Sunday, December 29, 2013

More of the Same Can Be a Whole New Thing

That is Koan #5 of Blown to Bits, and it is the thing that Justice Leon seems to get in his opinion that the NSA "metadata" collection program is unconstitutional, and the thing that Justice Pauley seems not to get in his contrary opinion. On the basic question of whether the collection of all the telephone numbers called from all the telephones in the US, Justice Pauley goes straight to the Supreme Court's 1979 decision in the case of Smith v. Maryland in which the Court ruled that telephone users had no expectation of privacy in such telephone numbers, since they were disclosing them to the telephone company, which needed to retain them in order to complete the call and carry out its billing operations. In Pauley's words,

The collection of amounts of information unprotected by the Fourth Amendment does not transform that sweep into a Fourth Amendment search. … The fact that there are more calls placed does not undermine the Supreme Court's finding that a person has no subjective expectation o f privacy in telephony metadata.
 Justice Leon sees things exactly the opposite way.
… the Smith pen register and the ongoing NSA Bulk Telephony Metadata Program have so many significant distinctions between them that I cannot possibly navigate these uncharted Fourth Amendment waters using as my North Star a case that predates the rise of cell phones. … I find that plaintiffs have a very significant expectation of privacy in an aggregated collection of their telephony metadata covering the last five years, and the NSA's Bulk Telephony Metadata Program significantly intrudes on that expectation.
It seems to me (IANAL of course) that we are at a hinge moment and only the Supreme Court can reconcile the tension between the public's privacy and security interests. It is as though we are reliving the progression from Olmstead to Katz in the world of wiretapping. In Olmstead, Chief Justice Taft wrote in 1928,
By the invention of the telephone fifty years ago and its application for the purpose of extending communications, one can talk with another at a far distant place. The language of the Amendment cannot be extended and expanded to include telephone wires reaching to the whole world from the defendant's house or office. The intervening wires are not part of his house or office any more than are the highways along which they are stretched. … The reasonable view is that one who installs in his house a telephone instrument with connecting wires intends to project his voice to those quite outside, and that the wires beyond his house and messages while passing over them are not within the protection of the Fourth Amendment. 
Though Justice Brandeis wrote a memorable contrary opinion in that case, he lost the argument, and it was not until 1967 that the Court found that wiretapping required a warrant. Evincing an interpretation of the Constitution which the 1928 court would have found curious, that "the Fourth Amendment protects people, rather than places," Justice Stewart wrote,
We conclude that the underpinnings of Olmstead and Goldman have been so eroded by our subsequent decisions that the "trespass" doctrine there enunciated can no longer be regarded as controlling. The Government's activities in electronically listening to and recording the petitioner's words violated the privacy upon which he justifiably relied while using the telephone booth, and thus constituted a "search and seizure" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. 
The issue today is not about the changed status of wires but the changed status of bits. How many bits have to be aggregated before the picture they create become so sharp that having the government see it becomes, as Justice Leon wrote, "almost Orwellian"? It will be fascinating to watch this conservative court come to grips with what exactly it will want to conserve.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Financial News

Two things worth noting:

1) Beth Healy of the Boston Globe digs down and figures out how it came to pass that (as reported on this blog) the MBTA pension fund invested with Buddy Fletcher. Turns out one of the MBTA pension fund managers went to work for Buddy and then sold his former colleagues on this cool thing Buddy had going. All fine and dandy within applicable regulations.

2) Harvard Magazine does a much better job following the money trail in Harvard's recent financial statements than Harvard itself did in its own reporting. Imagine that! As the Magazine says,
Harvard’s spending in fiscal 2013 was driven by costs other than salaries, wages, and employee benefits—in contrast to the prior year …. Compensation costs, which continue to account for about half of operating expense, rose 4 percent, with salaries and wages up 4 percent. Employee benefits rose 6 percent—in line with the growth in fiscal 2012 after accounting for a one-time adjustment.
But non-compensation expense increased 7 percent, including costs for a number of “strategic initiatives” listed in the report: the edX online collaborationdevelopment of Allston properties, and the capital campaign itself. …Beyond its operating budget, Harvard is spending a lot on capital projects, includingthe art museumsthe Business School’s Tata Hall, and the undergraduate House renovation (a total of $404 million in fiscal 2013, up 19 percent), with much more in prospect as the campaign underwrites further business school building, the Allston science complex and other projects recently approved in the institutional master plan, and so on.
Of course the Campaign is hugely important. But there is going to have to be another way to make ends meet in the long run. As the Magazine concludes,
… at some point, in some way, collecting revenue from the edX online courses will likely figure in the mix. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

What Was He Thinking?

