever you want; simply add the flag -vf scale=YYY:-2 to the command line and the movie will be scaled to YYY pixels wide (proportionally scaling the vertical dimension).

Flash movie files have timing information in them that helps flash players play them; mencoder apparently does not include this information. However, the program flvtool2 can add this information (I found this thanks to DRM's excellent post). There is no flvtool2 package for Ubuntu, but downloading and installing it was relatively easy1. Once you've got flvtool2 installed, all you need to do to add the timing information is:
flvtool2 -U inputfile.flv
Flvtool2 can also be used to do a number of other things, including adding timestamps to the video for thumbnails (so users can skip through the video to specific timepoints).

Putting a flash video on the web

To actually play a flv file in a webpage you need a flash file on the webpage that will play the movie. While Adobe Flash can create these for you (for the low low price of $699 for Flash Pro 8), the entire point of this exercise has been to create videos using free open source tools. That's where FlowPlayer comes in.

FlowPlayer is a free open-source flash video player that can be easily added to a website; all you have to do is upload a few files to the server (as a user; no need to be root or actually install anything), insert FlowPlayer's quickstart HTML code into the HTML page of your choice, and you've got flash videos embedded into your webpage.


For a sample of how this looks, I've created three short videos and posted them here. Sorry, but you won't be hearing my voice in any of those videos, you'll just hear some music recorded by putting my microphone in front of a speaker (translation: badly recorded music)2.

And, here's an example of one of those sample videos embedded into this page:


Exciting, isn't it?


It seems like xvidcap will be able to produce satisfactory video tutorials that focus on how to use programs and websites, and the videos produced will be easy to distribute in a variety of formats, including flash videos on the web. However, I have no idea if xvidcap will be able to easily create videos of slide-based presentations (using OpenOffice Impress); figuring out how to create videos of slide-based content will have to be the subject of another post.

1: To install flvtool2 just unzip into a directory and follow the instructions in the readme.txt (which basically say to run "ruby setup.rb config", "ruby setup.rb setup", and "sudo ruby setup.rb install"). You may have to install ruby first; Ruby can be installed via Ubuntu's standard interface.

2: I can't very well be a pseudonymous blogger and have my voice plastered all over the internets, now can I?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Why I love living in California, take 23

This afternoon I wandered out into my backyard and harvested this (well, ok, I didn't harvest the bowl; I got that from the kitchen):

Bowl of washed basil

And those are only the leaves I got by trimming the flowers off of two of my three basil plants. I've got cups more basil out there waiting to be harvested and turned into pesto.

Ah, how I love California.

Political links of the week take 31

[You can skip to the end of this post, if you want. See also: political news of the week takes 30, 29, 28, 27, 26, 25, 24, 23, 22, 21, 20, 19, 18. 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

Top Marine: Troops under too much strain:
The new Marine Corps commandant said Wednesday that the longer than anticipated pace of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is putting an unacceptable strain on his troops.

Gen. James Conway said the service is unable to meet its goal of giving Marines twice as much time at home as in a war zone.

He said unless the demand on the corps eases, he may have to propose increasing the size of the force.

Currently there are 180,000 Marines on active duty and about 40,000 in the active reserves. Marine units serve seven-month deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Conway, who led Marine units into Iraq in 2003 and served on the Pentagon's joint staff, said his troops should get 14 months of relief before they are sent back.

Typically, however, they get only seven or eight months home before being returned to combat, he said.

Assuming the Marines' top job little more than a week ago, Conway told reporters at a Pentagon roundtable discussion that he sees two ways to alleviate stress on troops.

"One is reducing the requirement [of a set deployment time]. The other is potentially growing the force for what we call the long war," Conway said.

Some units are serving their fourth tour in Iraq, and the strain on their families has raised concern that Marines will start leaving the service when their enlistments are up.

"There is stress on the individual Marines that is increasing, and there is stress on the institution to do what we are required to do, pretty much by law, for the nation," he was quoted by The Associated Press as saying.

The current rotation of troops to Iraq is also limiting training, he said.

"We're not sending battalions like we used to for the mountain warfare training, the jungle training," he told reporters. "We're not doing combined arms exercises that we used to do for the far maneuver-type activities we have to be prepared to do."

U.S. Finds Iraq Insurgency Has Funds to Sustain Itself:
The insurgency in Iraq is now self-sustaining financially, raising tens of millions of dollars a year from oil smuggling, kidnapping, counterfeiting, connivance by corrupt Islamic charities and other crimes that the Iraqi government and its American patrons have been largely unable to prevent, a classified United States government report has concluded.

The report, obtained by The New York Times, estimates that groups responsible for many insurgent and terrorist attacks are raising $70 million to $200 million a year from illegal activities. It says $25 million to $100 million of that comes from oil smuggling and other criminal activity involving the state-owned oil industry, aided by “corrupt and complicit” Iraqi officials.

As much as $36 million a year comes from ransoms paid for hundreds of kidnap victims, the report says. It estimates that unnamed foreign governments — previously identified by American officials as including France and Italy — paid $30 million in ransom last year.

A copy of the seven-page report was made available to The Times by American officials who said the findings could improve understanding of the challenges the United States faces in Iraq.

The report offers little hope that much can be done, at least soon, to choke off insurgent revenues. For one thing, it acknowledges how little the American authorities in Iraq know — three and a half years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein — about crucial aspects of insurgent operations. For another, it paints an almost despairing picture of the Iraqi government’s ability, or willingness, to take steps to tamp down the insurgency’s financing.


The document says the pattern of insurgent financing changed after the first 18 months of the war, from the Hussein loyalists who financed it in 2003 to “foreign fighters and couriers” smuggling cash in bulk across Iraq’s porous borders in 2004, to the present reliance on a complex array of indigenous sources. “Currently, we assess that these groups garner most of their funding from petroleum-related criminal activity, kidnapping and other criminal pursuits within Iraq,” the report concludes.


The document tracing the money flows acknowledges that investigators have had limited success in penetrating or choking off terrorist financing networks. The report says American efforts to follow the financing trails have been hamstrung by several factors. They include a weak Iraqi government and its nascent intelligence agencies; a lack of communication between American agencies, and between the Americans and the Iraqis; and the nature of the insurgent economy itself, primarily sustained by couriers carrying cash rather than more easily traceable means involving banks and the hawala money transfer networks traditional in the Middle East.

Experts Concerned as Ballot Problems Persist:
After six years of technological research, more than $4 billion spent by Washington on new machinery and a widespread overhaul of the nation’s voting system, this month’s midterm election revealed that the country is still far from able to ensure that every vote counts.

