April 2008 Archives

When Fair Use Becomes Bad Writing

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The plagiarism news wire came up with a new twist on plagiarism I had not considered before - the use of reference works in historical fiction. Any novel writer who wants to be taken seriously by historians must of course do a certain amount of historical research...because you know it's a bad Civil War novel if the battle of Gettysburg takes place in 1885. On the other hand, you don't really foot notes in your historical novel. Imagine the following piece of fiction with citations.

As Jim Bob swatted away another mosquito on the morning of July 1, 18631 while marching with General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia2 towards Gettysburg through the scenic Adams County3 orchards of Pennsylvania...he knew it was going another hot day...

In other words - full citation is not really a key concern of novelists. The serious historical novels may have a bibliography at the end, but few "romance" novels will have any such resource. In some sense, novels must have a built in "fair use" clause to include whatever research a novelist chooses to use - without or without citation

But what happens when a novel lifts entire passages from a reference book as one romance novelist has been accused of doing. That is, how far can you go in using academic research?

In this case, it's not a clear case of "cut-and-paste" plagiarism (which would definitely be wrong), but would rather would be a case of "inappropriate paraphrase" - that is rewording the material so little that the "essense" of the original remains. Is this OK?

Actually it may be more OK than you would think. Dan Brown (author of the Da Vinci Code) won a lawsuit against Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, authors of Holy Blood which originally proposed the thesis that Jesus and Mary Magdeline may have conceived a child and still had modern descendants. All Dan Brown did was take an interesting premise and add a modern day thriller twist.

And it's a good thing he did win or else we would never be able to enjoy a bad UFO's in Roswell novel ever again. Truly, I doubt there could be an economic crime here - few people mistake novels for historical research. Even if Brown did not directly acknowledge his sources, I do honestly think that Holy Blodd could easily have leveraged the novel to increase their own sales. I think ANY book about Mary Magedeline could have seen an increase in sales.

But I can't let our novel authors off scott-free either. It's never a good sign that a reviewer or reader can determine your original source material. It either means you didn't do enough research or you're not a good enough writer to translate scholarly prose to compelling prose. I don't know about you, but I'm not feeling the gritty splendor of indigenous native American culture in the following passage

He [Shadow Bear?] nodded toward the closed entrance flap. "Outside, you will notice that further recognition is given the sun by the erection of the Lakota village with every tepee door facing the east."

The crime may not be plagiarism, but it sure is bad writing.

Electronic Reserves: An "Unglamourous" But Successful Service

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Electronic Reserves - a University Libraries Service in which instructors request library content for their courses to be digitized and made available online to students. A few of these documents may be streamed music or online images, but truthfully most are PDF files.

Around 2003, I worked with the Libraries and the Penn State ANGEL Programmers to conceptualize and implement a nifty ANGEL utility - an ANGEL Reserves tool which lets students jump straight from their ANGEL course to the correct course Reserves without a second login and course search.

This tool may not sound as exciting up front as some other technology options, but I am proud to say that this is one service that has stood that the test of time. Despite minimal marketing (at least from ITS), the tool is still being used in over 600 360+ courses in Spring 2008 (or 700+ courses/year) across 19 campuses. Electronic Reserves is also one of the tools I can guarantee that I will use in just about every course I teach.

Connecting Electronic Reserves to ANGEL solves a lot of problems for instructors. Not only can students go to just one location, but copies will be legal 99% of the time (for instance, I may be able to link to a pre-existing image from the CAMIO image database which Penn State has purchased access to). On the other hand, because ANGEL is password protected, there is potential for TEACH Act leeway for at least a semester. And Electronic Reserves saves file space on the ANGEL because files are really hosted at the Libraries. It's almost a .... mashup?

So although the ANGEL Electronic Reserves is a fairly small scale utility, it's one of the projects I am very proud to have been associated with. It looks like just another way to link to a PDF file, but really it introduced me to the world of the mashup, service integration and the single signon portal.

I just wonder what Electronic Reserves will be connecting to in another five years.

Partnering Dreamweaver with Drupal for Accessibility

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As many regular blog readers know, I'm still a big fan of Dreamweaver even in this brave new Web 2.0 world. But shouldn't I be exploring the new content management systems like Drupal and Movable Type...or even ANGEL?

Actually I have been, but I'm also finding that Dreamweaver has been an indispensable partner, especially for complex CMS pages - because Dreamweaver is the most flexible tool which still generates the cleanest, most accessible XHTML around.

If you can figure out how to cut and paste HTML (and what respectable Web master can't do that?), then Dreamweaver can still be a great time saver.

Here's a mini-tour of some useful Dreameweaver tools and how they've been helping me streamline a Drupal or Movable Type page.

Insert Headers

Long pages should have subheaders (e.g. H2,H3,H4) - even those in a CMS...but amazingly few editors I've encountered recognize this fact. They'll let you shrink and enlarge text or change colors...but they won't let you actually insert a correct level of header (unless you know the tag).

