Wednesday, September 25, 2019

John de Courcy & The Infinite Monkey Theorem – a case of plagiarism in popular publishing

John de Courcy arriving at Carrickfergus Castle (Photo: Author)

When I first lodged a complaint of plagiarism against Prof Andrew Bevan and a number of his colleagues at UCL and University of Portsmouth I had no real idea where it was going to go [read more here]. I certainly had no inclination that it would leave me with the reputation as a staunch advocate for the rights of the plagiarised. Since the publication of that piece, I have been honoured to receive the trust of several researchers who have shared their experiences. I have attempted to listen with compassion and give the best, most constructive advice I possibly could. All the while my disgust at plagiarism and plagiarisers has only intensified and grown. It was in this guise that my dear friend, Dr Nic Wright, recently contacted me. He had been doing some light reading on John de Courcy, that well-known Anglo-Norman knight and general trouble maker who arrived in Ireland at the end of the 12th century and went on to take large tracts of land in Ulster, become vastly wealthy, before losing everything to Hugh de Lacy and ending his days in poverty and penury. It’s a gripping tale that has often been told for academic and popular audiences alike. Admittedly, there are only so many facts to go around and the story has been told so many times. Even still Dr Nic felt like he’d read one particular passage before. Not just a description of the same events – he’s actually read it before! He picked up the other de Courcy book and after a bit of searching came across the passage he was after.

Have a read for yourself – First, here’s an excerpt (pp 63-64) from Steve Flanders’ 2015 book John De Courcy: Prince of Ulster:

“John had not been idle since seizing Downpatrick. He had ordered his men to build a temporary fort within the wide-ranging ramparts at the top of the hill, where John founded the cathedral. His fort was planned to prevent surreptitious incursions and thefts as well as to provide security for John’s foreign invading force in the midst of Irish territory. Rapidly-built, it was designed for routine defence, but not to forestall an army. It could not withstand a siege. John had not had much of a chance to amass a stockpile of food and his enclosure did not contain a source of fresh water. He was isolated in a foreign country controlled by the hostile Irish keen to defend their own land. Lastly, but most importantly, the circuit around the top of the Hill of Down – Cathedral Hill – was far too long for John to defend, as it would require him to spread his forces very thinly. The hill fort did not suit the Anglo-Normans’ method of waging war nor was it a position that could be adequately defended. To be victorious, John needed to fight the Irish on land of his choosing and on his terms. The Anglo-Norman army required room to fight. Its cavalry could only be effective on firm ground and with a sufficient distance to build up a gallop for a crushing shock assault, if required. Similarly, the armoured men-at-arms and lighter infantry needed to deploy on good ground. Ideally, this would have a slight downward slope towards the enemy, so as to give each man sufficient space in which to fight and to raise them higher than the attackers. The Normans did not use the compact shield wall of tightly-packed heavy infantry characteristic of the Saxons defeated at Hastings a century earlier. They needed room to swing their swords. Such an open formation, in which each relied on his compatriots on either side, could only be achieved through discipline, experience and trust, and this the Normans at Downpatrick had in abundance. Whether it was justified or not, it was the cornerstone of their own sense of superiority. In addition, the Anglo-Norman archers also needed space to fight. They would be much less effective tightly packed into a confined fort. Their strength lay in their ability to produce rapid missile fire with arrows landing on the enemy, in flight, and about to be fired. In addition, they could move to new positions as quickly as a running man. A competent commander could use this flexibility to bring their firepower down on the enemy wherever it was needed. Moreover, apart from such responsiveness, archers could keep a retreating enemy in range by following up as they fell back or ran away. John used his archers very efficiently at Downpatrick.”