Tens of thousands of voters, scattered across more than 25 states, encountered serious problems at the polls, including failures in sophisticated new voting machines and confusion over new identification rules, according to interviews with election experts and officials.

In many places, the difficulties led to shortages of substitute paper ballots and long lines that caused many voters to leave without casting ballots. Still, an association of top state election officials concluded that for the most part, voting went as smoothly as expected.

Over the last three weeks, attention has been focused on a few close races affected by voting problems, including those in Florida and Ohio where counting dragged on for days. But because most of this year’s races were not close, election experts say voting problems may actually have been wider than initially estimated, with many malfunctions simply overlooked.

That oversight may not be possible in the presidential election of 2008, when turnout will be higher and every vote will matter in what experts say will probably be a close race.

Voting experts say it is impossible to say how many votes were not counted that should have been. But in Florida alone, the discrepancies reported across Sarasota County and three others amount to more than 60,000 votes. In Colorado, as many as 20,000 people gave up trying to vote, election officials say, as new online systems for verifying voter registrations crashed repeatedly. And in Arkansas, election officials tallied votes three times in one county, and each time the number of ballots cast changed by more than 30,000.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Green bean casserole with fried shallot topping

Green bean casserole is a Thanksgiving classic made from canned or frozen green beans, canned cream of mushroom soup, and canned fried onions; it's good, but rather lacking in fresh ingredients. This Thanksgiving, we made a much fresher and more homemade-tasting version (based on Wilson 2006) that used fresh green beans, a sauce made from cream and chicken stock, and a topping of breadcrumbs mixed with sliced fried shallots. The green beans were toothy and flavorful, the sauce was richer than the standard soup-based sauce, and the topping was less processed-tasting. It was the hit of our Thanksgiving dinner, and we'll definitely be making it for future years' Thanksgivings.

If you're looking for an improved version of the standard Thanksgiving green bean casserole, this is the recipe for you. Thus, it's this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

Green beans
2 pounds fresh green beans, washed, trimmed, and cut into 1-2" pieces1
2 tablespoons salt

4 slices of dry artisan white bread (e.g., ciabatta), ground into breadcrumbs (~1 cup; food processors do this well)
2 tablespoons butter, softened or cut into small pieces
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups sliced fried shallots (the commercially prepared kind)

2 tablespoons butter
3 cloves garlic, finely minced or pressed with a garlic press
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

This recipe entails three separate preparations (the beans, the sauce, and the topping) which must be combined at the end. This is easier than it sounds, as none of these preparations is difficult, and they can be worked on in parallel.

Cooking the green beans:
1. Bring a large pot of water (~4 quarts) to a boil and add the 2 tablespoons of salt.
2. Add the green beans and cook for 6 minutes, or until they're tender-crisp.
3. Remove the green beans from the boiling water and add to a bowl full of cold water (to stop the beans from cooking). Once the beans are cool (which may require replacing the water once) return them to a strainer.

Making the topping:
1. Process the breadcrumbs, butter, salt, and pepper in a food processor until well combined (~15 seconds).
2. Empty into a bowl and mix in the shallots.

Making the sauce:
1. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat.
2. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until the garlic is golden and fragrant.
3. Add the flour and cook, stirring, until the flour turns slightly golden as well.
4. Add the chicken stock and cook, stirring, until it starts to bubble.
5. Add the cream and simmer, stirring, until the sauce has thickened, about 10 minutes; reduce the heat if necessary.
6. Mix in the salt and pepper and then hold over very low heat until ready to use.

Combining and baking:
0. Preheat your oven to 425F.
1. Mix the green beans and sauce together, and spread out in a 9x13" baking dish (we just mixed the green beans and sauce in the dish). Sprinkle the topping evenly over the beans and sauce.
2. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the top is a deep golden brown.


The original version of this recipe calls for fried onions instead of shallots; we had fried shallots on hand (thanks to our local Asian market) and decided to give them a try. The shallots were delicious, but the recipe should be just as good with fried onions (the original recipe calls for 3 cups of fried onions instead of 1 1/2 cups of shallots).

This casserole reheats well in the oven - we reheated it (in the original pan) for 15-20 minutes at 300F, and were surprised to find the topping still crispy and crunchy.


Wilson, S. 2006. Upgrading Green Bean Casserole. Cooks Illustrated 83: November/December. pp8-9.

1 If possible, enlist a friend to help you wash, trim, and cut the green beans - it takes a while.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving recipe searches

Thanksgiving is a fun time for my blog, as it gets lots of hits from people looking for recipes [if you're doing that, see my recipe archive]. I just looked at my referral logs, and 55 of the last 100 visitors here found my blog as a result of searches for cooking-related items. Here are all 55 of those searches (sorted by food type); it's a good (if not entirely accurate) look at what people are making this holiday season.

Searches for yams and sweet potatoes took the day:
  • yam recipe skin marshmallow
  • sweet potatoes baked + marshmallows
  • baked sweet potatoes + marshmallows
  • baked sweet potatoes marshmallow
  • sweet potatoes marshmallow bake
  • baked sweet potatoes with brown sugar
  • baked sweet potatoes with brown sugar
  • thanksgiving sweet potatoes marshmallows
  • bake sweet potatoes brown sugar
  • yams ooze [Yes. Yes they do.]
  • mashed yam recipe
  • "mashed yams"
  • "yams with orange juice"
  • mashed yams recipe
Though macaroni and cheese was close behind:
  • baking macaroni and cheese
  • baked macaroni and cheese
  • baked macaroni and cheese
  • baked macaroni and cheese
  • baked macaroni and cheese
  • baked macaroni and cheese
  • BAKED MACARONI AND CHEESE [yes, yelling at Google will make it find better recipes]
  • how to make bake macaroni and cheese
  • baked macaroni cheese from package [whimper]
And lots of people apparently want a Greek salad:
  • home recipe for greek salad dressing
  • greek salad dressing recipe
  • greek salad dressing
  • greek salad dressing
  • greek salad dressing
  • greek salad
  • "Joy of Cooking" "Greek Salad" Dressing
  • easy to make salad dressing
And creamed spinach took the award for most identical searches (well, OK, it tied with baked macaroni and cheese):
  • creamed spinach
  • creamed spinach
  • creamed spinach
  • creamed spinach
  • creamed spinach
  • Creamed spinach
Desserts were also popular, though no one recipe stood out:
  • low fat caramel ice cream
  • key lime pie joy of cooking
  • pear pie [someone has good taste]
  • How do you make sure pie crust is done underneath? [try eating it?]
  • cranberry upside down cake
  • galette crust
Some people wanted general food suggestions:
  • thanksgiving dinner for two
  • thanksgiving dinner for two
  • thanksgiving feast pictures [somehow I suspect this post dissappointed them]
There were, of course, many miscellaneous searches:
  • brussel sprout gratin
  • creamy brussel sprout
  • mashed turnips
  • mashed potatoes turnips
  • soup recipe: kielbasa, turnip greens, potatoes
  • german potatoe salad
  • "japanese soup"
  • Dotch Cooking Show
  • reheating fondue [It's a pointless endeavor; just ship it to me and I'll take care of it for you.]
And, wrapping it up, was a search that makes me think someone is going to have a very disappointing Thanksgiving dinner:
  • macaroni and cheese reheat

Happy Thanksgiving!

