Do We Have Minds of Our Own?

4 December 2019

Not exactly to do with writing and being an author, but perhaps a writing prompt.

From The New Yorker:

In order to do science, we’ve had to dismiss the mind. This was, in any case, the bargain that was made in the seventeenth century, when Descartes and Galileo deemed consciousness a subjective phenomenon unfit for empirical study. If the world was to be reducible to physical causation, then all mental experiences—intention, agency, purpose, meaning—must be secondary qualities, inexplicable within the framework of materialism. And so the world was divided in two: mind and matter. This dualistic solution helped to pave the way for the Enlightenment and the technological and scientific advances of the coming centuries. But an uneasiness has always hovered over the bargain, a suspicion that the problem was less solved than shelved. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Leibniz struggled to accept that perception could be explained through mechanical causes—he proposed that if there were a machine that could produce thought and feeling, and if it were large enough that a person could walk inside of it, as he could walk inside a mill, the observer would find nothing but inert gears and levers. “He would find only pieces working upon one another, but never would he find anything to explain Perception,” he wrote.

Today we tend to regard the mind not as a mill but as a computer, but, otherwise, the problem exists in much the same way that Leibniz formulated it three hundred years ago. In 1995, David Chalmers, a shaggy-haired Australian philosopher who has been called a “rock star” of the field, famously dubbed consciousness “the hard problem,” as a way of distinguishing it from comparatively “easy” problems, such as how the brain integrates information, focusses attention, and stores memories. Neuroscientists have made significant progress on the easier problems, using fMRIs and other devices. Engineers, meanwhile, have created impressive simulations of the brain in artificial neural networks—though the abilities of these machines have only made the difference between intelligence and consciousness more stark. Artificial intelligence can now beat us in chess and Go; it can predict the onset of cancer as well as human oncologists and recognize financial fraud more accurately than professional auditors. But, if intelligence and reason can be performed without subjective awareness, then what is responsible for consciousness? Answering this question, Chalmers argued, was not simply a matter of locating a process in the brain that is responsible for producing consciousness or correlated with it. Such a discovery still would fail to explain why such correlations exist or why they lead to one kind of experience rather than another—or to nothing at all.

. . . .

One line of reductionist thinking insists that the hard problem is not really so hard—or that it is, perhaps, simply unnecessary. In his new book, “Rethinking Consciousness: A Scientific Theory of Subjective Experience,” the neuroscientist and psychologist Michael Graziano writes that consciousness is simply a mental illusion, a simplified interface that humans evolved as a survival strategy in order to model the processes of the brain. He calls this the “attention schema.” According to Graziano’s theory, the attention schema is an attribute of the brain that allows us to monitor mental activity—tracking where our focus is directed and helping us predict where it might be drawn in the future—much the way that other mental models oversee, for instance, the position of our arms and legs in space. Because the attention schema streamlines the complex noise of calculations and electrochemical signals of our brains into a caricature of mental activity, we falsely believe that our minds are amorphous and nonphysical. The body schema can delude a woman who has lost an arm into thinking that it’s still there, and Graziano argues that the “mind” is like a phantom limb: “One is the ghost in the body and the other is the ghost in the head.”

. . . .

I suspect that most people would find this proposition alarming. On the other hand, many of us already, on some level, distrust the reality of our own minds. The recent vogue for “mindfulness” implies that we are passive observers of an essentially mechanistic existence—that consciousness can only be summoned fleetingly, through great effort. Plagued by a midday funk, we are often quicker to attribute it to bad gut flora or having consumed gluten than to the theatre of beliefs and ideas.

And what, really, are the alternatives for someone who wants to explain consciousness in strictly physical terms? Another option, perhaps the only other option, is to conclude that mind is one with the material world—that everything, in other words, is conscious. This may sound like New Age bunk, but a version of this concept, called integrated information theory, or I.I.T., is widely considered one of the field’s most promising theories in recent years. One of its pioneers, the neuroscientist Christof Koch, has a new book, “The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness Is Widespread but Can’t Be Computed,” in which he argues that consciousness is not unique to humans but exists throughout the animal kingdom and the insect world, and even at the microphysical level. Koch, an outspoken vegetarian, has long argued that animals share consciousness with humans; this new book extends consciousness further down the chain of being. Central to I.I.T. is the notion that consciousness is not an either/or state but a continuum—some “systems,” in other words, are more conscious than others.

