Happy sixth blogiversary! 
Today marks the end of this blog's year six.

The total content of the blog (just prior to this entry) stood at 116,034 words in 244 entries. Of those, 14,936 words in 41 entries were added in the last year. An decrease from the prior year in number of words for the year, but an increase in number of entries. So... brevity is on the rise.

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Philosophy on the middle ground 
Thinking about 'natural kinds' in the 19th-century has me reading obscure criticisms of Mill. In an 1859 review, James Martineau writes:
The great mass of Mr. Mill's labour has been devoted to what may be termed the middle ground of human thought, below the primary data which reason must assume, and short of the applied science which has practice for its end. At the upper limit shunning the original postulates of all knowledge, and at the lower its concrete results, he has addressed himself to its intermediary processes, and determined the methods for working out derivative but still general truths.

Over the subsequent pages, Martineau sharpens this into the complaint that Mill's work fails as philosophy. He's wrong about that. I like his description of the middle ground, though, and it seems like a fair thing to say about Mill.

It also gestures at what I think general philosophy of science can do well, where it is most successful and most satisfying. There are parallels to be drawn to Robert Merton's conception of the middle range. I will leave such broader musings for some point in the future, when I feel confident enough to draw those threads together.

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Chatter about 'natural kinds' 
I have played around with Google's Ngram Viewer before. It's a tool which graphs the frequency of words or phrases across time.

Lately, I've been thinking about the origins of the phrase 'natural kind'. The phrase became a philosophical term of art in the mid-19th century, to describe a doctrine of John Stuart Mill's. Although Mill never used the phrase 'natural kind', he wrote of real kinds and real categories. John Venn uses the moniker 'natural kinds' for Mill's real kinds,* and by the 1880s there are articles in Mind with titles like "Mill's Natural Kinds."

The phrase seems to fall into disuse, however, and does not return until the mid-20th century. By graphing the frequency of 'natural kind' plotted against the frequency of 'real kind', it's possible to see matters in even sharper relief. The phrase does fall into relative disuse in the period between (say) 1890 and 1965. Somewhat surprisingly, however, Mill's natural kinds so-called do not even create a serious uptick in the use of the phrase. The background level prior to 1860 does not reflect systematic use of 'natural kind' as jargon, but instead just occasions when authors happened to put the two words together.

I am now wondering if I should work this graph into the book somewhere.


* Ian Hacking claims that John Venn coins 'natural kind' in the technical sense but doesn't give any determinate reason for saying so. I can't find any use predating Venn, which corroborates Hacking's version.

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Title bout 
While on sabbatical, I wrote a book about natural kinds. It's now been accepted for publication as one of the inaugural volumes of Palgrave's New Directions in the Philosophy of Science series.

I submitted it with the working title Carving up the world. Referees and editors all insist that it also needs a subtitle, something which makes explicit that it's a book about natural kinds. Several possibilities have been suggested.

Some of the suggestions seem unsatisfactory, but my sense of it has gone fuzzy. So I'm just going to list them and ask you, the reader, to either indicate your favorite or suggest an alternative. Keep in mind that the book is about natural kinds, my account is in some ways original but certainly not unprecedented, and most of the words are spent applying the account to examples.

1. Carving up the world: A New Conception of Natural Kinds

2. Carving up the world: An Essay on Natural Kinds

3. Carving up the world: A Study on Natural Kinds

4. Carving up the world: Hmm... uh... Natural Kinds

5. Carving up the world: Pragmatism, Realism, and Natural Kinds

6. Carving up the world: Pragmatism and Realism about Natural Kinds

7. Carving up the world: How science charts natural kinds

[Here's another one added after the first couple of comments.]

8. Carving up the world: Science and Natural Kinds

[And another.]

9. Carving up the world: Scientific Enquiry and Natural Kinds

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A course about and for robots 
Two computer scientists at Stanford are going to be teaching a free on-line course in AI. As reported in the NY Times, there are now more than 58,000 students worldwide signed up for it. The course designers have set it up to be indefinitely extensible and have getten a lot of bandwidth, so they are undaunted. All interaction with students will be mediated. For example, student questions will be submitted to the collective and voted on by other students. The profs will give a public answer to whichever questions float to the top.

The Times mentions that one of the two instructors, Peter Norvig, is a coauthor of a standard AI textbook. The story doesn't mention whether students are encouraged to buy the book, but students are likely to buy it without encouragement. It should sell enough copies to earn Norvig some walking-around money.

Of course, these 58,000 are sign-ups on the internet. The Times does not ask the obvious question: How many of these are actual people taking the course?

There must be some number of duplicate enrollments, from people who had problems with the system. There must be some number of people who clicked through and enrolled just to see what this thing was. There must be some number of people who clicked through fully intending to take the course, but won't follow through on actually taking it.

Even counting the ones who start out in the course, the drop rate will likely be very high. And if following through on the course really does require linear algebra, many will quit in despair.

Moreover, we can't discount the possibility that some number of these are bogus registrations. Spammers don't actually stand to make money by enrolling zombie machines in an AI course, but it might amuse them.

Setting aside quibbles about the course and its 58K students, it did make me reflect for a moment on the economics of running a university. The course is not for credit, so there's no direct comparison here. But Andrew Ng, who is teaching another Stanford CS course on-line, suggests a bigger picture. He is quoted as saying, "I personally would like to see the equivalent of a Stanford computer science degree on the Web."

For courses which are taught in a giant lecture hall, there might not be much value added for the student to be in the same space as the instructor. Getting the content on-line could be roughly as good.

In smaller classes, where is more opportunity to interact with professors, there's more difference. Yet there are plenty of students who are content to sit in the back and listen, even in a 30 person class. It's not clear that they gain much by physical proximity.

What I got out of a college education came mostly from being able to ask questions and suggest ideas, to engage in the game of giving and asking for reasons. Video lecture and social network Q&A would not have had the same value for me.

Here's the economic point, though: For every student like me who jumped head first into college and interrogated everybody, there were a bunch of disengaged students in the back who were mostly just listening. Their tuition was required in order for me to have the opportunity to engage. A more efficient system for them would have been a failure for me. There is an argument to be made that I was exploiting them, and anonymized on-line courses would have be a better use of their resources.

As an aside, it is possible to have small classes on-line. So the opposition isn't really between meatspace and on-line courses. Rather, it's between indefinitely large, effectively anonymous courses and courses in which students and the teacher interact directly.

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