The holiday is finally here, and I couldn't be more excited. Given how stressful the last few weeks have been, it's great to finally have a few days where I can focus on two of my favorite things: cooking and eating. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize that Thanksgiving is almost certainly my favorite holiday - my SO and I get to spend the entire day cooking (and then eating) delicious food, and, as a bonus, the religious roots of the holiday are extremely easy to ignore.

Today's feast will be much like our prior years', but to continue the tradition of posting our food plans for the day, here's what we're going to be cooking:
We currently have no plans for dessert - we plan to be stuffed by the time dinner is over. However, I suspect we'll make something tasty before the weekend is over.

Monday, November 20, 2006


It can't really be Monday already, can it?

This last week has been crazy. Almost all of my time was focused around trying to prevent our field program from being shut down, the "highlight" of which was giving a very stressful presentation to people who had the power to shut down our field program right then and there. Surprisingly (at least based on what we thought a few weeks ago), our program was granted a stay of execution; we now have more time to justify its existence.

Then, instead of having a relaxing weekend, I led field trips both days. While running labs in the field is extremely fun (the students love seeing "real" biology, and really get into the work), they take a tremendous amount of time, and left me with functionally no weekend.

Thank goodness this is going to be a short week.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Keeping students safe by ... tasing them?

PZ Myers has linked to a shocking video of a UCLA student getting repeatedly shot with a taser by campus police. The reason? He didn't leave the campus library fast enough, and then didn't get up quickly enough after being tased the first time. Oh, and did I mention that he was apparently handcuffed at the time?

The UCLA campus paper has an article on the incident here.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Test administration in online courses

Profgrrrl recently posted about a new device that helps proctor online exams. The device is apparently a combination fingerprint reader, microphone, and webcam - it can verify the student's identity and then record what the student does (both audio and video) during the entire exam.

It's the first good solution I've seen to the two biggest problem of online courses - how do you know the person taking the tests is the person enrolled in the course, and how do you know that they're not using outside resources to help on the exam? That there was no good solution to these problems is why my newly designed online course requires students to take all their exams on campus. I only mildly care if students get help writing discussion board posts or have someone else do their homework (since that will likely come back to haunt them on exams), but I definitely care if they get help while taking their exams (as then someone could pass the course without ever learning the material). In short, this camera is a pretty cool thing (excluding the cost, which is about $150).

Profgrrrl hates the thing. Why?
So how would you feel about taking a test with a camera hanging over your head? Would it give you a bit of anxiety? Would you feel self-conscious if you had to scratch your nose? If a question was so hard that you start to cry, would you feel twice as bad knowing it was being caught on camera? Would you spend time wondering if someone really was at the other end, watching your every move? If they were recording you? And who could access those recordings?

Now, I'm not a paranoid. Really, I'm not. But I this device looks like a disaster for anyone with test anxiety and just sends a message of "you'll cheat unless we go to great lengths to control you" to everyone else.
The question of how these videos will be used is a valid concern, but online courses already send the message of "you can cheat as much as you want and we don't care," so by doing something to actually stop that cheating we're hardly accusing everyone of cheating. This is the same "guilty until proven innocent" claim made by people against plagiarism-hunting software, and it doesn't hold up here any better. And, how is being observed through this camera any different from having a professor (and dozens of other students) in the room watching you when you take a test on campus?

So, given that profgrrrl has taught online classes, how has she dealt with exams?
I recognize that students could their books in front of them -- so I take a cue from my stats prof who gave us timed open book tests with questions that required critical thinking skills. You could use the book as a resource, but if you didn't already know this stuff there was no way you could look it all up and figure it out in the given time. And if someone else takes the test for the student? Well, I sometimes would ask test questions that related to discussions we had had in class (sneaky, eh?). I also can triangulate test performance with discussion board performance readily enough.
Asking a couple of test questions related to discussions is not going to prevent cheating. What's to prevent a student from being on their cellphone with another student (or with someone who's taken the course before) while they take the exam? What if a student does well on tests but hates writing discussion board posts (or vice versa); should we accuse a student of cheating when they've been posting mediocre discussion board posts but then do well on an exam? What if the student finally studied? That's hardly the way to catch a cheater. And none of this even addresses the problem of how to know whether the person who posted the discussion board posts (or the exam taker) is even the student enrolled in the course.

Administering exams online in an unproctored environment is tantamount to giving free points. If those exams are the major basis of the grade in a course, then I would seriously question whether those grades accurately reflect student learning in the course.

Unless more things like these cameras come on the market, I see no good way to evaluate student learning in online courses other than to require them to come onto campus and be evaluated in a proctored environment.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Linux and Windows news

Three bits of computer news for your Monday morning reading:

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Political news of the week take 30

[You can skip to the end of this post, if you want. See also: political news of the week takes 28, 27, 26, 25, 24, 23, 22, 21, 20, 19, 18. 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

War simulation in 1999 pointed out Iraq invasion problems (Nov. 4):
A series of secret U.S. war games in 1999 showed that an invasion and post-war administration of Iraq would require 400,000 troops, nearly three times the number there now.

And even then, the games showed, the country still had a chance of dissolving into chaos.

In the simulation, called Desert Crossing, 70 military, diplomatic and intelligence participants concluded the high troop levels would be needed to keep order, seal borders and take care of other security needs.

The documents came to light Saturday through a Freedom of Information Act request by George Washington University's National Security Archive, an independent research institute and library.


The war games looked at "worst case" and "most likely" scenarios after a war that removed then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power. Some of the conclusions are similar to what actually occurred after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003:

# "A change in regimes does not guarantee stability," the 1999 seminar briefings said. "A number of factors including aggressive neighbors, fragmentation along religious and/or ethnic lines, and chaos created by rival forces bidding for power could adversely affect regional stability."

# "Even when civil order is restored and borders are secured, the replacement regime could be problematic -- especially if perceived as weak, a puppet, or out-of-step with prevailing regional governments."