. . . .

Another term for this is panpsychism—the belief that consciousness is ubiquitous in nature. In the final chapters of the book, Koch commits himself to this philosophy, claiming his place among a lineage of thinkers—including Leibniz, William James, and Alfred North Whitehead—who similarly believed that matter and soul were one substance. This solution avoids the ungainliness of dualism: panpsychism, Koch argues, “elegantly eliminates the need to explain how the mental emerges out of the physical and vice versa. Both coexist.”

. . . .

Like Koch, Graziano, when entertaining such seemingly fanciful ideas, shifts into a mode that oddly mixes lyricism and technical rigor. “The mind is a trillion-stranded sculpture made of information, constantly changing and beautifully complicated,” he writes. “But nothing in it is so mysterious that it can’t in principle be copied to a different information-processing device, like a file copied from one computer to another.”

Link to the rest at The New Yorker


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She ran out of space for her library

4 December 2019

She ran out of space for her library some time ago, but instead of making the room larger she has opted to let the books become the room. Piles of them function as tables, others hang suspended from the ceiling…

~ Erin Morgenstern

The Boris Johnson Plagiarism Scandal

4 December 2019

From Plagiarism Today:

The United Kingdom is in the midst of what might be its most important election in a century. With the drama over Brexit swirling, the country is at a crossroads and it’s very likely that the next election will shape the future of the country for decades to come.

However, that election took a back seat on Friday following a terror attack on London Bridge that killed two people and injured three. That attack has now become a talking point of the election itself, with all sides striving to assure voters.

One of the more notable responses was from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is also head of the Conservative Party. In a 16-tweet thread, outlined why the alleged attacker was released, putting the blame on the Labour Party, his biggest political opponents.

. . . .

However, shortly after it was published, a pseudonymous blogger, The Secret Barrister, put out his own tweet calling the thread a plagiarism of his blog post, which had been published just hours earlier.

PG Note: Asterisks replace an interesting epithet PG hadn’t heard in this particular form before.

According to The Secret Barrister, Johnson cited the same sources he did, made similar observations and then “stripped out the inconvenient context and adopted a false conclusion.”

He also added:

“I find it fascinating that, having never previously shown any interest in explaining complex areas of law to the public, within hours of my posting of a full explanation of the legal issues involved in this case, the Prime Minister’s Twitter account embarked upon a 16-tweet legal thread…”

This, as with any case of political plagiarism, has led to a sharp divide. In the responses to the thread, many have used The Secret Barrister’s words against Johnson. Others, however, have defended him against the claim.

. . . .

It’s important to fully understand the allegations against Johnson. Even though many have called this a “copy and paste” plagiarism, including The Secret Barrister himself, it is not actually that.

The words between the two are completely different. In fact, there are a lot of differences between the two works, in particular with the conclusions. They are similar works, but they are not identical or even nearly identical.

Instead, the allegations center around a combination of the points that Johnson raises, the order that they are raised in and the source he cites. In particular, The Secret Barrister found it odd that both he and Johnson referenced the same document by the Prison Reform Trust charity.

To that end, it’s easy to see why The Secret Barrister and those that support him see the similarities. The tweet thread and his post are indeed very similar, hitting very similar points and differing only with the conclusions. Though no words are copied, one might say the structure of the posts are very similar.

But does this prove plagiarism? This is where things get thorny.

For The Secret Barrister, the case is open and shut, “The possibility that the PM’s own legal advisers drafted his thread without any regard to my witterings has to be carefully considered. But I just can’t see it.”

