Miscellaneous F 

Janet laments the decline of library card catalogs and links to this tool for wallowing in card-file nostalgia.

When I was a student at UCSD, the library was slowly eliminating their collection of cards. All of the library records were available at computer terminals, and stacks of old cards were left by the terminals for use as scrap paper. I kept them as bookmarks on occasion and probably still have a few.

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Wikis fit wee locks 
As any regular reader will recall, I have misgivings about the epistemology of the Wikipedia. Other wikis inherit these misgivings, although it really depends on the details of what information the wiki is meant to provide and who participates in maintaining it.

Two recently-established wikis share information of use only to professional philosophers. As with any public wiki, there is the danger of deliberate misinformation. In what follows, however, I want to consider specific misgivings.

(Hat tip: I learned about both of these by way of TAR and LR.)


Some background for those who might not know: Most tenure-track philosophy jobs follow the same rough timetable. A job is advertised in Jobs for Philosophers in October or November. Applicants send in their materials. The hiring committee meets to select a dozen or so candidates for interviews. Interviews are conducted at the Eastern division APA meeting at the end of December. Three or four of the interviewees are selected for fly-outs in January or February.

Depending on the job, there may be 50 or 100 applicants. Committees are reading files at the same time as finishing their teaching for the semester, so decisions can be made very late. This can make for a real mess, and candidates get no timely information unless they are called for an interview.

The Academic Careers wiki began to provide candidates with more information in those tense days leading up to the APA. Schools that advertised in JFP were listed in a block on the page. Anyone who knew for certain that University X had begun to schedule APA interviews could edit the page and move University X out of the starting block and into a list of schools that had scheduled interviews. The change might be made by a candidate who had been contacted for an interview or by a member of the search committee at University X. I was on the search committee for our ancient position, and I updated the page myself when we had scheduled interviews.

There was some vandalism, of course, and it is hard to check the reliability of the page. Nevertheless, I think it provided a useful service. Given the short span between committee decisions and the APA, schools do not have a chance to notify candidates who don't make the cut. Yet candidates juggling several interviews or making last minute plans can profit by even modestly reliable rumors about which schools have or haven't made decisions yet.

There may be 50some people waiting for any information in the short window of time leading up the APA. The wiki might be updated by any of the dozen or so interviewees; they are apt to consult the wiki because they want to know about the 50 other jobs for which they applied. So the wiki seems likely to be updated by people who know what's going on.

Now the Careers wiki has entered a new phase. Organizers hope to trade information about which schools have or haven't scheduled fly-outs. There were only about a dozen interviewees for each position, and about a third of those will lead to fly-outs. So the community who can profit by the information is rather small. Moreover, time is less pressed. Matters are more fluid. Most schools will notify candidates who are no longer in contention, but candidates who are not flown out immediately might be flown out later if the first fly-outs are not to the department's satisfaction.

APA interviews are decisive, develop over a very short time, and affect a large group of people. Fly-outs are simply not like that. The wiki now seems ill-suited for conveying relevant information to people who genuinely need to know.


Delays and miscues at philosophy journals are a common problem. Some of the best craft knowledge one can acquire is about which journals reach their decisions quickly, which provide substantive, helpful referee reports, and which are editorial blackholes. Douglas Portmore has started a Philosophy Journal Information wiki designed to aggregate this sort of information in a public way.

Brian Weatherson worries that the wiki might collect unrepresentative information, if contributors preferentially record only their gripes and horror stories. One might also worry that the community of folks apt to contribute to a wiki is also a skewed sample. The Academic Careers wiki would function merely if its contributors were honest; the Journal wiki requires moreover that they be a representative, even-handed group.

It seems to me that a wiki is simply the wrong tool for aggregating this information. Contributors indicate how long the initial decision took, what the initial decision was, how long the final decision took, and so on. Each item of information is listed as a new item at the end of a list, and there is nothing to stop these lists from going out-of-synch.

This problem is compounded because the information is stored on one continuous page. It would have been more natural to give each journal its own entry. Then, any disputes that arose could be handled distinctly.

It will be interesting to see how this develops.


These examples illustrate wikis used in three different contexts. (1) The job market wiki leading up the the APA provided a reasonable way of disseminating information about interviews. (2) The job market wiki after the APA seems like a poor way of disseminating information about fly-outs. The pool of interested parties is rather small, the pool of informed potential contributors even smaller, and the information more subtle than the wiki's categories allow. (3) There is a real value in sharing the kind of information that the journal wiki is meant to aggregate, but the wiki seems like the wrong tool for the job.