Now, for comparison, please direct your attention to an excerpt (pp 12-14) from Michael Sheane’ 2017 work The Conqueror of the North: John De Courcy’s Campaigns in Medieval Ulster:

“De Courcy had not been idle since capturing Downpatrick. He had ordered his men to build a temporary fort within the wide-ranging ramparts at the top of the hill, where he had founded the cathedral. His fort was made to stop incursions and thefts as well as to provide security for de Courcy’s invading force in the midst of the Gaelic territory. It was rapidly-built. It was designed for routine defence, but not to stop an army. It could not withstand a siege. De Courcy had not had much of a chance to amass a stockpile of food; his enclosure did not contain a source of fresh water. He was isolated in a foreign land controlled by warring bands of hostile Irish keen to defend their own land. Lastly, and most importantly, the circuit around the top of the Hill of Down – Cathedral Hill – was much too strung out de Courcy to defend, for it would require him to spread his forces quite thinly. The hill fort did not suit the Anglo-Normans’ method of waging war; nor was it a position that could be easily defended. To be victorious, John required to fight the Irish on land of his choosing and on his terms. The Normans army needed room to fight. Their cavalry could only be effective on firm ground with sufficient distance to build up a gallop for a crushing assault, if required. The armoured men of war of the light infantry needed to deploy on good ground. Ideally this would have a slight downward slope. The terrain gave each defender sufficient space in which to fight and a slope to raise them higher than the attackers. The Normans did not use the compact shield wall of tightly packed heavy infantry, characteristic of the Saxons’ defeat at Hastings a century earlier. They needed room to swing their swords. Such an open formation could only be achieved by discipline, experience and trust, and this the Normans at Downpatrick had in good measure. Whether it was justified or not, it was the cornerstone of their own sense of superiority. In addition the Norman archers also required space to fight. They would be much less effective tightly packed into a confined fort. Their strength lay in their ability to produce rapid missile fire with arrows landing on the enemy, arrows in flight, and arrows about to be fired. In addition they could be moved to new positions as quickly as a running man. A competent commander could deploy this flexibility to bring their firepower down on the enemy wherever it was needed. Moreover, archers could keep a retreating enemy in range by following up as they ran away. De Courcy had used his archers with great effect at Downpatrick.”

I know it’s asking a lot to beg a reader to critically assess two texts like this. Indeed, my first reaction was ‘sure … there seems to be a bit of overlap … I suppose’. I reckoned that if you could quantify the similarity, you’d be in a better position to make a judgment on the degree of overlap between them. While the form of plagiarism I’d been exposed to was the use of my work with due acknowledgment, this appeared to be of a different order – the close copying of entire paragraphs between the two texts. There had to be a technological solution available! In fact, there were several. I first converted the scanned pages into text files and then ran them through Diffchecker, a free, online resource that compares and contrasts two texts. In the image below, Flanders’ text is on the left, Sheane’s on the right. The first ting to note is that there are 45 removals from one text that are apparently paralleled with 44 additions to the other. For example, ‘de Courcy’ is frequently replaced with either ‘John’ of simply ‘he’. There are verb substitutions that include swapping ‘seizing’ for ‘capturing’ and ‘use’ for ‘deploy’, or ‘forestall’ and ‘stop’. In many cases, the changes are minimal and are limited to the addition or excision of a comma. Thus, ‘Ideally’ becomes (or was changed from) ‘Ideally,’.


Although this seemed to present a robust prima facie case, I wanted something more analytical that could actually quantify the similarity. This I found in the Copyleaks site – another free-to-use online resource. In the image below the Sheane text is on the left. Here the results indicate that of the 459 words of the Sheane text, 415 are copied in the Flanders text, indicating a 90% similarity between the two texts. While I bear a righteous dislike of pie charts, the one presented as part of the Copyleaks output (with four categories) is just on the edge of acceptability. Nonetheless, it is clear that the analysis indicates that 80% of the text is classified as ‘identical’. A further 6% is regarded as ‘Minor Changes’ and 4% being ‘Related Meaning’. The remaining 10% of the text is unique to the Flanders text.


Well, there’s no denying that they’re similar, but I was reminded of the Infinite Monkey Theorem that while admitting the vast improbability of a group of monkeys eventually producing the entire works of Shakespeare, it is not zero. I wondered what the chances of even short phrases being randomly composed in the same way between the two authors may be. A colleague suggested that, while not without limitations, one of the online passphrase strength checkers might provide a useful model for assessment. To this end, I selected three short phrases that were identical between the two texts and ran them through three passphrase checkers.