# "Iran's anti-Americanism could be enflamed by a U.S.-led intervention in Iraq," the briefings read. "The influx of U.S. and other western forces into Iraq would exacerbate worries in Tehran, as would the installation of a pro-western government in Baghdad."

# "The debate on post-Saddam Iraq also reveals the paucity of information about the potential and capabilities of the external Iraqi opposition groups. The lack of intelligence concerning their roles hampers U.S. policy development."

# "Also, some participants believe that no Arab government will welcome the kind of lengthy U.S. presence that would be required to install and sustain a democratic government."

# "A long-term, large-scale military intervention may be at odds with many coalition partners."

Democrats Gain Senate and New Influence:
Democrats gained control of the Senate on Thursday, giving them a majority in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1994 and increased influence over President Bush’s policies at home and abroad, starting with the war in Iraq.

The Democrats picked up the seat they needed to capture the Senate when the Republican incumbent in Virginia, George Allen, conceded to Jim Webb, his Democratic challenger, completing a broad realignment of power in Washington. Including two independents who align themselves with the Democrats, Democrats will have a 51-to-49 advantage in the new Senate.

Within moments of Mr. Allen’s announcement, Democrats rallied outside the Capitol to celebrate their victory, cheering and chanting, while their leaders began planning how to proceed after a dozen years in which their only taste of power in Congress was when they controlled the Senate for a period in 2001 and 2002.

For Post-Election Congress, Extensive To-Do List Is Awaiting Action
The Democrats won the midterm elections, but time has not run out on the Republican majority in Congress.

Despite devastating losses at the polls, Republicans will control the post-election session that opens Monday as lawmakers return to try to finish 10 overdue spending bills and other legislation that stalled because of pre-election gamesmanship.

Republican leaders have compiled an ambitious to-do list, hoping to dispose of energy legislation, a trade deal or two, a civilian nuclear treaty with India and other favored bills before turning over the keys to the House and Senate chambers to the Democrats in January.

Democrats have some measures they want completed as well, most notably the spending bills, to save them the added work next year.

President Bush, hoping to get the most out of the remaining days of a Republican majority, is pressing two contentious matters: legislation authorizing domestic wiretapping by the National Security Agency and the nomination of John R. Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. And the Senate has scheduled confirmation hearings for Robert M. Gates to be the new secretary of defense to begin the week of Dec 4.

Members of both parties in Congress have all but written off the wiretapping legislation and the Bolton nomination, given the strong Democratic opposition and the impending power shift. It is also uncertain how hard Congressional Republicans will be willing to press Mr. Bush’s more divisive issues. Some have expressed anger at his decision to remove Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld the day after the election, contending that earlier action might have cut Republican losses.

“The only things that can get done in the lame duck are things that have the consent of both sides,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York. “You can bluster around all you want, but it is not going to happen. Anything controversial just by definition won’t get done.”

The White House still intends to seek approval of Mr. Bolton and the eavesdropping program, said Mr. Bush’s press secretary, Tony Snow, but it is not doing so to be “provocative” in the wake of the election.

“Those are goals: an effective U.N. ambassador, also an effective way of going after terrorists,” Mr. Snow said. “Those are both constructive and important goals, and we’ll see how the lame duck works through it.”

Democrats Aim to Save Inquiry on Work in Iraq
Congressional Democrats say they will press new legislation next week to restore the power of a federal agency in charge of ferreting out waste and corruption in Iraq and greatly increase its investigative reach.

The bills, the first of what are likely to be dozens of Democratic efforts to resurrect investigations of war profiteering and financial fraud in government contracting, could be introduced as early as Monday morning.

The move would nullify a Republican-backed provision, slipped into a huge military authorization bill, that set a termination date for the agency, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. The agency’s findings have consistently undermined Bush administration claims of widespread success in the reconstruction of Iraq.

Democrats are set to subpoena:
Rep. Ike Skelton knows what he will do in one of his first acts as chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the Democratic-led House: resurrect the subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

The panel was disbanded by the Republicans after they won control of Congress in 1994. Now, Skelton (D-Mo.) intends to use it as a forum to probe Pentagon spending and the Bush administration's conduct of the Iraq war.

It has been 12 years since Democrats were in control of both the House and Senate. But they are looking to make up for lost time, and in some cases, make the Bush administration and its business allies sweat.

With control of every committee in Congress starting in January, the new majority will inherit broad powers to subpoena and investigate. And that is expected to translate into wide-ranging and contentious hearings.

The agenda is likely to be dominated by the Iraq war, but could include probes into the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance, environmental policies and new prescription-drug program for seniors. Industries, such as oil companies, could also come under closer scrutiny.

"The American people sent a clear message that they do not want a rubber-stamp Congress that simply signs off the president's agenda," said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who is in line to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "Instead, they have voted for a new direction for America and a real check and balance against government overreaching."

Conyers and other Democrats say that sort of scrutiny has been noticeably absent over the last six years. Democrats accuse Republicans of being complicit as Bush has led the nation into an unwinnable war and adopted economic polices that favor the affluent and big business.

Under Republican control, Congress did subpoena baseball players to discuss steroid use and summon oil industry executives to justify record profits at a time of high gasoline prices.


Democrats face a delicate balancing test, mindful of a public backlash if they focus more on investigating than legislating.

Their leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), has already ruled some investigations out of bounds. Conyers has wanted Congress to determine whether there are grounds to impeach Bush. But Pelosi has said that will not happen.

While there is pent-up demand among Democrats in Congress and their constituencies to oversee the Bush administration, their new caucus will also include a number of moderates and conservatives, which may force the leadership to tone down its act.

Steering his nation without a rudder: Afghanistan's Karzai faces disaffection in a nation hungry for progress. Many see him as a shadow of a president, and they fear a slide back to the Taliban.
In the eyes of Afghans, the restrictions on Karzai's authority imposed by foreign governments make him a shadow of a president with only the trappings of power: photo opportunities, ribbon cuttings, bodyguards with wraparound sunglasses who carry M-4 assault rifles and whisper into microphones in the sleeves of their dark suits.

Although Karzai is officially commander in chief, he has no control over the foreign troops fighting the Taliban insurgency and little over his own army, which answers to the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. His defense minister's main job is cajoling donors into providing the army with better equipment.

Karzai repeatedly has demanded changes in tactics, but each time foreign troops accidentally kill Afghan civilians, he loses credibility with his people.

In the meantime, the insurgency has spread across more than half the country, with fighters advancing northward from strongholds in the east and pushing all the way to the Iranian border in the west. Government officials say the militants in villages and districts near Kabul, the capital, are laying the groundwork for future offensives.

Former mujahedin retain ties to their old commanders, and many are ready to fight again if democracy falters.

