Friday, February 25, 2011

My Nazi comparison

Only last week, I told some friends at Facebook who were complaining about reactionary politicians in their home state of Wisconsin that I have been tired of comparisons with Hitler and the Nazis for a long time. But Omar Qaddafi's recent performance in which he practically declares war on his own people does remind me of Hitler's comments at the end of World War II that the best Germans had already died, so the rest might as well go, too.

Here's hoping that the people of Libya will not suffer too much before the inevitable happens.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Plagiarism IV - Mr. Guttenberg

As you may know, German Defense Minister Guttenberg asked his university to take back his doctorate because his dissertation is demonstrably a farce. The Wiki devoted to collecting evidence of plagiarism has come up with the wonderful chart you see to the side. The blue bits are the table of contents at the beginning and the bibliography at the end. The white bits are the parts where no plagiarism was found. Everything that is black or red is plagiarized.

Dishearteningly, his admission of "grave mistakes" has not caused popular German sentiment to turn against him. According to polls recently taken, an overwhelming number of Germans across all party lines overwhelmingly think he is doing a good job as a minister.

Personally, he has not given me much reason to complain either. The only question is whether the unbelievable, probably unprecedented level of plagiarism he committed is an indication of a general inability to accept facts and play by the rules – which is why I find this article (in German) the most interesting of any I have read on the matter. The author basically points out a number of times when Guttenberg was caught lying (mostly related to his CV) and, more importantly, the recent cases where people from his Defense Ministry outright called him a liar.

The willingness of the German public to view this matter as trivial – or at least not pertinent to his work as a top politician – surprises me. Some have argued that, since the majority of Germans do not have a college degree (until recently, there was no Bachelor's, so you had to study at least six years to get your first degree at the Master's level), Joe the Plumber might have a hard time appreciating what plagiarism in a dissertation means. But I don't buy that explanation. If Joe the Plumber turned out to have gotten certification to set up a plumbing business not because he passed the exam like everyone else, but because his nephew was the person rubber-stamping the certificates and his great uncle the one administering the exam, I think everyone would agree that we do not want such practices.

For the moment, Guttenberg seems to be weathering the storm well. Who knows how long that will go on?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Dr. Dr. h.c.

Speaking of the German fascination with doctorates, I just remembered this piece that I wrote back in 2005:

The one American businessman or the other had regular contact with German colleagues, who apparently generally had about three PhDs apiece. I tried to put things into perspective and pointed out that Germans were generally of the opinion that they could not compete with Americans. And this "Dr. Dr. Dr. h.c." business is a bit of intellectual arrogance that Americans cannot afford in the anti-intellectual USA. A German with a Ph.D. will often insist on being called Dr. So-and-so instead of Mr. or Ms. So-and-so, while an American who could go by "Dr. William Clinton" would be considered pompous if he introduced himself as anything but "Bill".

For the full text, click here.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Plagiarism III - Guttenberg still wiggling

The case of Guttenberg is getting interesting. First, the swarm has reportedly found cases of plagiarism on 68 percent of the German Defense Minister's 475-page dissertation. Second, the passages are no longer limited to directly lifted paragraphs; if you were wondering why he didn't simply rewrite the passages he lifted, take a look at this.

It seems fairly clear now that Guttenberg's dissertation is a patchwork quilt, with some passages lifted verbatim and some rewritten to hide the lifting – and possibly with some passages being original work, though that honestly remains to be seen. We started out with a mere 12 passages of directly lifted paragraphs with no source attributed.

My favorite part of the story was Guttenberg's statement for the press (full text here):

"Jede weitere Kommunikation über das Thema werde ich von nun an ausschließlich mit der Universität Bayreuth führen."

"Starting now, I will only answer questions about this issue exclusively with the University of Bayreuth." Good luck with that, Karl-Theodor...

The CDU/CSU – Guttenberg's political party – believes all of this is a political campaign and charges that their political opposition is rushing to conclusions that only the university that awarded the doctorate can draw. But I no longer believe that "guilty until proven innocent" holds here. This is not a case of he-said/she-said where the public doesn't have all of the facts, and the court will have to decide after careful consideration. I work with texts every day and would never hand in work that looks like Guttenberg's.

The question is what the outcome will be. Different polls in different media show alternately that a majority of Germans want him to stay and want him to go, so we will have to see how that opinion looks when it stabilizes.

There is reason to believe both that other scandals are to come and that the case will blow over completely. Germany's Family Affairs Minister is now also charged with abusing her resources as a member of Parliament to facilitate the writing of her dissertation; Guttenberg apparently also had a study conducted by his office, and that study was partly lifted for his dissertation. It may turn out that such practices are quite widespread.

Incidentally, German professors are themselves notorious for having their "HiWis" (assistants) collect raw data and, in the worst cases, actually do some of the writing later published exclusively under the professor's name, but that practice also extends into the publishing world. I have been warned a few times to avoid collaborating with this or that US author because they tend to take your work and publish it as their own. So perhaps all of this exists on a seamless spectrum of practices in the publishing world.