Phrases: 11-15 words
A: “He had ordered his men to build a temporary fort within the wide-ranging ramparts”
B: “fight the Irish on land of his choosing and on his terms
C: “Their strength lay in their ability to produce rapid missile fire

Strength checkers:
I: How Secure is my Password (https://howsecureismypassword.net/)
III: Passwordmeter (http://www.passwordmeter.com/)

The results of this were that Password Strength Checkers II and III regarded all three as ‘Very Strong’. However, Strength Checker attempted to quantify exactly how long it would take a determined hacker to crack these using brute force attacks. In order, these were 3,919,318,814,427,268 Quadragintillion Years; 37 Septenvigintillion Years; and 2 Trestrigintillion Years. That’s a lot of time!

So … we can be satisfied that there are effectively the same text and are vanishingly unlikely to have been created through random means. But who is the plagiariser and who is the offended party? Well, that should be simple, shouldn’t it? One book has a publication date of 2015 and the other was published in 2017. Apparently not! To make the publishers and authors aware of this situation, and to allow them the opportunity to comment, I reached out to the publishers and waited for their responses. The first back was Rose Nicholas, Sales Manager for Arthur H Stockwell Ltd, representing Sheane. Although his book has the later publication date the email from A H Stockwell reads (in part) “However, we can advise that we have contacted Mr Sheane who has confirmed that the work within the book is his own.”. A little later Malcolm Johnston, Head of Commercial Publishing for Colourpoint Books and Blackstaff Press replied. Although, seemingly, more concerned with why I was pursuing this issue and where I would seek to have it published, he noted that they were already aware of the 'apparent plagiarism'. Based on these responses, I am reluctant to call out one party over the other as the victim versus the villain.





Even if neither publisher is (at least outwardly) concerned about this situation, the case remains that plagiarism is wrong and should be called out at every opportunity. Plagiarism is inherently unethical because it is a form of theft. One person steals the work of another and seeks to pass it off as their own. Just as much with popular publication as within the academic sphere, this is of great importance as the plagiarising authors receive tangible benefit from that stolen work – either as money from sales or buffing to their reputation and prestige. There is no escape from it – stealing another person’s work is the same as taking money from their pocket or diminishing their good name and prestige.


Notes
Dr Nic also happens to have a (totally not plagiarised) book available: Lore of the Land. A free digital version is available [here]. It can also be found by searching for 'Lore of the Land' on the Northern Ireland Community Archive site (www.niarchive.org). Physical copies are also available for free from Visitor Information Centres across the area, or by contacting Museum Services at cms[at aymbol]causewaycoastandglens[dot]gov[dot]uk


The Lore of the Land project was part of Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council’s Understanding Our Area programme, delivered by Museum Services, with funding from the European Union’s PEACE IV Programme, managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB).

There is an irony, not lost on me, that a search for one book on Amazon lists the other under the heading of “Customers who bought this item also bought” … yes, but not in the way you might first imagine!

I cannot over-stress the importance of a good passphrase (as opposed to a password). Use resources like those listed above to test their strength or follow the good advice in Randall Munroe’s wonderful xkcd comic.


Wednesday, September 18, 2019

My Dark Places


This is not an archaeology post, but I hope you’ll read it anyway.



In August this year the magnificent Punk survivors Stiff Little Fingers finished their current tour on home ground at the ‘Putting the Fast in Belfast’ festival at Custom House Square. This is the third such event and I’ve been lucky enough to attend them all. Going back before that they’ve been playing one particular song since 2014 and always with a similar themed introduction. I though it was time that Jake Burns’ words were allowed to speak beyond SLF fans to whatever little audience I can provide. Here’s what he said in Belfast on August 24th 2019:

“The next tune was never supposed to see the light of day. It was written just for something for me to keep to myself. But we went ahead and recorded it and I’m really glad we did and I’ll tell you for why. It’s a song I wrote to deal with the fact that I suffer from depression. It’s a thing that’s bugged me for abut four or five years now, if not longer in fact.