Corruption in the courts and police has made many Afghans nostalgic for the Taliban's ruthless justice. The threat of violence has forced hundreds of schools to close and left others without enough books or teachers.

The country's gross domestic product has doubled since Karzai came to office, but the drug trade is the largest employer and source of income. Drugs account for half of Afghanistan's economy and create what the United Nations calls a "narco society."

Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid aimed at persuading farmers to grow legal crops, this year's opium harvest is expected to set a record. It's up 50% from last year, to an estimated 6,700 tons, the U.N. said in early September.

Though reconstruction spending could help the government draw support away from drug lords, the Taliban and other foes, only a quarter of public spending goes through the Afghan government, World Bank figures show.

U.S. money supports a wide variety of projects to improve agriculture and government institutions, support schools and clinics, and rebuild roads, bridges, canals and other infrastructure destroyed by war. But unlike Britain and a few other countries, the United States has not demonstrated confidence in Karzai's government by giving it direct control of the funds.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Genesis reunion tour!

My SO is a huge fan of Genesis, and just learned this week that they're planning a reunion tour ("Turn it on again"). There's even an (unofficial) blog for the tour. We'd be buying tickets this instant except for one minor problem: all the tour dates are in Europe.

Of course, there are plane flights nowadays ... and the tour dates in England are near my SO's birthday ...

Oooh, that's too tempting.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A new phylum of deuterostomes

Bilaterally symmetrical animals (e.g., humans, lizards, grasshoppers, squid) can be broken up into two major groups: deuterostomes and protostomes. Chordates (the phylum humans and lizards belong to) are deuterostomes, but there actually aren't too many other deuterostome phyla; besides Chordata, there's only Hemichordata (acorn worms) and Echinodermata (sea stars, brittle stars, sea urchins, etc.). The vast majority of animal phyla are protostomes (e.g., Arthropoda, Mollusca, Annelida, Nematoda, Rotifera).

A recent Nature paper (Bourlat et al. 2006) has proposed that Xenoturbella bocki, a worm with no body cavity, no digestive tract (even though it feeds on bivalves), and no major organs, is actually a deuterostome. In fact, they've proposed that it belongs in its own brand new phylum of deuterostome, Xenoturbellida. PZ Myers has the full story, complete with figures. It's not every day that a new deuterostome phylum gets proposed; go and enjoy!

Bourlat SJ, Juliusdottir T, Lowe CJ, Freeman R, Aronowicz J, Kirschner M, Lander ES, Thorndyke M, Nakano H, Kohn AB, Heyland A, Moroz LL, Copley RR, Telford MJ. (2006) Deuterostome phylogeny reveals monophyletic chordates and the new phylum Xenoturbellida. Nature. 444(7115):85-8.


My colleagues and I have now jumped into the political fray surrounding the proposed sale of our field site, and are frantically working to devise an alternate plan for the site that doesn't include the word "sale." A wide array of campus members (current and former students, staff, and faculty) have expressed support for our cause, which feels good. The most meaningful support (in my mind) has come from my ex students: they've written a number of letters that talk about how much they learned from our field program, and how important it has been to their education. A teacher couldn't ask for more.

Unfortunately, we're up against political bodies that we have very little experience working with. And, making things harder, some of the people we could be consulting to figure out how to interact with these bodies are the very same people who have misled us in the past regarding the long-term support for our field site, so we no longer feel that we can trust them completely. It's getting ugly here.

And, of course, all of this politicking is taking a tremendous amount of time. But if we can keep our field program, it'll be worth it.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Election day

Early returns are in, and it looks like the Democrats have won the House. Conyers is going to be chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Yippee!

And, in California, a $10 million educational facilities bond measure (proposition 1D) looks like it passed, which will help schools statewide build much-needed buildings.


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

It is done

The news that ruined the beginning of my semester has now come back to ruin the last half of my semester. Back in September we were told that our college might be selling our field site (and thus shutting down the field biology program I've been spending much of my time on these last two years). Now it's official; "might" has become "will be".

Many elements of this decision are ... well, yeah. The only words that come to mind to finish that sentence are not printable on a family-friendly blog.

I'm angry. I'm dismayed. I'm frustrated that much of the last two years of my spare time has been spent doing work (like, say, applying for NSF grants) that has now been thrown away by a small committee's decision. And the committee that made that decision never even talked to me, or any of the other faculty involved in the field program. Never even sent us a letter. Never even requested documentation of what we'd done.

Nope, they just decided to sell it. All they care about is the money. I may be mad and prone to typing hyperbole, but that much I know is true. All they care about is money. I've been told as much.

I had second-year community college students out in the field doing original research, spending their own money on travel expenses, and volunteering immense amounts of time to do the work. They were doing the real thing, not some canned lab activity, and as a result are now infinitely better prepared for the curriculum at their transfer institution and for graduate school.

But no, none of that matters. A program that costs less than 0.15% of the college's annual budget must be shut down, without even giving us the time we need to explore if the program could become self-sustaining. Without even waiting to see if we got our NSF grant. Without even talking to a single student.

I didn't even know that this committee was actively meeting to discuss selling our site until I found out that they'd decided to sell the site. Now, however, I have learned that this committee's decision needs to be rubber-stamped approved by another committee. I know when they meet. I will be there.

Sunday, November 05, 2006


My SO and I have been on a fondue kick for the past few weeks. We've made at least six batches of fondue with four different cheeses; melted cheese on good crusty artisan bread never gets old (at least for me; my SO is hinting that we've had enough for now). One of the nice things about fondue is that it's exceptionally easy to make from scratch; the fondue might even be ready before the bread is finished warming in the oven. Since fondue seems like the perfect treat for a cool fall evening, it's this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

1/2 large clove (or 1 small clove) garlic, finely chopped or pressed with a garlic press
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup chicken stock
1/2 pound cheese, chopped into 1/2" to 1" cubes
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water
1/4 teaspoon salt, if needed (use only if the cheese is not very salty)
grinding or two of black pepper
dash nutmeg

0) Warm a loaf of crusty artisan bread (e.g., ciabatta, country loaf, baguettes) in a preheated 350F oven for 5-10 minutes; plan to have the bread warmed by the time the fondue is ready to serve.
1) Bring the garlic, wine, and chicken stock to a simmer in a small pot over medium-high heat.
2) Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the cheese, and stir until the cheese is melted; the fondue will probably not be entirely homogeneous at this point.
3) Stir in the cornstarch and water mixture and continue to heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture has thickened slightly and the fondue is homogeneous (2-5 minutes).
4) Serve in a pot on the table (see notes) with thick slices of bread. To eat, tear the bread into bite-sized pieces, put a piece of bread onto the end of a fork, and dip into the fondue.


