Friday, July 31, 2009

The Adventures of John Flood or Why Google Thinks I'm Schizo

When I was finishing up an article a while back I wrote a post on how I'd found a new book, Jeremy Till's Architecture Depends, and that it had changed my view of what I was doing. A couple of days later Jeremy emailed me. He was using Google Alerts and my post was flagged.

This was intriguing. I set up an alert for a couple of items I'm researching and then I thought why not set one up for me. Usually when I google myself--and who doesn't--I get my website and my blog. But there's often another critter masquerading as me: John C Flood. I've talked about him in my standup. He's a plumber in Virginia, USA. He must have the worst video ever produced on YouTube. Warning: watch at your peril! It's bad!

I got to know John C because I used to get his emails. (Flood's a great name for a plumber isn't it? Inspires you with confidence...) What really put me on to John C was an email from a stranger who wanted to buy my domain name so he could put together a wedding portfolio for a friend, John Flood. He offered me $2000 but I said no. He upped the offer, but I still refused. A day later I got an email meant for John C from the stranger who'd been trying to buy my domain name. He apologized to John C for not being able to get the "John Flood" domain name because the idiot who had it wouldn't release it. Moi! So I wrote to both of them and I've never had another email from John C Flood.

So what could Google Alerts do for me? At first, not much. It picked up my blog posts, but I already had those. But after a month of tracking me down, Google became adventurous.

In June John Flood was a rampaging teenage gangster charged with auto theft in Naperville, IL. Maybe I was the suburban branch of the Crips. Anyhow I was wild. I knew it was me.

But I was fed up with the small stuff and aspired to greater things so I graduated to Chief Inspector of Inspections, Permits and Licensing when I was busted for felony cheque fraud in Louisville, Kentucky. (I get around, man.) So I was down and out, but when my lovely wife, Madonna, was elected to the Metro Council she made damn sure I was hired by the council. OK, I had to swear I had no felony convictions. I slipped up a bit, but it wasn't much. It didn't mean I couldn't do it again. Hey, if Bernie can big it up, why couldn't I? Seems more money went missing. Warn't $65 billion though. Hey, see you at my trial?

Well, after that I moved to Texas. I wanted to leave all that bad karma behind me. I became an attorney in Corpus Christi. You can tell I saw the light. I was acting for a widow whose husband coughed his last while helping our brave boys in blue with their enquiries. My client's previous convictions for manslaughter and cocaine possession had nothing to do with the way the police behaved I'm sure.

To tell you the truth, as you read this you see me diving towards the inferno where I belonged. But I have recanted. I am a better person. Google tells me so! Hallelujah!

I found solace in music. And for a while lately Google has kept me on this musical path. July found me "nestled among olive trees and bougainvillea...looking quintessentially Southern the 110-year-old Bernardo Winery in Rancho Bernardo". Oh, man, bliss. I was in heaven. Good karma. Seems I was playing percussion for a dance version of "Threepenny Opera". Never mind the dance, the vino was good.

But I needed something more substantial, something that really said this is the essence of John Flood! It came. I knew Google wouldn't let me down.

Mindrot! Read this and weep:
Back in the summer of 1989, four gloomy souls got together to create a sound that forever change the face of the Southern California underground music scene. For a year straight the members of Mindrot holed themselves up in a studio in Westminster, CA and honed their musical craft. Then in the June of 1990 they played their first ever show in a living room in Huntington Beach, CA with local crust-masters Glycine Max. The rest as they say was history.
Mindrot combined the heaviness of doom-metal, the gloominess of goth, and the political awareness of punk. I, of course, played the geetar.

Here's our avatar:
You can listen to our music over at our MySpace page. Withersoul and Despair are my favourites. You'll really appreciate my playing. It has a subtlety that is often overlooked on a cursory hearing, so give it a little time. But in case you need a more immediate hit, here I am letting rip.

Hi, I'm John Flood...anyone you want me to be.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Law Will Get You...

(Thanks to New Yorker)


Saturday, July 18, 2009

Plagiarism Rears Its Ugly Head

(Thief by The Blackbird)

While grading student essays I came across one that was quite good. It was discussing a legal issue in the UK. I was fine until I came across a sentence that referred to dollars instead of pounds. It was in relation to a particular statute introduced onto the statute book in the 1960s.

I didn't know this statute so I googled it. When I pulled it up there was the sentence with the dollar reference and the fact that the statute was actually American and not British. It was a cut and paste job. Or otherwise plagiarism.

I have written about plagiarism before, especially in relation to Raj Persaud. For me it is the worst offence an academic can commit. I've had my own work plagiarized so I know what it feels like.

Now I felt I had to check the rest of the student's essay. Particular phrases appeared to demonstrate a fluency somewhat beyond what I considered the student's capacity to be. I fed them into google again and found articles and books from Australia, Asia, and the US coming into view.

It could no longer be "accidental" cutting and pasting as the student would subtly change certain phrases. The original might say, "In the US, and other parts of North America, the law states..."; and the student's version would read, "In the UK, and Europe, the law states..." What was clever was the introduction of spurious references that appeared to relate to the statements being plagiarized, but weren't actually mentioned in the original. And of course the plagiarized sections were not referenced in the bibliography.

After I had found five plagiarized sections I stopped. Basta! No more was needed. This was deliberate, wilful plagiarism--inexcusable.

