Webner House On The Web — Literally

Selling a house sure has changed a lot since the last time we did it!

20141107145227103797000000This shouldn’t be a surprise.  As you would expect, technology and social media have been brought strongly into the mix.  Yesterday a professional photographer come out to take pictures of our happy homestead, and now they’re on the web.  You can find the link to the photos, taken on a rainy afternoon, here.  Our realtor also instantly prepared glossy brochures with the photos and a description of our house and neighborhood that are resting on our kitchen island, ready to be reviewed by potential buyers, and there is a basket next to the front door with plastic shoe coverings and a little sign asking that visitors use the booties to avoid tracking outdoor debris into the pristine Webner House premises.

Speaking of visitors, there’s no need to worry about that potentially awkward seller-buyer encounter.  In fact, there’s an app for that.  I downloaded it today, and it is supposed to keep track of when people are going to be visiting.  Our realtor also calls, emails, and texts, too, to make sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to a showing.  The only thing I’m lacking is an ankle bracelet to give me a reminder electric shock when it’s time to hit the road and let the visiting couple roam freely through the house.

How Common Is Plagiarism?

On Friday the U.S. Army War College formally revoked the master’s degree it had conferred upon Senator John Walsh, a Democrat from Montana.  The college found that Walsh had plagiarized significant portions of the research paper that he was required to complete as a prerequisite to graduation.

A review board at the college found that Walsh’s plagiarism was “egregious,” that the paper was “primarily composed of verbatim liftings from other sources,” and that the plagiarism was “intentional.”  According to news reports, Walsh’s office said he disagreed with the report’s findings but accepted the review board’s decision; he also apologized to the people of Montana.  Walsh, who was appointed to the Senate seat, dropped out of the race for election to a full term after the New York Times reported the plagiarism charges.

How common is plagiarism — the act of borrowing someone else’s work or ideas without attribution?  No one really knows.  Some years ago the Los Angeles Times reported that 30 percent of college term papers were plagiarized.  Another piece says that many college students engage in a practice called “patchwriting,” where they don’t simply engage in verbatim copying of prior work but instead try to paraphrase and rearrange.  In either case, of course, the writer isn’t doing their own original thinking.

The internet has made plagiarism both easier and more difficult.  Easier, because there is so much content that can be borrowed with a few clicks of a mouse; harder, because there are now software programs and services that can scan phrases and compare them to see whether matches are found in the mass of words floating somewhere in the cloud.  It’s hard work, but if teachers care enough, they can ferret out plagiarized work.

Of course, the means of accomplishing plagiarism doesn’t explain why people are motivated to plagiarize in the first place.  Perhaps the best indication of the commonness of plagiarism is the fact that you can find multiple articles addressing the most common excuses students offer for their plagiarism.  Sad, isn’t it?

A Small Price To Pay

Today I got a notice from WordPress.com, the website that hosts the Webner House blog, provides the software that allows the easy creation of postings, and keeps an archive of our blog running back to the first posting in February 2009.  The notice said it was time to pay for another year of our family’s little contribution to the internet.

The price?  $20 for 10 GB of space.

What a bargain!

I don’t pretend that the Webner House blog means much in the grand scheme of things.  It’s not setting public opinion or providing essential insight into modern culture.  But it is fun.  I long ago told Richard, who set it up and presented it as a Christmas present in 2008, that the Webner House blog was the best present I’ve ever received.  It allows me to vent and satisfy my nagging writing Jones, it makes me feel like I haven’t totally lost touch with the modern world, and it provides a forum to give an occasional shout-out to people and things that make my life better.  And I like it when I hear from EJ, or am challenged by Winship, Doug, or Marcel.  If you can’t defend your opinions, maybe you shouldn’t have them in the first plact.

As I’ve mentioned before, blogging is great because it allows Joe Everyman to have his say.  It is the First Amendment and Speakers’ Corner writ large, where technology means that anyone with a computer can conceivably reach anyone else with a computer and voice their views.  Their position may be rejected or approved, be treated as enlightened or idiotic, but at least it is made public and, potentially, heard.  And that is a great thing.

All of that for only $20?  Rarely, if ever, will you find more value for the buck.

