UAlbany philosophy a'changing 
My colleague Robert Meyers is retiring after long and distinguished service to the department. There was a retirement party for him yesterday, and Bonnie Steinbock had the idea to take a group shot of faculty and staff past and present.


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Cartoon reasoning about dinosaurs 
In a recent XKCD cartoon (which I've also embedded below), Randall Munroe juxtaposes two claims:

1. "By any reasonable definition, T. Rex is more closely related to sparrows than to Stegosaurus."

2. "Birds aren't descended from dinosaurs, they are dinosaurs."

As far as I know, claim 1 represents what is true of the phylogeny. The picture below the claim nicely illustrates some of the reasoning for it.

The cartoon suggests without quite saying that claim 1 is a reason to accept claim 2. But I just don't see how the inference is supposed to work. Moreover, claim 2 is basically false.

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Market trends in modern philosophy 
This semester, I taught the core undergraduate 17th+18th Century Philosophy course again. Earlier this week, at the final class meeting, I asked my usual debriefing questions. Which philosopher did they find the most philosophically rewarding? and which the least?

Here are the results, including the change since last time:
            yay     boo
Descartes 5 +5 4 -2
Locke 5 +1 12 +11
Berkeley 10 +4 10 -3
Hume 7 -1 7 +7
Kant 10 +1 3 +3

There was much love for Berkeley this time. A number of students said that they were, at that point in the semester, simply convinced by his arguments. One used this as a reason for saying that Berkeley was the worst philosophically; the student subsequently agreed with Hume and felt as if he had been duped by Berkeley's arguments!

I also asked which text they thought was the best written (clearest, most fun to read) and which the worst written (most obscure, most unpleasant to read). Results, again with the delta from last time:
                          yay    boo
Descartes' Meditations 17 +10 1 -1
Locke's Essay (selections) 1 -5 4 +1
Berkeley's Principles 11 +9 0 -5
Hume's Enquiry 3 -6 5 +3
Kant's Critique (abridged) 1 +1 25 +11

They were only allowed one vote in each column.* Insofar as the numbers don't add up, it may be either because some students didn't vote or because I'm sloppy at counting.

A number of students said, after voting, that they found Descartes to be the easiest to read simply because they had read the Meditations before.

I said when we were discussing it that I think Berkeley's Principles is a well written piece of philosophy. It explicitly lays out arguments, and it's admirably clear. Although it is possible that my enthusiasm rubbed off on the class, so that more students picked Berkeley as the easiest read, I don't think I was any more enthusiastic than I am every time I teach Berkeley.

Last time, when students didn't overwhelmingly identify Kant as the hardest to read, I conjectured that many of them hadn't tried to read Kant. If that's right, then this year's class does seem to have tried out the reading.

* One student really wanted to split his 'yay' vote one-half for the selections from Locke and one-half for Kant.

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The paper appears, just like I said it would 
My paper with Heather Douglas, Why novel prediction matters, has now made it into the limbo of things published online, waiting in the queue to appear in print. It is now the case that papers in this limbo are assigned a DOI, making them as good as published.

DOI: 10.1016/j.shpsa.2013.04.001

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There's open and then there's "open" 
I was an invited speaker last week at DIY Publishing and the University, an event held by the NorthEast Regional Computing Program. I was there because of forall x; the organizers had found me through the Creative Commons database.

Most of the speakers talked about electronic resources, like institutional archives, student videos, or MOOCs. I was the odd man out, because forall x is a traditional textbook. Although it is distributed electronically, it is designed to be used as a physical workbook. Today I ran across an article in Salon which supports my old-school approach; it argues that people just don't comprehend material read on screen or on a tablet as well as material read on paper. Yet the difference is not so clear or strong that we should imagine it is inevitable. Future students may be better at learning from electronic documents, and future technology might present them in better ways. I will still be teaching a decade or two from now, and my preference for paper may be something I'll need to get over.*

One nice result of the NERCOMP event is that I now have a better understanding of MOOCs. A MOOC (the acronym stands for Massive Open Online Course) allows people from all over the world to register for and take a course. They might watch videos of lectures, participate in a discussion forum with other students, take tests on their computer, and so on. Because the courses are free, they are often mentioned in the same context as open-access textbooks.

The thing I learned is that "open" in MOOC just means open enrollment. Anyone anywhere is free to take the course. The course materials might be released under a Creative Commons license, but they might just be under traditional copyright. MIT labels its MOOC material "some rights reserved" and, although that is a standard label on CC-licensed material, MIT does not specify an specific permissions. Because they don't say, "some" is legally equivalent to "all". The difference is just a flourish, because "all rights reserved" would not sound as welcoming.

So I was also the odd man out because I was one of the few presenters specifically concerned with open access issues.**

* Even if there are cyborg students in the future, though, there are still concerns of equity. Even if it gets to the point where digital natives with advanced e-readers think better with electronic documents than with paper documents, economic disparities will mean that other students don't. Of course, the future of the university as an enterprise is also up for grabs in the next decade or two.
** Not the only one. Thomas Dodson, a librarian from Harvard, talked about their open access repository of faculty research.

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