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Year in review, bullet point meme edition 
I try to resist picking up too many blog memes, because none of you really care about my favorite color or what kind of salsa I might be. Today, I succumb.

The rule (via Janet) is to list the first sentence of your first blog post from each month of the preceding year. Then write a two sentence summary of the year that generalizes from these.

I: Writing about parapsychology, Paul Churchland argues that parapsychologists do nothing more than point to anecdotal results that are anomalous for materialism.

II: A few random remarks about forall x...

III: A propos of Owen Chamberlain's death, the New York Times describes his work in the 50s to experimentally demonstrate the existence of the anti-proton.

IV: I managed to do a good bit of writing in Budapest. I wrote this in a cafe just off Batthyany Square.

V: Dorothy uses the phrase 'pink collar worker' in today's Cat&Girl.

VI: Thanks to a kind invitation from Matt, I've been sitting in on a reading group here in San Diego.

VII: Aaron Schiller used forall x for a course he taught in the Spring.

VIII: In his TV show Good Eats and in his books, Alton Brown explains the physics and chemistry behind various recipes: what flour does at a molecular level, how butter makes biscuits fluffy, and so on.

IX: I am teaching Peirce's "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" in a course on American philosophy.

X: It has been about a year since I launched Footnotes on Epicycles; the one year mark is Wednesday.

XI: Three items of forall x news...

XII: I am sometimes envious of philosophers of language, since any interesting turn of phrase can become a datum.

To review: I seem to be concerned with logic, pragmatism, random bits of pop culture, my blog, and myself. Maybe I should start the first post in January with a sentence about how we should all work to end world hunger, so that next year I will seem less self-absorbed.

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Three remarks about inkblots 
Last week I was thinking about Rorschach tests, the inkblot tests that psychologists once used as diagnostic tools. A subject is shown an inkblot and asked to say what they see. Their response is supposed to indicate something about them. From what I can tell, psychologists no longer think there is any diagnostic value in Rorschach responses. A brief web search turns up psychologists who dismiss the test as nothing more than a parlor game.

Although the Rorschach "what do you see?" protocol could be performed with other ambiguous visual stimuli, it would not work with stimuli in other modalities. Imagine playing a sound and asking the subject to say what they hear.

I think that an aural Rorschach test would not be terribly interesting, but why not? One difference is that visual stimuli are distributed in space. If I see a person lying down, I can point: Here is the head, here is one arm, and so on. However, I am not sure whether this is the reason that Rorschach pictures work and Rorschach audio would not.

[UPDATE: At the APA Eastern, Casey O'Callaghan claimed that it would be possible to make sounds that were as evocative as inkblot pictures. Perhaps he is right, but we were unable to produce any clear examples. If possible, it is much harder than making evocative visual stimuli.]

Whatever the explanation, the difference is even clearer for other modalities. Imagine an olfactory Rorschach test: "Close your eyes and tell me what you smell."

Or a gustatory Rorschach test: "Open your mouth. Good. Now, tell me what you taste." It is grist for the Freudian mill if the subject sees a phallus in an ambiguous inkblot. Standard diagnostic inkblots had splodges that could be seen as male or female bits, if the subject was inclined to see such things. But would even the most perverted Freudian expect subjects to taste genitalia in an ambiguous gustatory stimulus?


Coincidentally, a couple of nights ago I ended up playing the game Thinkblots. In the game, each player looks at an inkblot and tries to identify as many objects in it as they can. After the timer runs out, players explain each of the items they've written down. Whether or not an identification counts is decided by a majority of the other players. (For example, my attempt to claim a circular blob as a 'gumball' was not accepted.) A player scores two points for each identification that they alone made and one point for each identification that was also made by another player.

There is a little more to the rules, but these details are sufficient background for two observations.

First, game design: Thinkblots relies on a certain gentility among the players. When one player points at part of the tableaux and says that it is the face of an otter, unsympathetic opponents may plausibly scoff, deny that the smudge is any such thing, and vote against the would-be otter face scoring any points. The rules give cut-thoat, competitive players an incentive to be dismissive in this way, but it would make the game no fun at all.