He goes on to add:

“The number of people who have (apparently independently) noticed the similarities in substance, even if the language has been changed, leads me to believe I’m not going mad. The most obvious explanation is that Johnson (or likely his special advisers) have taken their info from the blog, stripped out the inconvenient context and used it to present Johnson as a legal sage sharing his wisdom. Or, as I’m told academics would term it, plagiarism.”

But is it that straightforward? For me personally, while I agree that there is a reason to be suspicious and wary, it’s hardly an open and shut case. It may well be plagiarism, but there are some pieces to the puzzle missing as it stands right now.

. . . .

To prove that something is plagiarized, one usually has to answer three questions:

  1. Was the work correctly cited? If it’s correctly cited, it’s not plagiarism.
  2. Can the similarities be explained by common sourcing, including tropes, cliches, etc? If so, it’s not plagiarism, at least not a plagiarism of the work in question.
  3. Can the similarities be explained by coincidence? Coincidences happen. Look at the case of Dennis the Menace. Coincidences aren’t plagiarisms. [PG Note: See below]

The first two aren’t helpful here as there is no citation in either work and there’s no indication that The Secret Barrister pulled his format from another source or from a template of some kind. That leaves only the third issue.

But this is where things fall apart a bit. Coincidence is often very difficult to disprove satisfactorily. With verbatim plagiarism, this is relatively easy. We can show that certain strings are unique to the two works and that the odds of them being created independently are astronomical.

. . . .

The truth is that we don’t know and not only is there not enough evidence to say conclusively this is plagiarism but there likely never will be. Barring a confession by Johnson or additional information about who wrote the tweets and how, we are unlikely to have enough information to be 100% sure one way or another.

But, even if we did, the damage would be somewhat limited. While copying someone’s outline and one of their sources is certainly plagiarism, it’s also not as severe as verbatim copying or more direct paraphrasing.

The Secret Barrister’s original post has over 3,700 words and Johnson’s tweets barely break 700 (though they include images of documents). It’s not verbatim plagiarism and it’s not a paraphrase, it’s a different beast altogether. They are similar documents in structure and source only.

Link to the rest at Plagiarism Today

Here is a bit more about the Dennis the Menace case mentioned above, also from Plagiarism Today:

1951 must have been a very bad year to be named Dennis.

The reason is because on March 12 of that year two separate comics entitled Dennis the Menace went on sale, one in the UK, one in the U.S (Note: The UK version is dated March 15 but actually went on sale on March 12).

The UK comic Dennis, which first appeared in Beano #452, was created by David Law and published by D.C. Thomson as a comic strip inside a popular comedy comic book. It’s U.S. counterpart was created by Hank Ketcham and initially distributed by Post-Hall Syndicate as a syndicated comic strip for newspapers.

Though, based on this simple fact, many draw the conclusion that one of the two creators had to have plagiarized the other, it’s become clear that simply wasn’t the case. Not only did the two creators have no way of knowing what the other was working on, but the two characters are actually extremely different. The UK version is a true menace, a mean-spirited boy who likes to cause trouble, and the U.S. version is happy-go-lucky child that causes trouble without intending to.

The two creators largely agreed to allow each other to work on their respective comics and both are continuing in at least some form today (though the UK version is now known as Dennis and Gnasher, named after Dennis’ dog). Though the U.S. version may be the most popular internationally, the UK version is better known in its native country. No legal action has been taken against either creator.

Still, the coincidence is one of the best-known in the publishing world and was recently highlighted on Cracked. However, it also highlights one of the most difficult aspects of plagiarism detection, trying to separate what is a plagiarism and what is a coincidence. Sometimes, it can be nearly impossible to be certain.

Link to the rest at Plagiarism Today

PG notes that, under US law, plagiarism is not illegal unless it rises to the level of copyright infringement.

From PlagiarismChecker.com:

Plagiarism is using someone else’s work without giving proper credit – a failure to cite adequately.

Copyright infringement is using someone else’s creative work, which can include a song, a video, a movie clip, a piece of visual art, a photograph, and other creative works, without authorization or compensation, if compensation is appropriate.

Schools enforce plagiarism.
The courts enforce copyright infringement.

. . . .

