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12 posts categorized "Hilzoy"

May 17, 2005

My Job Is Safe For Now

Guest post: hilzoy (who is a philosophy professor)

Department of Louise brings scary, scary news: people are not just developing, but actually marketing and using, software that supposedly enables computers to grade (or, more accurately, "grade") essays. According to one of the people who is selling this stuff, their biggest problem is that no one believes that computers can possibly do a good job grading essays:

"That's the biggest obstacle for this technology," said Frank Catalano, a senior vice president for Pearson Assessments and Testing, whose Intelligent Essay Assessor is used in middle schools and the military alike. "It's not its accuracy. It's not its suitability. It's the believability that it can do the things it already can do."

I can see how this would be a problem. Take me, for instance: I am not an ignorant Luddite, but when I ask myself: self, honestly, do you think a computer could do a good job of grading a student's essay? the answer is: no. Not a chance. Maybe at some distant point in the future, when all of us except for those fortunate few who can afford beachfront property in Antarctica are living in climate-controlled biodomes, they might be able to, but not just now. Oddly enough, I'm right:

"The software is not flawless, even its most ardent supporters admit.

When the University of California at Davis tried out such technology a couple years back, lecturer Andy Jones decided to try to trick e-Rater.

Prompted to write on workplace injuries, Jones instead input a letter of recommendation, substituting "risk of personal injury" for the student's name.

"My thinking was, 'This is ridiculous, I'm sure it will get a zero,'" he said.

He got a five out of six.

A second time around, Jones scattered "chimpanzee" throughout the essay, guessing unusual words would yield him a higher score.

He got a six.

In Brent's class, sophomore Brady Didion submitted drafts of his papers numerous times to ensure his final version included everything the computer wanted.

"What you're learning, really, is how to cheat the program," he said."

Just the lesson we want to give those impressionable young minds entrusted to our care. But that hasn't stopped people from using it:

"Watertown, S.D., students are among those who now have their writing-assessment tests scored by computer.

Lesli Hanson, an assistant superintendent in Watertown, said students like taking the test by computer and teachers are relieved to end an annual ritual that kept two dozen people holed up for three days to score 1,500 tests.

"It almost got to be torture," she said.

Some 80 percent of Indiana's 60,000 11th-graders have their English assessment scored by computer, and another 10,000 ninth-graders are taking part in a trial in which computers assess some routine written assignments.

Stan Jones, Indiana's commissioner of higher education, said the technology isn't as good as a teacher but cuts turnaround time, trims costs and allows overworked teachers to give written assignments without fearing the workload."

The question is, if those assignments are going to be graded by programs that give a perfect score to a letter of recommendation with the word 'chimpanzee' scattered throughout, why would you bother giving written assignments at all? And if you really don't care about the grading, why go to the trouble of buying software when it's so much easier to paint the letters A through F on dice and roll them? Sheesh.

For some no doubt quaint and technologically unsophisticated reason, I think that teaching my students to write well is the most important thing I can do for them, bar none. Long after they have forgotten exactly what the Categorical Imperative is, or what the main objections to utilitarianism are, the kind of intellectual confidence and precision that really learning to write gives you will linger on. So I think: if I can teach them that, I have done my job. And if, in addition, I teach them that it's possible to make arguments for moral claims, I can die happy. The idea of handing either task over to software that can't distinguish a letter of recommendation for someone called "risk of personal injury" from an essay on workplace safety is -- well, I can't even figure out how to say how awful it is. And I should say that I hate, hate, hate grading.

Of course, lucky me has a good job at a wealthy research university. So if I were to say that I just didn't have time to grade essays, I would be lying. Possibly the teachers in Indiana have the time too, and they're just lazy. Possibly, though, they really don't have the time. Grading essays is hard work, especially if you try to do right by your students. There are rough drafts and rewrites, lengthy attempts to explain what went wrong with a student's argument and how it might have been improved, and so on. I have been doing this for a while, and it still takes me about 45 minutes per 5-7 page paper, if I'm working efficiently. (Note to future professors: this is not only the right thing to do; it also does a lot for student morale. When they get over a page of comments that are plainly written about their paper, not mass-produced, they are much less likely to think you're biassed.)