I basically wrote down everything that I went through to remind myself that there was light at the end of the tunnel because for some reason we don’t like to talk about this stuff. We don’t like to talk about any form of mental anguish or whatever, and particularly men. Men are the world’s fucking worst at bottling stuff up. To the point that last year in the UK alone over 4,000 young men committed suicide and simply because they didn’t feel that they had anybody they could talk to.

So, here’s the thing. If you do suffer from depression or any form of mental anguish at all – for Fuck’s Sake talk about it! Talk to somebody about it, will ya?

It’s the first step to getting well.

This is a song called My Dark Places”

Listen on YouTube here


UK Mental Health charities include Mind and Mental Health UK - talk to them & get help if you need it.




Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Clowning about in Galway | Excavating an archive from Summer 1994





This is not really an archaeology post, so feel free to ignore!




A few years back, I came into possession of a USB negative scanner. I kinda bought it on a whim from a friend and, once it had arrived, I thought it was going to be another gadget that 'I must get around to using', but would be destined to sit there gathering dust. Part of my regret in buying it was focused on the fact that I had no real idea where my surviving collection of negatives had migrated to over the years. They were probably in the house ... somewhere. I had a memory of seeing them several years previously, but where they were now was anyone's guess. No more than an hour later I moved a cardboard box that had been sitting happily and unobtrusively in the middle of my office floor and found - much to my surprise - that it contained pretty much my entire surviving archive of my non-archaeology photography. I took the coincident appearance of the negatives as a sign that I should scan them and make them available in some format. I've basically started with the most recent (at the beginning of the folder) and am making my way back, scanning as I go. In some ways it is quite like an archaeological excavation, peeling back layers deposited on layers. Instead of various shades of brown silty-clay filling a variety of pits and ditches, it's a lever-arch file of (broadly) chronologically deposited negatives and contact prints. From what I can see, it spans the period from sometime in 1993 to the summer of 1994. Going back through these is as much an exercise in personal excavation as it is one of reminiscence. Rather than archaeological artefacts of bone or pottery, these record the personal artefacts of the people in my life, the places I lived and the subjects I found aesthetically appealing. The physical quality of the material is also variable - some images are terribly dark and largely unusable as I experimented with a home darkroom for a while - this was not the roaring success I had hoped! Others have scrawled notes, giving a variety of detail on locations and subjects, though this does seem to fade out as time progressed.






The reason that my carefully catalogued collection of negatives spans this particular period of 1993 to 1994 is that it represents a time in my life when I was obsessed with becoming a great photographer. I finished my BA in archaeology in 1991 and was ... drifting. I'd had a few archaeology-related jobs, but a year or so spent in Belmullet, Co. Mayo was relatively well-paid and allowed me to buy some decent equipment and the job got me out into the countryside to take photos and improve my skills (I still have the ridiculously expensive Manfrotto tripod that I bought during this phase). By 1994 I was nominally back in university 'working on my Masters'. This was a convenient untruth and was much more palatable than admitting that while I was reading everything about ringforts I could get my hands on, I wasn't exactly doing it in a structured way and I certainly wasn't doing any actual writing. The collection of hand-annotated maps and notes under my bed was thick with dust and neglect and did not resemble a viable research endeavour in any real sense. Throughout, I was taking photographs and was rarely seen without at least one camera to hand. As I was serious about my photography, I largely took black and white with occasional forays into slides (but only ever called them 'transparencies'). To underline my innate seriousness about all things photographic, I bulk purchased my B&W film in 30m lengths and rolled my own. Thinking back on my appearance at the time - I was an apparition in an old vintage tweed jacket, giant ginger beard (occasionally with braids), a dubious taste in millinery & waistcoats, and was regularly found sporting a tipped Café Crème cigarillo. Today I'd probably be castigated as an 'hipster' ('angelheaded' or otherwise) ... but that was just Galway in the mid 90s ... any assembled gathering could boast half a dozen guys on the same end of that particular bell curve. The only discernable difference was that I was more socially awkward than most. And I wondered why I found it difficult to meet women?





