Saturday, 23 February 2013

The Ornithologist, the Finches, & Research Councils UK

Promoter of Birds, Badgers and Clarity

Three cheers for Lord Krebs!  I already liked this reluctant Peer of the Realm because he opposes badger culling. But this week his lucid brain has cut through the chaos surrounding Britain’s policy on free-to-view access to journal articles publishing the findings of research which has been supported by the British taxpayer. 
She's in gold but the background is green

This week the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Lords, which Krebs  chairs, published a report  which slams the bewildering apology for a ‘policy’ formulated last July by the people who are supposed to be twittering sense on the top branch of Britain’s intellectual tree, the Research Council UK.  

The RCUK had to revise its ‘policy’ because the government had commissioned Dame Janet Finch to report on alternative Open Access strategies.  She said you could have (1) a ‘green’ policy (in which all research must be published online so everyone can read it, but there can be a temporary embargo of e.g. a year so journals including those published by impoverished learned societies can get subscriptions). Or you could have (2) a ‘gold’ policy (where the journals are freely available online but academics or universities now have to give money to the publishers) [yuck]. Or you could have (3) a ‘hybrid’ one and let chaos prevail.

A Sensible Policy
I am still waiting to be told whether Dame Janet chose the colours because her relatives are either greenfinches or goldfinches, or whether she was picked for the job because of her name.

Is Rylance a bluefinch?
The RCUK’s apology for a ‘policy’, to be implemented only 5 weeks from now, was published in response to Finch under the chairmanship of Professor Rick Rylance (who prefers to sport blue). It managed to recommend all three at the same time: ‘the Gold option provides the best way of delivering immediate, non-restricted access to research papers’ but RCUK is not against the green model and supports a ‘mixed approach to Open Access.’

How much money are chairpersons of the RCUK paid to promote such conceptual pandemonium?

A rich journal publisher
But Lord Krebs, bless him, has signed off the report which simply says that ‘lack of clarity in RCUK policy and guidance, and the consequent confusion, especially given the imminent start date of 1 April 2013, are unacceptable.’ 

I have a theory why Krebs can see the nests so well in these particular trees. His own research has been into ornithology and he is regarded as the world leader on bird behaviour. He was never going to tolerate Rylance confusing two species of finch.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Which Goddess is Trying to Get in Touch?

What made this hole in Lake Chebarkul?
It is a huge relief that nobody--especially none of those terrified schoolchildren--seems to have been seriously injured or killed by any of the shards of the ten-tonne meteor over the Urals yesterday. But I am extremely curious about the actual meteorite which crashed into the lake outside Chebarkul, and hope that divers get sent down to examine it as soon as possible, although the lake apparently remains iced over until May.

Aphrodite's Message to Cyprus
Pagan Greek gods—or usually goddesses—often send messages in the form of meteorites. Astronomers and geologists still argue whether the conical stone found near the temple of Aphrodite at Paphos in Cyprus is a meteorite. That is, of course, to miss the point, which was that in sending the rock Aphrodite was showing her good taste in islands in clearly indicating the one where she wanted her worship to be centred.

Artemis, too, took the form of a sky-fallen rock at the temple of Artemis Pergeia in southern Turkey. [Eternal thanks to Prof. I. Rutherford of Reading University for querying my earlier allegation that it was Hera]. And the great Asiatic mother goddess Cybele was worshipped in the form of a black stone cone in Phrygia. The Romans purloined it in 205 BC since the Sibylline Oracle told them that it would help keep the Carthaginians at bay.

"That was like shitting a brick"
Meteorites can also have a useful emetic function. Because Zeus’ father, Cronos, swallowed all his other children when they were born, his wife Rhea gave him a meteorite wrapped in a cloth and said it was a new baby. This made him sick. Zeus retrieved the stone and recycled it to mark the centre of the world at Delphi.

So what is the message delivered to Chebarkul? Perhaps Artemis is getting in touch. She was worshipped at Ephesus and Tauris (the Crimea, not far from the Urals) in the form not of meteorites but of statues which fell from the sky. She might be wrathful at the Russian government for imprisoning Pussy Riot. I would love to think there is now a statue of Artemis at the bottom of Lake Chebarkul, or even an emetic.  But there is another, more alarming possibility.
Is something like this in the lake?

Chebarkul was part of the realm of the ancient Scythian nomads, and they believed that the world was created when a meteorite in the form of a lump of gold fell onto their land from the sky; the first man to pick it up became the first king (Herodotus 4.5).  

Vladimir Putin, who is of course an experienced scuba diver, is presumably planning to get himself over there quickly. He needs to grab the new meteorite before anyone else declares himself  to be Monarch of the World.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

When Plagiarism is a Political Issue

Schavan loses PhD and job within three days

‘The trouble with words is that you never know whose mouths they have been in’, said the wise Dennis Potter. But for Angela Merkel, re-used (i.e. plagiarised) words are becoming a liability. She has a knack of appointing ministers with dodgy PhDs.

Two years ago her ambitious Defence Minister,  Karl-Theodor von Guttenberg, was forced to step down when it was mysteriously revealed that he had copied large sections of his 2006 University of Bayreuth dissertation, ‘Constitution and Constitutional Treaty’, from sources to which he had given no credit. Since he lives in a castle, the German press nicknamed him ‘Baron Cut-and-Paste, Zu Copyberg and Zu Googleberg.’