I devote a substantial part of a class to the iniquities of plagiarism. I emphasize that it is an offence nonpareil. But it is one that students or anyone else don't really need to do. In this case the student knew how to cite authorities and could have easily done so in this essay. Indeed, I would have thought more of the essay as the student was showing some diversity in reading material. True, there was the blunder of using an American statute instead of an English one (?), which one might want to put down to tiredness rather than crass stupidity.

Two lessons: don't cheat since it's easy to find out; or, for god's sake, do it well and show some creativity. It's the Don Camillo paradox when you have the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other. Have a look here.


Friday, July 10, 2009

What Is Your Research Worth?

(The Scholar by Renee Ann Wirick (Away))

Yesterday I sat with 15 other academics as we went through 20 research grant proposals for the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). We spent between seven and eight hours discussing the merits and demerits of the proposals. It was exhausting but worthwhile.

For obvious reasons of confidentiality I can't go into detail about the proposals themselves. I belong to Panel A which covers law, history, theology, and philosophy. It's a wide remit. We are expected to read and decide on all the proposals from our constituent disciplines and then rank order them.

The process is thorough. You, the applicant, write your proposal which your institution approves. Your proposal must cover the research context, the questions, the importance of the research, the methods you will be using, your dissemination plan, and the expected impact of your findings. In addition you must mention who you are and how you will manage the project.

All the research councils limit how much you can actually write in the proposal and this can make the writing more difficult as you have to cut and pare until you have the absolute kernel.

In many ways it's no different from writing an article. It takes as long, requires as much background research to compose, and there's no guarantee you will be rewarded/published. But you have to do it because universities pressure their academics to apply. External funding for them means some relief on internal resources, and it's kudos for you.

So once your baby has been weaned from the page and submitted the funder swings into action. The AHRC selects three reviewers who critique your lovingly composed proposal under similar headings to those you used to write it. When the reviewers are finished, you get a redacted version of their comments to which you respond. In this way, if you are lucky, you get to fill in any gaps and expand beyond that original word limit.

As well as critiquing you the reviewers score you on a scale of 1 (unfundable) to 6 (outstanding). Assuming your proposal has scored well it will go to the panel for moderation.

We, the panel, get to read everything: the proposal, the reviews, your response, and the scores. In preparation for the meeting we prepare introductions for the others. These introductions draw out the distinctions between the reviewers and tell how you have responded to their criticisms.

It's not easy to do. Some reviewers are laudatory while others are highly critical. This can result in a range of scores. One proposal had scores of 3, 4, 6. Our discussion is influenced by how you respond to the reviewers. And it's fair to say that often you will focus on the most critical.

Trying to answer the reviewers does take some balance from you because the others will also have queries they want answering and you must take account of them, not just the critic.

What the panel wants to read from you is a factual response. They don't want to see you take umbrage and get snarky back at the reviewers. It happens. The problem is that academia is composed of small worlds as David Lodge has clearly described. Even though the reviewers are anonymous, you may be able to identify them in their reviews. If you do (or don't), try not take it personally. Just because you think your proposal is stellar and groundbreaking and landmark research, not everyone else will.

We saw all of this yesterday. The other tactic you may employ is that of avoidance or evasion. If the reviewer has spotted something of substance that needs fixing, don't pretend it wasn't mentioned. We look for how you deal with these things. And avoidance doesn't go well with the panel. We want to see what steps you will take or have already taken.

Another aspect of this is if there are a group of you applying for a grant, your research must be coherent and fit together. There's no point in coming up with your favourite topics and trying to bundle them together under a common set of aims and objectives (What do these mean, for god's sake? It's like job and person specifications: you want to say "As long as they breathe...") We see through that.

Surprisingly for the humanities some of the research proposed contains very sophisticated technical issues which have to be properly integrated. The AHRC obtains technical reviews and they can be harsh. And you have to respond to those as well.

As we go through our roster of proposals--we have a very short break for lunch--we start to rank them. We're using the same 1 to 6 scale except we start to refine it by introducing decimals. Yesterday we went to two decimal places to complete our ranking.

At the end we're exhausted, relieved, and satisfied because I believe we tried hard to be fair and reasonable. After all, we know our own research will be on the receiving end soon. But I'm afraid that is not the end because there are financial constraints and so not every good proposal gets funded.

If I were to draw any conclusions they would be simple. The truly outstanding proposals stood out. They were intellectually exciting; they were trying to engage with new ideas. They were coherent and well structured. They gave us the context and the research questions complete with a methodology for how they would answer them.

They made sure that the progress of the research could be tracked and measured. They had milestones and/or advisers who would review progress. They made sure that they were asking for the right amounts of money. Were all these trips to the other side of the world necessary? They made certain that each investigator played a strong role in the project and hadn't been inserted to get some clout.

They thought about how they would publish their results. It could be books, articles, papers, workshops, blogs, websites, seminars for policy makers, newspaper articles and so on. How does your research relate to the world around you?

Research proposals take time and effort and if you are successful your VC will be happy, you will have time to do what you want, and you will make a mark. So don't rush it, get help, make sure your university research office is on top of their brief. If not bug them; they're being paid to help.

And then you can start the next one....

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Jane Lambert Discusses Issues Facing Today's Bar

Jane Lambert is an intellectual property lawyer (barrister) in the north of England. Among barristers she is forward thinking. She has recorded a podcast with Charon QC which you can listen to here.