Fake Wireless Network Names

If you’ve got the wireless function activated on your smartphone, occasionally you’re going to get pop-up information boxes asking if you want to link to some random wireless networks that happen to be operating in the vicinity.  Usually the network names are generic and instantly forgettable, like “mywireless” or “Millerguest.”

Recently, however, my cell phone listed a wireless network name that stopped me in my tracks:  “FBI Surveillance.”

For all I know, it really was a network for FBI agents who were checking things out nearby, but I’m guessing it was a razz by a fellow American who is tired of the government snooping on our every activity and thought such a wireless name might cause the rest of us to develop  enhanced awareness of threats to our liberty.  If so, it worked.  It also got me to thinking:  what are some other fake wireless network names that might give the random cell phone user whose wireless search function is on a bit of a jolt?  Here are some suggestions:

mobileebolatestinglab

123KGBSleeperCell

Satan666

joebidensexden

DronePilotNet

HackMyNeighb0r!

KochBrothers$$$$

Your suggestions are welcome.  C’mon, America — let’s call an end to lame wireless network names!

My Letter To Congressman Tiberi About Net Neutrality

Today is Internet Slowdown Day.  It’s a form of protest intended to educate people to the concept of net neutrality — the notion that all websites should load with equal speed, and access providers shouldn’t be permitted to sell faster access to the those who can afford to pay top dollar for it and relegate the rest of us to the slow lane.  WordPress, the nifty website that hosts our little blog, is one of the companies that is participating in Internet Slowdown Day.

I think this is an important issue, and not just because I’m a blogger who can’t afford to pay for the internet fast lane and who hates the spinning circle of death, besides.  So, I did something that I’ve never done before:  I wrote an email to my congressman, Representative Pat Tiberi, using his website to do so.  Here’s what I wrote, after the initial introductory paragraph:

I found nothing on your website to address the issue of net neutrality. Therefore, I wanted to write to encourage you to support the concept of net neutrality and oppose any legislation or regulations that would allow internet providers to slow down certain websites or prefer certain internet addresses over others.

The internet is a great thing precisely because it allows ordinary people to voice their views and, in some small way, influence public debate and the direction of national policy. The internet therefore is a bastion of democracy and fairness in a world in which the media has become increasingly consolidated and corporatized.  I think bloggers (and, in the interests of full and fair disclosure, I should note that I am one of them) make an important contribution to American culture precisely because they are independent voices. Whatever we might think about the political or social views that bloggers express, we need more independent voices, not fewer.

The blogging culture in America has thrived because bloggers’ views can be delivered to readers, or to anyone who taps in the right Google search, on a level playing field with the titanic companies that otherwise dominate American media. If the principle of net neutrality is not preserved, that will no longer be true. People who might otherwise read a blog to access a different point of view will encounter the dreaded spinning circle that says that no connection yet exists, become frustrated, and move on to some larger website that can afford to pay for faster access without waiting to see what the humble bloggers have to say. In our impatient, hurry-up world, where we’ve come to expect and demand instantaneous internet access, such a result means that the independent voices will effectively be stilled, and the consolidation and corporatization of the media will become even more pronounced. Let’s not let that happen!

Congressman Tiberi, I know that there are many issues before Congress, but I think this is one of special importance where the decisions being made could have significant ramifications for the future of our country and our culture of free speech and open communications. I hope I can count on your support for net neutrality and your opposition to any initiative that would quash the voices of the little guys.

If you also think that the notion of net neutrality is an important one, please write your representative or Senators and let them know of your views.  Let’s try to keep the internet a public forum in which all can participate equally.

Testing For Jack The Ripper

“Jack The Ripper” is arguably the most famous criminal — and certainly the most famous uncaught criminal — in world history.  The Ripper was a bloody serial killer who slit the throats and then horribly mutilated the bodies of prostitutes in the foggy Whitechapel district of London in the late 1800s.  His brutal murders were prominently reported in lurid detail in the London press of the day and terrified people throughout the world.

Now an amateur sleuth has published a book that contends that DNA evidence reveals that Jack the Ripper was a Polish immigrant barber named Aaron Kosminski, and a number of news organizations are reporting those findings as fact.  Should they?