It was so obvious it couldn't possibly be true. A warning about a bomb in some Harvard buildings, three of them places where an exam was about to take place, the fourth a freshman dormitory. When my brother emailed me from Texas on Monday to ask what was up, I replied, "Somebody really does not want to take his final exam." Just so, as it turned out.

Law enforcement were able to figure out whose laptop had been used to access the anonymizing network Tor around the time the warning email had been sent. That doesn't necessarily mean that that student, Eldo Kim, actually sent that particular email. But it certainly provided law enforcement with ample reason to have a chat with Mr. Kim. Turns out Mr. Kim had dropped some other breadcrumbs. He had blasted the Quincy House student list for help preparing for the exam in Gov 1368, one of the exams given that morning. In any case, when confronted, he confessed, even after being Mirandized.

So he was worried about the exam and did not want to take it. I get that part. But why on earth did he choose to disrupt the lives of hundreds of his peers by canceling their exams as well as his own, and threaten the welfare of the community too by summoning in police and fire units?

It's easy to "sick out" of an exam. That's an abuse of the health system and an inconvenience to the doctors and nurses who have plenty of actually sick people to treat. But the radius of inconvenience caused is pretty limited.

Mr. Kim's acts were selfish to the point of narcissism. We have already started to hear that he was under stress---so reports his lawyer---though maybe it is "self-imposed stress." The lawyer also reports that Kim loves Harvard and wants to come back.

No. I get it---people are under stress, people snap. But there is an inexcusably hollow moral core to a person, even a mentally disturbed person (and no one has suggested Mr. Kim showed any signs of serious mental illness), who conveniences himself by disrupting the lives of hundreds of his peers and the safety of the civil community in which he lives.

Maybe there is a cultural factor. Mr. Kim is Korean by birth and a naturalized US citizen. I visited with some higher education officials in South Korea a few years ago and asked them what their biggest problem was. I was shocked to be told "suicide." I wonder if Mr. Kim has committed an Americanized form of suicide.

Suicide is bad enough; this bomb hoax was more like a murder-suicide.

This was a calculated act --- Kim didn't just pull a fire alarm (another old trick for disrupting an exam). It took some work to create the fraudulent email account and inject the clever email into the anonymizing network (two out of the four buildings will blow up, good luck guessing which two!). Though Kim did not do enough work, it turns out. He failed to realize that there was a reason Harvard registered his laptop the first time he connected to its wireless network. I am glad he was caught, I am angry at him and consider him an evil person. I am glad that on top of that I don't have to be ashamed of him as a computer science student for his poor grasp of network technology! (See Michael Mitzenmacher for more on that.)

Kim should be dismissed from Harvard. That is the technical term for being sent away forever, not for the usual one year that plagiarists and drunken pugilists get. (Dismissed students can in theory be voted back in, and as a nonbeliever in capital punishment I suppose I would leave that door open, in case he wins the Nobel Peace Prize a couple of decades from now.)

Kim should also get a good sentence of time behind bars, and I expect he will. When the Dersh says you  are going to have a hard time finding anyone to defend you, you know the odds of getting off light are against you.

Having said all that, I still find something worrisome about this situation that I hardly dare mention. But what the hell.

Was it an accident that this incident, like the infamous cheating scandal, happened in a Government course? (I guess we don't know that it was the Gov 1368 exam Kim was trying to get out of, but that would seem a logical inference from the fact that he was worried about it and he had an exam that morning and that the Gov 1368 exam was that morning.)

This is from a comment by "Classmate" on a Crimson story:
 It was a fairly easy class, but the exam was worth a very significant portion of the class grade, and we still haven't received a single (concrete) assignment grade to date. 
Now that's an anonymous comment, and the rest of it is very sympathetic to Kim. And it may not be an accurate description of the course --- I would love to know. The course syllabus states the requirements this way:
1. Short in-class quizzes covering assigned material for the day, class participation and performance, total of 30 % 
2. Policy Paper and Presentation 30%  
3. Final Examination 40% 

I am reminded of how different courses are from each other.

