November 19, 2017

Archives for April 2004

Princeton Faculty Passes Grade Quota

Yesterday the Princeton faculty passed the proposed grade inflation resolution (discussed here), establishing a quota on A-level grades. From now on, no more than 35% of the course grades awarded by any department may be A-level grades, and no more than 55% of independent work grades may be A-level.

I had to miss the meeting due to travel, so I can’t report directly on the debate at the faculty meeting. I’ll update this post later if I hear anything interesting about the debate.

What is a Speedbump?

One thing I learned at the Harvard Speedbumps conference is that many people agree that “speedbump DRM” is a good idea; but they seem to have very different opinions of what “speedbump DRM” means. (The conference was declared “off the record” so I can’t attribute specific opinions to specific people or organizations.)

One vision of speedbump DRM tries to delay the leakage of DRM’ed content onto the darknet (i.e., onto open peer-to-peer systems where they’re available to anybody). By delaying this leakage for long enough, say for three months, this vision tries to protect a time window in which a copyrighted work can sold at a premium price.

The problem with this approach is that it assumes that you can actually build a DRM system that will prevent leakage of the content for a suitable length of time. So far, that has not been the case – not even close. Most DRM systems are broken within hours, or a within few days at most. And even if they’re not broken, the content leaks out in other ways, by leaks in the production process or via the analog hole. Once content is available on the darknet, DRM is nearly useless, since would-be infringers will ignore the DRM’ed content and get unconstrained copies from the darknet instead.

In any case, this approach isn’t really trying to build a speedbump, it’s trying to build a safe. (Even top-of-the-line office safes can only stand up to skilled safecrackers for hours.) A speedbump does delay passing cars, but only briefly. A three-month speedbump isn’t really a speedbump at all.

A real speedbump doesn’t stop drivers from following a path that they’re deterrmined to follow. Its purpose, instead, is to make one path less convenient than another. A speedbump strategy for copyright holders, then, tries to make illegal acquisition of content (via P2P, say) less convenient than the legitimate alternative.

There are several methods copyright owners can (and do) use to frustrate P2P infringers. Copyright owners can flood the P2P systems with spoofed files, so that users have to download multiple instances of file before they get a real one. They can identify P2P uploaders offering copyrighted files, and send them scary warning messages, to reduce the supply of infringing files. These methods make it harder for P2P users to get the copyrighted files they want – they acts as speedbumps.

These kinds of speedbumps are very feasible. They can make a significant difference, if they’re coupled with a legitimate alternative that’s really attractive. And if they’re done carefully, these measures have the virtue of inflicting little or no pain on noninfringers.

From an analytical, information security viewpoint, looking for speedbumps rather than impregnable walls requires us to think differently. How exactly we must change our thinking, and how the speedbump approach impacts public policy, are topics for another day.

How Much Information Do Princeton Grades Convey?

One of the standard arguments against grade inflation is that inflated grades convey less information about students’ performaces to employers, graduate schools, and the students themselves.

In light of the grade inflation debate at Princeton, I decided to apply information theory, a branch of computer science theory, to the question of how much information is conveyed by students’ course grades. I report the results in a four-page memo, in which I conclude that Princeton grades convey 11% less information than they did thirty years ago, and that imposing a 35% quota on A-level grades, as Princeton is proposing doing, would increase the information content of grades by 10% at most.

I’m trying to convince the Dean of the Faculty to distribute my memo to the faculty before the Monday vote on the proposed A quota.

Today’s Daily Princetonian ran a story, by Alyson Zureick, about my study.