daniel golden column

Here’s my column from today’s paper, on the unfair advantages children of the rich and famous get in college admissions:

For instance, at Harvard the admissions rate for legacies is four times the rate for the hoi polloi. Is it because those kids are unusually smart? Nope – they actually have lower average SAT scores than other admitted students…

[Author Daniel Golden] shows how Al Gore’s son earned a questionable admission to Harvard, and how presidential niece Lauren Bush got into Princeton despite below-average SAT scores, mediocre grades at her Houston prep school and not bothering to apply until a month after the deadline. I’d like to see a working-class kid from South Dallas try that trick…

Mr. Golden writes about how, beginning in the 1970s, Duke – which comes out of this book looking awful – targeted the wealthy parents of Dallas prep schools because the university was looking for rich families to turn into donors, no matter how mediocre their kids’ academic records were. “We really worked Dallas,” a former Duke associate director of admissions told Mr. Golden. It was all part of Duke’s hunt for members of the “socioeconomically high-end.”

It’s also easily the most personal column I’ve written. (Not that there’s much competition for that title.)
Golden’s book, titled The Price of Admission, is really quite terrific. I say that as a reader, but even more so as a journalist — it’s remarkable how much he gets people to open up about some fairly nefarious things. (I guess they don’t give Pulitzers to people who can’t report.)
In case you think Golden can do this sort of reporting because he’s “of the rich” — what you might call the Dominick Dunne Theory of Reporting on the Aristocracy — it ain’t so. I’ve met him a number of times, and he’s kinda schlubby.

yale shmale

Yale Shmale! (Also, more directly, here. Note that the Canadian university in question has already changed its web graphic to be less critical of my alma mater’s most powerful alumnus.)
When a fellow Yalie emailed me that link, I misread it at first. “Yale She-male?” I thought. “I don’t remember that from my days in New Haven.”

buyouts at the dmn

For those interested: Here’s a [partial] list of my coworkers taking the buyout from my employer. It’s a sad list, including a lot of good people, a number of my friends, one ex-girlfriend, and even a few crabwalk.com readers. (Not to mention the guy who sat to my left, the woman who sat to his left, and the guy who sits behind me.)
But as painful as it is, we’ll keep publishing a damned good newspaper. No question about that.
Meanwhile, thanks to my anonymous coworker.

erin mckean and authors at google

Friend-of-Crabwalk Erin McKean lectures on dictionaries at Google. Watch out, toward the end, for her globally rare use of the words “doggy dog” without the phrasal prefix “Snoop.”

Google Video, perhaps chagrined by its ongoing mind-share defeat to YouTube, has posted a whole bunch of interesting videos in its Authors@Google series. I enjoyed the Seth Godin talk; others I might recommend (‘though I haven’t yet sat through them) include chimpaphile Jane Goodall, various Dave Eggers hangers-on, double-helix-discoverer James Watson, historian Simon Schama, famous-in-D.C. Gene Sperling, China writer Peter Hessler, and conservative bête noire George Soros.

