Revisionist History

Attention all GMailers, GCalenderers, Google+ers, and other Google users: Google’s new privacy policy goes into effect March 1, a/k/a tomorrow. As TechNewsDaily puts it, “all the data Google automatically gathers about you, such as the sites you visit, will be dumped into one virtual bucket with your name on it. While you can’t opt out of the new approach without abandoning Google sites, you can erase your browsing history.” Erasing your browsing history is easy; the linked article explains the steps. I just erased mine, after first checking out the oldest saved information–from 2005. Seven years of searches almost every day, stored under my profile in chronological order. I can’t think of one good reason not to erase it. You have just a few more hours to do so.

One Mean Man

I just learned that I am the prototypical Google+ user. Comscore reports that in January the average user spent 3.3 minutes using Google+–that’s 3.3 minutes for the entire month, not each day.  That is, I recall, exactly how much time I spent on Google+ in January: 198 seconds, staring at the screen, wondering what to do with it. However, I am not the average Facebook user, who during January spent 7.5 hours on that site.

Dharun Ravi Trial

The prosecution is in the midst of presenting its case in Dharun Ravi’s trial for invasion of privacy of his Rutgers University roommate Tyler Clementi. Clementi committed suicide shortly after discovering that Ravi spied on him during a sexual encounter. Some observers see Ravi’s trial as critical to defining legal consequences for cyberbullying. Ravi is not facing criminal charges connected to Clementi’s death, but his suicide hangs over these proceedings as the tragic unintended consequence of Ravi’s spying. The video coverage of the trial is sad, a sobering demonstration of immature callousness and its consequences.

All Curves Are Not Created Equal

Grading yesterday’s real estate midterm I decided to curve the grades. I could have increased everyone’s score by some number, say 2.56 points. It’s simple. But that’s not what I did.

The exam consisted of 20 multiple choice questions worth 3 points each, 60 points total, and 8 matching questions worth 8 points each, 20 points total. The impetus to curve came from reviewing the matching questions, where I saw that some students had unexpected difficulty distinguishing one of the answers from another. I started by tinkering with the weight of correct matching answers. I started with 8 matches worth a total of 20 points, or 2.5 points each. First I increased the weight so 6 correct matches equaled 20 points–3.33 points each–but abandoned it when I saw that it added 6.6 points to the scores of students with 8 correct answers. That was nuts.

I played with other weights, from 2.8 to 3.03 points, but didn’t like how much they tilted the overall exam score towards the matching section. The mean score for the matching section is 82.5% correct, 1.75% higher than the multiple choice mean of 80.75%, but far more students–49%–correctly answer all the matching questions than correctly answer all the multiple choice questions–8%. It is fairer to employ a curve that respects the original 75%/25% weights of the two sections and does not discriminate in favor of students who perform better on the matching. I increased the weight of every correct answer 2.56% by changing the percentage calculation denominator from 80 to 78. In other words,  a raw score of 70 points went from a percentage score of 87.5% to 89.7%–which my spreadsheet rounds to the nearest multiple of 1, for a grade of 90/100.

Increasing all raw scores by 2.56% does not, of course, increase all scores by the same number of points. A perfect score of 80 points goes from 100 (80/80) to 103 (80/78,  rounded), while a score of 40 points goes from 50 (40/80) to only 51 (40/78, rounded). This made me pause. Is it fair? Increasing each grade by 3 points would increase the perfect grade by 3% and the half-perfect grade by 6%. Increasing each grade by 3% would increase the perfect grade by 3% and the half-perfect grade by 1.5%–less, if rounded to the nearest multiple of 1.

It becomes a policy decision: should the reward favor lower performance or higher performance? (Phrasing the question thus reveals its bias, compared to reward those who need it more or those who need it less?) After thinking and writing about this for inordinate time I employed a curve that rewards higher performance–but I also removed the rounding hit to the lower scores.

No doubt there are other approaches, which I am soon to be educated.

A Pretzel By Any Other Name*

We’re in the midst of discussing trademark issues so here’s a timely article for Internet Law students: Trademarks Take On New Importance in Internet Era. The article mentions a challenge to the Pretzel Crisps trademark brought by Frito-Lay. Frito-Lay argues the term is generic–“like ‘milk chocolate bar.'” I think that a trip down the grocery store snack aisle would present trademarks of similarly lukewarm distinctiveness that have acquired secondary meaning, but I don’t have time right now for that trip and the last time I shopped I wasn’t attentive enough to snack trademarks to offer examples. I will say the Pretzel Crisps website has kick-ass SEO–the product dominates the highest-ranked organic responses to a Google search.