Not so fast.  How do you use DNA evidence to conclusively prove who committed terrible murders more than 100 years ago — decades before DNA was even identified by Watson and Crick, much less before DNA tests were developed and DNA samples collected?  In this case, the conclusions are based on a single scarf that purportedly is linked to one of the Ripper’s victims named Catherine Eddowes.  The DNA test showed that bloodstains on the scarf were linked to distant relatives of Eddowes, while another DNA signature from another substance on the scarf is linked to the distant relatives of Kosminski.

But there are obvious problems.  Some people question whether the scarf really has any connection to Eddowes, and in any case it hasn’t been held in scientific isolation all these years; instead, it’s been subject to potential contamination.  And an even bigger problem is that the kind of DNA recovered from the scarf is not nuclear DNA, which scientists believe is unique to one human being, but rather mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down from mothers to children and can be shared by large groups of people.  The mitochondrial DNA linked to Kosminski is a common subtype — which means that the finger doesn’t point just at Kosminski.

For all of these reasons, Ripperologists are skeptical of this latest claim to have solved some of history’s greatest unsolved crimes.  Was Aaron Kosminski in fact the brutal Jack the Ripper?  I think we’ll never know.

On Labor Day, A Look At “Work”

Most of us will spend decades, and countless thousands of hours, at our jobs — but how often do we think about “work” and how it is changing?  On this Labor Day, it’s worth taking a moment to do so.

In the United States, the concept of “work” and the types of jobs that constitute “work” have changed dramatically over the past 150 years, reflecting changes in the country as a whole.  As this interactive chart of census data shows, farmers and farm laborers constituted more than 50 percent of the jobs held by men in 1850; by 2000, farmers and farm laborers amounted to less than 1 percent of the working male population.  Other jobs that were relatively common in 1850 — like blacksmith, which was 1.79% of the male job market in 1850 — have largely vanished, and new jobs like bartender and insurance agent have taken their places.

The shifts in the jobs have reflected, and in some instances caused, shifts in the culture of America.  Farmers in 1850 worked with family members on land they owned and their work days were self-directed; they lived in rural areas and had little daily interaction with people outside of their village.  Modern white-collar employees typically work in highly structured environments, doing what a complex hierarchy of managers tell them to do, in large cities and buildings where they may interact with hundreds of people each working day.  The demands of the jobs are different — farmers needed to know when to plant and when to harvest, while office workers need to know how to create a decent spreadsheet — and the stresses are different, too.  Who is to say whether preparing an important presentation for a corporate vice president is any more stressful than rising at 4 a.m. to deliver a calf whose successful birth might be crucial to eking out a profit for the year?

The census record of non-household work by women is even more interesting, because it not only shows the ebb and flow of jobs but also the impact of social change and technological change.  At one time household workers (cooks and maids), farm laborers, and dressmakers made up the preponderance of outside-the-home working women, then — as more women entered the workforce — secretaries, clerical workers, and cashiers came to the forefront.  And check out the “manager/owner” category for women, which has gone from less than 1 percent of women in 1970 to more than 3.3 percent in 2000.  Our female friends and family members who own their own businesses and call the shots are part of a significant trend.

The “secretary” job category is particularly worth noting.  The position first shows up in census data in 1900, where about .3% percent of women reported holding that job, and the job category grew to more than 5.3 percent of women by 1970, as white-collar jobs in America exploded.  That number then fell to about 2.9 percent by 2000, and it has likely fallen farther since then.  Why?  It’s not because secretarial work is any less important, but because more and more of that work is now being done by the white collar workers that secretaries used to assist.  As young people who are used to working on personal computers and doing their own keyboarding enter the workforce, there is less need for secretaries who can take shorthand and then type 100 words a minute, without error, on their typewriters for bosses who had, at best, “hunt and peck” proficiency.

How should people prepare for the constantly shifting job market?  We might not be able to predict what types of jobs will be available as social and technological changes occur, but we can predict the characteristics that will make employees successful — because those haven’t changed at all.  Whether you are a blacksmith or an IT specialist, hard work, timeliness, and attention to the quality of your output will always be keys to success.