Back in 1994, a book was published with the title "Dimwits from Bonn – the dissertations of Germany's elite." I haven't read the book, but it basically collects passages from dissertations written by Germany's top politicians of a few decades ago and shows how vapid they are. The charge in that book was apparently not plagiarism or abuse of parliamentary resources per se, but rather that Germany's elite can apparently turn in just about anything and get a doctorate for it.
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Friday, February 18, 2011

Plagiarism II - how will Germany react?

Margaret Marks did me the favor of commenting on the case of plagiarism that Germany's Defense Minister currently faces. I was hoping in particular that she, as a legal expert, might have an opinion on whether his dissertation is as flimsy in general as his critics now charge (aside from the plagiarism accusations), but as she points out, 475 pages probably even wore down the people who had to read it.

She does bring up some interesting other facets, including general ghostwriting, which leads her to state, "I can't help wondering if this thesis was ghostwritten and Guttenberg can't accuse the person responsible." Yes, he may have given his word of honor (my bet is on Mitterrand in Kohl's bribery case). Having said that, there are certainly other members of parliament who managed to churn out a new book every four or five years – think of the late Hermann Scheer. I know from the man himself and from people who worked with him on a daily basis that he spent the evenings writing these books.

Nonetheless, I think Margaret – and the article she refers to – may be right, and I don't think the excuse exonerates Guttenberg in the least (Margaret does not say it should, either). The list of plagiarized passages apparently continued to grow over the course of the day according to this article in Die Zeit, and this website has been set up for anyone who wishes to help find copied passages in his dissertation. The search is crowd-sourcing now, and the swarm has found one spot of possible plagiarism every five pages on the average across the 475-page dissertation. I would not want to be in Karl-Theodor's shoes at the moment.

Margaret wonders "why he got the best possible mark without his apparent borrowings being spotted," and the terrible answer is all too obvious – in all likelihood, no one looked.  To paraphrase Finance Minister Schäuuble: the accusations of plagiarism are unjust to the character of the dissertation, everyone makes mistakes, and I read the dissertation myself. See, if you read it yourself and you like the guy, you don't need to check whether he plagiarized.

Guttenberg was already a prominent politician when he got his doctorate, and although Germany officially has no nobility, people's fascination with blue blood may even be greater in countries like Germany and the US, which are free to fantasize about aristocracy without any embarrassing flesh-and-blood royalty around to mar that fantasy.

And hey, when Guttenberg became Economics Minister in 2009, we all wanted to have our own Obama over here in Germany. Guttenberg fit the bill – suave, attractive, well spoken, and surprisingly young for all his achievements. I wonder if I would've checked for plagiarism if I had been a reviewer of his dissertation, or if he would've just blown me away. But that would only excuse the reviewers, not the submitter.

Whatever the case, unless Guttenberg has a really good excuse – a damn good excuse – here's the deal: if you are a budding politician with a pedigree but still lack a PhD in law as a shingle on the wall (as my dad would put it), don't worry – the professors would not insult you by questioning authorship. Just make sure the dissertation you throw at them is far, far too big for them to actually read. And remember to dress up nice for the orals (as my mom would say).

But if you are a working-class kid with a head on your shoulders, and you want to get into college-track prep school in Germany (Gymnasium), be on your toes in elementary school, because you will be required to be better than the offspring of the privileged.

Just for the record, I really liked Guttenberg myself until yesterday despite all of the recent mess-ups in his ministry, but this little mess is clearly on his shoulders and cannot be delegated. The most likely explanation for Guttenberg's predicament provides further reason to doubt the fairness of our society. The way Germany handles this matter could change the way I feel about this country. Judging from reader comments on news websites, the good news is I'm not alone with that sentiment.
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Thursday, February 17, 2011

German defense minister charged with plagiarism

Picture of Karl-Theodor Freiherr von und zu Gu...Image via WikipediaGermany's most popular politician, Karl-Theodor Guttenberg (a nobleman, so you also find him referred to as "Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg" – Germany did away with its nobility after World War I, but noblemen were allowed to retain indications of nobility, such as "von" and "zu"), now faces charges of plagiarism for his dissertation in law. Some legal experts say that the work itself is crap, but most of all there are entire passages that are extremely close to – if not literal copies of – some other publication not referenced at all. If you want to get an idea of it, check out this list here (PDF).

Guttenberg says he would be happy to check whether some of the more than 1000 footnotes across 475 pages need to be revised, but he says he did not copy and paste. After a quick look at the evidence, I'd say things do not look good for him.

The attack is obviously politically motivated, with some of the main accusations coming from legal experts with close ties to the SPD – but no matter – if the shoe fits, wear it.

The interesting thing for me is to see how Germany will react to this. Plagiarism, in my estimation, is not taken as seriously here as it is in the US. During my five years as a lecturer at a German university, I found that the idea of failing someone for plagiarism was tendentious; I was told I could also just give someone a stern look and a slap on the wrist.

In this age of the Internet, copying has not only become extremely easy, but also easy to detect. It seems that Guttenberg may have been handed over a PhD in law for really flimsy work, but I cannot judge that (and Margaret Marks has yet to comment on it) – it remains for the University's ombudsman to decide.