I just turned in the 118 grades for CS 121. That's the biggest the course has ever been, by almost 50%. It is a tough course. There are 10 homework assignments. Each homework assignment has 3 parts to be turned in separately. These are math problems, no computer programming. People worked like hell, an assignment every week, a midterm exam, a final exam. We had a minor cheating issue about a month into the course and, instead of turning anyone over to the Ad Board, I wrote in huge letters on the blackboard at the next lecture, "DON'T BE STUPID!" and yelled at the whole class for 5 minutes, using my best angry-father voice. I think it worked.

If you want to be stressed, mine would be a logical course to be stressed in. And when the dust settled, a few clearly hoped that their grade would have been just a little higher than it was. But mostly students in the course sent me nice notes after the course was over. They thanked the TFs, who they could see, with over 3000 papers to grade, were working just as hard as they were. Some walked into my office with a big smile on their face when they stopped by to look at what they had done wrong on the final exam.

There really seem to be multiple Harvards. The experience of the Gov students, if the tales of Gov 1310 and that comment about Gov 1368 are accurate, is in a different universe from the experience of CS students.

And the weird thing is, students seem to be emigrating from the easy majors and joining the tough ones. A freshman came into my office recently, the graduate of a top prep school. He had intended to study literature but was enrolled in CS 50, which he thought was cool. He wanted understand what it would mean to major in computer science.

Of course CS 50 and other CS courses have their own issues of cheating and other bad behavior. But it seems that in general, the ambitious Harvard students are choosing to run up hill, and they like it. Are the bottom-feeders, like Mr. Kim, being disproportionately left behind in fields where they have gotten the impression they can cope without much effort?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Mandela and Harvard

That is the title of my opinion piece published in the Crimson today. It's about both.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Happy Birthday, Grace Murray Hopper

Click out the nice surprise by clicking on today's doodle. And if you have ten minutes to kill in an entertainingly educational way, watch this video of Hopper's appearance on Letterman, passed on to me by Henry Leitner. She visited Harvard at around the same time and I had the honor of meeting her; her appearance is 100% in character.

The main conference room in Harvard's CS building is named in her honor.

Friday, December 6, 2013

What Do You Do When the Students Get Better?

The Crimson reporter who interviewed me for today's followup story on rising grades asked me if students had improved over the years I have been teaching at Harvard. By some interpretation of "better" the answer is surely yes. It's a question about a statistical distribution, but the system is so complicated that it is hard to untangle the various effects.

For example, as I mentioned earlier, Harvard has won the Putnam mathematical competition in three out of the past five years. So our student population way over represents the very pinnacle of mathematical gifts in the 18-22 year old world population. That doesn't mean that the left tail of the distribution has gotten shorter, or even that the mean has shifted. Nor does it say anything about who is turning up in any given class. In my own case, Computer Science courses seem to be drawing both more of the extremely gifted mathematicians and more of the very average (that is why I started teaching CS 20). But that is today. Ten years ago it was different and ten years from now it will be different again.

So giving everybody the grades they deserve has unpredictable statistical results. Most of responses to changes in the student population have nothing to do with grading, which just has to take care of itself. The better responses are educational. Over the years I have been teaching here (this is #40), I have turned several courses that used to be graduate level into undergraduate courses, because too many undergraduates were taking the graduate level courses and doing extremely well. My signature course, CS 121, is an undergraduate version of a graduate level course I myself took as an undergraduate. I first offered it (under the name Applied Mathematics 108) back in 1978 (Paul Spirakis and Oded Shmueli were my first TFs). CS 124 was an undergraduate version of a graduate course on algorithms. That started off as Applied Math 119 in the spring of 1982. Bill Gasarch was my first TF.

Michael Mitzenmacher, my faculty colleague who commented on my grading post below, unwittingly I'm sure posted himself on this topic yesterday on his own blog. There are too many students in CS 124. There are too many students in CS 121. And too many of them are too damned smart. Time to create a new course.

Go read Michael's blog. You will see there, live, the process of academic evolution in response to changes in the student environment in which we professors live.

