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Ghostwritten Essays and the Problem of Cheating

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My father-in-law is a college professor. He teaches English and Drama, and in his many years behind the podium, he's seen -- and caught -- just about every form of cheating you can imagine. Whole papers copy-pasted from the encyclopedia, or more recently, Wikipedia. Papers he remembers, word for word, that had been turned previously in by students in semesters past. His school pays for anti-cheating software that can detect when large chunks of an essay have been copied, unattributed, from another source, but one thing neither software or, often times, a professor, can detect with any regularity is whether a student is paying someone to write their essays for them.

I didn't realize how pervasive this problem was until I read this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It's written by a fellow, using the pseudonym "Ed Dante," who spent close to a decade as a writer-for-hire, working for a "custom essay company." But, he writes, "I'm planning to retire. I'm tired of making your students look competent."

A custom essay can cost upwards of $2,000 -- more if it's a rush job. What I found really staggering, though, was that his services went way beyond just writing the occasional essay assignment. In his own words:

I have become a master of the admissions essay. I have written these for undergraduate, master's, and doctoral programs, some at elite universities. I can explain exactly why you're Brown material, why the Wharton M.B.A. program would benefit from your presence, how certain life experiences have prepared you for the rigors of your chosen course of study.

I do a lot of work for seminary students. I like seminary students. I have been commissioned to write many a passionate condemnation of America's moral decay as exemplified by abortion, gay marriage, or the teaching of evolution. All in all, we may presume that clerical authorities see these as a greater threat than the plagiarism committed by the future frocked.

He's also written graduate thesis papers, completed entire courses online and participated in online "class discussions," fabricated emails to teachers and professors, and on and on. (The people he does the most work for? Students completing degrees in education. Yep: the future teachers and professors of America.)

He details at length a 75-page paper on business ethics (seriously) that he wrote for a young woman in business school. He prints some of the panicked emails he received from her during the process, and they are, if nothing else, shocking. Here's a sampling:

"did u get the sorce I send

please where you are now?

Desprit to pass spring projict"

He wrote the 75-page paper for his client in two days. He got this response:

"Thanx u so much for the chapter is going very good the porfesser likes it but wants the folloing suggestions please what do you thing?:

"'The hypothesis is interesting but I'd like to see it a bit more focused. Choose a specific connection and try to prove it.'

"What shoudwe say?"

So he becomes a kind of permanent ghostwriter for this student, and crafts emails to the professor, and finally, a 160-page thesis paper based on the original essay. His client's response, finally was this: "thanx so much for uhelp ican going to graduate to now".

Personally, I don't quite know what to think about this. Is it a symptom of living in a society that demands a college education of almost all its higher-paid citizens? Proof that college isn't, and shouldn't be, for everyone? Or is it moral bankruptcy and free market economics and busy professors who turn a blind eye? Because how could this professor, who almost certainly had face-to-face meetings with this student, and perhaps exchanged emails with her, not realize that this person was incapable of stringing together a coherent paragraph? Wouldn't a simple oral defense of the thesis have exposed her cheating?

You would think so. But Dante closes with this:

I work hard for a living. I'm nice to people. But I understand that in simple terms, I'm the bad guy. I see where I'm vulnerable to ethical scrutiny. But pointing the finger at me is too easy. Why does my business thrive? Why do so many students prefer to cheat rather than do their own work? Say what you want about me, but I am not the reason your students cheat.

You know what's never happened? I've never had a client complain that he'd been expelled from school, that the originality of his work had been questioned, that some disciplinary action had been taken. As far as I know, not one of my customers has ever been caught.

So what to do?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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