Plagiarism and the Ideas Economy: Addendum
Posted by Doug Walters on 17th July 2015
This week, a repeat of Michael Portillo’s “Great Train Journeys of Britain” took in the mill towns of Lancashire, the engine room of the Industrial revolution. When he visited Bolton, he focussed on the story of Samuel Crompton, who in 1779, invented the Spinning Mule. The Spinning Mule was the bedrock of the supremacy of the Lancashire Mill towns in the linen trade, and made vast fortunes for mill owners and supplied full (if hard and poorly paid) employment to the population of the North-West of England.

The spinning mule was so-called because it is a hybrid of Arkwright's water frame and James Hargreaves' spinning jenny in the same way that mule is the product of crossbreeding a female horse with a male donkey.

Portillo focussed on the invention, and the fact that “friends” of Crompton (encouraged by favours from the mill owners) persuaded Crompton to forgo a copyright, and instead, he charged a “subscription” to mill owners and their engineers to come and study the new wonder. Of course, they studied it and built their own copies in thousands, thereby sowing (pardon the pun) the seeds of great fortunes. In contrast, Samuel Crompton died in poverty, and a shamed Bolton erected a token statue to him just over a century later.

Portillo then cleverly juxtaposed the example of Port sunlight, another stop on his Lancashire journey, where the owner of Lever Brothers (William Lever) built a “model” village to house the workers at his soap factory. This was in sharp contrast to the mercenary attitude of the mill owners, and I got the impression that this “benevolent stewardship” sat easily with the brand of Toryism which Michael Portillo supports, but he also noted that William Lever placed very clear injunctions on the lifestyle of his workers who lived in Port Sunlight – with benevolence came control, and a demand for obedience and orthodoxy.

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Plagiarism and the “Ideas Economy”
Posted by Doug Walters on 1st July 2015

Cut, Paste, No Big Deal?!

Collaboration and teamwork are the modern by-lines of business management theory. But as with any good idea, if implemented without due care and attention, it can be positively harmful and counter-productive. It is often used as a smokescreen which smothers innovative and disruptive thought; when coupled with hierarchical organisational structures, it can hold back talent and prop-up incompetent managers. Worse still, it can encourage a culture which discourages the celebration of individual achievement. At its most insidious, it can create an environment where plagiarism flourishes in the new “ideas economy.”
Let’s be clear: I am not talking about the principle of re-use. I am talking about the origination of work or an idea, rather than its reuse.

I recently watched a TV programme talking about the epidemic of cheating within our education system. Some of the programme focussed on educational establishments who manipulate marking and results to improve their performance in league tables, but of equal interest is the growing trend of plagiarism by Students. Students are paying others to write their work for them to get acceptable results.

When I was at University plagiarism was viewed with considerable disdain – it was intellectually ethical to acknowledge sources; plagiarism was an academic crime. When I was in education I was honestly not aware of plagiarism happening on any sort of scale, so I believe it to be a relatively modern development.

Last year, just over 58000 students were investigated for plagiarism – while not all were found guilty, I assume (given that the authorities would not unnecessarily make work for themselves) this is a fairly accurate indication of the scale of the problem. An expert in the field reckons that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

I recently spoke to some students who seemed surprised that I was surprised about the extent of plagiarism – apparently they accept it as a simple fact of university life. Moreover, the habits fostered in youth (education) persist in adult and working life; I can testify that plagiarism, and claiming the credit for the ideas and work of others is rife in IT, my own profession.
We often hear that these days we live in an “ideas economy” where a bright idea can be easily and quickly realised, sometimes with spectacular financial rewards, so perhaps it is not surprising.

So is it simply a fact of life (accept it and get on with it) or is it something that we should be addressing? Many argue the case for “the TEAM” (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts etc) and argue against the identification of the role played by individuals – if a reward is given for outstanding results, it is given to the team leader and in the acceptance speech, the team leader cheesily states that it is being accepted on behalf of the team.

Personally, I believe it is important to preserve the protocol of acknowledging the origins of an idea because failure to do so is positively harmful and can discourage collaboration, which is ultimately the most productive form of working model .

Let’s be quite clear – some of my best ideas have come from a chance overhearing of a conversation on a train, or seeing an advert in a shop window. My contribution is to take the snippet and mentally place it into another context, or abstract it into a useful concept. My ability to do that is based on the learning I have gained from my teachers and others, and from the incalculable number of messages from a variety of media (books, newspapers, film) that I have assimilated during my life. We all do this in one way or another. The knowledge and expertise of all human beings is founded on an accumulation of what has gone before.