Matt Yglesias has it right. This isn't a grading problem. It's an admissions problem!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Thoughts on the Grading Asymptote

During the question period of yesterday's faculty meeting, Professor Mansfield said that he had heard that the modal grade at Harvard (the most frequently given grade, as he put it) was A–. As the Crimson accurately reports,
[Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay] Harris then stood and looked towards FAS Dean Michael D. Smith in hesitation. 
“I can answer the question, if you want me to.” Harris said. “The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-. The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A.”
These complaints are a very old issue. Letter grading started at Harvard in 1886, and the first anti-inflationary committee report was issued in 1894! As I wrote in Excellence Without a Soul (p. 115),

“[The Committee on Raising the Standard] believes . . . that by defining anew the Grades A, B, C, D, and E, and by sending the definitions to every instructor, the Faculty may do something to keep up the standard of the higher grades. It believes that in the present practice Grades A and B are sometimes given too readily—Grade A for work of no very high merit, and Grade B for work not far above mediocrity.” More broadly, the Committee opined, lax grading was compromising the very significance of a Harvard degree. “One of the chief obstacles to raising the standard of the degree is the readiness with which insincere students gain passable grades by sham work. . . . These students maintain themselves in technically good standing with so little work that our degree would be seriously cheapened if its minimum cost were generally known.” 
Back in 2001 I did my best to reconstruct historical data; it seems that grades have been rising for a long time, not continuously, but more or less without interruption, except for the decade of the 1970s. I noted that "the present rate of increase can't go on forever." The news about the median and modal grades at Harvard don't settle the question of changes in grade point averages, but I'll bet they have continued to rise, though at a slower rate simply because they can't be higher than 4.0 in the Harvard system.

What is to be done?

With all due respect to my friend and colleague Professor Mansfield, it is not clear to me that anything needs to be done. Sorry to sound complacent, but almost any remedy I can think of would have side effects that are worse than the problem (which I dissect in detail in Excellence Without a Soul and will not burden you with here).

Toughening up on grading practices would run counter to other educational initiatives and desiderata with which we are engaged. For example, grading is higher in smaller, less anonymous courses. And we are trying to reduce the number of larger, more anonymous courses. It's pretty reasonable to think that faculty are softer on students they know well, and the trend is to try to improve education by making the experience more intimate. (That is actually implicit in the other story in today's Crimson, the success of the multiple, smaller life sciences concentrations.)

If it is still true (it was true a decade ago, but no recent data are publicly available) that grades in humanities courses are higher than grades in science courses, then any attempt to lower grades would probably have a differential effect on the humanities. But the humanists are well aware that they are already losing students and are alarmed about the trend lines. I can't imagine they would welcome any effort to make their courses less attractive by making the grading tougher.

We are also trying to reduce stress, and arguably tougher grading might raise stress levels. Though it is not really clear to me; there is always going to be competition as long as more than one grade is possible. And students get stressed even about ungraded courses they are virtually certain to pass -- they get stressed about their performance as a matter of personal pride even if the professor's assessment means next to nothing.

In any case, given the long history of claims of imminent harm from soft grading and the difficulty I have in finding a lot of slackers in my classes, I am skeptical about the direness of the problem. When new colleagues ask me what the community norms are, I typically tell them to grade however they want, as long as they will be able to look back in 3 years and remember who was a star, who was a workhorse, and who was just getting by.

Of course the situation in computer science may be atypical, since almost no employer asks candidates for transcripts. They administer a kind of oral quiz in the interview and try to figure out what the candidate knows. Grades are pretty irrelevant.

Having said all that, here are two suggestions that I think might help.

1) Require every department to have a discussion of grading once a year. Hand out the grades assigned by everyone in the department so they have to look at their own and their peers's practices while everyone is watching. Have someone from the administration go to the meeting to make sure it happens. No quotas, no rules, just information and a requirement for talking to each other about what grades are being given and why. The underlying idea here is to make the conversation more intimate, conducted not by a dean from on high but in a collegial way, by people the faculty have to interact with every day and whose respect they value.

2) Make grades less important. Here is one idea.

Largely decouple honors from overall GPA, which is a meaningless soup of uncertified ingredients. Set some generous minimum threshold, and then throw the matter of cum, magna, and summa recommendations to the departments, giving each department some kind of quotas. Only the departments can look at students' transcripts and tell the difference between an ambitious program and a lazy one. Have departments make their honors recommendations however they want, based on the transcript, a thesis, and whatever else they know about the student. This would greatly reduce the incentive to take easy courses or to fight for microscopic increases in GPA, or to take courses that are not educational because the student already knows the material. (When I am on a prize committee that shares transcripts, the difference between differently ambitious transcripts with identical GPAs is pretty apparent.)