I should also point out that I was accused of plagiarism when getting my Masters, but my cases differed from Guttenberg's. I had actually provided footnotes to my sources, and the professor charged that I was sticking too close to the original. The case was brought before the graduate studies committee and dropped.
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Friday, February 11, 2011

Comedy Central stole my logo!

Since the beginning of the year, Comedy Central – the place where most left-leaning Americans apparently get their news – has had a new logo, and they obviously stole the idea from Petite Planète (see the logo to the right).

If any lawyers out there would like to go after the company, be my guest. We'll split the compensation for damages 50-50.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Oh say, can you sing?

Christina Aguilera's slightly botched rendition of the US national anthem at the Super Bowl on Sunday has been quite a hot topic, and has a nice overview of some even worse versions. But the thing that amazes me is that so few people are pointing out that she has screwed up the Stars and Stripes before.

What so proudly we what?

She did it better when she was eight.

If you want to waste some time, search for "worst national anthem" at YouTube.

Incidentally, my biggest culture shock last summer in the US was all of the situations where the national anthem is sung. In a park with fried chicken in my hands, a concert was about to start given by the local big-band, and the first two was the national anthem. With greasy hands, I was completely unprepared, leading one of the people with me to sternly warn: "Take off your hat."

I'm not sure what it's like in France, Spain, the Netherlands, etc., but in Germany the national anthem is not played at concerts, football games, and other similar events. I rather like this guy's take on the ubiquity of the national anthem in the US. He also talks about how the event gradually became so commonplace over the last century at sports events

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the US national anthem is probably the most difficult one of all to sing. It stretches roughly over nearly an octave and a half, which is about all the range your average Joe has. A skilled singer with more than two octaves nonetheless has to carefully choose the key – if you start off too high, you'll be pushing your luck when you hit the high notes. The German national anthem, for instance, stretches across one octave exactly and only hits the top note once. In Stars and Stripes, you have to go to the major third in the second octave twice.

Fortunately, my vocal range is well over three octaves, so if you want me at next year's Super Bowl, I promise to get the lyrics right.
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Monday, February 7, 2011

Fun while it lasted

Yesterday, the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl, so I am retiring the Saints logo from the side column and putting it in this post, where it can stay for a better day.

Congratulations to everyone in Wisconsin, one of the most German states in the US. And thanks again to the Saints, who not only were champions for a year, but also went out in typical Saints style – by losing to the only team to ever make the playoffs with a losing record...

Thursday, February 3, 2011

US style consumer protectionism

A photo of a cup of coffee.Image via WikipediaOver here in Europe, people laugh about cases like the one where an elderly lady burned herself by putting (and spilling) a cup of hot coffee in her crotch at the drive-through. As unfortunate as it was, the general take over here would be, "You mean you are 79 years old and you still don't know that coffee is hot? And what are you doing putting a hot drink in your crotch while you drive around?"

If I did something that stupid, I would honestly be too embarrassed to sue McDonald's.

Now, I see that Dennis Kucinich, a former candidate for the presidency and a champion of left-leaning Democratic causes, sued the cafeteria at the House of Representatives because he bit into a sandwich containing an unpitted olive. He was awarded 150,000 dollars.

It sounds like he honestly did go through quite a bit of torment – his tooth split – but here's the deal, Dennis: sometimes, the pit stays in the olive. My mother-in-law sometimes gives me a jar of cherries from her garden, and she has a little machine to remove the stones – but there's always a stone or two (or a piece of a stone) in that jar somewhere. Should I ever break a tooth on a stone, I won't be suing her.
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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Arab "French Revolution"?

When I lived in France back in the 90s, I remember discussing the Arab world with a Frenchman, who had a different take on spreading democracy then we Americans do: "They have to stand up and demand democracy themselves. They have to have their own French Revolution."

The situation in the Arab world is still dangerous, but it's also encouraging. Last year, back when I didn't have a subscription and could still read the New Yorker (now I have one and can't read it), there was an interesting article about the role that social media (Twitter and Facebook) can have in bringing about political change. The gist was that, when it comes right down to it, you have to put your feet on the pavement, and social media only play a role in organizing such get-togethers at the beginning.

Last night, a German media expert in an interview on television basically said the same: "All of these silly tweets we have made fun of along the lines of 'my cat has a cold' were really just a dress rehearsal. When the time comes, people put these social media to good use." But she also agreed that, now that the Internet has largely been shut down in Egypt, everything is organized by word-of-mouth as in the good ole days. Nonetheless, all that Internet gave young professionals a way of voicing their dissatisfaction – and seeing how widespread the dissatisfaction was.

So let's hope for the best – and remember that all of this came about irrespective of any input from Western governments, meaning that it's not because of a speech Obama gave or a policy Bush implemented. I'll let my colleague Hans Dembowski have the last word:

The Arab youth are demanding Western-style freedom – but they consider Western governments to be the allies of their dictators, rather than promoters of liberty. Europeans and North Americans have failed to build coalitions with those who want democratic change in the Arab world. They should have done so in public and early on. Instead, they relied on the Ben Alis and Murbaraks who promised to keep Islamists in check.