Am I inconsistent?

I won’t pretend that I don’t have any illegal software installed on my computers, but here are a couple of scenarios that have occurred at work recently.

A student came to me with his new laptop and asked me “Can I have a copy of Office 2007?”

I thought for a minute and said, “Um, why? What do you have right now?”

“They installed Office 2003 when I purchased the laptop.”

“So, what’s wrong with that version.”

Silence.

“Is there anything in particular that you need to do with Office 2007? What are the features that are different.”

Still silence, and some uncomfortable looks.

“It’s easier to use,” the student says finally, at which point I decide it’s time to be mean and have some fun.

“Wait. Let me see if I understand you correctly,” I start. “You’re telling me that you want me to steal for you–you want me to engage in criminal activities–just to make your life easier?”

More recently, I observed two students lingering over my colleague’s desk with their laptops in hand, waiting for “DJ Orissa” (that’s the nickname I’ve given my colleague) to finish up whatever he was working on.

“What’s going on here?” I ask them.

“We’ve come to get SPSS from Jena Sir,” they say, totally straight-faced.

“Really?” I ask, then look over at DJ. “What are you going to use SPSS for? Why do you need it?” (These are first term students, by the way, most of whom have only recently started exploring quantitative analysis, research, economics, and so on.)

Here, again, some silence. And now, DJ is also looking at the students to see if they are able to give a good reason that they should be given the software. When they can’t, DJ and I decide that perhaps they don’t need the software. Amy, who is also there at work with me, points them to Wikipedia’s article comparing different statistical software, and we decide that if they do some homework and can give us convincing reasons to give them illegal software, we might begin to take them more seriously.

But, am I being inconsistent in my actions here? On the one hand, I have illegal software installed on my computers (although, for the most part, my work computer is illegal-software free) but on the other hand, I won’t let my students come to me and get illegal software to install on their computer. I don’t really think that I’m being inconsistent though. Part of the reason I have this software is for my own “self-teaching” and I only download the software that I really think has things I’d like to learn how to do. Then, after figuring something out with commercial software, I look to open-source and freeware to see if I can replicate the effect with them. That, for example, is how I came to love OpenOffice.org.

My exploration of software, until recently, had nothing to do with statistical tools. Then, Amy had to go to the US for a couple of weeks and needed my help doing some random sampling for her (using Stata). At that point, she had a system with some four or five steps and three or four files being created. I figured there must be a better way, so I downloaded R to see what it was all about. It turns out that in R, something like that is a simple single line of syntax.

So, coming back now to the students situation, I asked DJ Orissa what the students would need to do.

“Well,” he said, “SPSS makes it really easy to create a correlation matrix between your variables. You can do it in Excel also, but it is not as easy. And, SPSS will also give you the degree of significance for each pair of variables in the matrix.” With that, I asked him to send me some data and a copy of the matrix generated by SPSS and I said I’d explore some alternatives and get back to him.

Back to R now. Getting a correlation matrix is a piece of cake. Unfortunately, significance is not included in their table. So, I hunt a little bit more and find out that you can download an additional library for R (R is totally modular in that way) and get what you need in a matter of seconds. That, and you can create a nice scatter-plot matrix that lets you visualize your data. Pretty spiffy.

But, as Amy pointed out, nobody likes syntax (which is too bad, because even with SPSS, most of its power probably lies in the things you can do if you learn the syntax) but syntax is required for working with R. So, are there even other alternatives? How about OpenStat? For someone who has used SPSS, the interface (menu order and so on) are pretty easy to learn quickly, and, while you don’t get the same nice tables that you will get from SPSS, you get all the same information in a matter of mouse clicks.

Amy had another observation though, and it’s the self-perceived “higher status” that accompanies someone who says they have SPSS–even if all that they know how to do is enter data into the program. At the Academy, you are some kind of data-god if you claim to know how to use SPSS, and you are practically the god-of-all-gods if you also have a copy of the ridiculously overpriced (almost $1,800!) software. When Amy mentioned her observation, I remembered a student from the eight batch of PDM students who actually put on his resume that he knew how to use SPSS. I doubt that he knew how to do very much though….

But this gets me back to whether I’m consistent or not. A lot of times on my weekends, I like to download some new software and figure it out. I’ve actually gotten pretty efficient at it, to the point that, with many programs, I am able to figure out how to use it pretty effectively within a day.

On the other hand, the students that come to me asking for illegal software typically belong to the “95%” portion of the “955” rule that you hear about common programs like Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel. The “rule” (which is probably mythical, but I’m beginning to think it’s true) essentially says that 95% of the users of such software only know how to use 5% of the software’s features. In other words, most of the people who write “Microsoft Office” under the computer skills portion of their resume probably really mean to write that they know how to create a file, type, do some rudimentary formatting like making text bold or italic, cut and paste, and that’s about it.

Now, if some students had come to me and gotten a copy of OpenOffice.org or R or Scribus or the Gimp or Photoscape or [insert name of other open-source or freeware product here] and found that they really had outgrown the product, maybe I would be a little bit more open minded toward their thievery….

By the way, SPSS is now PASW now that IBM has bought it.

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