Baron Cut-and-Paste, Zu Copyberg Zu Googleberg
Now it is the turn of the Minister of—wait for it—Education,  responsible for universities and research funding. Annette Schavan has just resigned after a committee at Düsseldorf University ruled that she be stripped of her PhD qualification since much of her thesis, ‘Character and Conscience,’ was abducted from other sources including a recent Polish dissertation. [The Chair of the special enquiry committee was an eminent Roman Historian named Prof. Dr. Bruno Bleckmann, who presumably knows about how to spot cheats and liars since one of his books is called Fiktion als Geschichte (Fiction as History)].

In Schavan’s case, the plagiarism was outed by an anonymous blogger widely believed to have been politically motivated. Schavan is very unpopular with the Y-chromosome bearers in her own party, who use her unmarried status and fondness for privacy to spread rumours that she is a lesbian.  Even her friendship with Merkel has attracted sniggers.

What this means, of course, is the 21st-century way of bringing down political enemies is not to enquire about whether they have ever inhaled or had an affair, but to go through all their student writings.  Having been in Higher Education for too many decades, I can confidently predict that many more ripped-off theses slapped together by ambitious politicians await to be exposed.

'Any good phrases I can abduct?'
Meanwhile, a word of advice to current undergraduates. Almost all the culprits I have busted for plagiarism over the last two decades have given themselves away by using a long and interesting word or a correct syntactical or grammatical form.  If you are going to use words that were formed in other people’s mouths, then you need to rewrite them to sound as if they have come out of the mouth of a modern undergraduate. 

For example, in an essay on the play Alcestis, if you want to plagiarise a sentence like ‘Notwithstanding Heracles’ witty characterisation as an inebriate, Euripides’ dark implication that fate is ineluctable shimmers beneath the surface of the text’, you must wreck that accurate placement of the genitive apostrophe. Moreover, you need to take out the long words and write  e.g.  ‘Although Heracles is drunk, Euripides view is that life is, like, pants.’  

This kind of dumbing down takes time and intellectual effort. It is HONESTLY quicker to write your own words. And if you ever want to go into politics, it is certainly less likely to get you sacked.

The Latin verb from which plagiarise is derived is violent, meaning  'catch a human in a hunting net and kidnap them for the slave trade’.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Xenophilia Ancient and Modern

"Guest" workers had their passports confiscated
With great relief we were told this week that as citizens of a country still in the European Union (whatever spooky plans David Cameron may be hatching) we did NOT have to be examined by the Erfurt Foreigner Office before being allowed to stay.  

I could stop going over in my mind the horrible memories of the interview experience as a “guest” worker in 1978 in (non-EU) German-speaking Switzerland. These had included a medical examination of my teeth and private parts, an interrogation about my religious views, and having my passport handed over to my tyrannical employer, manager of a winter sports hotel near Interlaken.

At Athens, foreigners WERE invited to the party
Although they had their faults, the ancient Athenians knew a thing or two about how to treat the guests residing in their city.  Even the staunchest critics of Athens seem to have been impressed by its cosmopolitan atmosphere: one anti-democratic pamphleteer, by custom called ‘the Old Oligarch’, observed that the Athenian instinct to ‘mingle with various peoples’ made their city the most colourful and well-resourced in the world;  eight centuries later,  Julian, the last pagan Emperor, said that the Athenians still made strangers more welcome than any other people, Greek or non-Greek, in the world. I don't think the resident aliens in Athens had their bottoms inspected before they were allowed to join in public processions.

This can’t be said about the bureaucrats of Illinois. I don’t want to be a party-pooper on the birthday of the Territory of Illinois, recognised as an entity on 3rd February 1809. But our warm welcome in the  former DDR has reminded me of the worst xenophobia I have personally ever suffered. 

Illinois School Nurse Look-alike
Our children needed to go to the local state school in Illinois for a semester. A year before we arrived, I had investigated the State Education Board policy on immunisation. Our poor offspring received a large number of injections in accordance with its stern stipulations. But when we turned up at the Board’s offices, clutching all the certificates, we were told by a mountainous nurse that the injections had not been spaced out the correct number of weeks, that UK medics clearly knew nothing about immunisation, and that our children were absolutely barred from school.

Fortunately, after arguing fruitlessly for an hour, and managing not to ask why she looked so like John Travolta in drag in Hairspray, it suddenly occurred to me that in the Land of The Free there must be a religious exemption clause. I thereupon had a miraculous conversion to a religion which did not allow immunisation. The children’s father twigged and simultaneously had one too. 

Zwingli, still proselytizing in the 21st century
I couldn’t remember the words "Jehovah’s Witness". But for some reason the Reformation Swiss Protestant Ulrich Zwingli leapt into my head, and I told the nurse I was now converted to Zwinglianism. [This was all very unfair on Pastor Zwingli, since immunisation had not been invented in the 1500s]. Delighted that I had come up with a complete fabrication on which we could all agree, the nurse allowed the children, despite the lethal threat they presented to public health, to go straight to school. 

Somewhere in a file in the offices of the State Education Board in Evanston, Illinois, is the signed testament to our conversion. Dank sei Gott that there has been no need to produce an equivalent document in Germany.  The EU has a purpose, after all.