Sunday, April 29, 2007

Cat Blogging

Doug Johnson quotes Kathy Sierra and says, "Don't blog the cat. It's not about you."


Cat in Madrid

I don't think I agree with the "don't blog the cat" point. I have run posts about my cats in the past, and I will in the future. There's a reason for that.

Sierra writes, "It's not about you." In this, she is at least partially wrong. It is about you. Not completely, of course. But the personal point of view is important.

What distinguishes the blog media from the traditional media is the idea that each expression has a point of view. Our knowledge of a concept or an event is obtained from combining these points of view.

Knowing about the blog author helps us understand that point of view. When I say "I saw a cat on the streets of Madrid" the meaning is different when you know that I am a cat person and love cats.

Suppose you knew that I was one of those people who hates cats and calls then "house rats" (yeah, I've actually heard the phrase). Then my observation of a cat on the streets of Madrid conveys very different information about the city.

The blog is an expression of a relation between myself and whatever I am talking about. As such, the personal part of a blog is essential. You'll find in her archives that even Kathy Sierra includes a lot about the personal. Her experience of climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, for example.

Writers who do not reveal something of themselves (and their pets, if their pets are important to them) are giving us only half the equation. They are presenting statements and asking us to accept them as objective fact. There is no reason why we should do this, and indeed, even some reason to be suspicious of such an approach.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Copyright and Creativity, Again

Vanessa Tuckfield kicked off a discussion for World Copyright day on Networks (may require login, sorry). She cites the role copyright plays for Disney and quotes a speech from WIPO director Kamil Idris.

My response...

Um, wow. So much here I disagree with.

I'll begin by linking to my paper 'Copyright, Ethics and Theft' to give readers an alternative perspective on the issue.

And I'll begin by grappling with this year's theme: encouraging creativity.

The presumption - and we see it shared once again in Kamil Idris's address, is that copyright encourages creativity. "Encouraging creativity – rewarding the creative, innovative talents on which our world and our future are built – these are the ends which intellectual property serves."

But it seems to me that the preponderance of the evidence suggests otherwise. The evidence seems to be that creative people will continue to create no matter what. It is certainly clear that millions of people - bricklayers, chefs, landscape artists, people working for Microsoft - create even though they do not enjoy any intellectual property as a result of their work. McDonalds, which enjoyed neither a patent on the hamburger nor copyright on the word 'hamburger', nonetheless managed to go on and create an empire worth billions of dollars.

It is indeed arguable that copyright (and other forms of intellectual property) stifle creativity. That was certainly the intent, for example, behind Blackboard's recent lawsuit against Desire2Learn. In the world of fashion design, where creativity abounds, people are encouraged to copy each other. But in the world of popular music, where people (like 'My Sweet Lord' George Harrison) get sued, artists refuse to listen to each others' work with the result that we have slid into the bland depths of boy bands, cover tunes, and American Idol. With such a miserable offering (and a huge decline in the number of titles offered) no wonder CD sales have declined! (I mean, seriously - did you rush out to buy Paris Hilton's new album?)

As I argue in my article, copyright is essentially a means of allowing people to take what they've borrowed from elsewhere (like Paul Simon did in 'Graceland') and stamp the lable 'theirs' on it. Virtually nothing is completely original, but copyright acts as though the whole work was. It allows people to stead from the ideas, culture, language that we have all created in common and to lable it their own.

The Disney Corporation is a good example. It is very well documented that Mickey Mouse was copied from a Buster keaton character. http://www.authorama.com/free-culture-4.html That's the way it was back in the early days of Hollywood, when strong copyright protection would have kept culture locked into places like London and Paris, and would have prevented the Americanfilm industry from talking off at all.

As Lessig points out, "
the catalog of Disney work drawing upon the work of others is astonishing when set together: Snow White (1937), Fantasia (1940), Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942), /Song of the South (1946), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), /Robin Hood (1952), Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955), Mulan (1998), Sleeping Beauty (1959), 101 Dalmatians (1961), The Sword in the Stone (1963), and The Jungle Book (1967)."

I have nothing against Disney's practice here. "Rip, mix, burn." That's how Disney built his empire. And that same freedom should be allowed the creative artists of today, instead of the lockdown society in which they must toil.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Drupal Documentation

Responding to this item in KairosNews wherein it is argued, regarding documentation problems, that users should "revise the existing documentation or provide new text as needed and negotiate with the project to have your changes included."

The problem is not that the help documents do not exist, mostly.

The problem is
(a) that the Drupal website is very badly organized, and
(b) searches for Drupal help are generally futile, and
(c) help that is located is often obsolete or wrong

In other words, the solution is out of our hands. We do not control, and cannot change, the Drupal website. And therefore we cannot fix the documentation problem.

I documented many of the specific instances in my 13-part series on installing Drupal last year (that it took 13 parts is an indication of the problems I was facing - yes, I was trying to do a lot of non-standard stuff - but the point is that it gave me a very clear view of the problem).

The problem is, to be more specific:

(b) searches for help on the Drupal site typically result in lists of meaningless and useless discussion pages, rather than anything like documentation, and

(a) even when you land on a page that might be useful, such as a module distribution page, help is not available from that page

(c) and when you actually find some help, it frequently refers to a module that is now obsolete or process that no longer exists

I don't know why, but search engines are utterly unable to distinguish between what is important on the Drupal website and what is utterly trivial. Hence, a search for something specific displays a long list of meaningless chatter, rather than a help page.

They are not helped at all by the Drupal website. Consider, for example, the help page at http://drupal.org/node/363 (this was chosen at random; it is completely typical). Note first that the URL offers us no help. The page title is "Basic site configuration | drupal.org" (everything is 'drupal.org').

On the page, terminology is inconsistent and vague. For example, "You will want to start your configuration with your drupal site's basic settings can be found on the settings page, which you can reach by clicking administer » settings in the navigation block." Clicking the link does not take you to 'basic settings' but rather 'Settings'. This page contains another link to 'General Settings' (note that you still haven't found anything) and very advanced topics, such as 'clean URLs' (where you are helpfully told "this works only for Apache servers which have the LoadModule rewrite_module configured and mod_rewrite enabled in httpd.conf configuration file" (no links).

On the 'General Settings' page ( http://drupal.org/node/43794 ) we are told how to set the site name, email address, slogan, etc. But nowhere on this page are we told that these options are reached by clicking on by clicking administer » settings. If we were searching for a way to change the slogan, even if we landed on this page, we would be completely stymied (in fact, of course, the search result for 'slogan' http://drupal.org/search/node/slogan does not take us anywhere near this page).

Now it's all very easy to say that people should fix this. But there is a lot more to simply writing some decent documentation needed to solve these problems. Specifically:

(a) The Drupal website needs to be split from the Drupal developer community website and the Drupal user community website. It is just a bad idea to mix up discussion threads with documentation, especially when the volume of discussion dwarfs that of the documentation.

(b) Drupal elements (such as, say, the 'Administration Menu') should be named, and this name used in both titles of documentation pages and links to those pages.

(c) Help pages on the Drupal.org should be rewritten to provide help on the specific topic. Boilerplate links to generic pages (something very common in the module documentation) should be avoided. Links that confuse (such as 'There are many other places to configure Drupal.') should be avoided. Self-congratulation ("A lot of the information you are asked to supply on the settings page is self-explanatory") should be eliminated.

(d) Drupal's internal search should be altered to give priority to certain types of documents (such as help pages) - despite the software design, not all nodes are equal.

(e) Documentation for different versions of Drupal should be on different websites or should be very clearly marked as such (colour-coding documentation for each version would be a good idea).

(f) Modules should be required to pass compatability tests before being included in Drupal's documentation or search results. Documentation and code for modules that have been abandoned or obsoleted should be removed from the site.

(g) Other solutions, which I may not have thought of.

Now - importantly - a typical open source user can't just walk in and make changes like this.

Even if they created perfect documentation, it would not appear on Drupal's website unless the website was radically redesigned, which is not likely to be done at the request of a typical user.

And even then, splitting the site apart, changing the search code, etc., are well beyond any sort of fixes the average user can provide.

The fact is, the people at the top (or the core, or the heart, or whatever) of the Drupal project will have to address this. Nobody else has the influence or expertise to do so, and very few people have the years of dedicated service it would take to attain such experience and influence. That's just a fact.

The problems with Drupal documentation are systemic, and because very little attention has been paid to the issues that have been widely cited, the problems persist. people - even people who devote the bulk of their time to open source - are not willing to pursue solutions in this light.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Naming Does Not Necessitate Existence

Responding to Learning is Scaffolded Construction by Mark H. Bickhard.