The point is: it does take a lot of time. And eleventh grade teachers have a lot more students than I do. Maybe they really, honestly can't grade their students' papers. If that's the case, it's time to think about hiring some more teachers. And if there isn't enough money, it's time to think about finding some, through higher taxes if need be. Because if essays are being graded by this software, kids are being badly shortchanged.

(Cross-posted at Obsidian Wings.)

May 16, 2005

An Interesting Comparison...

Guest post: hilzoy

From Angry Bear:

"This coming Thursday, May 19, 2005, will be the 1,346th day since the attacks of 9/11. That is the same length of time from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the end of WWII on V-J Day. (Dec 7, 1941 to Aug 24, 1945)

Most comparisons between WWII and the Global War on Terror (GWOT) have been preposterous: Saddam Hussein was no Adlof Hitler; the "Axis of Evil" was no WWII Axis Powers; the far right even went so far as to compare Colin Powell to Neville Chamberlain.

But this milestone does provide the opportunity to compare the effectiveness of America's responses to both crises. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, America came together, and with determination, shared sacrifice, and the effective and focused leadership of FDR, George C. Marshall, and many others, America and her allies were victorious. (...)

A poorly defined mission has led to poor results. Iraq is a mess and many Americans have concluded that the invasion of Iraq was unrelated to the GWOT. The situtation in Afghanistan is not much better. Worldwide terrorism is still on the rise and America is now deeply divided.

The economic consequences of this "war" have been significant and are growing. The most obvious are the war expenditures: over $250 Billion already spent and Congress has just passed another spending bill for an additional $82 Billion. Even before the ink dried, Congress is discussing the need for another $50 Billion later this year. All of these expenditures are "off-budget" and are not included in the Bush Administration's reported budget deficits. CORRECTION: The GWOT expenditures are excluded from the "on-budget" projections, but they are included in prior year on-budget deficits. Sorry for any confusion, CR.

And the most deleterious impact may come from the growing lack of confidence in America's leadership. In the event of an international or economic crisis, I have no confidence that the Bush Administration will respond appropriately.

It took 1,346 days to win WWII. 1,346 days after 9/11, what have we accomplished?"

Good question. One of the things that I find hardest to understand about this administration is its fundamental lack of seriousness in the war on terror. I wrote about this before the election here (Afghanistan), here (nuclear non-proliferation), and here (homeland security). Rather than rehash all the details here, I'll just say that I think Bush has not done a good job at all on these fronts, and that details about why I think this can be found in those earlier posts.

We have not caught Osama bin Laden or Ayman al Zawahiri. (But then, Bush is "not that concerned about him".) We have done very little to secure ourselves against further terrorist attacks, secure nuclear material overseas, or prevent North Korea from turning into a one-stop shopping center for WMD, and we have made a mess of Afghanistan.

So when, exactly, can we expect VT Day? And how many lives will be lost before we get there?

May 15, 2005

What Is "Progressive Price Indexing"?

Guest post: hilzoy

I have been messing around with a long post on Social Security, and in the course of writing it I realized that I did not fully understand what 'price indexing' was, in the context of Social Security. The general concept of price indexing was easy enough: something that is currently indexed to wages would, under price indexing, be indexed to prices instead. Since prices tend to rise more slowly than wages, this would lead benefits to grow more slowly (or: be cut, depending on which you prefer) over time. But what, exactly, were people proposing to price-index? I had somehow picked up the (correct) idea that the mysterious indexed entity was not benefits themselves: these are adjusted each year according to the Consumer Price Index, which is to say: they are price-indexed. Price-indexing, I knew, had something to do with the initial calculation of benefits, and thus with the mysterious arcana of Social Security benefit calculations that I have thus far tried very hard to avoid having to figure out. But I realized, as I wrote my Social Security post, that I couldn't avoid this any longer. If I was to be a Truly Responsible Blogger™, I had to figure it out. Having done so, I thought I might as well try to explain it as clearly as possible, since it's not what you might think.

Warning: it's wonky.