In 1994 renowned Portuguese choreographer Madalena Victorino was invited to come to Galway as part of the city's Arts Festival. She assembled a cast of local would-be actors, dancers, and passing tourists and informed them that they were not going to be transformed into a troupe of black-clad, white-faced, red-nosed clowns. They were instead going to be transformed into a troupe of black-clad, white-faced, red-nosed soulful clowns ... in bowler hats. As far as I can work out, the performances started out around The King's Head pub, but centred on the intersection of Cross Street and Quay Street and involved mime, music, and waving bed sheets. This was followed by a short procession down to the River Corrib for theatrical lamentations while peering into the water below. I'm not sure how many performances they did, but they turn up on all or parts of four rolls of B&W film, along with a handful of surviving transparencies colour slides (I'm pretty sure I took more than three, but that's all I can find). During one of these performances I realised that I was standing right beside the well-known (and remarkably talented) photographer Joe O'Shaughnessy. I didn't think particularly much of it until the following day when one of his photos appeared on the front page of The Irish Times. It was almost identical in every respect to one I'd taken at the same time ... with the exception that his was better in every respect ... focus, framing, just the right moment ... perfection! This is why his photographs appear on the front page of the IT and mine have only been seen by a handful of people in 25 years. It was around then that I realised that - with vast practice and dedication - I might eventually become a decentish photographer, but I'd never be the type of 'great' I thought I wanted to be. Instead, I decided than my future lay in archaeology ... make of that what you will! Twenty-plus years later, I only own 'entry level' cameras and the only thing I'd consider to be specialist or 'high end' equipment is my beloved Manfrotto tripod. When I put my mind to it, I can even occasionally capture something interesting! But what we have here are the efforts of a 23 year old, with his head filled with Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-BressonDiane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Dorothea Langeand Robert Mapplethorpe, desperate to find his own 'vision'.





Except ... looking back on these now, I see that what has developed into my personal approach to photography was already there ... I just didn't realise it yet! These days, the driving force of my photography is about repetition and reiteration. Simply put, I reckon that anyone with any degree of ability can point a camera at an interesting scene and push the shutter release. With skill (and luck) the result will be a 'good' photograph (however one might define that). But what if you come back a second day? Will you still find something exciting and worthwhile to capture then? How about on day three ... or day 20? How would you feel photographing the same subject a decade later? Over 20 years that's where my photographic philosophy has gone ... for me it's a test of creative endurance. Can I still conjure the personal strength to be enthused about the subject? Can I find something new to to see in it and to say about it? And the biggie: Will people still be interested? Admittedly, as a hobbyist, the last point is not a huge concern, but personal enthusiasm is difficult to sustain if you're the only one interested! Here, I came back to the same subject over, maybe, three days, trying different shots, exploring different vantage points (including hanging out the windows of the Ryder Son & Co. Accountants offices, much to the bemusement of Mr Ryder Senior). At the time it was no different to similar quests by others - to take that one 'perfect' shot that captured not just the event, but went beyond that and embodied the spirit of the city in festival. Few photographers ever manage to produce such images - even the very best - and I was never going to be among their number. There are no 'perfect' images in this collection. But, to be honest, two and a half decades later ... some of these aren't all that bad!


Joe Shaughnessy & I stood side-by-side photographed these two performers. His shot was remarkable and ended up on the front page of the Irish Times. Mine did not & there's a reason for that.




I hope you like them too ...




Notes:
Apart from the colour of the beard and the lack of smoking (over 12 years now), the only thing that's really changed is that I'm too fat to fit into my waistcoats ... I still carry a couple of cameras wherever I go & I'm still a hipster at heart!

In writing up these notes I'm reminded of a story told by my good friend Prof Howard Goldbaum. He photographed the 1967 anti-Vietnam War march in Washington and captured an image of a protester holding a flower in front of a group of soldiers with bayonets affixed to their rifles. It is an excellent image and should be better known. However, just a few feet away stood Marc Riboud (protégé of Henri Cartier-Bresson) who took an image of the same woman, flower, soldiers, and bayonets that not only captured the essence of that day in that place, but is considered to be one of the defining images of protest and one of the best photographs ever taken. You may compare the two side-by-side here.



