19 February 2011

What's in a title

Some people find that my family name is too long. Not infrequently, US supermarket cashiers used to  ask whether I had difficulty learning how to write my name when I was little (!)

But the length of my name (20 letters) in comparison to "Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg" (89 letters, not counting spaces) is small.

If you've never heard of this fellow, besides your obvious guess that he is noble, he is also Christian (Catholic, to be exact), he is a member of a political party with a religious name, the "Christian Social Union of Bavaria", the current minister of defence in Germany, married to an equally noble person, Countess Stephanie of Bismarck-Schönhausen, great-great-granddaughter of Otto von Bismarck.

Besides his fame, he has very recently become infamous too as he was accused of incorporating numerous excerpts from previously published literature in his doctoral thesis, without crediting the sources. See here and here.

Of course, he refuses this. And he is backed up by Angela Merkel. Of course.

According to BBC, ZDF television website dubbed him "Zu Copyberg", Financial Times Deutschland named him "Baron Cut-and-Paste", and Berlin daily Tageszeitung nicknamed him "Zu Googleberg".

The plagiarism allegation arose when a law professor from Bremen University began writing a review of Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg's thesis, using the Internet. Most likely, the wonderful Internet helped Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg finish his PhD (and do something more important, politics) and also the Bremen prof. who easily discovered plagiarism by googling Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg's thesis.

Are we surprised?
No. (i) There is a strong correlation between someone being a politician and being dishonest. A colleague from the US once told me "I don't understand why people are so surprised every time a scandal about a politician is revealed; I'd be surprised if the opposite happened." (ii) I personally wouldn't trust anyone who belongs to a party with a religious name. (iii) The titles! You can have as long name as you wish, but it is so much more comfortable to have a long name, especially one that uses both VON and ZU (I've actually never heard of that before), so much so that, if you're the holder of such a name, you probably feel more important than others and, hence, less vulnerable, and can justify to yourself to plagiarize (a wee bit) in order to achieve a noble purpose.

Back to the titles, however. Although I have no proof about the following claim (just empirical evidence) I feel that people who are von's and zu's and people who attach lots of name titles after their surname (Prof. Dr. Qxqz Xpliwar, BSc, MSc, PhD, FFS, FRBS) do so because they feel that their titles equip them with a certain shield. Even though they will refute any claim of importance to titles, the mere fact that they carry them on their web sites, business cards and at their doors, feels (to me) like an attempt to impress and, therefore, make their lives easier. Imagine, for example, a professor in a university with lots of titles (of nobility or academic ones). Suppose, for instance, that this professor, at some point, got tired of learning anything new in his/her field, or doing anything new, and started teaching/researching the same old stuff forever. In such a case, titles help. They help because it is more difficult to accuse someone with lots of titles, rather than someone with none. As a matter of fact, certain combinations of titles make it obvious (to me) that they are used precisely for this purpose. For what is the purpose of, say, preceding "PhD" with "MSc" and "BSc"? If you see a name, followed by "PhD" only, would you think that this person got a PhD without first getting a lower degree? (If so, then this person is brilliant.) But the bottomline of using lots of titles excessively is (in my opinion again) insecurity.

Having said that, of course, I do not want to trivialize important awards given to people for real work, awards which lead to a distinction with a name title. Life-time achievements are, and rightly so, rewarded. What I am saying is that acquired titles and the use of excessive name titles are nothing but a sign of insecurity and incompetence (in my opinion).

So, no, I'm not surprised that Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg is accused of plagiarism.


  1. Tangentially: I think the convention is that you shouldn't put, for example, both BSc and MSc after your name. That would be to claim to be both a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science, but the first is redundant because Master outranks Bachelor.

    Similarly, for example, the combination of MPhil and PhD.

    However, you might be, for example, BA MSc PhD. Then you are a Bachelor of Arts, a Master of Science and a Doctor of Philosophy. All very complementary :)

  2. P.S. in Oxford there are lots of people with "MADPhil" after their names. And actuaries have a tendency to claim "MAFIA" qualifications.

  3. James, very funny!

    Speaking of name title clashes, I have seen BSc and MSc together. The rule is: if you have too many titles, better be careful if you want to use all of them because, as the fundamental theorem of probability shows, the chance of a clash is high.

    Oh, by the way,
    what's the difference between an insurance company actuary and a mafia actuary?

    An insurance company actuary can tell you how many people will die this year, a mafia actuary can name them.


  4. What are you on about?

    -Joseph Edmund Gerard Thomas Luigi Marcello Sandwichani Garbonzo Humpernickle Ponzi Higgins, BE (Elect.), M.Sc. (C.S.), Ph.D. (EECS)., Co-Winner of Coolest Car in the Pack award.

  5. Oh,Anonymus,he must feel "great" and "happy" with that long name and many titles...How happy I am with my short name,not having the pressure,burden on my shoulders to act like a goddess or half-a-goddess and may make human mistakes in my little human life.

  6. Constadina Passa1 Mar 2011, 13:39:00

    I would like to inform you that Mr. Copy-Paste was finally ‘forced” to quit today from the position of the German Minister of Defence... probably he is back to his castle whipping the person he paid to “write” the doctoral thesis on his behalf (I personally don’t believe that he wasted time even to do the copy-pasting himself)… but this is the cost you have to pay if you are arrogant..



What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
(Our hours are minutes when we wait to learn and centuries when we know what is to be learnt.) --António Machado

Αγεωμέτρητος μηδείς εισίτω.
(Those who do not know geometry may not enter.) --Plato

Sapere Aude! Habe Muth, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!
(Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!) --Kant