OK, the core of the argument is here. Everything before it leads to it, and everything after follows from it:

Encoding models can tempt the presupposition of a passive mind: neither the wax
nor the transducing retina need to be endogenously active. But there is no such
temptation regarding interaction systems. The world could not impress a competent interaction system into a passive mind. Interaction systems must be constructed. Pragmatism forces constructivism.
Furthermore, unless we assume that the organism already knows which
constructions will succeed, these constructions must be tried out and removed or
modified if they are not correct. Pragmatism forces a variation and selection
constructivism: an evolutionary epistemology (Campbell, 1974).

Now how could we get ourselves into such a situation? The answer lies in the presuppositions that led to this point. Specifically:

A theory of encoding is, therefore, what we need to complete the bridge
between … semantics and the computational story about thinking. … [An
account of] encoding [is] pie in the sky so far. … we haven’t got a ghost of a
Naturalistic theory about [encoding]. Fodor, 1987, pg. 81

and

The right questions are: “How do mental representations represent?” and
“How are we to reconcile atomism about the individuation of concepts with
the holism of such key cognitive processes as inductive inference and the
fixation of belief?” Pretty much all we know about the first question is that
here Hume was, for once, wrong: mental representation doesn’t reduce to
mental imaging. Fodor, 1994, pg. 113

In other words, the mind is depicted as a representational system. But there is a disconnect between representations and the things being represented. For example, some representations may be false; that is (to simplify) the state of affairs represented does not actually exist. Hence representations cannot be caused entirely by the phenomena that cause them. Rather, they must be constructed, through some process of interpretation of those phenomena.

The problem with depending on Fodor to set up the state of affairs is that a reference to Fodor brings with it quite a bit of baggage. Fodor, like Chomsky, argues that the linguistic capacity is innate. Fodor calls this 'the language of thought' and argues, not only that grammar and syntax are innate, as Chomsky argues, but also that the semantics are innate, that we are both with (the capacity to represent) all the concepts we can express. How is it that we can use the term 'electric typewriter' in a sentence? because we were born with it.

But what if Fodor's theory, in particular, and the representational theory of mind, in general, are wrong? What if perception and cognition are not the result of a process of 'encoding'. What if the human mind is much more like Hume's version (very misleadingly described as a blob of wax)? What if semantic properties, such as 'truth' and 'falsehood' (and moral properties, such as 'right' and 'wrong') are more like sensations or emotions, instead of an account of some sort of correspondence between a proposition in the mind (as interpreted through a constructed mental representation) and a state of affairs in the world?

Because of Fodor's perspective, he wants you to believe that empiricism promotes certain corollaries:

1. The mind is a passive receiver of input and knowledge,
2. Learning is independent of prior state and of context,
3. The ideal form of learning is errorless learning.
It is certainly debatable whether Hume would believe any of these, and they are certainly false of modern empiricism. Much is made of the failures of causal theories of perception (which is why simple encoding fails, and why a representational theory is required in its place). But what if, as Hume says, cause is nothing more than the natural human inclination to ascribe a relation between two objects when the one frequently follows from the other? What if causation itself is something humans bring to the table? This is certainly not passive perception - humans, on Hume's theory, though 'custom and habit' interpret a perception as one thing or another.

These considerations constitute a response to the interaction theory proposed in this paper. Representations, on this theory, constitute 'interaction possibilities', that is, possible responses an agent may undertake in response to given stimuli (or perceptions). These have all of the properties of representations (truth values, content) but - by virtue of being implicit, do not suffer from the pitfalls of representationalism. We don't need to show how it was caused by this or that, because only the interaction possibility, not the representation itself, is caused by the phenomena. "Encoding models, in contrast, are not future oriented, but backward oriented, into the past, attempting to look back down the input stream."

Fair enough, and a spirited response to the myriad problems facing representational theories of mind (problems imposed from it more empiricist critics), but if Hume's position (as understood here, and not mangled by Fodor) stands, then this proposition does not follow: "The world could not impress a competent
interaction system into a passive mind. Interaction systems must be constructed." And of course, if this does not follow, the need for scaffolding, and the attendant infrastructure required, does not follow.

And Hume's position stands. We are misled by the 'wax' analogy. Even the slightest inspection reveals that perceptions are not like metal stamps, nor are brains anything like lumps of wax. A brain is a complex entity, such that when a perception makes an impression on any bit of it (ie., when a photon strikes a neural cell) the mind is not left with a resultant 'dent' but rather a myriad of disturbances and reflections, rather like the way water ripples when struck by a pebble or a raindrop. Some of these ripples and reflections have more or less permanent consequences; just as repeated waves form surface features, such as sandbars, that change the shape of subsequent waves, so also repeated perceptions form connections between neurons, that change the way the impact of a photon ripples through the neural network.

The world, therefore, could impress a competent interaction system (so-called) into a passive mind. And therefore (happily) interaction systems (so-called) need not be constructed, which is a good thing.

Why is it a good thing? Because if the interaction system (so-called - I am saying 'so-called' because the resulting neural structure may be described as an 'interaction system' or may be described as something else) is constructed then there must be some entity that does the constructing. And if this is the case, then there are only two possibilities:

Either, 1, the construction is accomplished by the learner him or her self, which raises the question of how the learner could attain a mental state sufficiently complex to be able to accomplish such constructions, or

2. an external agency must accomplish the construction, in which case the question is raised as to how the perceptions emanating from the external agent to the learning agent could be perceived in such a way as to accomplish that construction.

The pragmatist turn does not resolve the problem. Indeed, it makes the problem even worse. Bickhard writes, " Pragmatism forces a variation and selection
constructivism: an evolutionary epistemology." This means even more constructions must be constructed, both those that survive the 'evolutionary trial' and those that don't.

Indeed, the use of 'evolutionary' terminology to describe the state of affairs here is very misleading.

The problem is, any representational theory - whether it employs virtual propositions or not - needs elements that are simply not found in nature. They need 'truth' and 'representation' and even (on most accounts) 'causality'. They need, in other words, precisely the sort of things an intelligent agent would bring to the table. They need to be constructed in order to give them these properties. They need, in other words, to be created.

Far from being an evolutionary theory of learning, this sort of theory is in fact a creationist theory of learning. It amounts to an assertion that the combination of a mind and some phenomena are not sufficient to accomplish learning, that some agency, either an intermediating external agency, or an internal homuncular agency, are needed. But both such agencies presuppose the phenomenon they are adduced to explain.

In general, the ascription of such intentional properties - truth, meaning, causation, desire, right, interaction - which are not present naturally in the human mind or the phenomena it perceives can only be accomplished through some such circular form of reasoning. Historically, the existence of these properties has been used in order to deduce some necessary entity - an innate idea of God, an innate knowledge of grammar or syntax, or scaffolded construction, among others (the putative existence of this entity is then used to explain the phenomena in question, to add circularity on circularity).

These properties, however, are interpreted properties. They constitute, at most, a way of describing something. They are names we use to describe various sets of phenomena, and do not exist in and of themselves. Consequently, nothing follows from them. Naming does not necessitate existence.



Bickhard's response:

It is difficult to reply to something with so many mis-readings, both of my own work and of others.

I cite Fodor concerning encodings because even he, as one of the paramount exponents of such a position, acknowledges that we don't have any idea of how it could happen. Since the focus of all of my critical remarks is against such an encodingist position, it's not clear to me how I end up being grouped with Fodor. Certainly nothing actually written commits me to any kind of innatism - that too is one of my primary targets in my general work. In fact, one of the primary paths away from the arguments for innatism is an emergentist constructivism. (This, of course, requires a metaphysical account of emergence - see the several papers and chapters that I have on that issue.)

I don't even know where to start regarding Hume, but there are some comments below as relevant to more specific issues.

r. Representations, on this theory, constitute 'interaction possibilities', that is, possible responses an agent may undertake in response to given stimuli (or perceptions). These have all of the properties of representations (truth values, content) but - by virtue of being implicit, do not suffer from the pitfalls of representationalism. We don't need to show how it was caused by this or that, because only the interaction possibility, not the representation itself, is caused by the phenomena.
Representation is constituted, according to this model, by indications of interaction possibilities, not by interaction possibilities per se. And such indications are not caused, but, as attacked later, constructed.

I fail to see how even the account of Hume given supports the claim:
If Hume's position (as understood here, and not mangled by Fodor) stands, then this proposition does not follow: "The world could not impress a competent
interaction system into a passive mind. Interaction systems must be constructed."