However, the plagiarism in IT far exceeds this “natural” leveraging of accumulated knowledge. It extends to actually taking a fully-fledged idea and promulgating and implementing it, without any public acknowledgement of its derivation.
Commercially, this is a scenario where a large organisation with deep pockets and / or deep-rooted influence has the capacity to take the intellectual capital of an individual and popularise and exploit it. We all acknowledge that is wrong, but we know that it has always happened
However, in the workplace, this now takes a more insidious form; the pretext of harnessing the power of the team, which is greater than the sum of its parts, is a smokescreen for a number of far-less altruistic motivations. In this context, ideas and disruptive thinking is credited to the team rather than to individuals – yet if you consider, it is almost impossible for a group to come up with an innovative idea – while the elaboration may be a product of team work, the original concept is always the brainchild of an individual. In some ways, plagiarism in the workplace is understandable

• In many industries, people now play out their working lives against a permanent backdrop of cost-cutting, with its unspoken threat of job losses – “will I be next” must go through the minds of the vast majority?
• Only last week, I attended a social event which was a joint function for 80-odd Civil Servants leaving a major central government department under a “Voluntary Early Departure Scheme.” The general feeling leaving the Civil Servants is that of a blessing in disguise; especially since most had secured jobs as consultants working for companies supplying to the government. It was ever thus!
• In this scenario, the temptation to try to grab some recognition (or at least reflected glory) for new and successful idea, must be huge

Some while ago I read an interesting book “Make your Brain Work” by Amy Brann. This is a very interesting and complex topic, but very simplistically: thoughts consist of patterns of electrical impulses between neurons, and the patterns are learned and then strengthened by repetition. It thus follows that innovative thinkers are often wired differently to others (otherwise they wouldn’t be innovative!) and therefore likely to be serially-so.

Consequently, innovative thinkers are usually identifiable and therefore can be “targeted” by the plagiarist as a ready and regular source of free currency in “the ideas economy.”
Is this such a bad thing – looking at this from society’s perspective, surely the important thing is that the idea gets harvested and incubated to the benefit of all? And from society’s point of view, I would agree.

However, consider for a moment the impact on the “victim”:

• Innovative thinking does not come simply from “flashes of inspiration” – they come from training of the electrical patterns in the brain. This training is often (although not always years of study and experiences; some of that experience may have been extremely painful and difficult – the emotional trauma of a very public failure, the problems of social rejection or financial difficulties - in other words, a price has been paid. Yet in modern society it now seems acceptable to pick up these ideas and run with them without even so much as a backward glance at the originator
• Everyone works to earn a living; that is common to all of us. However, the motivation to work is multi-dimensional: on top of that baseline of working to live, some work for the accumulation of large sums of money; others work for status and power; while some work for acceptance and recognition.
Consequently, for those people who work for acceptance and recognition (and I’d suggest that a disproportionate number of innovative thinkers fall into this category) this failure to acknowledge the source of original thinking is clearly destructive of that motivation.

As evidence to support this:

• Earlier in this piece, I suggested that academia has traditionally been a bastion in the war against plagiarism – I’d suggest that this stems largely because it threatens the motivation of innovative thinkers
• At top-level sport, the Aussie cricket teams under successive captains Allan Border, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting were arguably the most successful teams in history. Crammed with cricket super-stars such as Shane Warne and Glen McGrath, one of the pillars of their success was the strong current of “mateship” which flowed through the group. Such overwhelming success and dominance could not have been achieved without rock-like team-spirit. Yet, a fundamental of “mateship” is that everyone celebrates and encourages the individual achievements of your mates. I think that the Aussie cricket team is irrefutable proof that individuals and their successes can be accommodated within the framework of a successful team

Dad’s Army (the repeats of which are currently being shown on BBC2 and are attracting large audiences – programme schedulers please take note) not only credits the writers for each episode, but carries a permanent credit “Based on an idea by Jimmy Perry.” This protocol of giving credit to the origin of the idea is a long-standing tradition in the Arts. For years, Coronation Street credited has always credited Tony Warren for the original idea. The arts (theatre, music, film) have always been careful with regard to acknowledging the origin of an idea as well as producer, director and player of the output.

The Arts are equally careful with copyright, and this is where I believe they (quite properly) diverge from real life. Copyright, by its very nature, discourages re-use; on the other hand, re-use is a concept which should be encouraged in human society. Beside the fact that re-use is a form of flattery, re-use is fundamental to the process of building the edifice of human knowledge. On the other hand, plagiarism erodes the foundation of that edifice

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The UK's Housing problems are not just about shortfalls in new build supply
Posted by Doug Walters on 1st July 2014

“Tackling housing problems requires a holistic approach”

At the recent and excellent Chartered Institute of Housing Conference in Manchester, I listened to a very interesting presentation from Philip Blond, who was talking about the relationship between government policy and housing supply. He raised some extremely intelligent and, I think valid points.