Dreamweaver not only lets you do that, but gives you a keyboard command - sweet.

Image Insertion & ALT Tags

Ever since Dreamweaver MX 2004, the software has been enabled with a key primal instinct. If you insert a picture - it asks for an ALT tag. You have to be pretty lazy to ignore it. Plus Dreamweaver captures the image size and image file name.

It's true, you can't just cut and paste the code into Drupal or Movable Type and expect an image to appear...but will have a record of the file name, ALT tag and size attributes. All you, the Webmaster, have to do is upload the images into Drupal and change the SRC path (which is always the same). You won't have to fill in the sizes or guess on the file name. And if you miss an image...the ALT Tag has been pre-filled in for you.

Data Tables

One school of thought says to avoid them, but sometimes they really are the best way to present data (see below). But few CMS WYSIWYG tools include good table tools, and even fewer let you set the SCOPE attribute.

  Drupal Default Movable Type 4 ANGEL 7
Tool Default setup does not include HTML Editor Six Apart.com FCK Editor + Equation Editor
Image Hand code (including path) Assign title to image Assign Alternative Text to image
Table Hand code. Must enable full HTML to use Hand code Table Editor, but no scope
B or STRONG STRONG enabled by default. Must enable full HTML to use B Either (depends on editor) STRONG
H tag Hand Code. Must enable full HTML to use Hand code Under Format menu (vs. Style).


In Dreamweaver, inserting the table prompts you to select a table layout with table headers (and the right SCOPE). If you get the initial set-up correct, your accessibility issues have been mostly solved. And if you need to tweak the table, Dreamweaver can do that too.

A Break is a P and not a Break

A basic accessibility mantra is to make sure that paragraphs are chunked into P tags and groups of sentences separated by BR tags. That is, blank lines between paragraphs should be caused by the P tag and not two BR tags. This allows screen readers to re-read single paragraphs as necessary. If it's all BR tags, then the HTML is just one giant text block structurally. Some HTML editors ensure that blank spaces between paragraphs really correspond to the P tag, but more than a few don't...

Bold or Strong

Want the bold command to be B or STRONG? Dreamweaver lets you choose either by default (and you can even activate commands to do both if you're really clever). The one thing you won't have to do is manually type in "<strong>" all the time - that one gets old very fast. Nor will Dreamweaver generate one of the scariest pieces of CMS code I ever did see - <span style="font-weight:bold">. This may validate, but if you're going the presentation route, surely <b> would save many bytes.

And it gives a Local Backup

Penn State is pretty good about backing up server files, but glitches do occur (sometimes I push the Delete button when I shouldn't), but Dreamweaver allows you to archive key content...if you're feeling paranoid.

Same Toolset for the Same HTML

As much as I like the concept of CMS, I've been exposed to enough of them that I'm starting to get a little disoriented. It really is nice to have one HTML generator that is independent of everything else. And if the HTML editor isn't working on a Mac (or IE 7) today, then Dreamweaver will come to the rescue

Any Drawbacks?

The two I can think of are that 1) Dreamweaver costs money and 2) Dreamweaver is complex for a WYSIWYG editor. Plus, you usually have to set your CMS HTML editor to view tags only when it comes time to cut and copy code (but you can ususally toggle back to WYSIWYG mode).

But if you are a Web saavy user and already have access to Dreamweaver and spent all that time getting up to speed in it, I would think it would make sense to leverage the tool.

This entry composed in Dreamweaver and pasted into Movable Type - with subheaders.

Parody Blogs - Another Benefit to Blogging

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Sometimes blogs get a bad name (because, let's face it, some blogs are better than others). But if we didn't have bad blogs, where would we get parody blogs from?

Like this gem from Santa Clause:

Sunday 23 December 07 - I really can't be bothered with Christmas this year. I will give it a rest until 2009.

That's telling them Santa!

Green Blobs Algebra Game

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I always like to find activities (including games) which apply what you learn to a real situation - even Cathedral Architecture.

I just ran into a simple "Green Blobs" Equation Plotter Game in which students try to generate an equation which will hit the most green dots on the grid. I've seen math games "shooting" games before, but this Green Blogs is unique in that it uses a skill that does occur in real math.

For instance, statistical regression is basically trying find an equation that best "hits" the dots from your data set. It would be interesting to see if these kids made a connection later, but at least the idea won't be a foreign concept.

Beware Scrambled Notation Syndrome

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I've recently returned to the world of course development and am now working on some more mathematically oriented courses...which is nice because I can contemplate the minor teaching sins I and others commit in teaching "formalisms" (sometimes math, sometimes phonetics).

One I'm noticing is what I will Scrambled Notation Syndrome. Although mathematical formalism is a precise system, let's just say it comes in several dialects. In physics land, the acceleration measurement of "meters per second per second" can be indicated as either m/sec2 or m•s-2...depending on which textbook you're using or which methodology you are working with that day.