That is:
But what if, as Hume says, cause is nothing more than the natural human inclination to ascribe a relation between two objects when the one frequently follows from the other? What if causation itself is something humans bring to the table? This is certainly not passive perception - humans, on Hume's theory, though 'custom and habit' interpret a perception as one thing or another.
First, I'm not addressing cause at all. Second, Hume explicitly said that he had no idea how perception worked, so the claims being made on his behalf here are rather difficult to fit with Hume's position. Third, interpretation, presumably based on custom and habit, is not necessarily passive, though Hume didn't have much of a model of activity beyond association. Fourth, such "interpretations" are not themselves caused, so they constitute a partial gesture in the direction of construction. I'm arguing that such constructions are of indications of interaction potentials, and that the basic properties of representation are emergent in such indications. Fifth, independent of all of that, how does any such interpretation of Hume undo the basic point that "the world could not impress a competent interaction system into a passive mind"? There appears to be a serious non-sequitur here. The comments about ripples and reflections would both seem to advert to cause in the mental realm, and how could that be rendered coherent given the other comments about cause, and do not address issues of interaction or interaction systems at all.

if the interaction system (so-called - I am saying 'so-called' because the resulting neural structure may be described as an 'interaction system' or may be described as something else) is constructed then there must be some entity that does the constructing.
I fail to see this at all. By this reasoning, there must be some entity that does the constructing of life and organisms and the genome, etc. This truly does lead to creationism, but, if that is the position taken, then the path is pretty clear (it is as well pretty clear who takes such a position). On the other hand, the premise is clearly false. That is one of the central points of variation and selection constructivist models - things can be constructed, that fit particular selection criteria, without there being any external or teleological constructor. The possibility that the organism, mind, etc. does the constructing itself is dismissed with a question of how it becomes sufficiently complex to do that sort of thing. But the ensuing "discussion" seems to assume that there is no answer to this question. I have in fact addressed similar issues in multiple other places. And again, biological evolution itself is proof in principle of the possibilities of such "auto-construction".

Bickhard writes, " Pragmatism forces a variation and selection
constructivism: an evolutionary epistemology." This means even more constructions must be constructed, both those that survive the 'evolutionary trial' and those that don't.
Sorry about that, but if constructions are possible, then they are possible, and if the lack of foreknowledge requires that many constructions be made that are ultimately found to fail, then get used to it. I take it that the author is also greatly exercised about biological evolution, which similarly involves lots of errors along the way.

The problem is, any representational theory - whether it employs virtual propositions or not - needs elements that are simply not found in nature. They need 'truth' and 'representation' and even (on most accounts) 'causality'. They need, in other words, precisely the sort of things an intelligent agent would bring to the table.
Are human beings not part of nature? Are frogs not part of nature? If they are part of nature, then "representation", "truth", and so on are also part of nature, and are in fact found in nature. The problem is to account for that, not to sneer at attempts to account for it. Or, if the preferred answer is that they are not part of nature, then that agenda should be made a little more clear, and we could debate naturalism versus anti-naturalism (dualism?) - or perhaps a simple physicalist materialism?

Far from being an evolutionary theory of learning, this sort of theory is in fact a creationist theory of learning. It amounts to an assertion that the combination of a mind and some phenomena are not sufficient to accomplish learning, that some agency, either an intermediating external agency, or an internal homuncular agency, are needed. But both such agencies presuppose the phenomenon they are adduced to explain.
Since it is the author of these diatribes who rejected any kind of emergentist constructivism, it would seem that the epithet of "creationist" fits the other side. Certainly it does not fit the model I have outlined. Note also that the possibility of an agent doing his or her own construction is here rendered as "an internal homuncular agency". Where did that come from ("homuncular" was not in the earlier characterization of "auto" construction)? If constructions can generate emergents, then internal constructions can generate emergents, and, if those emergents are of the right kind, then what is to be explained is not at all presupposed. If anything legitimately follows from anything in this rant, it follows from the authors own assumptions, not from mine.

In general, the ascription of such intentional properties - truth, meaning, causation, desire, right, interaction - which are not present naturally in the human mind or the phenomena it perceives can only be accomplished through some such circular form of reasoning. Historically, the existence of these properties has been used in order to deduce some necessary entity - an innate idea of God, an innate knowledge of grammar or syntax, or scaffolded construction, among others (the putative existence of this entity is then used to explain the phenomena in question, to add circularity on circularity).
Earlier, causation at least was located solely in the human mind. But I take it from this that intentionality is in toto supposed to be not a real class of phenomena; none of these properties or phenomena actually exist - ?? If that is the position, then to what is the illusion of intentionality presented, or in what is the illusion of intentionality generated (constructed?). I cannot make enough sense of this to even criticize it. If what is being asked for (though not very politely) is an account of how such circularities regarding normative and intentional phenomena are to be avoided, then I would point to, for example:

Bickhard, M. H. (2006). Developmental Normativity and Normative Development. In L. Smith, J. Voneche (Eds.) Norms in Human Development. (57-76). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bickhard, M. H. (2005). Consciousness and Reflective Consciousness. Philosophical Psychology, 18(2), 205-218.

Bickhard, M. H. (2004). Process and Emergence: Normative Function and Representation. Axiomathes — An International Journal in Ontology and Cognitive Systems, 14, 135-169. Reprinted from: Bickhard, M. H. (2003). Process and Emergence: Normative Function and Representation. In: J. Seibt (Ed.) Process Theories: Crossdisciplinary Studies in Dynamic Categories. (121-155). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.

These properties, however, are interpreted properties. They constitute, at most, a way of describing something. They are names we use to describe various sets of phenomena, and do not exist in and of themselves. Consequently, nothing follows from them. Naming does not necessitate existence.
Since intentionality seems to have been denied, I fail to understand what "interpretation" or "naming" could possibly be. So, on his own account, these sentences seem to be meaningless - the basic terms in them have no referents (but, then, what is reference?).

I apologize for my paper having been the occasion for such mean spirited nugatory "discussion". I have tried to keep responses "in kind" to a minimum. I am not accustomed to such as this, though perhaps it constitutes a "learning experience".







My reply:

Mark H. Bickhard wrote:
It is difficult to reply to something with so many mis-readings, both of my own work and of others.
I think this comment has as much to do with the other discussion as with this.

I cite Fodor concerning encodings because even he, as one of the paramount exponents of such a position, acknowledges that we don't have any idea of how it could happen. Since the focus of all of my critical remarks is against such an encodingist position, it's not clear to me how I end up being grouped with Fodor.
One person can be against a person in one way, and grouped with him in another. A Protestant may be different from a Catholic, but this is not an argument against lumping them together as Christians. Similarly, though you disagree with Fodor on encoding, you nonetheless agree with him on mental contents (specifically, that they exist, that they have semantical properties, that they constitute representations, etc.). "Such indications of interaction possibilities," you write, "I will claim, constitute the emergence of a primitive form of representation." Moreover, "such indications of interactive potentiality have truth value. They can be true or false; the indicated possibilities can exist or not exist. The indications constitute implicit predications of the environment — this environment is one that will support this indicated kind of interaction — and those predications can be true or false."

Related: Clark Quinn asks, "Stephen, are you suggesting that there are no internal representations, and taking the connectionist viewpoint to a non-representational extreme?" Generally, yes. Though I wouldn't call it an "extreme". But let me be clear about this. I do not deny that there is a representationalist discourse about the mind (to deny this would be to deny the obvious). People certainly talk about mental contents. But it does not follow that mental contents exist. Just as, people may talk about unicorns, but it doesn't follow that unicorns exist. To me, saying 'there are representations' and saying 'there are interaction possibilities' is to make the same kind of move, specifically, to look at what might generally be called mental phenomena, and to claim to see in them something with representational and semantic properties. But since these properties do not exist in nature, it follows that they cannot be seeing them. Therefore, they are engaged in (as Hume might say) a manner of speaking about mental properties.

I am certainly not the first person to make this sort of observation. You could liken it to Dennett's 'intentional stance' if you like, though I would find a more apt analogy to be the assertion that you are engaging in a type of 'folk psychology' as described by people like Churchland and Stich. Yes, as Quinn suggests, a learning system can bootstrap itself. But there are limits. A learning system cannot bootstrap itself into onmiscience, for example. As Quinn suggests, "the leap between neural networks and our level of discourse being fairly long." And in some cases, impossibly long - you can't get there from here. And my position is that the sort of system Bickhard proposes is one of those.
Certainly nothing actually written commits me to any kind of innatism - that too is one of my primary targets in my general work.
I did not write that you are committed to innatism. I wrote that the position you take commits you to either innatism or external agency.

The reason is, if a mind (a neural network) cannot bootstrap itself into the type of representation you describe here, then the representation must come from some other source. And the only two sources are innate abilities (the move that Fodor and Chomsky take) or an external agency (the move creationists take). You can disagree with my primary assertion - you can say we can too get from there to here (though I don't see this as proven in your paper). But if my primary position is correct, then there is really no dispute that you are forced into one or the other alternative.