how i backup

(Apologies in advance for the wonkiness of this post. Feel free to skip it if backup plans aren’t your cup of tea.)
Backing up your computer: You know you should do it, but you don’t. I only got religion a year or two ago, but now I’m pretty anal about keeping extra copies of everything. (The thought of my digital life — including every email I’ve sent or received since 1993 — disappearing is shattering.) Here’s my system, presented in the hopes that it might be useful to someone.
My computer: I’ve got two internal hard drives, a 160GB boot drive named Huey and a 250GB drive named Earl. Earl holds my MP3s; Huey holds everything else. It’s a Power Mac G5 running 10.4.7.
The most important content on my computer is my email. It’s also the part of my computer most likely to change from day to day, so if I lost a few days worth of material in a disk crash, email would be the most likely to be lost. So:
First Line of Defense: A nightly backup of my email on Huey to Earl. I do it with Email Backup, a dead-cinch-easy way to automate the process. (It looks like it’s just a front end to a cron job, but hey, it’s free and one fewer step.) This way, if Huey goes belly-up one day, I’d lose at most one day’s worth of mail.
But what about the rest of Huey? There’s tons of important stuff on there. Or what if Earl goes? So:
Second Line of Defense: A weekly backup of both Huey and Earl to external Firewire drives. I use the great SuperDuper for this, since it’s perfect for incremental backups. (In other words, you don’t have to recopy the entire hard drive each time you back up — SuperDuper can tell which files have been updated and copy only those.) Huey and Earl each get their own backup drives (250GB Porsche drives named Speedy and Dorian). And the backup drives are bootable — meaning that if Huey suddenly dissolves, Speedy can take its place in less than 30 seconds.
A lot of folks would have SuperDuper do its backup automatically. But that would require me to keep Speedy and Dorian powered on and mounted all the time. I don’t like that idea for a couple reasons: It would put a lot of wear on the drives and it would leave the drives to something external and bad (hackers, lightning, etc.) that could screw up my computer.
Instead, I leave the external drives turned off. But I set up my Yahoo! Calendar to send me an email at midnight every Sunday morning reminding me to backup. All it takes is turning on the drives and a couple clicks in SuperDuper. On average, it takes about two minutes to backup Earl and about 20 to backup Huey. But you can go on merrily working while it works.
So, I’ve got a complete backup of my entire computer that’s at most a week old. But…that backup is sitting in the same room as my computer. What if my apartment catches fire? What if burglars break in and steal my computer — without thoughtfully leaving my backup drives behind?
I hope to eventually get a completely off-site backup in here. Even broadband speed isn’t fast enough for reasonable online remote storage of 500GB of stuff. I’ve thought about backing up my MP3s to offsite DVDs, but damn does that sound daunting. (At 216GB, it’d take 47 DVDs at the moment.) I could buy another set of backup hard drives and keep them at my office. But I’m not there yet.
So, again, I fall back on the backup that’s most important to me:
Third Line of Defense: A monthly backup of my email to Amazon S3. For those unfamiliar, S3 is basically online disk space that Amazon rents out to anyone who wants it. (“It gives any developer access to the same highly scalable, reliable, fast, inexpensive data storage infrastructure that Amazon uses to run its own global network of web sites.”) There are a million potential uses for it, but backup is one of the most obvious.
Accessing AWS directly takes a lot more programming mojo than I have. But a program called Jungle Disk provides a usable front-end (for Mac, Windows, or Linux). On a Mac, at least, you log on to the web space as you would a normal local server, and you copy and paste in the Finder as you would anything else. Jungle Disk handles the actual uploading. (It’s a goofy Mac app — normal interface cues don’t work — but it’s wholly functional.) I get another email from Yahoo! Calendar on the first of every month reminding me to backup.
(A hint for Apple Mail users: Zip your mail directory (~/Library/Mail/) before you upload it. Apple Mail stores each message as a separate file for Spotlight purposes, and all those tiny files really add to the size of your upload and the time of your backup. And if you really want to get everything email-related, you should also backup ~/Library/Mail Downloads/, ~/Library/Application Support/AddressBook, and ~/LIbrary/Preferences/com.apple.mail.plist.)
Now, Jungle Mail is dog slow. It takes almost an hour to upload my complete email archive, which compresses to about 130MB. You can’t do incremental backups, so it wouldn’t work well for huge data stores. But it all happens in the background, so you’re free to do other things. (Like write this post, for instance.) And it works. And if a dirty bomb explodes in my closet tomorrow, my email will be safe on some server in Seattle.
One incredibly small caveat: Amazon S3 isn’t free. They charge for both storage space and upload bandwidth. But the prices are laughably cheap. My bill last month: $0.07. The month before: $0.05. At this rate, my total outlay will reach one American dollar sometime in early 2008.

more cheating stories

Here’s my story from Saturday’s front page:

The Texas Education Agency is leaning toward severing ties with the company it hired to look for cheating on the TAKS test, in part because the results have generated negative publicity for the state.

The agency also has some concerns about some methods used by the company, Caveon, officials said.

“I don’t have a lot of confidence in them anymore,” state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said. “Right now, I’m sure not inclined to ask Caveon for anything anymore.”

And here’s my story from Sunday’s front page — also about cheating, but probably much more interesting to the casual reader:

It’s the sort of case you might expect Encyclopedia Brown to tackle.

Two kids seem to have cheated on Professor Harpp’s final exam. Can he prove the culprits did it — before it’s too late?

But when McGill University professor David Harpp suspected some of his students were up to no good, he didn’t hire a boy detective for a shiny new quarter. He did the job himself.

He devised a statistical method to determine whether two students were copying test answers from each other. He found that, on a 98-question multiple-choice test, the pair of students had 97 answers exactly the same — including 23 wrong answers.

Confronted with the evidence, the students confessed.

To the untrained observer, it may seem strange that cheating can be reliably detected with statistics, formulas and math, as Texas officials have hired an outside firm to do. But decades of research around the world have produced methods that prove quite effective at smoking out cheaters in ways even the best proctors often can’t.

With a sidebar, another sidebar, and a graphic.
Unfortunately, I failed in my attempts to work Bugs Meany into the narrative. (I’d also like to point out that Encyclopedia Brown was preceded — by several years! — by Brains Benton.)