We've found that a half-pound of cheese makes enough fondue for two people for dinner. This recipe scales extremely easily, and leftovers reheat relatively well on the stove, so make more if you desire.

The classic fondue cheese is Gruyere, but part of the fun of making fondue at home is trying out various cheeses, so browse your local grocery store's cheese section and pick out what you like best. We've used Emmentaler, Raclette, Fontina, and Dubliner Irish cheeses, and they were all great. If you decide to try Raclette, you may notice that it is quite smelly when cold; don't let the smell put you off, as it's extremely good (and much better smelling) when heated.

Keeping the fondue warm while serving is important, though doesn't require an expensive fondue pot. We place a flat wire roasting rack on two mugs to make an elevated pot holder, put the fondue pot on that, and then place tea lights underneath to keep the pot warm; it doesn't look as nice as a coordinated fondue set, but it functions just as well. Of course you could also skip the fancy table setup altogether and just bring the pot back to the stove for reheating whenever the fondue gets too cool.

As a minor note, red wine works as an adequate substitute for white wine in a pinch - it'll turn your fondue pink, but otherwise will taste fine (guess how we figured this out).

This recipe is modified from one in Rombauer et al. (1997); we've added garlic, increased the cornstarch amount, and replaced half the wine with chicken stock.

Rombauer, I. S., M. R. Becker, and E. Becker. 1997. Joy of Cooking. Scribner, NY.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Plagiarism detection with - countering the woo

Dean Dad recently posted about hunting for plagiarism with Plagiarism detection software (like scans electronically submitted copies of student papers against databases of websites to check for material that has been copied verbatim. also keeps a record of every paper ever submitted to it, and scans newly submitted papers against these archived papers.

I regularly check my students' papers for plagiarism, and electronic plagiarism detection programs (including and similar websites) are an essential tool in my fight against plagiarism. While no tool is perfect (I hand-check all results, and don't rely on plagiarism checking programs exclusively), plagiarism detection programs allow me to quickly check for instances of word-for-word plagiarism in all of my student papers.

Many of Dean Dad's commenters came forward to question the ethics and legality of using sites like; one commenter even linked to "Guilty Until Proven Innocent: The Well-Known Secret about," an article that purports to reveal the evils of The article is filled with so much misinformation that I just had to share it here.

Here's the beginning:
Millions of honest, hard-working students attend the world's public and private schools. Every day, students write countless essays, reports, and term papers in perfect compliance with their schools' code of ethics and standard guidelines for proper citation. Regardless, these honest—yet inexperienced and naive—students are intimidated and coerced by professors to submit their papers, or intellectual property (IP), to third-party, for-profit ventures (e.g., without their willing consent.

We can understand the monetary motives behind the questionable tactics of a for-profit corporation, but what we do not understand is how or why professors have forced so many innocent students to relinquish their rights.
There's published data available (see this post) showing that nearly half of all college students report that they've plagiarized papers. So, while there are millions of students who don't plagiarize, there are also millions of students who do plagiarize, and thus arguing that only a tiny fraction of students plagiarize is simply not valid.

The paper's introduction also alludes to another common element of anti-plagiarism-scanning arguments: instructors are somehow prevented by copyright law from using plagiarism detecting tools unless students consent to having their papers checked for plagiarism. This argument is the dream of many a plagiarizing student, but is completely without merit. Searching for academic dishonesty is a perfectly acceptable practice that instructors are allowed to do (in fact are required to do) as a portion of grading any given assignment. has (obviously) thought about the copyright issues involved in student papers being submitted to their service, and has a document (PDF) detailing the legal implications of their company's procedures.'s legal document specifically deals with the question of whether instructors can submit student papers to be checked for plagiarism:
If copyright is present in a particular student’s work, the submission of the work to a teacher as part of the student’s coursework necessarily carries with it the expectation that the teacher will use the work in certain ways, consistent with the goal of evaluating and grading the student’s work. Specifically, by submitting the work, the student implicitly agrees that the teacher may comment on, criticize and otherwise evaluate the academic quality of the work, an evaluation that should include consideration of both the work’s content and integrity.


The question of whether the scope of such collateral rights [of evaluation licenses specified by universities] extends to electronic submission of a written work to a computer database for purposes of review, “fingerprinting”, and/or archiving has not been tested in the courts, nor is it addressed explicitly by statute. However, legal precedent in other contexts strongly suggests that student submission of a work for grading provides the teacher with the right to utilize available technologies and tools to accomplish the grading task. Such a right necessarily encompasses the ability to transfer the work to other media (e.g., by scanning the work), where such transfer is required for the teacher’s personal use of a particular grading tool. See, e.g., Foad Consulting Group, supra at 828-831 (copying, distribution and modification of a work to make it usable for the intended purpose necessarily a part of the implied license to use the work); as well as Recording Industries Ass’n of Am. V. Diamond Multimedia Sys., Inc., 180 F.3d 1072, 1079 (9th Cir. 1999)(transfer of a work, such as music, into another media, such as an MP3 file, for personal use of the person making the transfer is a fair use), and Sony Corp.v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 464 U.S. 417, 449-50 (1984)(copying of broadcast productions onto videotape for the later viewing using a VCR is a fair use); compare, A&M Records, Inc., et al. v. Napster, Inc., 239 F.3d 1004, 1019 (9th Cir. 2001)(copying of a work for personal use not fair when coupled to simultaneous distribution of the entire work to the general public). Hence, by itself, teacher submission of a student work to Turnitin is within the scope of the evaluation license provided by the student to the teacher on submission of the work for grading. The implied license may not extend to other aspects of the TURNITIN system, such as archiving, however, such aspects are allowable as “fair uses” of the copyrighted material.
But, of course, reasoning like that doesn't sit well with this (unnamed) author, and thus the author goes off on another tangent:
At no time have the overwhelming majority of students given their professors any reason to believe that they are untrustworthy, corrupt, immoral cheaters, but do thousands of professors treat honest students like "guilty until proven innocent" criminals nonetheless? You bet!
How the author goes from the observation that most students don't plagiarize to the conclusion that professors who check for plagiarism are acting as though students are "'guilty until proven innocent' criminals" is beyond me. Let's make this clear: searching for academic dishonesty in a paper is not the same as accusing students of being academically dishonest, it's just a part of the regular grading process. Professors who look for cheating as they proctor tests aren't implying that everyone is cheating, and police officers who use radar to check the speed of your car aren't accusing you of speeding (at least not until they see that you're going 20 over the limit).