What you are in fact doing is giving us a story about external agency. This is evident, for example, when you say "It depends on whether or not the current environment is in fact one that would support the indicated kind of interaction." You want 'the environment' to be the external agent. But the environment works causally. And the environment does not (except via some form of creationism) work intentionally. It doesn't assert (contra the language you use) any sort of notion of 'true' or 'false'; it just is. What is happening is that you are giving the environment properties it does not have, specifically, counterfactuals, as in "one that would support the indicated kind of interaction." But there is no fact of the matter here. An environment's counterfactual properties depend on our theories about the world (that's why David Lewis takes the desperate move of arguing that possible worlds are real).
In fact, one of the primary paths away from the arguments for innatism is an emergentist constructivism. (This, of course, requires a metaphysical account of emergence - see the several papers and chapters that I have on that issue.)
I have looked at what you have posted online.
I don't even know where to start regarding Hume, but there are some comments below as relevant to more specific issues.
r. Representations, on this theory, constitute 'interaction possibilities', that is, possible responses an agent may undertake in response to given stimuli (or perceptions). These have all of the properties of representations (truth values, content) but - by virtue of being implicit, do not suffer from the pitfalls of representationalism. We don't need to show how it was caused by this or that, because only the interaction possibility, not the representation itself, is caused by the phenomena.
Representation is constituted, according to this model, by indications of interaction possibilities, not by interaction possibilities per se. And such indications are not caused, but, as attacked later, constructed.
With all due respect, I consider this to be a sleight of hand.

Let's work through this level by level.

There are, shall we say, states of affairs - ways the world actually is.

Then there are representations - things that stand for the way the world actually is (the way you can use a pebble, for example, to stand for Kareenm Abdul-Jabbar).

One type of representation (the type postulated by Fodor and company) is composed of sentences (more specifically, propositions). The difficulties with this position are spelled out in your paper. But another type of representation, postulated here, is composed of interactions.

Except that the interactions do not yet exist, because they are future events. Therefore, they exist only as potentials, or as you say (borrowing from Derrida?) "traces" of interactions.

Well, what can a 'trace' be if it is not an actual interaction?

It has to be exactly the same sort of thing Fodor is describing, but with a different name. It has to be some sort of countefactual proposition. Only a counterfactual proposition can describe counterfactuals and stand in a semantical relation (ie., be true or false) to the world.

That's why I think this is just a sleight of hand.

I fail to see how even the account of Hume given supports the claim:
If Hume's position (as understood here, and not mangled by Fodor) stands, then this proposition does not follow: "The world could not impress a competent interaction system into a passive mind. Interaction systems must be constructed."
That is:
But what if, as Hume says, cause is nothing more than the natural human inclination to ascribe a relation between two objects when the one frequently follows from the other? What if causation itself is something humans bring to the table? This is certainly not passive perception - humans, on Hume's theory, though 'custom and habit' interpret a perception as one thing or another.
First, I'm not addressing cause at all.
I'll give you this, but claim a chit, which I'll cash in below.
Second, Hume explicitly said that he had no idea how perception worked, so the claims being made on his behalf here are rather difficult to fit with Hume's position.
Hume writes, "All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call IMPRESSIONS and IDEAS. The difference betwixt these consists in the degrees of force and liveliness, with which they strike upon the mind, and make their way into our thought or consciousness." And "There is another division of our perceptions, which it will be convenient to observe, and which extends itself both to our impressions and ideas. This division is into SIMPLE and COMPLEX." And "Having by these divisions given an order and arrangement to our objects, we may now apply ourselves to consider with the more accuracy their qualities and relations. This is from the Treatise, Book 1, Part 1, Section 1.
http://www.class.uidaho.edu/mickelsen/ToC/hume%20treatise%20ToC.htm

Given that he then went on to compose three volumes based on the account of perceptions outlines here, I would say that he believed that he did indeed have a very clear idea of how perception works. What he does not claim to know, of course, is how perceptions are caused. But that is a very different matter.

For as to the specific claim about causation, "Cause is nothing more than the natural human inclination to ascribe a relation between two objects when the one frequently follows from the other," I turn to the Enquiry: "Suppose a person... to be brought on a sudden into this world... He would not, at first, by any
reasoning, be able to reach the idea of cause and effect... Their conjunction may be arbitrary and casual. There may be no reason to infer the existence of
one from the appearance of the other....Suppose, again, that he has acquired more experience, and has lived so long in the world as to have observed familiar objects or events to be constantly conjoined together; what is the consequence of this experience? He immediately infers the existence of one object from the appearance of the other.... And though he should be convinced that his understanding has no part in the operation, he would nevertheless continue in the same course of thinking. There is some other principle which determines him to form such a conclusion...This principle is Custom or Habit."
Enquiry Section 5, Part 1, 35-36. http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/%7Erbear/hume/hume5.html

I maintain that I have represented Hume correctly.
Third, interpretation, presumably based on custom and habit, is not necessarily passive, though Hume didn't have much of a model of activity beyond association.
I was not the one to make that assertion. Hume is an empiricist, and it was you who cited the principle that 'The mind is a passive receiver of input and knowledge'. As suggested, by 'custom and habit' Hume doesn't mean much beyond association. I am willing to allow slightly more; for example, I have in presentations asserted that beyond simple Hebbian association we can also postulate activity such as Botzmann 'settling' and 'annealing' along with, of course, some story about back propagation (though, of course, that story involves past 'training' events, not postulated traces of future training events).

I think that this seems to me to be non-controversial as a principle, that insofar as there is a model of activity, this model of activity cannot ascribe to that activity forces other than the state and nature of the brain itself, and stimulations of that brain (aka 'perceptions'). Specifically (and this is where Clark Quinn calls me 'radical') I argue that it cannot include the postulation of events or entities with semantical properties (aka 'mental contents', 'propositions','representations', and relevant to the current discussion, 'counterfactuals'). because - though you don't want me to lump you in with Fodor - the same sort of problems 'encodings' have are shared by these other events or entities.
Fourth, such "interpretations" are not themselves caused, so they constitute a partial gesture in the direction of construction.
I'll give you this - but claim the same chit I did above. We'll come back to this.
I'm arguing that such constructions are of indications of interaction potentials, and that the basic properties of representation are emergent in such indications.
Fifth, independent of all of that, how does any such interpretation of Hume undo the basic point that "the world could not impress a competent interaction system into a passive mind"?
By "a competent interaction system into a passive mind" I mean the sort of entity you describe, that stands in a semantical relation to the world.
There appears to be a serious non-sequitur here. The comments about ripples and reflections would both seem to advert to cause in the mental realm, and how could that be rendered coherent given the other comments about cause, and do not address issues of interaction or interaction systems at all.
... and yet does not advert to cause.

The comment about ripples and reflections is a metaphor to suggest that the same kind of thing happens in the brain. 'Causation' is the theory used to explain both. My views on the nature of causation are similar to Hume's.

And - just as there is no 'truth' or 'representation' or 'indications of interaction potentials' in the ripples in the pond, nor either are there any such in the brain.
if the interaction system (so-called - I am saying 'so-called' because the resulting neural structure may be described as an 'interaction system' or may be described as something else) is constructed then there must be some entity that does the constructing.
I fail to see this at all. By this reasoning, there must be some entity that does the constructing of life and organisms and the genome, etc. This truly does lead to creationism, but, if that is the position taken, then the path is pretty clear (it is as well pretty clear who takes such a position). On the other hand, the premise is clearly false.
OK, now I'm claiming my chit.

You are saying the following:
That is one of the central points of variation and selection constructivist models - things can be constructed, that fit particular selection criteria, without there being any external or teleological constructor.
Now of course a "variation and selection model" is, essentially, evolution. In a thing that can be reproduced (such as, say, a gene) introduce some sort of variation (such as, say, a mutation) in various reproductions. Then, though some sort of test (such as, say, survival) select one of those variations to carry on the reproductive chain. It is, in other words, a fancy way of saying 'trial and error'.

Strictly speaking, "variation and selection constructivism" is a misnomer. The term 'construction' implies a deliberately formed entity with some goal or purpose in mind - in other words, an act of creation. It's like coming up with a theory of 'evolutionary creationism'.

Still, leaving the connotations aside, there is a story that can be told here. But there is a crucial difference between 'variation and selection' and what is being offered here.

An analogy: there is no sense to be made of the assertion that the species that remain, red in tooth and claw, after the ravages of natural selection, are 'true'. Nor indeed would anybody say that they 'represent' nature. It is even a stretch to say that they are the 'best'. They just happen to be what was left after repeated iterations of a natural process. There was no sense of truth, representation or morality in the process that created them, and hence there is no sense of truth, representation or morality in what was created. Even the phrase 'survival of the fittest' attributes an intentionality that is just not present. It could equally well be (given our world's experiences with comets and ice ages and humans) 'survival of the luckiest'. Certainly, the major attribute that explains the survival of, say, kangaroos, is 'living in Australia'.

So - even if a process of trial and error, or shall we say, variation and selection, results in a given mental state, from whence does it obtain its semantic properties? The state of affairs that produces a mental state could indeed produce any number of mental states (and has, so far, produced roughly ten billion of them through history). It would be a miracle that any of them, all by itself, would become representative, much less true.