I do genuinely adore my Manfrotto tripod. It has been at the centre of many of my photographic adventures – including ones where I’ve questioned my own judgment and sanity for attempting to haul it up mountainsides. Manfrotto tripods have a great reputation that justifies their hefty price tag. Part of that status comes from the solidity and sturdiness of their construction. They may not be the lightest thing you can haul about, but they’ll stay put in anything short of a hurricane. What I would like to note here is that this robustness extends beyond the purely photographic and that a Manfrotto can also be wielded as a defensive weapon. Once upon a time I was set upon by an aggressive drunk who attempted to kick his way through the door of my flat. Like a complete idiot, I reckoned that the best course of action was to open the door and attempt a rational discussion. This did not go well. My would-be attacker (enraged at my audacity at turning out the light in my flat & thus plunging him into darkness in the communal hallway) grabbed at me, succeeding in ripping all the buttons off my waistcoat (it was the 90s after all). As he pushed me back into my flat, I reached out and grabbed the first thing that came to hand … Manfrotto be thy name! If you know me in real life, you’ll be quite aware that I’m no fighter, so you’ll have an idea how much genuine fear it took for me to swing that thing. To the best of my memory, it took only a couple of blows that found their mark (more by luck than judgment) and my attacker was put to flight. It may not be foremost in the Manfrotto advertising strategy, but their tripods can certainly  be wielded defensively! 



< Full Collection Here

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Co Louth: Archaeological Objects at The British Museum

The British Museum holds 13 items identified as coming from Co Louth. The majority of these (4) are assigned to the Bronze Age, followed by the Early Medieval period (3). The most common object type represented are palstaves (3), followed by floor-tiles and spear-heads (2 each). Only two material types are represented in this assemblage: Metal (11) and Pottery (2).


Bronze Age: Metal items
Drogheda
spear-head
18551220.210
Copper alloy socketed spearhead, pegged.

Drogheda
palstave
18551220.230
Copper alloy palstave.

Drogheda
sword
18551220.200
Copper alloy sword fragment; only the butt and a portion of the blade survive. There are four rivet-holes in the butt. The edges of the blade have been badly damaged and towards the broken end the blade has been slightly bent.

Drogheda
spear-head
18551220.220
Copper alloy socketed spearhead, tip of blade only.


Early Bronze Age: Metal item
Drogheda
axe
WG.1538
Copper alloy flanged axe with thin, rounded butt. Decorated.


Middle Bronze Age: Metal items
Louth
palstave
OA.115
Copper alloy palstave, damaged.

Ardee (near)
palstave
18431226.130
Copper alloy palstave, small.


Early Medieval: Metal items
Drogheda (near)
ring brooch; pseudo-penannular brooch; penannular brooch
18540714.140
A cast silver brooch pin. The ring head has three sunken crescent-shaped panels, two triangular settings and a tongue-shaped knob. The pin is incised with an interlace pattern. The shank and end of the pin are missing.
8thC-9thC

Drogheda
penannular brooch
18540714.138
Leaded bronze penannular brooch with plain hoop and expanded animal head terminals; pin of oval section with flattened hooked head.
5thC-6thC

Drogheda
ringed pin
18680709.270
Copper alloy ringed pin; pin-head ribbed and hooked over ring; shank of oval to rectangular section, with incised diagonal cross.
9thC-10thC


Medieval; Early Medieval: Metal item
Mellifont Abbey
cross pendant
18590604.100
Gold pendant cross; expanded arms of gold sheet with filigree scrolls; central setting of blue glass in twisted wire; suspension loop.
12thC (?)


Late Medieval: Pottery items
Mellifont Abbey (?)
floor-tile
19470505.972
Earthenware floor tile, lead-glazed. Made in Cheshire (?)
14thC

Mellifont Abbey (?)
floor-tile
19470505.719
Earthenware floor tile, lead-glazed. Made in Ireland (?)
14thC-15thC