Of course this could be opposed as impractical or unfair. Students want to know exactly what they have to do to graduate magna and there would be no way to know in this subjective system. But these students all got into Harvard via exactly such a subjective system, one that does not ignore grades and scores, but uses them only as part of a more holistic review of essays, interviews, and letters of recommendation. Students would have to agree would they not, that such a system can produce pretty good results?

And departments might not like the system because they don't know their students well enough to make these decisions in any non-mechanical way. Well, they could use a mechanical way if they preferred. Or they could get to know their students better!

See also this curious story. Can't vouch for its accuracy! As Yale talks grade deflation, Princeton pulls back | Yale Daily News. And for those who haven't seen it, a homily about grades I gave years ago at Morning Prayers. Beggars for punishment can also read this homily about education requirements.

[Revised 11:15pm on 12/4 to include note about grading in the humanities and reference to second Morning Prayer talk.]

[Added 12/5: I should have mentioned that what I propose for honors determination resembles what happens right now in Phi Beta Kappa elections. That was probably in the back of my mind while I was typing actually.]

Monday, December 2, 2013

Should the Crimson Act Like a Real Newspaper?

The question arises because of a recent story, Two Harvard Students Arrested, Charged with Assault and Battery on a HUPD Officer in Unrelated Incidents. The Crimson printed the names of the two students, and so far the story has drawn more than 90 comments. Some of the comments (all anonymous, as far as I noticed) are the usual silliness and anger. But a fair number of them seem to be serious, though not in agreement. Depending on the point of view, either (a) of course the names should have been printed, that is what happens when you get arrested – your arrest record becomes public, and the local paper prints it, if the story is worth reporting at all; or (b) it's terrible that the Crimson is tarring the reputation of these students, who have not been found guilty of anything yet, who may have been arrested on false pretenses, who should not have to live with the story surviving in Crimson archives and turning up in Google searches long after the actual incident has been put to bed.

I think the Crimson has been struggling recently with how it wants to play the game – in essence, is it going to be more like a high school newspaper, subject to administrative oversight and always kind in its reporting, or is it going to try to do real journalism, the kind that holds the powerful to account and occasionally pisses them off? I am glad that the Crimson backed off a practice it should never have adopted – allowing university officials to edit their quotes as the price of being interviewed at all. As Nicholas Fandos explained in his profile of Dean Michael Smith,
Ever since The Crimson instituted a new policy banning quote review at the start of the 2012-2013 academic year, the person with the most power at Harvard College has not agreed to fully on-the-record interviews with The Crimson, and has not met or spoken with the paper in any capacity this academic year.
I don't know when the policy of allowing "quote review" was instituted at the Crimson; it was surely a bad idea, as, if known, it makes reporting less credible (and if not known, it makes the reporting dishonest, since what is presented as said by an official was actually out of the mouth of the communications staff).

Fandos, who wrote a number of the stories on the email searching scandal, is now the Managing Editor of the Crimson. He is a good reporter and I wish him well.

One could take the view that the Crimson should be doing hard-nosed investigative reporting, but still be the voice of students, and therefore respectful of them, if not of the administration. By that logic, I suppose, the Crimson would print the name of a professor who was arrested for assaulting an HUPD officer, but not of a student. There remains the problem of peer disputes, where the student victim might think the paper was picking sides by protecting the identity of the assailant.

In any case, it seems to me that the paper would lose all credibility at that point. Readers would have to assume that it was pulling punches whenever a student issue was being reported.

If the Crimson starts pulling punches, it's cooked as a serious organ. I doubt it would attract in the future the likes of past editors Anthony Lewis, Linda Greenhouse, David Sanger, or current star reporters at the Washington Post, David Fahrenthold and Rosalind Helderman, or dozens of other graduates of the Crimson school of journalism. (OK full disclosure: Fahrenthold used to cover me, and wound up marrying my daughter. A good reminder for you Crimson reporters –– be tough but be fair. You never know where your subjects will turn up in your later life.) Its editors would not get good jobs in journalism after graduating, as they now often do, because it would be known that the organization was no longer teaching good journalistic practice.

So it seems to me the answer to the question is an obvious "yes." It is a bit disturbing that so many people–probably students–commenting on the story think the answer should be "no." Makes me worry about the future of journalism if Harvard students think the role of journalism is to protect their fellow students.