The word 'construction' implies a 'construction worker' for a reason. The word 'construction' suggests semantic attributes. That is why it is no surprise to see Bickhard claim them in his essay.

So what is the difference between natural selection, which does not produce semantic properties, and variation and selection constructivism, which does?

It is this: the entities or events that do the selection in natural selection actually exist. They are past entities that could have actually informed the selection. The entities in the model postulated here, however, do not exist in the brain or the natural world. They are future events, counterfactuals, potentials or traces. They exist only insofar as they are postulated. But if they are postulated, we are begging the question of how they were created in the first place.

Natural selection makes a great scientific theory. It explains numerous phenomena, from the existence of alligators to the operation of the immune system. But natural selection makes a lousy semantic theory. The only way to introduce 'truth' or 'representation' or 'content' into such a system is to invent it, to introduce it surreptitiously using some sort of sleight of hand, as I have described above.
The possibility that the organism, mind, etc. does the constructing itself is dismissed with a question of how it becomes sufficiently complex to do that sort of thing. But the ensuing "discussion" seems to assume that there is no answer to this question. I have in fact addressed similar issues in multiple other places. And again, biological evolution itself is proof in principle of the possibilities of such "auto-construction".
Biological evolution is proof of no such thing.

It is a mangling of the language to say that animals were 'constructed'.

There is, indeed, self-organization. I have referred to it myself many times. But it is not a process of 'consruction'. It is not imbued of intentional properties. Mental states do not become 'true' or 'representational' because we evolve into them. We do not in any way 'select' them; actual phenomena (and not non-existing counterfactuals) strengthen one or another in our minds.

Bickhard writes, " Pragmatism forces a variation and selection
constructivism: an evolutionary epistemology." This means even more constructions must be constructed, both those that survive the 'evolutionary trial' and those that don't.
Sorry about that, but if constructions are possible, then they are possible, and if the lack of foreknowledge requires that many constructions be made that are ultimately found to fail, then get used to it. I take it that the author is also greatly exercised about biological evolution, which similarly involves lots of errors along the way.
Every iteration of a duck is slightly different from every other. I don't have a problem with that. I believe that the reproduction of ducks, of multiple diverse types of ducks, is a good thing.

But what I don't believe is that a reproduction of a duck can be described as a test of such-and-such a theory, that the natural variation of ducks produces some sort of 'true' duck or even an 'optimal' duck, much less a 'representational' duck. A duck is just a duck. It doesn't mean anything.
The problem is, any representational theory - whether it employs virtual propositions or not - needs elements that are simply not found in nature. They need 'truth' and 'representation' and even (on most accounts) 'causality'. They need, in other words, precisely the sort of things an intelligent agent would bring to the table.
Are human beings not part of nature? Are frogs not part of nature? If they are part of nature, then "representation", "truth", and so on are also part of nature, and are in fact found in nature. The problem is to account for that, not to sneer at attempts to account for it. Or, if the preferred answer is that they are not part of nature, then that agenda should be made a little more clear, and we could debate naturalism versus anti-naturalism (dualism?) - or perhaps a simple physicalist materialism?
When you say things like "The problem is to account for that, not to sneer at attempts to account for it" you are making exactly the same move people like Chomsky and Fodor make (you may as well have said 'poverty of the stimulus' and quoted Chomsky directly).

We have, it is argued, the capacity to think of universals, such as 'all ducks quack'. But universals do not exist in nature (because they extend to non-existent future events). Therefore... what? Chomsky says they must exist in the mind. You say... what? That they are the result of trial and error? How would that work for these non-existing future events?

What is the case, in fact, is that what we think are universals, what we call universals, are not actually universals. They are summarizations, they are abstractions, they are something that can actually coexist with the stimuli, however impoverished.

You cannot assume representations in order to argue for a representational theory of mind.
Far from being an evolutionary theory of learning, this sort of theory is in fact a creationist theory of learning. It amounts to an assertion that the combination of a mind and some phenomena are not sufficient to accomplish learning, that some agency, either an intermediating external agency, or an internal homuncular agency, are needed. But both such agencies presuppose the phenomenon they are adduced to explain.
Since it is the author of these diatribes who rejected any kind of emergentist constructivism, it would seem that the epithet of "creationist" fits the other side. Certainly it does not fit the model I have outlined. Note also that the possibility of an agent doing his or her own construction is here rendered as "an internal homuncular agency". Where did that come from ("homuncular" was not in the earlier characterization of "auto" construction)? If constructions can generate emergents, then internal constructions can generate emergents, and, if those emergents are of the right kind, then what is to be explained is not at all presupposed. If anything legitimately follows from anything in this rant, it follows from the authors own assumptions, not from mine.
This really is a gloss of my position, and not a particularly kind one. I hope this version of it is clearer.

In general, the ascription of such intentional properties - truth, meaning, causation, desire, right, interaction - which are not present naturally in the human mind or the phenomena it perceives can only be accomplished through some such circular form of reasoning. Historically, the existence of these properties has been used in order to deduce some necessary entity - an innate idea of God, an innate knowledge of grammar or syntax, or scaffolded construction, among others (the putative existence of this entity is then used to explain the phenomena in question, to add circularity on circularity).
Earlier, causation at least was located solely in the human mind. But I take it from this that intentionality is in toto supposed to be not a real class of phenomena; none of these properties or phenomena actually exist - ?? If that is the position, then to what is the illusion of intentionality presented, or in what is the illusion of intentionality generated (constructed?). I cannot make enough sense of this to even criticize it.
Oh goodness, what an equivocation.

When I say that 'unicorns only exist in the mind' I am not in any way asserting that large (or I guess very tiny?) horned horses are prancing about the cerebral cortex.

If what is being asked for (though not very politely) is an account of how such circularities regarding normative and intentional phenomena are to be avoided, then I would point to, for example:

Bickhard, M. H. (2006). Developmental Normativity and Normative Development. In L. Smith, J. Voneche (Eds.) Norms in Human Development. (57-76). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bickhard, M. H. (2005). Consciousness and Reflective Consciousness. Philosophical Psychology, 18(2), 205-218.

Bickhard, M. H. (2004). Process and Emergence: Normative Function and Representation. Axiomathes — An International Journal in Ontology and Cognitive Systems, 14, 135-169. Reprinted from: Bickhard, M. H. (2003). Process and Emergence: Normative Function and Representation. In: J. Seibt (Ed.) Process Theories: Crossdisciplinary Studies in Dynamic Categories. (121-155). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.

These properties, however, are interpreted properties. They constitute, at most, a way of describing something. They are names we use to describe various sets of phenomena, and do not exist in and of themselves. Consequently, nothing follows from them. Naming does not necessitate existence.
Since intentionality seems to have been denied, I fail to understand what "interpretation" or "naming" could possibly be. So, on his own account, these sentences seem to be meaningless - the basic terms in them have no referents (but, then, what is reference?).

I apologize for my paper having been the occasion for such mean spirited nugatory "discussion". I have tried to keep responses "in kind" to a minimum. I am not accustomed to such as this, though perhaps it constitutes a "learning experience".
To take offense at my response is ridiculous. It was certainly not mean-spirited, rude, or anything else. Again, I think you are attributing the properties of some other discussion to this one. I cannot otherwise understand why you would object to my response.

Indeed, in the spirit of completeness, perhaps you can point to sentences in my previous response where I was in fact mean spirited, nugatory, rude, or anything else. What specific sentences did you find objectionable? I most certainly have no wish to cause offense, though I certainly do not take that to preclude the possibility of disagreeing with you.

I submit that I interpreted your position correctly, interpreted Hume correctly (among others), and have fairly and successfully criticized your presentation, and that I did so in an academically responsible manner.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Vagueness of George Siemens

I like George Siemens and he says a lot of good things, but he is often quite vague, an imprecision that can be frustrating. In this discussion of my work on connective knowledge, for example, he observes, "In this model, concepts are distributed entities, not centrally held or understood...and highly dependent on context. Simply, elements change when in connection with other elements." What does he mean by 'elements'? Concepts? Nodes in the network? Entities? You can't just throw a word in there; you need some continuity of reference.

Why is this important? Siemens dislikes the relativism that follows from the model. Fair enough; people disagreed with Kant about the noumenon too. But he writes, "I see a conflict with the fluid notions of subjectivity and that items are what they are only in line with our perceptions...and what items are when they connect based on defined characteristics (call them basic facts, if you will)" And I ask, what does he mean by 'in line' or 'defined characteristics... basic facts' (if they are defined, how can they be basic facts?)

Then he says, "I still see a role for many types of knowledge to hold value based on our recognition of what is there." Now I'm tearing my hair. "Hold value?" What can he mean... does he know? Does he mean "'Snow is white' is 'true' if and only if 'snow is white'?" Or is he simply kicking a chair and saying "Thus I refute Berkeley." In which case I can simply recommend On Certainty (one of my favorite books in the world) and move along.

