Category Archives: ethics

Loudly and bravely

Wallace Shawn:

As I write these words, in New York City in 1985, more and more people who grew up around me are making this decision; they are throwing away their moral chains and learning to enjoy their true situation:  Yes, they are admitting loudly and bravely, We live in beautiful homes, we’re surrounded by beautiful gardens, our children are playing with wonderful toys, and our kitchen shelves are filled with wonderful food.  And if there are people out there who are envious of us and who might even be tempted to break into our homes and take what we have, well then, part of our good fortune is that we can afford to pay guards to protect us.  And if those who protect us need to hit people in the face with the butts of their rifles, or if they need perhaps even to turn around and shoot, they have our permission, and we only hope they’ll do what they do with diligence and skill.

The amazing thing I’ve noticed about these friends of mine who’ve made that choice is that as soon as they’ve made it, they begin to blossom, to flower, because they are no longer hiding, from themselves or anyone else, the true facts about their own lives.

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Plagiarism, patchwriting, Perlstein

Some people are complaining about Rick Perlstein’s new book, claiming that some passages are plagiarized.  Most of my friends think this is nonsense.

Here’s a passage from Craig Shirley’s Reagan’s Revolution:

Even its ‘red light’ district was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting, as dancing elephants were placed in the windows of several smut peddlers.

And from Perlstein:

The city’s anemic red-light district was festooned with red, white and blue bunting; several of the smut peddlers featured dancers in elephant costume in their windows.

Shirley:

Whenever he flew, Reagan would sit in the first row so he could talk to people as they boarded the plane.  On one occasion, a woman spotted him, embranced him, and said, “Oh Governor, you’ve just got to run for President!”  As they settled into their seats, Reagan turned to Deaver and said, “Well, I guess I’d better do it.”

Perlstein:

When Ronald Reagan flew on commercial flights he always sat in the front row.  That way, he could greet passengers as they boarded.  One day he was flying between Los Angeles and San Francisco.  A woman threw her arms around him and said “Oh, Governor, you’ve got to run for president!” “Well,” he said, turning to Michael Deaver, dead serious, “I guess I’d better do it.”

The second passage is cited to Shirley, the first isn’t.  But I don’t think it matters!  You shouldn’t paraphrase someone else’s book sentence by sentence, even if you cite them.  If you’re going to say exactly what they said, you should quote them.

Is this plagiarism?  It is, at the very least, patchwriting:  “restating a phrase, clause, or one or more sentences while staying close to the language or syntax of the source.”  Mark Liberman at LanguageLog has a long, magisterial post about patchwriting in Perlstein’s book, pointing out some places where Shirley himself patchwrites from the New York Times.

I once came across a magazine article whose lede was patchwritten from an article of my own.  I talked to a few trusted friends about how to handle it.  Uniformly, they said:  it’s not nice, but it’s not plagiarism, and you shouldn’t accuse the other author of stealing your stuff.  In the end, I alerted the other author to the issue without accusing her, and she apologized, saying she’d done it in a hurry and didn’t realize it was so close.  Which is probably true.

So I guess it’s not plagiarism and Shirley is not going to win his $25 million lawsuit against Perlstein.  But I don’t really like it and I think when we do journalism we should strive to write our own stuff.

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“Like a girl”

I wrote a New York Times op/ed last week about the relationship between teaching math and coaching Little League.  Several people wrote me to say that I shouldn’t have written the following passage:

My level of skill at baseball — actually, with every kind of ball — is pretty much the opposite of my mastery of math. I’ve reached 40 and I still throw in the way that we used to call, before they started showing college softball on TV, “like a girl.”

So obviously my goal here is to undercut the stereotype and present it as obsolete.  But the people who wrote me argued that to use the force of a sexist phrase to give my sentence a little oomph is a problem, even if (as I once heard J. P. Serre say about a piece of notation) “I mention it only in order to object to it.”

So I asked about this on Facebook, and maybe 60% of people thought it was fine, and 40% said that they winced when they read it.

Which means it’s not fine.  Because why write something that makes 40% of readers wince in annoyance?  Especially when a) it’s in no way intrinsic to the piece, which is otherwise not about gender roles, and b) the piece itself ties math to baseball, a boy-coded activity, and has much more material about my son than it does about my daughter.