Continue reading "What Is "Progressive Price Indexing"?" »

May 14, 2005


Guest post: hilzoy

From the CNN:

"Hundreds of people have been killed by government soldiers in the wake of violent anti-government protest in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan, Russia's Interfax news agency report human rights monitors as saying.

A U.N. official and news reports said Saturday that Uzbeks fled to neighboring Kyrgyzstan as well toward the Kyrgyz cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad.

The violence began Thursday when a group of local citizens angry about the arrest of several prominent business owners stormed the prison where they were being held.

At one point, about 10,000 protesters gathered in the city center to demand the resignation of Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his government, who are allies of the United States. The president's office described them as criminals and extremists. (...)

Interfax quoted Saijakhon Zainabitdinov, head of the Andizhan human rights group Appeal, concerning the death toll.

"Government troops opened fire on civilians on Friday evening and hundreds of people died. At dawn today, the dead bodies were taken away on five vehicles -- three Zil dump trucks, one Ural heavy truck and one bus. All of the vehicles were filled with bodies," Zainabitdinov said."

The demonstrations have reportedly spread to the nearby city of Ilyichevsk, where refugees are trying to flee across the border to Kyrgyzstan.

Continue reading "Uzbekistan" »

May 13, 2005

If Irony Weren't Already Dead, This Would Have Killed It

Guest post: hilzoy

From USA Today:

"Rep. Tom DeLay fired back at Democrats raising ethics questions about him, telling a crowd of conservative activists that the GOP's opponents have no ideas and "no class." "

Praise from the master is praise indeed.

[Cross-posted at Obsidian Wings.]

Bolton Redux, Redux, Redux...

Guest post: hilzoy

I have, on several occasions, promised myself that I would not write any more Bolton posts. The basic issues are clear; anyone who is reading this blog has presumably already made his or her mind up, so why bother? But then some new detail emerges about the ongoing train wreck that is John Bolton, and I just can't help myself. (For some people it's buying shoes; for me it's writing about Bolton. Go figure.) This is one of those moments. From Newsweek:

"George W. Bush has said it often enough. The No. 1 security challenge for America post-9/11 is to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue regimes. In a landmark speech at the National Defense University in February 2004, the president called for a toughened Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other new initiatives. “There is a consensus among nations that proliferation cannot be tolerated,” Bush said. “Yet this consensus means little unless it is translated into action.”

By action Bush meant the hard work of diplomacy, John Bolton, the president’s point man on nuclear arms control, told Congress a month later. For one thing, America needed to lead an effort at “closing a loophole” in the 35-year-old NPT, Bolton testified back then. The treaty’s provisions had to be updated to prevent countries like Iran from enriching uranium under cover of a peaceful civilian program—which is technically permitted under the NPT—when what Tehran really sought was a bomb, according to the administration.

But if the NPT needed so much fixing under U.S. leadership, why was the United States so shockingly unprepared when the treaty came up for its five-year review at a major conference in New York this month, in the view of many delegates? And why has the United States been losing control of the conference’s agenda this week to Iran and other countries—a potentially serious setback to U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran?

Part of the answer, several sources close to the negotiations tell NEWSWEEK, lies with Bolton, the undersecretary of State for arms control. Since last fall Bolton, Bush’s embattled nominee to be America’s ambassador to the United Nations, has aggressively lobbied for a senior job in the second Bush administration. During that time, Bolton did almost no diplomatic groundwork for the NPT conference, these officials say.

“John was absent without leave” when it came to implementing the agenda that the president laid out in his February 2004 speech, a former senior Bush official declares flatly. Another former government official with experience in nonproliferation agrees. “Everyone knew the conference was coming and that it would be contentious. But Bolton stopped all diplomacy on this six months ago,” this official said. “The White House and the National Security Council started worrying, wondering what was going on. So a few months ago the NSC had to step in and get things going themselves. The NPT regime is full of holes—it's very hard for the U.S. to meet our objectives—it takes diplomacy.” "

To my mind, the single most unfortunate feature of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is that it allows countries to enrich uranium "for peaceful purposes". Enforcement would be so much easier if any enrichment was just out of the question. Banning it wouldn't be impossible: even if signatories insisted on having nuclear power programs, we could set up some agency to sell uranium to those countries under very strict supervision, and then take the spent fuel away when it had been used. (This would, of course, get us into the problem of dealing with nuclear waste, but that's an issue for another day.) If the NPT were amended in this way, it would be vastly easier to tell when it was being violated: the whole set of questions about whether uranium enrichment was for peaceful or military purposes would no longer have to be asked. I therefore thought it was really good when the President said he would work to amend it to close this loophole, although experience has taught me to wait to see whether or not such promises will be implemented.