Plagiarism

Plagiarism is using someone else’s work without giving proper credit. Schools deal with plagiarism by giving the cheaters academic consequences. Most teachers will give F grades for plagiarized work, and some will do more. When I was a teaching assistant at Stanford University, some students were suspended for copying answers during a test.

Plagiarism doesn’t have to include copyright infringement. For example, William Shakespeare’s plays are not copyrighted because they’re too old. Even though it would technically be legal to copy from one of those plays for an English assignment, it would still be plagiarism if you didn’t give credit to Shakespeare. Your teacher may not be able to take you to court over it, but she can certainly give you an F. You might even get suspended or expelled from school. Even though copying one sentence from a Web site is legal according to United States copyright laws, that may still count as plagiarism in your teacher’s book.

Copyright Infringement

Copyright infringement is using someone else’s work without getting that person’s permission. The author of any original work, including books, essays, Web pages, songs, pictures, and videos, automatically gets the copyright to that work, even if she doesn’t label it with the copyright symbol and her name. The work must be fixed in tangible form, which means it must be stored on something physical, such as paper, canvas, a CD, or a hard disk. This makes college students copyright owners, since they’ve already written many original works for school.

The owner of a copyright gets to decide who can legally make copies of that work. It is illegal to copy large sections of someone else’s copyrighted work without permission, even if you give the original author credit. Imagine someone making copies of the movie Finding Nemo without asking for permission. He sure won’t get away with it just by giving the authors credit on the DVD cover!

Fortunately, a fair use exemption allows you to legally copy small amounts of someone else’s work. Just make sure to give the author credit so you won’t be guilty of plagiarism!

The courts assign consequences for copyright infringement. This means someone may come after you with a lawyer if you violate his copyright. Your school can report copyright infringement to people who have the legal power to take you to court. Students have been sued for copyright infringement before. In some cases, the court may require you to pay the fees for both your lawyer and the copyright owner’s lawyer.

Link to the rest at PlagiarismChecker.com

Earlier this year, PG created a long post about Fair Use, Derivative Works, Transformative Fair Use which is not a Derivative Work and Infringing Derivative Works. He thought it was interesting, but you may not.

We Wanted Our Patrons Back — Public Libraries Scrap Late Fines

3 December 2019

From National Public Radio:

For nearly a decade, Diana Ramirez hadn’t been able to take a book home from the San Diego Public Library. Her borrowing privileges were suspended, she was told, because of a mere $10 in late fees, an amount that had grown to $30 over the years.

Ramirez, who is now 23 and stays in Tijuana with her mother, attends an alternative education program in San Diego that helps students earn high school diplomas. To her, the debt she owed to the library system was an onerous sum. Even worse, it removed a critical resource from her life.

“I felt disappointed in myself because I wasn’t able to check out books,” Ramirez said. “I wasn’t able to use the computers for doing my homework or filling out job applications. I didn’t own a computer, so the library was my only option to access a computer.”

In April, Ramirez finally caught a break. The San Diego Public Library wiped out all outstanding late fines for patrons, a move that followed the library system’s decision to end its overdue fines. Ramirez was among the more than 130,000 beneficiaries of the policy shift, cardholders whose library accounts were newly cleared of debt.

. . . .

The changes were enacted after a city study revealed that nearly half of the library’s patrons whose accounts were blocked as a result of late fees lived in two of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. “I never realized it impacted them to that extent,” said Misty Jones, the city’s library director.

. . . .

“Library users with limited income tend to stay away from libraries because they may be afraid of incurring debt,” said Ramiro Salazar, president of the [American Library Association’s] public library division. “It stands to reason these same users will also stay away if they have already incurred a fine simply because they don’t have the money to pay the fine.”

Lifting fines has had a surprising dual effect: More patrons are returning to the library, with their late materials in hand. Chicago saw a 240% increase in return of materials within three weeks of implementing its fine-free policy last month. The library system also had 400 more card renewals compared with that time last year.

. . . .