As an independent IT Consultant specialising in Enterprise Architecture, I recognised his description of a central body, containing representatives from all disciplines and valid interests – a Design Authority in the parlance of my profession – which could operate with executive power to take decisions on planning and building matters within a devolved financial envelope (budget)

However, my concern was (and is) that this is another example of silo-thinking, although to be fair, the session was sponsored and chaired by a housing developer, so to a large extent, Philip had his scope defined for him. The housing crisis will not be solved simply by freeing up more land to build more houses – that is part of the answer. What we require is a radical change in the way society thinks and acts about fundamental issues such as family policy. The truth is that we have to take a holistic view; let me illustrate by describing the circumstances of a friend of mine.

David, lives in a detached, 3-bedroomed house in a small town in the North-West. He works on the North Sea Rigs, so is regularly away from home a lot of the time. David lives with Carol, who works as a carer for the elderly.

David’s neighbours on one-side are a very nice Indian couple with 2 young children (a girl and a boy.) The children’s grandmother also lives with them (as is often the way with non-western cultures – the family tends to remain a coherent unit throughout life.) Both the parents are doctors: father is a consultant at the local hospital, and mother is a GP. They have very busy and committed professional lives, and a lot of the basic child care and domestic work is performed by the grandmother.

This is clearly an extremely sensible arrangement for all parties, and means that the grandmother is not occupying a home on her own - good for her and for the housing supply

Carol works as an independent carer. One of her clients is an elderly couple in their 80’s, who live on the same estate. Albert (who has a son and a daughter living close by) & Barbara (who has no living family other than 2 nieces who have no contact) are living together for companionship and domestic sustenance; when their spouses were alive, the couples were best friends. When their spouses died, they decided to live together in Albert’s house as a partnership of convenience. This is an eminently sensible arrangement from their perspective, but not perfect: Barbara’s large 3-bedroom bungalow in another very desirable part of town is standing empty. Albert’s family are not too happy with the arrangement (lots of issues about the memory of their mother, concerns about financial implications etc) but they respect their father's wishes.

This works well for the couple at the moment, but I do feel that something could and should be done to recycle the unoccupied bungalow into the housing supply; although I'm not quite sure what to suggest without starting to trespass into the realms of George Orwell and "1984"

David’s situation is also interesting. He and Carol bought the property in which they live in 2005, but they split up in the same year and finally divorced in 2007. Carol received sole ownership of the house as part of the divorce settlement. David moved back to live in the property in early 2012 after a lengthy illness which left him in financial difficulties. Although they are not a “partnership” in the usual sense, this arrangement makes perfect sense – David is away from home for regular periods, and renting or buying his own home would involve a property standing unoccupied for much of each and every year.

Although not sustainable long-term, as it is highly-likely that one or both of David and Carol will find new partners, the arrangement makes perfect sense currently.

My point in is that the housing problem is not simply one of supply; it is also about occupation patterns and a whole host of other issues. For example (Philip’s presentation was extremely informative) one third of new-home-demand is caused by marital break-up. In addition to addressing family policy, is there anyway that those with houses that are under-occupied can be encouraged to take in lodgers?

Although boosting supply through energising new builds is of course important, it is equally important to look at all the other factors in the equation. I'm not pretending that this is easy - some of the issues are not just economic, and prompt us to explore our attitudes to things such as family, personal space and inheritance. However, to pretend that the floodgates holding back new builds are suddenly going to open and developers will solve our problems is simply naive

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Nigel Farage, UKIP & Europe - a bigger picture?
Posted by Doug Walters on 16th May 2014
Farage & UKIP

I recently attended a couple of UKIP meetings – one in Barrow where the speaker was Paul Nuttall, deputy leader of the UKIP party and a MEP; the second in Manchester (I happened to be in Manchester for an Action for Children Board meeting the following morning, so paid half-price membership of UKIP for the right to attend) where there were 3 speakers: Steven Woolfe, a local man (born & educated in Manchester, now a Barrister and MEP candidate), Louise van de Bours (a former Mayoress of Congleton and MEP candidate) and Nigel Farage. The meetings were very different:

Meeting 1 – was attended by a small audience that was quite varied in terms of age group, sex (including a very “camp” couple) and socio-economic background (as far as I could guess from dress, content and manner of speech.) Questions from the floor were very well-informed from attendees both for and against the UKIP propositions. The audience exhibited no signs (overt or otherwise) of racism. Paul Nuttall’s speech focussed on two themes: immigration and the shortcomings of the EU bureaucracy (non-democratic, cost, impact on UK sovereignty.) He made some telling points, which I think is very easy to do – whatever you think of the EU as a concept, any sane individual has to accept that its implementation is a mess. Most of the questions from the floor were “friendly” even though well-informed. There were some interesting questions about the actual mechanics of unravelling our membership if UKIP were successful, revealing that it would be an endeavour which would certainly keep the legal profession in full employment for a long-time.

I asked two questions: a) more of an observation – that the focus on immigration has the unfortunate effect of coupling UKIP with the BNP in the minds of the “sensible” sections of the voting public – it seemed to me that a focus on ensuring that benefits were less lucrative than working, and limiting immigrants’ entitlement to benefits was a better way to achieve the same end, because it would encourage local people to take the jobs that are available (too many are better off on benefits than working for the minimum wage and / or on zero hours contracts) without the racist overtones of a policy that focusses directly on immigration. Paul Nuttall’s response was lengthy but lacked any substance other than “immigration is the topic popular with the voters at thie upcoming elections” b) my second question was to ask what UKIP would do about filling the political and military void which would be created by the break-up of the EU (with obvious reference to the current Ukraine crisis.) I pointed out that a symbolic but largely irrelevant increase in UK defence spending (as proposed by UKIP) was unlikely to cut it – would they seek to re-affirm the role of NATO and cooperate in Europe through that mechanism? Paul Nuttall effectively ignored the question.

Meeting 2 – was attended by a fairly homogenous audience of 50+ year old, white people. There was a couple of people who were clearly of Asian (a Turban), European (accent) or Caribbean / African (skin colour) extraction (presumably second or third generation) but this was a very small group. While I think that this fairly reflects the UKIP constituency, it is important to remember that this is also the same group which predominates the audience at meetings of the other British political parties.

The speech by Louise van de Bours was simply a cheerleading, "rah-rah" speech. I ended up taking no notes from this. The opening speech was from Steven Woolfe was very good – it drew strongly on the themes of roots (Peterlee Massacre, his upbringing in Longsight and studying for exams in the local library) to link into the arguments about the aspirations of the working class and the rights of the people to a democratic voice, thereby landing a series of very telling blows on the EU / Sovereignty and Immigration / Jobs issues. This was a much subtler approach than that of Paul Nuttall a few days earlier, but the same themes really.

Obviously, the main event was the speech by Nigel Farage. Of course he was speaking to a friendly audience (so I was a bit surprised he felt the need to be flanked by 4 well-dressed but nevertheless thuggish-looking bodyguards) but he was very accomplished. Again, he avoided the Immigration issue, mentioning the word only once, in response to a question from the floor. He explained that he was in favour of immigration, if based on a points-system similar to that employed by Australia.

Farage’s speech, like that from Woolfe, was heavily laced with stirring historical references, such as to Sir Robert Peel (the son of a Bury mill-owner, who re-introduced a more caring conservatism through such measures as the Factory Act and the Repeal of the Corn Laws. He also invoked the spirit of Churchill and his “Voice in the Wilderness” years until the annexation of the Sudetenland (shades of Crimea and Ukraine?) The theme was the loss of sovereignty and the undemocratic nature of the EU constitution. The other main theme was the fact (and it is a fact) hat modern politicians are disconnected from the rest of the populace – there might as well be a moat (and duck house?) around the village of Westminster, with the drawbridge only lowered every 4 years when the politicians “re-connect” to woo your vote (although I’d argue that isn’t true democracy either.) Instinctively, I feel this disconnection between the professional politician and the electorate (and therefore the disenfranchisement of the latter) is at the root of UKIP’s popularity.

“Nigel farage enjoying a pint at the Westminster Arms - how many of our media-intimidated and politically-correct Politicos would allow themselves to be "snapped" in this sort of pose?”

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The importance of "Understanding the Business" in defining a Solution
Posted by Doug Walters on 2nd May 2014
A while ago, while working in the health service, I was asked to step in to a piece of work as "cover" for a colleague who had fallen ill and was likely to be absent for at least a month. While I found this very challenging and the outcome was less than satisfactory, I experienced a practical vindication of one of my long-held beliefs that the technologist also needs to understand the problem domain from a real-life perspective to be able to deliver a solution that really works

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