*would taste as crisp

Double Standard

Recently in class I mentioned that at times it can be a good business decision to default on one’s loan obligations, and that doing so is not necessarily a sign of poor moral character. I recognized that my students–undergraduates all, mostly sophomores–have neither the business nor life experience to truly grasp my point, and even if they did they would not necessarily agree with it.  It’s legalistic, based as it is on non-recourse financing, bankruptcy reorganization, rejection of executory contracts, and other remedies that show a binding promise is not necessarily binding. It was not essential to our discussion and I didn’t belabor the point.

I thought of it again upon read James Surowiecki’s “Living by Default” in the December 19 & 26, 2011 New Yorker. (Keeping current with The New Yorker would require that I cut back on working, working out, sleeping, or other reading.) Surowiecki mentions that American Airlines chose recently to file for bankruptcy:

Declaring bankruptcy will trim American’s debt load and allow it to break its union contracts, so that it can slim down and cut costs. American wasn’t stigmatized for the move. Instead, analysts hailed it as “very smart.” It is now generally accepted that when it’s economically irrational for a company to keep paying its debts it will try to renegotiate them or, failing that, default. For creditors, that’s just the price of business.

Seeing that strategic defaults are an acknowledged business risk dealt with by contract terms, negotiations, and restructured business deals, Surowiecki asks why more homeowners with underwater mortgage debt don’t walk away from their loans?

The bursting of the housing bubble has left millions of homeowners across the country owing more than their homes are worth. In some areas, well over half of mortgages are underwater, many so deeply that people owe forty or fifty per cent more than the value of their homes. In other words, a good percentage of Americans are in much the same position as American Airlines: they can still pay their debts, but doing so is like setting a pile of money on fire every month.

It’s a valid question. Surowiecki provides a few practical answers–dealing with the consequences a loan default is hard work, many homeowners have unrealistic views of the their home’s value–but says the biggest problem is the social stigma of defaulting on one’s home mortgage:

According to one study, eighty-one per cent of Americans think it’s immoral not to pay your mortgage when you can, and the idea of default is shaped by what Brent White, a law professor at the University of Arizona, calls a discourse of “shame, guilt, and fear.”

If you are interested Surowiecki makes the point far better than I made it in class discussion.

Tyler Clementi

The New Yorker’s February 6 edition has a long story about the Fall 2010 suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi that dispels some of the misconceptions that sprouted in its wake. The trial of Clementi’s roommate  Dharun Ravi began last week and is expected to last about a month. Ravi is charged with 15 counts including invasion of privacy, hindering prosecution, and bias intimidation, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. Ravi rejected a plea offer that would have imposed a maximum sentence of five years. My conclusion is that Ravi is an insensitive young man who did inexcusable, casually cruel things, but whose attitudes and actions still place him within the fat part of the bell curve  for 16-22 year old boys and men. It is also difficult to explain Clementi’s suicide in light of his behavior and demeanor in the days following the events and hours before he leaped from the George Washington Bridge. After reading the article I know more and understand less about whole story.

Fix It

Tough recent press for Boston University. Today’s Globe includes these articles:

One positive story–which the Globe fails to discuss clearly–is that the National Institutes of Health issued its risk assessment report on BU’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory, which stands completed but largely unoccupied near the Medical Campus in the South End. The report concludes that “the risks of infections or deaths resulting from accidents or malevolent acts at the NEIDL are generally very low to only remotely possible.” There’s a public hearing on the NIH findings on April 19. I hope this means the NEIDL will finally receive all the permits it needs for its full range of laboratories.

O Canada

When discussing economic and political conditions in the U.S. a friend often jokes that if they continue their current trends he is moving to our sane(r) neighbor, Canada. That’s how I would feel about waking up in a country that elected President Rick Santorum. My antipathy to the man is not new. I despised–a word I don’t use lightly–his backward,  intolerant, self-righteous core beliefs as Pennsylvania Senator, and he has not improved with time. Listen to what he says and how he says it–see today’s Maureen Dowd for a sample. He’s the American Taliban. He has fringe ideology. He is running even with Romney in Michigan.

Newfoundland looks pleasant . . .