According to Chicago Public Library’s internal analysis, some 30% of people living on the South Side of Chicago couldn’t check out materials because they had reached the $10 fine limit for overdue materials. That ratio, however, dropped roughly 15% among cardholders on the more affluent North Side. Nearly a quarter of blocked accounts belonged to children under 14.

Having library fines stand in the way of people searching for jobs and social services “just seemed counterintuitive to us,” Telli said.

. . . .

Mitchell acknowledged that some people are not able to easily return books on time, but fears libraries will be shortchanged.

“The library deserves as much money as it can muster,” he said.

Some libraries have taken that philosophy to extremes. In November, a woman in southern Michigan faced criminal charges and possible jail time for not returning two books to the Charlotte Community Library.

After a national outcry, prosecutors dropped the charges. While library advocates say there is a real difference between fine forgiveness and failing to return a book, the case underlines the tensions libraries face between balancing patron accommodation and the need for deterrence.

And add this complicating factor to the equation: The fact that many libraries can’t afford to collect most of the fines they’re owed.

. . . .

Some libraries have successfully lured back patrons by offering fine-forgiveness days. During a 2017 amnesty campaign in San Francisco, the public library recovered nearly 700,000 of its items over six weeks and restored the accounts of more than 5,000 patrons. The recouped materials included a long-lost copy of F. Hopkins Smith’s Forty Minutes Late — which, despite its title, was a century overdue.

Link to the rest at NPR

PG acknowledges that he posted about an article on the same topic that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, but thought this was an important and interesting trend.

Better World Libraries

3 December 2019

From Library Journal:

The Internet Archive (IA) on November 6 announced that its longtime not-for-profit partner, Better World Libraries, had acquired Better World Books, a mission-driven for-profit bookseller that has donated almost $29 million and more than 26.5 million books to global literacy programs during the past two decades. Better World Books’ Library Discards and Donations program, launched in 2004, has also been a major contributor to the company’s efforts to redistribute or recycle an additional 326 million books.

. . . .

“One of the biggest challenges facing libraries today is responsibly removing materials from their shelves so they can bring in more desirable materials or repurpose space to fit community needs,” Jim Michalko, Better World Books board member and former president of The Research Libraries Group, explained in the announcement. “Now, libraries can provide books to Better World Books knowing that a digital copy will be created and preserved if one doesn’t yet exist.”

. . . .

“What we’re trying to do is weave books into the Internet itself, starting with Wikipedia,” Kahle said. “The idea is to turn all of [Wikipedia.org’s] footnotes into live links, so that anyone who wants to go deeper from a Wikipedia article, can click on a footnote and open a book, right on the right page.”

IA has an ongoing relationship with Wikipedia. Notably, IABot crawls Wikipedia pages searching for broken links and repairs those links by finding an archived version of the original webpage using IA’s Wayback Machine. To date, the bot has repaired more than ten million links.

“Now, we have a robot going through [Wikipedia] and augmenting book citations with links to books in the Internet Archive,” Kahle said. “That, we think, is a big deal for usability. And it helps battle misinformation by taking the best, vetted information that we have and making that accessible to Wikipedia writers and also readers. The next puzzle beyond that is ‘how do you go and scale that up?’ We now have over 120,000 Wikipedia citations pointing to over 40,000 books, but we want to get to millions of links going to millions of books. The way we’re going to get there is by working really closely with Better World Books.”

IA has already digitized over four million books, most of which are public domain titles published before 1923, Kahle said. Its leadership aims to digitize four million more during the next four years—primarily 20th-century content obtained through the new Better World Books pipeline, as well as direct donations from libraries and other sources.

. . . .

Links to reliable sources will help “fulfill the promise of the internet as a library that people can depend on for reference work,” Kahle said. In this case, digitized books will be used “less for beach reading, more for jumping in and out of books—fact checking.”

Link to the rest at Library Journal and thanks to Marv for the tip.