I think “like a girl” can be an OK place to go if you need to.  But I didn’t need to.  So I think I shouldn’t have.

One of my friends suggested I should have said instead that I throw “like a mathematician.”  Better!

 

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Rescinding an offer when the candidate tries to negotiate

From the Philosophy Smoker, via Liz Harman:

CANDIDATE HOLDING OFFER:

As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier.
1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years.
2) An official semester of maternity leave.
3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.
4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.
5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.
I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.

DEPARTMENT CHAIR:

Thank you for your email. The search committee discussed your provisions. They were also reviewed by the Dean and the VPAA. It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered. Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.
Thank you very much for your interest in Nazareth College. We wish you the best in finding a suitable position.

Talk amongst yourselves.

 

Babies, Alinea, cigarettes

A couple had a reservation at Alinea and their sitter cancelled at the last second and rather than absorb the $500 loss they decided to show up there with their 8-month-old baby.  It didn’t work out, the baby cried, other customers were annoyed, chef Grant Achatz tweeted to his follows to ask how he should have handled it:

Then lots of people went ape about it, as is customary.

Emotions about this stuff run very high, for some reason.  As for me, I wouldn’t bring a baby to Alinea.  Then again, I also wouldn’t think someone who did so was some kind of war criminal.

But what this makes me think about is smoking in restaurants.  Yes, younger readers, people used to do this!  (And in France, even though it’s illegal, they still do, right?  Help me out, French readers.)  If a baby’s crying in a classy place, I’d find it annoying, but I would never say it ruined my experience.  So I’m kind of rejecting the claim that a top-tier dinner is the same thing as a classical music performance or a play from this point of view.  Though see here for further thoughts on the relationship between high-end Chicago dining and the legitimate theatre.

On the other hand, if somebody were smoking at a nearby table?  That person is literally mixing a bad-smelling substance into the food I paid $500 for. It’s hard for me not to see that act as inherently more disruptive and dinner-ruining than a wailing baby.

Which is just to say that all these arguments about what rules should be “obvious to any thinking person” are kind of nuts.  The rules don’t have justification — they are social norms, which are self-justifying.  You shouldn’t bring a baby to Alinea because people, in this country, in this year have come to feel that their $500 buys them the right not to hear a baby.  In some places and times, it didn’t buy you the right not to have cigarette smoke in your food.  No one, back then, would have complained that the smokers in the room were ruining their special night — right?  But now we would.  Cigarettes haven’t changed, food hasn’t changed, noses haven’t changed:  only the rules we make up for ourselves have changed.

In the comments, feel free to rant about how much you hate smokers, how much you hate breeders, how much you hate non-smokers, how much you hate non-breeders, or what rights you consider yourself to have purchased when you go out for a very expensive meal.

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Is the modern high school a wretched hive of scum and villainy?

From New York:

All the data show a generation far less ethical than their parents. According to a 2009 survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, 51 percent of people age 17 or under agree that to get ahead, a person must lie or cheat, compared with 18 ­percent of people ages 25 to 40.

Not clear to me this means what she says it means.  I think teenagers are just more cynical than adults.  They’ve seen their classmates cheat on tests, get good grades, and get away with it.  By 40, you’ve seen the consequences for people who’ve spent their lives skirting the rules and shading the truth.  Maybe I’m too sunny, but I do think that as I’ve gotten older I’ve better appreciated the returns to virtue.

 

Statistical chutzpah in the Indiana school grade-changing scandal

I wrote a piece for Slate yesterday about Tony Bennett, the former Indiana schools czar who intervened in the state’s school-grading system to ensure that a politically connected public charter got an A instead of a C.  (The AP’s Tom LoBianco broke the original story.)  Bennett offered interviewers an explanation for the last-minute grade change which was plainly contradicted by the figures in the internal e-mails LoBianco had obtained and released.  Presumably, Bennett figured nobody would bother to look at the actual numbers.  That is incredibly annoying.