In linguistics, you also see variant symbols such as the "y" in yellow being transcribed as /y/ (U.S.) or /j/ (IPA) or even "consonantal i" in historical linguistics (this is i with arc below). There are rational reasons why these variants were selected, and at some point students may encounter them all if they stay in that major. Once you hit "expert" level, it's very easy to switch back and forth (it's almost transparent). Experts know which factor is the most important (the 2 exponent in the case of acceleration) and can ignore some of the rest as noise (or at least interpolate quickly).

The problem for students is that they are still working through the basics (usually with just the first textbook). Considerate instructors try to stick to one notation system, but it's surprisingly easy to slip. It's worse if you happen to be using more than one textbook in the same semester. In an online course, you should be able to circumvent it ahead of time, but I'm noticing that variations are creeping into graphics and video where it's harder to edit the inconsistencies out. Eek.

Speaking for myself I do introduce the common variations for different phonetic symbols. Not only because I know I'm likely to slip up once in the semester, but because it is a fact that students will have to adjust to working with variant symbols sooner or later. Still I have to brace myself for students who ask what that near equivalent is. For them it's still opaque.

Lawrence Lessig - Elizabeth's Quirky View

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I lucky enough to attend Lawrence Lessig's Keynote address at the Penn State 2008 Symposium last week. If nothing else, it was worth it to see the mashup of George Bush and Tony Blair singing Endless Love to each other (I can verify that Fox News watchers also thought this was hilarious).

On a more serious note, it was a keynote that inspired me think - sometimes on a Lessig track, and sometimes on my own track.

So Many Orphaned Works

I was amazed to find out that 75% of the volumes scanned by Google are "orphaned works", that is under copyright, but out of print. That IS a lot of content under lock and key. You can read more about this line of thought at http://symposium.tlt.psu.edu/session/lessig-so-many-orphaned-works

Copyright Restrictions Can Both Inhibit and Liberate Creativity

Lessig made an excellent case on the need of allowing artists to incorporate past works - especially in terms of social criticism (see video above).

On the other hand...I know that NOT being able to use these works can ispire creators to greater heights of creativity. For instance, I wanted to demo a certain type of embroidery stitch, but couldn't get permission to copy an embroidery design (or even buy it off of Amazon). So I ended up creating a design on my own to highlight the stitch - which I might not have done otherwise.

Copyright is one reason we have so many duplicate photos of the same object or technical drawings of the same concept. It's often easier to make another version of your own then try to license it from someone else.

There are limits though. When Florence King (author of Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady) wanted to quote old song lyrics telling tales of "fallen women", her publisher informed that they could not guarantee licenses because some songs may have been recently re-recorded and under new restrictions. Her solution at the time was to create her own lyrics within that genre, but from a research point of view...this was not ideal.

Professionals and Amateurs - An Old Dichotomy

Whenever I hear references to technology and history - I'm usually both intrigued and worried. I'm glad to know someone is looking to the past, but is it always the right metaphor? For instance...

Lessig discussed the "new" tension between professional creators (those who can get paid to create) and amateur creators (those who do it without getting paid). He quoted Sousa as warning that phonographs would "professionalize" music (read-only culture) while today we are seeing a "return" of amateur musicians (read/write culture).

To me though it's not such a new dichotomy. It's said that even the Celts required years of training for their bards (professional musicians), so the distinction of popular vs professional has been around a long time (at least since ancient Egypt had slinky flute girls in the palace). Similarly, the rise of the record and the camera gave rise to the garage band and the hobby photographer. The read/write mix persists even through the 20th century. You could argue that having access to professional caliber examples is good for the art community (unless it suppresses the traditional arts).

What is changing is that the amateurs are now getting the same distribution channels as the professionals (see next section).

It's The Distribution System That Changed

I think the Internet revolution is really about distribution (I'm sure this is not an original thought, but the Internet is not facilitating a good citation search today). Because posting a file is so cheap - both amateurs and professionals can put their content on the Web in the same "channels".

Before the Internet, professionals and amateurs had different ways of distributing their opera magna (that would be the plural of opus magnum). In modern era, only professionals were "published" on a large scale and only by companies who could afford the duplication equipment. Further back in time, the only way to access a high-level professional artist was probably to visit the capital (and maybe you had to know a rich patron or someone in the palace).

Amateurs or popular works were usually distributed on a more local level. Maybe you attended a local concert or saw a hex sign painted by a local artisan. A non-elite would see these the most, but only those styles and genres for their particular region.

But today - something on the Internet could be either "amateur" or "professional" and this is something that has its pluses and minuses. Lessig noted the pluses for amateurs (and saavy professionals), but studios who are used to making profits by publishing are NOT seeing the benefits right now (hence the copyright crackdown).

Interestingly this merger of the channels has led to another common academic complaint - the need for students to develop the information literacy skills to distinguish the good stuff from the schlock. Sometimes it all connects in ways we never expected...