But, of course, we eventually find out from the author that it all boils down to money.
In April of 2004, Wired News revealed Turnitin's 2003 revenue to be $10,000,000, "a figure that Barrie does not dispute, but regrets having put on record." Turnitin's 2004–2006 revenue is surely much higher, considering Turnitin's expansion in the last three years.


Despite raking in what probably amounts to at least $50,000,000 since 1998, we are unaware of paying a single penny in royalties to any one of the countless, unwilling students around the world whose intellectual property Turnitin has copied, stored, and used to create for-profit, derivative works-based service. is a private company that is making money; tell me something I didn't already know (I've used their product, and have investigated getting a site license for our campus). However, the larger issue that the author brings up here is a complex one - is not only scanning student papers when they are submitted, but is also keeping a record of student papers in their databases (something that, I should note, not all plagiarism checking programs do). However, the issue is more complex than it might otherwise appear to be, as while is using information derived from student papers on a regular basis, they never publish or share that information with anyone, and don't directly make money off of any individual paper. In fact, when they find a similar paper that was submitted previously, all they report is that a paper written by a student in professor X's class at Y university contains a certain amount of content that is identical in wording to that of the current paper. If the instructor wants to get more information, they must contact the professor listed. specifically deals with the issue of archiving student works by first acknowledging that they're a for-profit venture (and thus can't qualify as a non-profit educational fair use), and then saying this (PDF):
Commercial use of a work may still be “fair use” under U.S. Copyright Law (17 U.S.C. §107), especially when less than the entire work is being used, and/or the use does not “materially impair the marketability of the work which is copied.” Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enters., 471 U.S. 539, 566-67 (1985). Here, the actual work is used by the TURNITIN system only as a reference, for purposes of creating a separate work, the digital “fingerprint”. If there is a match between a submitted work and fingerprinted portions of an archived student work, only that matching text is highlighted in the originality report.

The identification of a textual match between documents relays a fact, which is not protected from disclosure by the Copyright laws. 17 U.S.C. § 102(b). Where there is no way to express the fact in question except by copying of the underlying material, the fact and the portion of the material representing it are said to have “merged”, excluding the material itself from the ambit of copyright protection. Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co., 499 U.S. 340, 349 (1991); Harper & Row Publishers, supra at 556; Veeck v. Southern Building Code Congress Int’l, Inc., 293 F.3d 791 (9th Cir., June 7, 2002). Because one cannot identify a passage as having been copied without matching it to the material that was putatively copied from, display of the matching material is not prohibited by copyright.

No other portions of the archived work are displayed, used, published, distributed or further copied without prior author consent. Compare, A&M Records, et al. v. Napster, at 1015 and 1019 (distribution of a copied work to the public without the copyright holder’s consent implies that the copyright in the copied material may have been infringed). As such, the archival does not publish the work as a whole, or otherwise impinge on the author’s ability to exploit the work commercially. Because the “primary objective of copyright is not to reward the labor of authors
but ‘[to] promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts” (Veeck, supra as reported at 2002 U.S. App.LEXIS 10963, *25), the minimal use of a student’s work to ferret out plagiarism in others works, without making the work itself available to the public, is a fair use that does not infringe any copyright which may be present in the archived work. also discusses the FERPA (privacy) issues related to their receipt and storage of student work:
Since the paper is not part of the education record and no personally identifiable information is released when a paper is archived, FERPA does not restrict this aspect. If there is a match to another submitted student paper, only the e-mail address and name of the instructor whose student submitted the first paper will be given to the instructor of the matching paper, along with a paper ID #. Only the instructor of the originally submitted paper would be able to use this ID# to determine the student’s personal information, and they already have access to such information.
So, while's analysis is likely somewhat biased (e.g., this FERPA letter suggests that term papers actually are a part of the "education record"), suffice it to say that the author of the website is taking an overly simplistic view of the copyright and privacy issues involved. It is almost certainly legally permissible for faculty to use software to check student work for academic dishonesty, and (at least believes that) it's also probably legal for to keep archived copies of papers submitted to them1. At the very least, it's clear that one can't go around screaming that is obviously violating copyright and privacy laws.

But, of course, privacy rights aren't the only thing the author complains about:
In addition to unfairly violating students' intellectual property rights and costing schools a fortune, Turnitin has become extremely ineffective. The small percentage of students who cheat tend to do so in very intelligent ways. They know about Turnitin, and it doesn't "scare" or dissuade them any longer. What professors may not understand is that Turnitin tends to catch only the most blatantly obvious, word-for-word plagiarism.
The entire point of is to catch word-for-word plagiarism; it's hardly fair to accuse it of being useless because it doesn't do more than it was designed for. We've also returned here to the "only a small percentage of students cheat" argument, which is clearly contradicted by data (see above).

I can also report, from personal experience, that students regularly turn in papers with copious amounts of word-for-word plagiarism, even when they know ahead of time that their papers will be scanned electronically. I see it every semester. So no, students are not all cheating in "very intelligent" ways; there are (and probably always will be) a number of not-so-intelligent cheaters.

Oh, and lest we've forgotten that doesn't catch some types of plagiarism, the author makes the point again:
The program is practically useless if a student uses a thesaurus to change every other word in a paper to a new word of equivalent meaning. Turnitin is also completely impotent in detecting that a student paid a ghostwriter to compose a paper from scratch.
And a radar gun only catches speeders, not red light runners. So?

Has this author ever actually tried to use a thesaurus to change every other word in a sentence? It's amazingly difficult (e.g., "Additionally, a speed trap only apprehends speeders, anti red-beacon runners. And?" or "Additionally, a radio detection and ranging gun solely catches zoomers, not traffic signal runners. So?").

