Monthly Archives: April 2012

Monkeys Typing Shakespeare: Plagiarism’s New Frontier

A teacher friend came into my classroom this morning with a new internet discovery which proves once and for all that it is in fact possible to get a group of monkeys together with some typewriters (read: computers with internet access) who will, given a little time and some encouragement, recreate the works of Shakespeare.  My teacher friend was introducing me to a new website called Essaytyper.com and he prefaced his introduction with the query, “Can I show you something really scary?”  Here’s how it works.

Let’s say you’re a monkey–or a very desperate (or lazy) high school or college student.  You’ve got to write a paper on Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller. You go to Essaytyper.com and on the homepage you’ll find a friendly looking little post-it note type thing with the following message:  “Oh No!  It’s finals week and I have to finish my _______ essay immediately!”  You, my monkey friend, type in “Death of a Salesman” into the blank.  Now, this would be difficult if you were an actual monkey, but you’re not, and you may have to hunt and peck, but eventually you’ll type in the 19 characters and spaces of this particular title.  Now, push the little graphic pencil button with your cursor or hit ENTER.  Wait for it.  Wait for it.  What do you see?

A title.  That’s all.  A title: “The Fluidity of Death Of A Salesman: Gender Norms & Racial Bias in the Study of the Modern Death Of A Salesman“.  Hey, wait a minute.  You wanted a paper to turn in to your English teacher, and, while this is a very fine sounding title, you don’t know what it means and couldn’t begin to write a paper on such a topic.  Something possesses you, though, and, even though it takes a little bit of effort, you put your fingers to the keyboard and type two keys. For some reason inexplicable to you, you choose a capital G.  Voila.  The word “Death” appears.  Intuitively, you push the space bar.  The words “of a” appear on the screen.  For every single key you stroke, no matter which one, you get at least a complete word and sometimes two or three words. You’ve already got the hang of it.  You begin randomly flailing your fingers all over the keyboard as if you were a toddler, or, need we say it, a monkey.  As a result of flailing around on the keyboard for, say, 30 seconds, you’ve got three pages of pedestrian but correct prose about the play in question.  It appears to be mostly, if not all, plot summary;  it has nothing to do, thus far, with the title, but man, you feel good.  Another 30 seconds of “labor” and you’ll have a complete paper to turn in to your beloved English teacher.

Gone are those pesky days of actually reading things you might steal.  Gone are the days of cutting and pasting from Sparks Notes, or god forbid, actually typing material straight from a book.  Gone is the laborious task of reformatting those things you’ve cut and pasted!  Oh joy!  It is now easier than ever to cheat oneself out of an education!  It’s now easier than ever to get schoolwork done without exercising your brain in the least bit!  And if your teacher is a total dummy and doesn’t care if you begin a literary essay with three pages of mindless plot summary, and because the writing that appears in front of him or her in  the form of a paper written by YOU is really not very good after all, you might just get away with this caper.

Now, to the website author’s credit, there is a cautionary note through the “What is this” link.  It reads: “EssayTyper uses a patented combination of magic and wikipedia to help you type your paper–fast!  That said, please don’t ever try to use this legitimately. The magic part is not real. . . And that’s plagiarism. Questions? Shoot me a note.”

Okay–so this guy or gal doesn’t want the site used as a means to cheat in school or otherwise steal intellectual property.  There’s no advertising on the site or offers to buy papers or any of that other smarmy bullshit you find out there on sites that help people cheat.  I think I understand that the spirit of the thing is whimsical and fun: “I’m typing absolute random crap and I’m making real words and coherent sentences and paragraphs!” But that’s only novel and fun for awhile, and inevitably, many young ones are going to use the site for evil purposes and the author of EssayTyper probably knows it.  I’ve got an idea.

Let’s get back to the monkeys.  Now, it’s one thing that I’m able to type a mediocre paper on almost any subject by hitting random keys on the keyboard which somehow magically imports text from wikipedia, but it would be quite another thing if I  could write the plays of Shakespeare!  That would be almost exciting.  And it would be quite another more impressive thing if I was a monkey typing Shakespeare.  I mean, as a monkey, I wouldn’t understand that I was typing Shakespeare, but the human beings gathered around to watch and record the thing for all posterity would understand–and they would be giddy with amusement and wonder.  Get enough monkeys together and in an afternoon they could produce The Complete Works.  That’s what the author of EssayTyper needs to do.  Shakespeare, after all, is in the public domain–and I’m sure there are philosophers enough interested in pursuing The Monkey Question.  Who knows, maybe it’s already in the works.

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The Novel. Coming Soon To An Online Bookstore Near Your Bad Self!

Cover of Michael Jarmer's First Published Novel

Designed by Curtis Settino

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The Technology Is Killing Me

I’ll begin by patting myself on the back, railing against the machine–and I’ll conclude with a number of confessions and some serious hand-wringing.  I might even gnash my teeth together regarding the various ways in which technology is killing me.