He continues, "The networked view of knowledge may be more of an augmentation of previous categorizations, rather than a complete displacement." Now I'm quite sure that's not what he means. He is trying to say something like 'knowledge obtained through network semantics does not replace knowledge obtained by more traditional means, but merely augments it.' Fine - if he can give us a coherent account of the knowledge obtained through traditional means. But it is on exactly this point that the traditional theory of knowledge falters. We are left without certainty. You can't "augment" something that doesn't exist.

Here is his main criticism: "At this point, I think Stephen confuses the original meaning inherent in a knowledge element, and the changed meaning that occurs when we combine different knowledge elements in a network structure." Well I am certainly confused, but not, I think, as a result of philosophical error. What can Siemens possibly mean by 'knowledge element'. It's a catch-all term, that refers to whatever you want it to - a proposition, a concept, a system of categorization, an entity in a network. But these are very different things - statements about a 'knowledge element' appear true only because nobody knows what a 'knowledge element' is.

He writes, "Knowledge, in many instances, has clear, defined properties and its meaning is not exclusively derived from networks..." What? Huh? If he is referring to, say, propositions, or concepts, or categorizations, this is exactly not true - but the use of the fuzzy 'knowledge elements' serves to preclude any efforts to pin him down on this. And have I ever said "meaning is derived from networks"? No - I would never use a fuzzy statement like 'derived from' (which seems to suggest, but not entail, some notion of entailment).

He continues, "The meaning of knowledge can be partly a function of the way a network is formed..." Surely he means "the meaning of a item of knowledge," which in turn must mean... again, what? A proposition, etc? Then is he saying "The meaning of a proposition can be partly a function of the way a network is formed..." Well, no, because it's a short straight route to relativism from there (if the meaning of a proposition changes according to context, and if the truth of a proposition is a function of its meaning, then the truth of a proposition changes according to the way the network was form).

What is Siemens's theory of meaning? I'm sorry, but I haven't a clue. He writes, "The fact that the meaning of an entity changes based on how it's networked does not eliminate its original meaning. The aggregated meaning reflects the meaning held in individual knowledge entities." An entity - a node in a network? No.

He has to be saying something like this: for any given description of an event, Q, there is a 'fact of the matter', P, such that, however the meaning of Q changes as a consequence of its interaction with other descriptions D, it remains the case that Q is at least partially a function of P, and never exclusively of D. But if this is what he is saying, there is any number of ways it can be shown to be false, from the incidence of mirages and visions to neural failures to counterfactual statements to simple wishful thinking.

But of course Siemens doesn't have to deal with any of this because his position is never articulated any more clearly than 'Downes says there is no fact of the matter, there is a fact of the matter, thus Downes is wrong'. To which I reply, simply, show me the fact of the matter. Show me one proposition, one concept, one categorization, one anything, the truth (and meaning) of which is inherent in itself and not as a function of the network in which it is embedded.

Siemens says, introducing my work that I explore "many of the concepts I presented in Knowing Knowledge...and that others (notably Dave Snowden and Dave Weinberger) have long advocated - namely that the structured view of knowledge has given way to more diverse ways of organizing, categorizing, and knowing."

I don't think this is true. Siemens, Snowden and Weinberger may all be talking about "more diverse ways of knowing" - but I am not talking about their 'diverse ways of knowing' but rather - as I have been consistently and for decades - on how networks learn things, know things, and do things.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The New Green

One wonders what Friedman was thinking when he writes this:

"We will need to find a way to reknit America at home, reconnect America abroad and restore America to its natural place in the global order — as the beacon of progress, hope and inspiration."

This is a nice story, but it is believed by Americans only. People living in the rest of the world are well aware that to be first in America is not to be first in the world. Progress, hope and inspiration have no natural home.

What do people see instead? Will Richardson: "It’s a pretty compelling reminder of just how much of all of this, the environment, education... all of it is driven by money and greed."

This is the real crisis we must face.

The sorts of world conflicts prompted by the appetite for oil are not restricted to petrochemicals. The wars to supply American consumers with diamonds, or coffee, or cocaine, all result in the same consequence.

What we are seeing is not the greening of geopolitics. This was already well in progress - only the Americans have been lagging.

No, what we are seeing is the creation of a new kind of political view, one that brackets energy as an issue unrelated to the rest of socio-economics and allows people to be, at the same time, politically and philosophically conservative, and yet, to still call themselves 'green'.

To rephrase (and repurpose) the Gawker article: it would be plainly ridiculous for any individual in our traditional culture to claim, on April 15, 2007 that environmentalism is a non-partisan issue that everyone rallies around.

The 'new green' is, in a nutshell, the study of how to make money from global warming. "How do our kids compete in a flatter world? How do they thrive in a warmer world? How do they survive in a more dangerous world?"

I saw the same message displayed on the big screen at the closing keynote at the eLearning Guild conference. The shrinking Arctic icecap means that northern waters will be open, Cecily Sommers said, suggesting (incorrectly) that none of the nations bordering the ocean has laid any claim on the resources underneath.

For people like that, events such as the flooding of New Orleans represent, not disasters, but opportunities.

Friedman does describe, quite well, I think, the 'new green': "I want to rename it geostrategic, geoeconomic, capitalistic and patriotic."

All the things that caused the last series of problems, and which - if adopted as a unifying theme in the United States - will both fail to solve those problems and will additionally propel the entire world toward the next series of problems.

So long as we retain the rhetoric of 'competition', so long as we think of our own country first, so long as we try opportunistically to benefit from crises rather than to prevent them, we will be best by one crisis after the next - Rwanda, the World Trade Center, Iraq, Darfour, New Orleans...

Preserving the environment is not about putting America on top again or helping its children to compete in a hostile world, and people who say it is are leading you down a dangerous and desperate road.

Postscript: posted to Wesley Fryer's post:

As Kant said, and many others before and after, and as you so well sum here, that each person is an end in him or her self, and not a means. And they are ends, not in the sense that they are deficient, and must be fixed, but rather, are ends in and of themselves.

Our language sometimes leads us astray, even if we are well-intentioned. We always want to talk about 'worth' or 'value' (as in 'self-worth', say) but the worth is beyond worth, the value beyond value: there is no exchange we can make of material things for a human life.

There's still a lot to talk about - public health care, for example - but this post more than any other you've written makes me feel that such dialogue would be worthwhile, that you have penetrated through the major myths being perpetuated in today's media, and have a grounded and well thought out alternative perspective on things.

Learning isn't about being productive or being able to compete in today's world or even being entrepreneurial. It is about making choices for yourself, being in control of your own destiny, about leading a good life, being the best you can be, however you define 'good' and 'best' to be.

Anything else is marketing. Anything else is someone attempting to subvert the educational system to their own ends - and in so doing, treating students as means to that end, always to the detriment of the students.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Wash Basin

Responding to One Contested Sink, in Inside Higher Ed.

The danger of respecting religion is the seemingly endless intolerance that members of one religion may have for another.

Just so, the responses opposing the installation of the foot-washing basin for Muslims seem petty and mean-spirited.

I see no shortage of accommodation for religions on and off campus, from professors wearing rings and crosses and headgear to chapels and churches and cathedrals.

So there is no inconsistency inherent in providing Muslims with a way to wash their feet (members of other religions may find this useful as well).

People who oppose the deployment of religious symbolism and artifacts in public spaces are not opposed to public displays of religion, contrary to how such objections are portrayed.

They become opposed when the display demonstrates some sort of religious exclusivity, an intent to favour one religion over others.

In this light, the foot-washing basin passes the test, because it is not in any way exclusive. It may respect a certain form of cleanliness other religions may wish to forbear, but it generates no exclusivity or climate of exclusion.

The opponents of the installation, however, fail the test, for the net result of their protests is not an environment of greater tolerance and understanding, but rather one in which religious exclusivity is practiced, and people of some faiths feel unwelcome.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Free Market vs. Government, Part 2

Continuing the back and forth with Graham Glass...

* If families could easily afford to send their kids to a good school, the government would no longer need to fund schools or teachers, since the general population would be capable of paying for them in the free market.
You'd think, but as it turns out, if you require one person (a parent) to pay something for a second person (a child), a significant number of them spend the money on other things, like booze or gambling or whatever.

Then what?

If the parent has not paid, do you prohibit the child from attending school? Obviously not - allowing children to grow up without any education is not an option.

So you have to force the parent to pay, right?

That's called taxes.

Back to square one.

* They might prefer to spend the money on other goods and services and send their child to a cheap and terrible school. But would such schools survive in a marketplace where people can afford better?

Don't ask me.

Go down to the strip and ask the parents who are feeding their children at McDonalds.