Christmas won’t be

3 December 2019

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

First line from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Open Educational Resources: The Story of Change and Evolving Perceptions

3 December 2019

From No Shelf Required:

Although the term may still not be familiar to the wider public—including college students and faculty—Open Educational Resources (OERs) have been an integral part of education worldwide for at least two decades. OERs generally refer to digital educational materials that anyone anywhere can use freely and legally, including the user’s right to copy, share, enhance and/or modify them for the purposes of sharing knowledge and enabling education. These run the gamut and stretch beyond digital textbooks—usually perceived as the most common educational resources—to include everything from course materials, university courses, e-learning platforms, software, and streaming videos to lectures and digital repositories of monographs and journals.

. . . .

Regardless of how different and varied OERs may seem at first—ranging from single books to multi-functional and comprehensive platforms—what makes a resource an OER is that it is freely available to anyone, notwithstanding a person’s location and affiliation. OER users may well be college and university students, but they may also be independent learners, researchers or lay readers. Of course, ‘open’ does not mean ‘without any restriction’ or ‘without any financial support.’ It simply means ‘free access.’

Likewise, ‘open’ does not mean ‘without financial backing.’ The mechanisms through which resources become ‘open’ and ‘free’ are complex, always evolving, and require ongoing financial support. A variety of financial models exist on the market that contributes to the sustainability of OERs (Downes, 2007), ranging from, among others, endowment models (funding is usually received from charitable foundations) and membership models (participating organizations contribute a certain amount as members) to sponsorship models (a range of commercial messages, more subtle or less subtle, may interrupt learning and reading), and institution models (various institutions assume the full responsibility for their OER initiatives and bear the financial burden).

WELL-KNOWN OERs

  • MIT OpenCourseWare, an online platform housing free
    eductional and teaching materials from MIT courses
  • Open Textbook Library, a catalog of free, peer-reviewed, and
    open textbooks
  • Open Course Library, a collection of materials, including syllabi,
    course activities, readings, and assessments
  • Khan Academy, an online source of short lessons in the form of
    videos and practice exercises and materials for educators
    National Science Digital Library, a library of collections and
    services supporting STEM education
  • OER Commons, a collection of over 50,000 university courses,
    open textbooks, interactive mini-lessons, and K-12 lesson plans
  • Wikipedia, the world’s most used free encyclopedia
  • Wikimedia Commons, a repository of free digital images
    and various media files

In the context of libraries, OERs as we know them have been around for longer than two decades. Librarians have, in many ways, contributed to the infrastructure of open education long before various types of OERs became the norm. The Internet Archive, for example, has been up and running for nearly a quarter of a century, while Project Gutenberg, the first online repository of public domain content—also a form of OER built and maintained by volunteers, including librarians—has its beginnings in the early 1970s. These initial undertakings paved the way for the advent of new, more specialized types of OERs used today. And as education began moving in the direction of open digital textbooks—scattered in disparate sources online that students and faculty had little awareness of—librarian roles in colleges and universities began to shift, requiring more active participation in the discovery of OERs.

What exactly has contributed to the explosion of OERs in recent years? The steep cost of textbooks and higher education in general, particularly in the United States, is frequently attributed to their popularity perhaps more than any other factor. According to the College Board, undergraduates now spend an average of $1200 on textbooks annually, and this remains a concern.

. . . .

  • OERs are widely and universally available
  • technology has made the cost of sharing OERs practically non-existent
  • given their digital nature, OERs can be modified to fit various needs
  • OERs help accelerate the advancement of human knowledge
  • due to ongoing technological improvements, OERs can reach learners faster than print textbooks
  • OERs allow students and parents to save significantly
  • OERs promote self-directed learning
  • OERs reach large numbers of learners at the same time, regardless of their location
  • OERs have revolutionized the way remote students or long-distance learners approach education
  • OERs allow for a more extensive peer review process

Link to the rest at No Shelf Required

Road-weary but Back

3 December 2019

PG has been reminded that the United States is a large country and that even if you only drive across about 30% of the nation, it’s a long way.

However, a good night’s sleep has ameliorated the effects of white-line fever and road food and, although PG’s first glimpse of his office this morning prompted an impulse for a clean-up binge, he’ll do a few posts instead.

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