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Yesterday, in “Conversations with the Boy,” the boy complained of a headache.
Feb 27th, 2012 by Dr Karma

Me: Maybe you should get your eyes checked.
Him: I can see each leaf on that tree way over there.
Me: What about close up stuff?
Him: I can see each strand of your hair, including that big gray one.
Me: You’d better be able to; you’re the reason it’s there.

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Review of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians
Feb 22nd, 2012 by Dr Karma

I have finally finished Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. I say ‘finally’ because it took a long time. Not because I’m a slow reader, but because I was extremely bored & thus kept finding other things to read in between chapters.

Why did I even finish it? Well, it’s hard to call yourself a sci-fi specialist and not have read the new hot thing. I feel a sense of responsibility to read the sequel. Yes, responsibility and dread.

Here’s the lowdown. Quentin Coldwater discovers he’s a magician during a weird standardized test. He goes away to magic school, leaving his parents easily because he feels about them what he feels about most things. Nothing. He matriculates. A bunch of boring stuff happens, including a lot of binge drinking. One disaster occurs; one vaguely interesting test is taken. Quentin is responsible for the disaster. He feels guilty about it for a paragraph or so.

Then, way after you want to reread Harry Potter again, the characters discover that the Narnia ripoff books they read as children were about a real realm & that they can go there. Amazingly, this does not make the book that much better. Blah, blah, blah, fight with the big bad, recuperate with centaurs who are exactly as dynamic as the hero: not at all.

This book keeps getting billed as an adult Harry Potter. What’s adult about it? Binge drinking. Emotionally unattached sex. Some cussing. A lack of description of spells, a cool school, or intriguing teachers. A satisfying build-up to the climax. Caring about the characters.

I’ll put it this way. The best part of this book is a quick description of why the library is awesome.

Towards the end of the book, Quentin is described this way: “He was an empty shell, roughly hollowed out by some crude tool, gutted and left there, a limp, raw, boneless skin.” Except Quentin has always been this way. It’s why he doesn’t really love anyone. It’s why he has no purpose or calling or talent. It’s why he drinks. It’s why I can’t picture him at all after reading about him for 402 pages! It’s why he never once wonders what he’ll do after school.

I suppose it’s why he’s called Coldwater. If books like Harry Potter arouse the senses and grab me emotionally, this is the cold shower that just makes me want to go to bed alone.

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Middle Class Students
Feb 18th, 2012 by Dr Karma

One of the things I’ve learned this quarter is fewer students in the middle classes are attending the University of California now. Rich students can afford to pay the new high tuition. Working class students are eligible for need-based scholarships. Of course, many middle-class parents like me couldn’t afford UC tuition.

Our Assembly Speaker is proposing a specific scholarship for middle class students, in part to make up for the cuts to our CalGrant program, which is increasingly unable to close the gap (especially when they try to cut CalGrant every year).

Protecting the middle class is important, since it’s endangered. (To see what will eventually happen to it, click here: http://www.theonion.com/articles/national-museum-of-the-middle-class-opens-in-schau,1244/).

However, I think it’s time to consider a more radical solution, one that many first world countries (and a few 2nd and 3rd world countries) have found: free higher education.

We live in a world where a Bachelor’s grants you the same opportunities a high school diploma offered half a century ago. It’s a basic requirement for a decent job. We tell our children that they must get a BA if they want to survive. If they want to succeed, they have to do even more.

Shouldn’t that education be available in the same way that high school has always been? I’m not saying that we educate everyone–schools can still have admission standards (in fact, we could raise them, taking only the actual brightest). There can still be tiers (universities, community colleges, vocational schools), but students will not start their adult lives in debt (and then be blamed by politicians for not being able to do better financially than parents and grandparents who didn’t have the same financial handicap). Those awful for-profit diploma mills will be put out of business–since we are investigating them for fraud, it’s unlikely we would use tax dollars to have students matriculate there.

I know that there would have to be trade-offs. Perhaps we would have to require a year of service from our students. We would certainly have to cut the budget in other places. We would still have a country where more well-off people were in college (due to the current inequality in school funding), but we can’t fix everything with one solution.

If we really believe that our citizens need to be educated, for themselves, for our economy, for our national competitive edge, then we need to do something. Sometimes I doubt we really believe this, though. We sure don’t behave as if we do.

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A little note on plagiarism
Feb 14th, 2012 by Dr Karma

I’m in the midst of writing a response to a student essay on plagiarism. In the essay, the student claims that few people actually steal, that students are “confused” by the accessibility of the internet (thinking that the internet belongs to them), that music sampling is certainly not wrong, etc. The students briefly mentions Malcolm Gladwell’s story about seeing a line he wrote used in play–at first he was angry, then flattered.

The student’s essay lacks focus, etc, but my comments (reprinted below) deal with the lack of counter-argument:

Many counter-arguments to this piece immediately come to mind. For example, as a teacher, I have seen many, many students “wrongfully claim credit and ownership for a project” (1). Students have bought papers online. They have copied off of each other’s papers. They have even claimed that they “had no choice” but to do so because they believe all students cheat, which is an insult to all of us who got through college without cheating. (Even if the cheating students were right about everyone cheating, which they aren’t, they would still have a choice). 

I have been the victim of plagiarism in another way. A paper I had published online was found posted on a cheat site. The site claimed that the author (me!) had given permission for this paper to be used by this site and by students. I had done no such thing. I threatened to sue the site if they did not remove my essay immediately. In a less dramatic example, a man copied an article I published for Mental Floss on his blog. He did not reference my name, the name of the original magazine, or anything else—except his own name. To anyone who didn’t know better, it would look like he wrote my piece.

The cheat site and the blogger were not “inspired” by my research, by my time, by my work. They were thieves. However vague some definitions of plagiarism are, some cases like these are unquestionabl

In terms of the more questionable cases, I don’t understand why these people with questionable cases can’t do what we do in academia. When I want to use another person’s words, I cite that person. If someone wants to use Malcolm Gladwell’s words, why can’t there be a line in the author’s notes about it? If someone wants to sample a piece of someone else’s music, why can’t that person mention it in the liner notes on the CD?

Weird Al Yankovic, for example, always tells you what artist’s song he’s parodying. He also gets permission from artists before using their work. Notably, he doesn’t have to do this, as his creations are protected under the copyright exception made for parodies. While one artist (Coolio) claims Yankovic didn’t ask permission (I don’t believe Coolio’s side of the story here), Yankovic still credited him fully.

The student’s point seems to be that “plagiarism” is too vague a term to pursue action against plagiarizers. In some cases, this is simply not true. In others, reasonable, easy steps can be taken to acknowledge how someone else has inspired us. If s/he has inspired us, doesn’t s/he deserve a respectful acknowledgement of that fact?

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