Second, phenomenology: There is a striking difference between the identifications that work and those that don't. For example, in one of the rounds there was a splodge that I had described as a person holding a child. Someone else described it as a couple dancing. Both answers were deemed acceptable. Then another player claimed to have identified a sidewalk and pointed to that same splodge. It totally worked, and the two figures in silhouette was suddenly a sidewalk retreating into the distance.

The two points are interrelated; although I could have said that it was nothing like a sidewalk to deny him the two points, the phenomenological fact is that it did look like a sidewalk. Yay for gestalts!

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Papers hiding and being seen 
James Beebe posts at the group blog Certain Doubts regarding double-blind peer review and posting preprints on the web. As he notes, putting a preprint of a paper on your website before it has been accepted at a journal makes it possible for referees to search the web, find the draft, and identify you as the author. This would break the protocol of the peer review.

Many people note that it would be irresponsible of referees to search the web to divine the author of a piece, unless perhaps they did so after deciding whether or not the piece should be accepted for publication. The caveat to this, of course, is that referees may or may not do the responsible thing.

The following is my attempt to distill the discussion to its essentials. Alas, it has grown rather long-winded.

Is this a problem?

People seem to agree: Having referees know the identity of the author will help established, big-name philosophers and hurt neophyte unknowns.

I am not sure that this is true. A reviewer might accept a paper by Famous McX at Prestigious University as a shoe-in for publication or might expect more out of it because McX can clearly do better work. Conversely, a reviewer might discount a paper by Cletus O'Nobody at Podunk State or might be impressed that O'Nobody has managed to string two thousand words together. Since all sorts of crap gets published, a referee might accept the effort as probably the epitome of O'Nobody's deadend career.

Regardless of how it works in practice, I suspect that people are just wielding anecdotes and intuitions when they speculate on the effects of this.

Many people have noted that the problem is not unique to the internet. Conferences give referees a similar opportunity to break the seal of confidentiality. Since many conferences put schedules and papers on the web, a paper that is presented before it is accepted for publication may be on the internet anyway. (The paper I presented at one of the first conferences I ever attended is still on the web. A successor to it was eventually published, but parts of the original would be best lost in the past.)

Moreover, referees who search for the title of the paper will be able to connect you with it if you so much as have a list of works in progress on your website. Avoiding any on-line association with a paper would require some serious austerity.

In the comments over at Certain Doubts, James Beebe concludes, "Although it is not clear how the institutions of our profession should respond to this problem, I've received a very clear answer on how I should respond: I have taken all of my articles that are works in progress or under review off of my website." This might avoid problems, but at a definite cost.

The benefits of being online

Any disadvantage must be weighed against the advantages of having drafts on the web:

A. Publication is most important to junior philosophers who need it to get a job or to get tenure. While a manuscript is sitting in the inbox of a referee, the job market and tenure clocks are ticking. Having a preprint on your website is a way of publicizing the work so that employers can know about it now. (This point has been made many times by Brian Weatherson.)

B. Having a preprint on the web can result in useful feeback. This has happened for me a few times.

C. Having a preprint on the web establishes priority. Even if your article is not published until later or, with a backlogged journal, much later, the first post establishes a date at which you publicly advocated the ideas or arguments therein.

Priority led me to release forall x a few months earlier than I would have otherwise. Once I had come up with the title, I wanted to claim it.

I really should be more careful about putting the date of the first web version of a paper in the footnotes of later web versions.

What is one to do?

Given these considerations, there are several options.

Be seen: Put papers online and let referees find them. This is just to face any negative consequences with 21st-century, information-wants-to-be-free bravado.

Hide from everybody: This is the solution Beebe seems to have chosen. For reasons given above, I think that it is too high a price and not likely to work anyway.

Hide from robots: Later in the comments at Certain Doubts, Richard Zach recommends telling search engines not to index your paper. This seems like an odd half-measure, since it nullfies most of the advantages of having the paper online at all. Moreover, mentions of the paper that link to your page will still be indexed.

Be seen, but wear a fake moustache: Brit Brogaard and Robbie Williams advocate submitting a paper to journals with a different title than its online preprint counterpart. This means that referees will not be able to suss you out just by searching for the title of the submission. More determined referees might still find your paper, but this is probably true regardless.

I think I may adopt this latter strategy, because it does not seem to have any real downside. I often end up changing the title of a paper once or twice between first draft and publication anyway.

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