They could be providing nourishing, healthy meals. Possibly even for less money.

But, for some reason, they don't.

If it were up to me, when students attended the government-funded and run schools, they would be properly fed as well.
* Would there be a need for any sort of standard curriculum?

Don't know. This is a matter for considerable debate.

But tell me this - after paying the thousands of dollars a year for twelve years, would you be OK with it if your kids couldn't read or perform basic math?

Just asking.
* charities like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation seem like they're better suited for this kind of role.
Where is the evidence for this?

Charities do well at focused high-profile projects, but are less good at public infrastructure.

The Gates Foundation, for example, opens hugely expensive model schools, while millions of children remain under-educated.

Entire nations in South America don't receive any Gates foundation money.

Oprah Winfrey decided to spend her millions toward education in Africa.

On that continent of 800 million people, her considerable investment will educate 20 or 30 children.

That's the problem with charities - they're capricious. And run by people without any particular expertise in education.

Message to Flickr

A message sent to Flickr, in some anonymous web comment form, because they don't answer email any more, on the occasion of the notification that my Pro account is about to expire.

I am still receiving the notifications when people connect to my photos, and the message saying my Pro account will expire soon reached me OK.

I want to be able to log into my Flickr account with my email address and my password.

Why is that so hard?

I don't want a Yahoo account. I don't want a yahoo email address that I will never use and I don't want a username that consists of almost random words and numbers (the spammers have long since taken any useful Yahoo identity names).

I want to use my email address and my password to log into Flickr.

I want to use *my* identity to log into Flickr.

Why was it not possible to take the identity information you did have about me - and you have quite a bit - write a ten-line program that feeds that into Yahoo's system, that generates an ID behind the scenes, and that associates my Flickr identity with whatever Yahoo account you want.

It would be a piece of cake for Flickr to embed a Yahoo-readable cookie into my browser with this identity, should Yahoo ever need to know it.

There is no good reason for me to give up my Flickr identity. I write web software for a living. I know how easily this could have been addressed some other way.

It has nothing to do with technical needs - you know it and I know it.

It has everything to do with branding. You want me to think 'Yahoo' every time I log into Flickr.

And the way you did that is to take away my identity.

You rippped my name out of my hands and said, "You will use our Yahoo (mangled) name.

I do not want to use the Yahoo name. I want to use my name.

I don't see why you don't understand that. But the evidence remains, you don't - and that tells me some very bad things about what the company has become.

It tells me that despite the social networking pretensions Flickr has always had the service will become a closed application, accessible only via proprietary Yahoo technologies.

It tells me that, despite the fine words about this being my content that I'm hosting with you, in your corporate offices you actually believe it is your content, and that you can block access to it on a whim - as you have done to me for the last couple of weeks.

It tells me that the things that matter to me - like my name - are the first to be sacrificed for corporate convenience and corporate branding.

I'll post this post to my Blogger blog - yes, another company that has managed identity very badly. I'll post it because I don't ever expect anything like a proper response to my concerns, much less a change in policy.

I'll post this so that there is a record of the moment I broke my relationship with this company.

It will be like the last time a company took my identity away from me.

It was an email address, just like now.

It was handed over without so much as a by-your-leave to some AOL member who didn't know and didn't care.

Companies that play fast and loose with their customers identities don't last.

The email was 'downes@netscape.com'.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Free Market vs. Government

Graham Glass writes,

When I used to live in the UK, many industries like gas, electricity, and transport were owned by the government. Since government services don't have to compete, there was little incentive for these industries to innovate, reduce costs, and otherwise behave like regular businesses. After years of stagnation, the government finally sold these industries to private enterprise and now they are run much more efficiently.

It is no surprise that businesses in a free market provide better service than those supplied by the government. Customers buy products and services from the businesses that best meet their needs, and businesses dissolve if they can't provide good value for money. Government services on the other hand are tax-fueled monopolies that don't have competitors. This allows them to expand even though they usually provide mediocre service at a high cost.

Surprisingly enough, even in the face of historical evidence, the success of free markets, and the poor performance of government services, most people actually want the government to provide critical services like health care and education! Why? I'll present my thoughts on this situation in a subsequent blog post.

prompting this reply (awaiting moderation on his site):

I'll wait for the follow-ups, but what I've read so far is just so much empty sloganeering.

First, there are very good reasons to maintain major infrastructure in public hands.

How much sense would it make to build a separate and competing underground system? Or road system?

Do you want to contract fire and police services to the lowest bidder? Or have people purchase their own service? What about people who cannot afford them?

Imagine the Royal Air Force in private hands. Germany could have won the war simply by outbidding London for its services. Private companies, after all, have no loyalty.

The health care system in the United States is privatized. 50 million people go without insurance. A major illness ruins them, if they have any assets. If they don't have any assets, they die.

Is the British transport system really something to boast about?

And if the separate railways had had to build their own railway lines, negotiate leases, etc., do you think that anything like the current system would exist? In countries where rail has always been private, there is virtually no rail service. Rail infrastructure costs too much for private industry to risk (but the companies are happy enough to come along and leech off systems that were build at public expense).

Do you want private industry building nuclear reactors?

I could go on, but you get the point.

Moreover, second - it is claimed that public enterprise has no incentive to keep costs down, and that private enterprise will accomplish this.

Where is the evidence of this?

To return to health case - the U.S. private system costs 40 percent more per capita than the Canadian public system (and that counts the 50 million uninsured - if you don't count the people who don't actually receive any service then the U.S. system is more than twice as expensive per person).

In countries where no public investment was made into internet service provision, access costs are more than three times higher than countries where the government built the network.

Private enterprise may be motivated (a bit) by competition (until the companies buy each other out and create a monopoly) but they create many additional costs.

They must pay for advertising, for example. They must pay dividends for shareholders (and companies that don't pay a good ten percent over inflation will be considered to be underperforming - in a 10 billion dollar industry at 3 percent inflation that means the company must pay $1.3 billion to shareholders - that's a *big* extra cost.

The private sector is also the home to a lot more crime and corruption. Think of companies like Enron. Or the current trials involving Conrad Black. To name but a couple. There must be oversight - paid for by the government, of course, an unattributed cost not mentioned in the corporate ledger.

And third, there is much more to consider than the cost of the system.

The postal service is privatized because it would cost a small fortune to send a letter or package to remote locations. Many places (such as Canada's Arctic) would not receive service at all.

Public services ensure equality of access.

Moreover, public services govern themselves by regulations no private sector would consider. In a public service, for example, the environment is genuinely a concern, while for the private sector its a set of 'red tape' to be finessed as quickly as possible.

Public services develop infrastructure and services that private sectors will not fund, because there's no profit in it. Any network infrastructure is a (huge) net loss until a certain number of people use it. Private companies don't take the risk.

Public engineers do work private companies won't touch. The city of Winnipeg, for example, is protected from floods by a spillway (a large channel that diverts floodwater around the city). No private company would build that. The City of Grand Forks was destroyed in the 1997 flood - it had low taxes and no spillway. Winnipeg? The flood was an ongoing concern but there was no flooding no services were even interrupted.

The space age is now almost 50 years old and there is still virtually no private investment in it. Why not? Because the benefits are still largely social, and not financial.

Private services require exclusivity in order to maintain profit. This is why it supports patents and copyrights. Thus private enterprise will not provide public access to research results, medical discoveries, software, or anything else, even though there would be significant social benefit (and even economic benefit to society as a whole) by doing so.

If they every find a cure for cancer, for example, you had better hope it happens in one of Canada's public research labs, and not, say, at Pfizer. Think of the companies holding Africa hostage because they cannot pay for AIDS drugs.

You need much more than empty slogans to make the case for the private ownership of major public infrastructure.

Somehow, I don't see it coming.

Existing Applications

D'Arcy Norman writes,
The solution to every problem doesn't have to involve "Hey! Let's design and build some cool new software!" - more often than not, especially in the last year or two, it should be more of "Hey! Let's use these existing apps in new ways!"
Of course, all 'existing tools' were once tools that didn't exist, and were built. Quite recently in fact.

But if the point is (and I think it is) that we don't need special *edu* tools, then of course you're right. An ordinary application will do the job just as well - better, because it won't segregate all the educational stuff.

It makes me think, though, that i should rename Edu_RSS.

My thinking is that people should could use a powerful application to do all this stuff. All along I have been designing Edu_RSS as a *personal* tool. I'll set up a hosting service at some point in the future to show people what I mean by that (just waiting for NRC approval to open source it).

Because, if you can filter feeds, or subscribe to someone else's filtered feed, that greatly increases the number of feeds you can be exposed to.

RSS readers have always been, right from the very beginning, based on subscribing to individual 'channels' - but doing it this way leads straight to a star system, a world of A-listers and also-rans. It is then no improvement over print journalism or broadcasting.