Summary of what actually happened in Indiana, by analogy:

Suppose the syllabus for my math class said that the final grade would be determined by averaging the homework grade and the exam grade, and that the exam grade was itself the average of the grades on the three tests I gave. Now imagine a student gets a B on the homework, gets a D-minus on the first two tests, and misses the third. She then comes to me and says, “Professor, your syllabus says the exam component of the grade is the average of my grade on the three tests—but I only took twotests, so that line of the syllabus doesn’t apply to my special case, and the only fair thing is to drop the entire exam component and give me a B for the course.”

I would laugh her out of the office. Or maybe suggest that she apply for a job as a state superintendent of instruction.

 

 

 

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Is philosophy worse for women than math is?

My philosopher friends today are all talking about the resignation/firing of Colin McGinn, a pretty well-known philosopher as I understand it, who as it turns out has been sending e-mails to his graduate students describing…. well, there’s no real reason for me to describe it, I leave that kind of filth for the Chronicle of Higher Education.  

Philosophy and math have roughly the same male-female ratio, but philosophy has blogs like What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy? and math, as far as I know, does not.  Is that because math has actually created a culture friendlier to women than philosophy has?  Or is it because philosophy is closer to the social criticism tradition and philosophers are more likely to want to talk about these things openly?

I have one small data point.  I once heard a philosopher give a talk in which there was a weird joke about you have to be careful not to sleep with your graduate students because [some philosophy joke I didn’t get and don’t remember.]

Or rather, it read as weird to me, because I think it’s highly unlikely that someone would say something like that in front of a roomful of mathematicians under any circumstances.  Or if they did, there would be a burst of murmurs and everyone would be looking back and forth with the “Did he say that?” look.  On this occasion, only I was looking back and forth.  Nobody seemed to think it was weird, not the women, not the men.  It was an informal, jokey kind of talk.  But still.

 

 

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Men have it all

Someone shared this HuffPo piece on my Facebook feed:

The newly-combined global HR leadership team were coming together for the first time at the Zurich headquarters and the CEO was going to be opening the meeting and addressing the HR team. I was really looking forward to the meeting and the opportunity to focus on the growth and performance strategy and to hear what the CEO had to say about the role HR would play.

I then realized that my 5-year-old daughter’s birthday assembly at school would be taking place on the first day of the HR conference, at exactly the same time that the CEO would be addressing us. I had always had a full-time job and had remembered one piece of advice from another Mom: “Don’t ever miss the birthday assembly.” I went back and forth in my mind. I was concerned about getting off on the wrong foot with my new boss by not attending the start of the meeting, and wondered if would I be making a career-killing decision if I explained that I would be attending the birthday assembly and would fly to Zurich in the afternoon but would miss the CEO’s address.

Did you notice that somebody’s missing from this story?  Somebody else who could have gone to the birthday assembly?  Somebody with a penis?

You read articles like this all the time, usually under some heading that says, in many words or few, “Women can’t have it all.”  But what these articles call “having it all” and treat as an impossible fantasy  — being a good, loving parent without sacrificing work ambition — is what men call “daily life.”

And that’s part of the problem.  If you start from the position that raising children is a colossal amount of work, and that fathers are not going to participate in that work, then, yeah, women have some very tough choices to make.  But only one of those assumptions is a fact of nature.

 

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On the other hand, up yours, AT&T

I know I recently praised the pricing of AT&T’s family plan, and I stand by that.

However, when I actually signed up for the plan, I received a long and somewhat complicated .pdf document detailing my new phone contract; after staring at this for a while I understood that it was indicating a a much higher price.  Twenty minutes of online customer support chat alter, I was able to figure out that, rather than renewing my plan as I’d asked for, AT&T had upped me to a plan with more minutes that cost $30 more a month.

I also use AT&T for my home phone and internet service.  (I used to use them for cable TV, too, before I dropped cable for Netflix like all right-thinking people!)  Same story when I signed up for that:  the promised bundle discount wasn’t on my first bill, but after a long conversation with customer support they fixed it.  Until the second bill, when the discount had disappeared again, requiring another long conversation with customer support.  That time it finally stuck.

It’s depressing that from a pure profit standpoint this is probably pretty good business practice: overcharge everyone, and count on the fact that lots of people don’t have the time or cultural capital to both recognize the overcharge and successfully reverse it.

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