The article then lists a whole bunch of negatives about
* emails word-for-word copies of students' papers to third parties, upon request
* professors intimidating, extorting, and coercing students to cede their rights
* renders students "guilty until proven innocent"
* professors becoming too dependent on machines to do their jobs
* invades students' privacy
* teaches students that rules do not apply to big corporations
* violates students' intellectual property rights
* creates an atmosphere of distrust
* fosters a negative learning environment
* teaches students that it is acceptable to take advantage of "the little guy"
* makes schools vulnerable to lawsuits
Oh boy. Let's take these one at a time.
  • never automatically shares a full student paper with anyone else (unless the entire paper has been copied by someone, in which case reports that fact). Instructors are allowed to send the full text of a student's paper to other instructors, but then it's the instructor who might be violating privacy and copyright law, not
  • No student rights are being lost by having their papers scanned for plagiarism (see above).
  • No, students are not "guilty until proven innocent" when instructors scan papers for plagiairsm. See above.
  • Oh, yeah. Now that I scan for plagiarism I never read any of my students' papers anymore; heck, even spits out a grade for me too. Great service. Worth every penny. (hint: that was sarcasm)
  • How does invade student privacy? The company never reveals the name (or other personally identifying information) of the student who wrote the paper to anyone other than the original instructor. Additionally, remember that the student voluntarily submitted their paper to the instructor to be graded; if the student didn't want the content of that paper read by anyone else (i.e., their instructor), they never should have submitted it as a course assignment.
  • Somehow I don't see how a company helping instructors catch plagiarizing students will be the "evil corporation" story of the 21st century.
  • I think we covered this already.
  • Not any more than watching students taking a test to ensure that they're not cheating creates a negative environment. Actually, if anything, letting your students know you're actively hunting for plagiarism will build a more positive class environment, as students know that cheaters won't be able to get a free ride in your class.
  • See above.
  • Didn't we cover this already?
  • Thousands of schools use; I guarantee you that every one of those has a team of lawyers specially trained in how to avoid lawsuits. I suspect that wouldn't have been able to stay in business for the last 5 years if there was a major risk of schools getting sued1.
But then we get to the kicker - the article reports that there's really no need for, as there's an easy way for instructors to check for plagiarism:
Another way for schools to avoid Turnitin's huge price tag is to force professors to become familiar with each student's writing style (foreign concept, we know). It seems that many apathetic professors have decided to lighten their workloads by allowing machines to "teach" and police our children. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the American educational system is in serious trouble, and students in other industrialized nations grossly outperform ours? (Sorry, frustration often leads me to digress.)

Professors should make students write an in-class essay before assigning any take-home writing assignments. That will enable professors to become familiar with each student's writing capabilities and style. It will also provide a sure-fire template against which professors may compare all subsequent works completed outside of the classroom.
OK, I teach biology. My job is to train students in scientific thinking and help them learn the basics of organismal biology. I am not going to be able to take the time to have each student write an in-class essay to demonstrate their writing style, and then compare their work to said essay each time they submit it. Sorry, not going to happen.

And even if I were able to find the time to get writing samples for every student, I would never get good, solid proof of plagiarism from those writing samples. Based on a writing sample all I could say is "Johnny, I don't think you've written this," to which Johnny would reply, "Yes, I did write that," and then I'd be out of evidence. It's rather difficult to justify giving Johnny an F based on that exchange. However, after using I can show Johnny the printouts of five different websites and say "Look, Johnny, your paper contains content copied from these five websites. I've even gone to the trouble of underlining the copied sentences; funny, but I've underlined every sentence in your paper." Johnny doesn't have much of a reply, and I've got the hard evidence I need to justify giving Johnny an F.

The article goes on to talk about how hypocritical it is to use the service and give mediocre explanations of the fair use doctrine. But it gets interesting again when it gives a few scenarios that demonstrate how much harm can do; I'll just include the first for your reading pleasure.
Scenario #1

A college student named Mary decides to apply for an internship at a major newspaper. She takes the best research paper that she has ever written, and presents it to the executive editor as a writing sample. The editor is so impressed with her writing that he stops just short of hiring her on the spot! Mary is ecstatic. The editor tells her that he just needs to take care of a few formalities, and he'll call her tomorrow. The next day, Mary enthusiastically answers the phone, only to have her heart torn from her chest. The editor informs Mary that "her" research paper has proven to be plagiarized by Turnitin, chastising, "Plagiarizers don't have much of a future in journalism." He hangs up.
It was a nice story up until the ending, which the author gets wrong. Actually, what happened is that Mary's potential new boss (who probably never scanned Mary's paper in the first place, but we'll ignore that) sees that Mary's paper was reported as sharing 100% of its content with a paper written at Mary's old university; on doing a little research (or asking Mary about this), the employer discovers that it's Mary's own paper. Mary is happily employed the next day.

The article continues on (and on, and on), hitting the points of fair use, FERPA, how to stop from indexing your website ( steals lots of your bandwidth, didn't you know?), and the dangers of hackers and lawsuits. Go read it all, if you want. It ends with this bit of legal advice:
If you are a student who is concerned with Turnitin violating your intellectual property rights, you can place the following copyright notice at the bottom of your paper to prevent your school from submitting your writing/ideas to If your school ignores your copyright notice and does submit your property to Turnitin or any other service/program/database, you can sue the service and/or your school for up to $150,000 per incident, as allowed by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Cornell Law School).

Copyright 2006 [STUDENT NAME]. All Rights Reserved. Aside from my professor's sole, personal review as part of his/her private, single-human, software-free grading process, neither my professor nor my academic institution may otherwise transfer, distribute, reproduce, publicly/privately perform, publicly/privately claim, publicly/privately display, or create derivative works (including "digital fingerprints") of my copyrighted document, or intellectual property. The same restrictions apply to and all similar services. Neither my professor nor my academic institution may submit my copyrighted document, in whole or in part, to be transformed, manipulated, altered, or otherwise used by or stored in a physical or electronic database or retrieval system without my personal, explicit, voluntary, uncoerced, written permission. Regardless of supposed intent (e.g., "to create a digital fingerprint"), no part of my copyrighted document may be temporarily or permanently transferred, by any party, to or any other service, program, database, or system for analysis, comparison, storage, or any other purpose whatsoever. Violators will be monetarily punished to the fullest extent allowed by the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) and/or international law.

Students can Set a Trap for Violators

The first step in preventing your school from submitting your intellectual property to Turnitin is to place the aforementioned copyright notice at the bottom of your paper. The second step is to make sure that if your professor ignores your copyright notice, you have the necessary evidence to make your entire school district legally regret summarily dismissing your rights.

At least 24 hours prior to submitting the paper to your professor (with copyright notice included), send a copy of the paper through the postal system, addressed to your mother and/or father, at their address. Seal the envelope extremely well. Tell your parents to expect the envelope, but make sure that they do NOT open the envelope when it arrives! Store the envelope somewhere safe.

If you later find out that your professor submitted the paper to TurnItIn, your postmarked (dated) envelope—containing an exact copy of the copyrighted document that you submitted to your professor—will serve as evidence that you clearly warned your professor/school in advance that they may not transfer or grant third-party license to your work. They will have no defense, and you will almost certainly be awarded monetary compensation if you file a civil suit.
Can we say "wishful thinking?" Good.

Even ignoring that the legal advice is ridiculous1, the first thing I'd do with a paper that contained a notice such would be to go over every sentence with a fine-tooth comb hunting for plagiarism.

1Note that I am not a lawyer, and I'm not trying to over-simplify the discussion of the legal principles involved; they're clearly complex. See this post (and its comments) for a lawyer's look at the situation.