I congratulate myself for abstaining from cell phone use for a very long time.  I purchased my first cell phone ever in the summer of 2011–and I bought a shitty 3G iPhone for fifty bucks.  Most of the calls I get I miss because the phone is rarely on my person.  It’s no big deal.  People leave messages, just like they used to do on those crazy answering machines with the little micro cassettes, and when I get their messages, I call them back.  Because it’s a shitty 3G, it does only what I really need it to do: it functions as a telephone and as a message sending device.  There are no games or fancy apps.  Every once in a while I’ll check the weather or use the calculator, but rarely.  I feel pretty good, smug actually, about my propensity for resisting the smart phone siren call–and the siren call of half a dozen other technological advances that tend to use humans more than they are used by them.

This is what I’ve seen.  People walking together in public places, each with a phone in use, carrying on conversations with people who are not the people they are walking with in public places.  I have seen students in my classroom who cannot, literally, be without their phones in their hands, in their faces, in their ears, or on the desk in front of them.   They are attached to these devices as if they were appendages to their actual bodies.  If you removed the phone from the possession of many of these children you might expect to see them break out in cold sweats, convulse, maybe even vomit or bleed, or at least get out-of-control angry.  One student told a colleague of mine that if he took her phone her mother would kill him.  I’ve seen couples in clubs or in restaurants who sit together snuggly while they each surf the web on their phones.  I’ve seen students of mine on the road, driving and texting. Did you hear the story of the young couple in a fatal  auto accident who turned out to be texting each other in the car?  Moving from phones for a minute, I’ve seen kid after kid at my high school at the boy’s restroom urinals with their iPods blasting dub-step, metal, hip-hop, power pop, yes, blasting.  These kids can’t even take a piss without the stimulus of technology.  I hope to some day see a kid who’s pissing accidentally drop his phone or his pod into the toilet.  This would bring joy to my heart. I have countless times seen groups of kids in a standing huddle all simultaneously wearing ear-buds and trying to talk to each other over the noise drowning out the noise in their heads.

I worry that smart phones are making us dumb. We can’t find a place on a  map.  We can’t look up words in dictionaries.  We can’t wait.  We must have instant gratification.  We are constantly distracted.  We can’t be in a room by ourselves.  We can’t do ANYTHING without telling someone about it in a text or a post, and yet, we can’t look each other in the eye.  We can’t listen. We cannot endure silence.  We can’t do simple arithmetic. We don’t need to remember anything. Wikipedia will immediately answer all of our questions and we will immediately forget those answers. Twitter has reduced social discourse to a sound that birds make.  Henry David Thoreau was suspicious of the post office and the railroad.  Henry David Thoreau would hate us.

Okay, all you smart-phone-Mp3-player-kindle-reader-game-player-you-tube-facebook addicts: don’t you feel terrible?  Well, I have some issues of my own.  To wit:

Confession #1:  I got the dumb phone, but I bought my lovely wife a smart one.  She can’t stop playing with it.  I wish sometimes that her phone was as dumb as mine.

Confession #2:  I joined Facebook.

Confession #3: I bought an iPad.

Confession #4:  I got a Wii for the boy.

Confession #5: I fantasize about getting a new computer so I don’t have to carry the laptop up and down the stairs from the studio to the study.

So while I criticize from my lofty blog all these problems I see in our culture with the abuse of technology, I can’t leave Facebook alone for a day.  I go to the Huffington post several times in an hour.  It’s difficult to get my lovely wife and my sweet boy to stop playing with their devices.  Most of the daily cravings I have for new ways to improve my life come from images or toys or trinkets I’ve seen advertised in some way on the internet.  The web is an ever-present almost omniscient beast of distraction:  It keeps me from reading books, it keeps me from writing more often, it keeps me in a state of anxiety about what I must be missing–and while I could brag a blue streak about how great I am for not watching ANY commercial television for nearly a decade now, I know it’s true: the computer has replaced the television.  It’s no different.  It’s influences are deeper and more pernicious.  I would love to be able to unplug, but I can’t unplug.  I’ve got to see if I have new friends, find out what stupid things Republicans are doing, check out the bicycle I’ve been drooling over, look at tiny houses, see if anyone new has read or commented on my blog, stream some late-night TV, or, yes, I still do this, check to see if I have any email.  So old school.  The technology is killing me.

I’m not so far gone as some people I know or some people I see every day.  After all, my phone is dumb and I’d like to keep it that way.  But I worry  about my son.  I fret on a daily basis whether or not the iPad or the Wii were not the worst purchasing decisions I’ve ever made in terms of the health of my family.  But then I say to myself, dude, the technology will not go away.  The best you can do, perhaps, is not to abstain, but to learn and teach how best to live along side of it.  The greatest victory is perhaps that you’re still reading and writing, you’re still engaged in other endeavors, and when the weather is good, you’re still outside playing badminton or having light saber duels with your six year old.

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