People should be able to accumulate what amounts to a personalized database of references and resources, that they can access and export in various ways. This base should consist not only of blog posts but all manner of resources, such as people, organizations, events and publications.

And it should connect and enable access to the full range of external services, such as Blogger, del.icio.us, Flickr, etc. So people can, from their personal location, easily move themselves and their materials from one collaborative space to another.

That application doesn't exist yet - it needs to be built. But it should not be simply an 'educational' application. It should be a personal online presence application.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

One-Sided Discussions

I posted this on one of EdNA's Network discussion lists (they're basically closed so there's no point linking).

Without wanting to stir up the old blog-vs-discussions debate (both approaches have their merits, etc...) I do want to point to a phenomenon I've noticed happens a lot in discussion lists.

And it is this: the same few people, through sheer volume of posting, tend to dominate every discussion.

And there's no way around it - you can't blot them out, you can't read around them, you can't compete by adding more posts (not only because you don't have time, but because they'll answer to them as well).

It's not that the people who are posting a lot are saying anything that's bad or wrong, it's just that the board eventually becomes a non-stop advertisement for their point of view (or their favorite arguments among each other).

I've notice that this happens on mailing lists, sometimes even if they're moderated, and on web-based discussions, like this one. And, yes, I've noticed it here (you know who you are).

One of the reasons I have come to favour an environment where each person posts in his or her own space is that I can be selective about my reading. If someone posts just way too much stuff (and yes, there are people like that in the blogosphere) I can tune them out without missing the one post by some very infrequent poster.

I haven't found a solution to the problem in mailing lists and discussion areas. And unlike mailing lists and things like Google Groups, which allow me to sign off, I can't even sign off the discussions (I have actually tried several times when the volume of one-note messages got to me too much for me, but like the fabled cat, it keeps coming back).

I value the discussion - I always value discussion - but I am so tired of hearing the same things from the same voices over and over. And - given the inevitability that someone is now taking this personally - don't take this personally - this is something that has happened in every list I have ever joined. It's always someone, and in this case, it just happens to be you.

Anyhow, I just thought I'd post this. Not because any particular thing got my goat. But because it was irritating - and if it's irritating, that's generally a good sign that there's something lurking there that needs to be discussed.

Over to all of you...

Monday, April 02, 2007

To The School or Classroom 2.0 Advocates

Christian Long asked, by email, for input. Quoted text is his. Here is my reply:

Hiya Christian,
In advance of a major keynote presentation called "Designing School 2.0" I'm giving in 2 weeks to a room full of "school design" decision makers -- school architects, their educational clients (board members, superintendents, and administrators), and various stakeholders -- I'd like to ask each of you to consider sharing what you'd say to them if you have 5 minutes and the microphone.
The basis of my talk, if I were giving it, would be the alternative School 2.0 document I distributed in response to the 'official' School 2.0 document.

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http://www.flickr.com/photo_zoom.gne?id=268691876&size=l

You can focus your ideas from kindergarten through higher education, although the majority of my audience will focus on K-12 on most days. Likewise, you can think macro answers or burrow down to the library shelves. All feedback is good feedback.
There is no particular focus for this view of 'Scool 2.0'. The main point is that technology allows us to change our approach to education, from one where we segregate learners in specially designed education facilities (classrooms, training rooms, schools, universities) to one where learning is something we do (and what educators provide) in the course of any other activity.

The idea is that 'School 2.0' is the first step toward being non-school, and that our objective should be to use technologies to leverage our ability to personalize learning, and in so doing, facilitate students' learning while taking part as full citizens in the wider community.
Here are the areas I'd love specific feedback from you today (although I will have the blessing of extrapolating many ideas/resources from many of your blogs, wikis, research, writings, etc.):
  • Big Picture trends in the next 5-25 years that will have the biggest impact on what it means to be an engaged learner. This is the firecracker side of things. I'll be sharing Karl Fisch's/Scott McLeod's collaboration to this audience assuming they are in the Media/AV 1.0 world, at least. Never can be sure no matter how nice the hotel/conference center appears to be on the surface!
I have commented in the past, and I reiterate the point here, that from my perspective the predominate use of the term 'School 2.0' has been to promote a view of learning that is traditionalist, rather than oriented to the future, one that seeks to preserve the existing trappings of education, most notably, schools. We hear a lot of language like "the fact is, schools are here to stay," but there is in my mind no fact of the matter, certainly not in the time-frame of 25-30 years.

By way of animation, think back to the time of the one-room schoolhouse as they were rolled our across a rural agrarian nation in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Within a generation society transformed itself from one in which 'book learning' was the exception to one in which it was the norm. Read Jane Eyre, and learn how schooling was conducted - if it was conducted at all - by tutors hired to live in and help raise the children. People my own grandparents' age would routinely not attend school at all. Only in my father's era, the war years, did schooling become the norm for the entire population.

Within a generation or so this was completely transformed. The school was the creation of the industrial age, and will pass into history with it.
  • YOUR definition of School 2.0 and/or Classroom 2.0...and how to help "school design" decision makers use it to inform their thinking, research, leadership, and solutions. Most will NEVER have heard the phrase...and are still beating the "School of the Future" and "21st Century School" horse over and over without really even understanding what it means besides the marketing pitch. Hoping to shift their semantic lens a bit, and also invest them in co-defining the end game as well.
Most of what is touted as 'School 2.0' or 'Classroom 2.0' is just the whole "School of the Future" and "21st Century School" thing warmed over. There is not mouch to it over and above marketing (and obligatory mentions of Web 2.0). Those who are a little more adept at marketing will trot out phrases today's business leaders are looking for - things like 'collagoration' and 'teamwork' - without any real understanding that they are describing a generation that 'takes orders well' and 'subsumes their own interest to the common interest' when, really, the opposite is the case.

Insofar as technology enables greater collaboration and group work, it does so only at the behest of those using the technology. You can connect people with computers but you can't make them talk. The predominate trend is not so much collaboration as a much increased sense of empowerment (and, at the more petulant ages, a corresponding sense of entitlement).
  • Best way to describe how 'kids' (all ages, really, but I'll use the cute version since most still default to it) are transforming as collaborators, creators, project team members, publishers, etc. I'll use Prensky language as a shot across the bow -- i.e "What is your digital accent?" questions -- but I'm looking for more nuanced language/examples from each of you. And also how we MUST respond as educators...and school designers (the entire community of stakeholders, really)...if we are to offer relevant learning environments/programs for our students/communities' future(s).
Honestly, there's no way we 'must' respond.

What is at stake is not so much our children's education - which, thanks to a wealth of freely accessible digital resources, is now more assured than ever. Rather, what is at stake is our own relevance. That if there is anything of ourselves we want to put into what children learn, how we are to go about it.

Educators need to realize that today's students are exposed to much more television, online communication, and other electronic communication, than they are to traditional classroom instruction. School, even as it is, makes up only a small percentage of their learning. It plays virtually no role in values formation, culture and self-identification, language learning and art. If school provides any learning of science, mathematics, geography and history, it is only because the students' cultural environment is almost completely bereft of those subjects. Their performance in those subjects - and especially the latter two - shows just how abject their learning has become.

Instead of bringing students to the learning, as the education system has done for about a century, we must now, if we wish to be relevant at all, bring learning to the students. This means setting students free to pursue their passions, and then being there when they need coaching, mentoring, or a safety net.
  • Start 'inside' a classroom, studio, lab, or micro learning space that exists TODAY. Offer a set of requests you'd make TODAY that can have a positive impact for learners and teaching guides/mentors without spending a fortune, and set up a mind-shift for bigger 'school design' investments in the future. You can imagine SmartBoards, new ways of teachers 'talking'/asking questions, or think in really wild ways. No limits. Just start at the scale of a single space for learning...and work up/out.
We need to stop employing students as fast-food servers and sales clerks. They are capable of much better than that, and an exercise in corporate demeaning is probably not the best way to introduce them to society.

We should begin offering students full-time employment in certain fields as alternatives to their formal studies. Such a program should logically begin at the higher grades (grades 11 and 12) as well as being brought on-stream as an alternative to college and university.

Most such employment involves the creation of some sort of content or another. The ranges of possible employment are covered in my diagram:

- students could provide ultra-local news, entertainment and sports reporting
- students could provide up-to-date surveying and inventories of civic property
- students could conduct scientific field-research such as bird-counting, ecosystem sampling, pollution-measuring and the like
- students could help supervise younger children

and more - the possibilities are limited only by our imaginations.

The trick to making this attractive is to present it, not as the dog-eat-dog struggle for survival that characterizes our existing economy, but rather as a large and complex game, played partially on the computer and partially in RL, in which they play an increasingly important role.

The task we should be undertaking is not one of trying to stuff more and more knowledge into students' heads, but rather, finding more and more ways they can make meaningful contributions to society.

(I'll post this to my blog - feel free to re-use however you wish)