It's really, really bad that we seem to have completely screwed this up. And it's unforgivable that Bolton screwed it up because he was trying to make sure he had a job in the second Bush administration. To state the obvious: the whole idea of public service is to, well, serve the public and its interests. Anyone who goes into public service should have some point at which their interest in their career takes a back seat to the national interest; some list of things they are not willing to sacrifice to ambition. If strengthening the NPT isn't on Bolton's list, it should be. And if the problem is rather that he doesn't have such a list -- that for him it's all ambition all the way down -- that's even worse. In either case, failing to take this seriously, when he's working as the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security is unforgivable.

The article also casts doubt on some of Bolton's other supposed accomplishments. We already know that the deal with Libya was struck despite Bolton, not because of him. Now it turns out that his few remaining accomplishments are not all they're cracked up to be either:

"Bolton, for instance, often takes and is given credit for the administration’s Proliferation Security Initiative—an agreement to interdict suspected WMD shipments on the high seas—and the deal to dismantle Libya’s nuclear program (a deal that Bolton had sought to block). But the former senior Bush official who criticized Bolton’s performance on the NPT conference says that in fact Bolton’s successor, Robert Joseph, deserves most of the credit for those achievements. This official adds that it was Joseph, who was in charge of counterproliferation at the NSC, who had to pitch in when Bolton fumbled preparations for the NPT conference, as well. Bush, in his February 2004 speech, also sought to give new powers to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which enforces the treaty. But Bolton, says the former Bush official, “focused much more time and attention trying to deny Mohammed elBaradei a third term” as head of the IAEA. The effort failed, and it was considered another international humiliation for the United States. (Ironically, elBaradei has been one of Washington’s chief allies at the NPT conference, pushing for parts of the Bush agenda.)"

Is there anything this guy does do well?

May 12, 2005

Demonstration Effects

Guest post: hilzoy

Here's an obvious thought: it's really, really important that in our efforts to defeat al Qaeda, we not be seen as fighting a war on Islam itself. It's important because we should not actually be fighting a war on Islam, but on Islamic terrorists, who bear about the same relation to Islam that people who blow up abortion clinics bear to Christianity. And it's important because it would be disastrous if ordinary Muslims, who might otherwise not support al Qaeda, got the idea that they had to defend Islam itself against us. This is not exactly rocket science.

Unfortunately, it seems to have eluded some of our interrogators at Guantanamo. From Newsweek:

"Investigators probing abuses at Guantanamo Bay have confirmed some infractions alleged in internal FBI e-mails that surfaced late last year. Among the previously unreported cases, sources tell NEWSWEEK: interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, placed Qur'ans on toilets and, in at least one case, flushed a holy book down the toilet."

Flushing a Qur'an down the toilet. Gosh, that's really helpful. I hope they got a lot of useful information that way, given the consequences:

Continue reading "Demonstration Effects" »

Right Wing History, Part 2

Guest post by hilzoy

This time it's Pat Buchanan:

"True, U.S. and British troops liberated France, Holland and Belgium from Nazi occupation. But before Britain declared war on Germany, France, Holland and Belgium did not need to be liberated. They were free. They were only invaded and occupied after Britain and France declared war on Germany – on behalf of Poland.

When one considers the losses suffered by Britain and France – hundreds of thousands dead, destitution, bankruptcy, the end of the empires – was World War II worth it, considering that Poland and all the other nations east of the Elbe were lost anyway?

If the objective of the West was the destruction of Nazi Germany, it was a "smashing" success. But why destroy Hitler? If to liberate Germans, it was not worth it. After all, the Germans voted Hitler in."

Nowhere in the entire article, whose title is "Was World War II Worth It?", does Buchanan mention, or even allude to, the Holocaust, which one might have thought would figure in any list of the pros and cons.

[Cross-posted at Obsidian Wings. Note: I usually don't write a lot about the peculiar views of conservatives, but they've been on a roll for the last 24 hours.]

Bolton Hearing On Now

Guest Post by hilzoy

On CSPAN 3. George Voinovich has stated that he will not vote in favor of Bolton's nomination, but will vote to report it out of the Committee, without recommendation, so that it can have an up or down vote. From the Washington Post:

"In a tense atmosphere, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee debated John Bolton's fitness to be United Nations ambassador on Thursday. A critical Republican senator, George Voinovich of Ohio, agreed to let the nomination go to the full Senate but he called the diplomat "arrogant" and "bullying."

"This administration can do better than that," Voinovich said in the first big battle of President Bush's second term

Voinovich said he could not vote for the nomination, but would agree to send it to the floor without a recommendation of approval or disapproval.

"We owe it to the president to give Mr. Bolton an up-or-down vote on the floor of the U.S. Senate," Voinovich said.

Despite Voinovich's sharp criticism of Bolton, who now serves as the top arms-control diplomat at the State Department, the White House was clearly relieved that the Ohio senator had agreed to let the full Senate decide.

Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said the White House is confident Bolton will be confirmed by the full Senate.

Voinovich called Bolton "the poster child of what someone in the diplomatic corps should not be."

He said Bolton would be fired if he was in the private sector.

"That being said, Mr. Chairman, I am not so arrogant to think that I should impose my judgment and perspective of the U.S. position in the world community on the rest of my colleagues," he added."

Laura Rozen has tried to take down what he said here.

As If She Wanted To Change Her Skin

Guest post by hilzoy

Via kos, a quote from Seymour Hersh:

"I get a call from a mother. She wants to see me somewhere in northeastern America. I go see her. There's a kid that was in the unit, the 372nd. They had all come home early. If you remember the timeline, they did their stuff in late 2003, reported in 2004. This mother is telling me -- I'm writing in the spring of 2004 -- March of 2004, the kid had come home in the same unit totally changed. Young, pretty woman, vibrant. Depressed, disconsolate, inconsolable, isolated. Had been newly married. Left her husband, left the family, moved to a nearby town, working a night job or whatever. And nobody could figure out what's going on.

She sees the stories about Abu Ghraib. She goes, knocks on the door, shows the young woman the newspaper, and door slams, bam! And at that point, as she tells me, later -- as she tells me in real time -- this is May, early May -- she goes back, the kid had been given a computer, a portable computer like. (...) So she claims -- this not a woman familiar with Freud or the unconscious -- she claims at that point she just decided to look at the computer after hearing about Abu Ghraib. She said she had -- she just hadn’t looked at it. She just was going to clean it up and take it to her office as a second computer. No thoughts. And she is deleting files. She sees a file marked “Iraq.” And she hits it, and out comes 60 or 80 digital photographs of the one that The New Yorker ran of the naked guy standing against a cell in terror, hands behind his back so he can’t protect his private parts, which is the instinct. And two snarling German dogs -- shepherds. Somebody said they're Belgian shepherds, perhaps, but two snarling shepherds, you know, on each side of him. And the sequence -- in the sequence, the dogs attack the man, blood all over. (...)

So she looks at this stuff and eventually calls me. And we do it all, and we get permission. We run the photographs, just one -- how much -- and the thought there of the editors was how much do you humiliate the Arab world and the Arab man. One is enough. You know, we can describe what else is on the picture. We just don't need more than one. And then, later the mother calls me back, and we became friends. This happens a lot to people in my business. You get to like people. And she says, you know, one thing I didn't tell you that you have to know about the young woman, when she came back, every weekend, she would go and get herself tattooed, and eventually, she said, she was filling her body with large, black tattoos, and eventually, they filled up every portion of her skin, was tattooed, at least all the portions you could see, and there was no reason to make assumptions about the other portions. She was tattooed completely. It was as if, the mother said, she wanted to change her skin." (emphasis added.)

Continue reading "As If She Wanted To Change Her Skin" »