Thursday, March 9, 2017

Continental philosophy of math

I am about as far from the continental tradition in 20th-21st C philosophy as you can get. Some of my students, however, are not, and they keep asking me questions about what various continental people would say in response to issues coming up in our philosophy of math discussions.

So I've done what any self-respecting academic would do: I've gone to twitter to ask for recommendations on continental philosophy of math

I've now gotten enough recommendations that it makes sense to collate them all in a blog post. Note that that is all this is: a collation. I haven't read any of these texts, don't even recognize many of the authors, and thus inclusion here is not any indication of quality or agreement!

Another useful note:

And now I want to teach a class where I can use this as an essay question:

I'll continue to update this page as further suggestions come in.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

How did we know things before the internet?

Last night re-reading ch. 5 of Shapiro's Thinking of Mathematics, preparing for this morning's seminar, I realized that my students might not actually be familiar with the import of his example of Fermat's Theorem.

I remember very distinctly the progress of Wiles's presentation and the final published proof. It is a vivid memory, in that I followed the development day by day, catching the excitement as people suddenly started speculating, is he going to prove that I think he's going to prove? And then he did! This centuries-old "theorem" had finally become a theorem! It was amazing, and the process was a definitive moment in my scientific upbringing.

I thought back on these memories last night, and tried to triangulate exactly when it happened. My edition of Shapiro's book was published in 2000, and I figured it had to have been not too much before that, '97 or '98. (But in retrospect, writing this now, even '98 would've been rather early for me to have been so interested in the result; that was the year I took my first logic class, and prior to that I was still very much a math-phobe). Then I did the math and realized that there was a very good chance that not only would my students not know about the importance of Wiles's proof, but that they might not even have been born. #waytomakemefeelold.

Earlier this evening I decided to find out exactly when Wiles's proof was, and looked it up, only to find that the presentation was in 1994, and the proof in 1995.

Nineteen Ninety-Four. NINETY-FOUR. I was TWELVE.

But relative chronology and whether I feel old or young isn't the point of this post. The point of this post is that if Wiles's proof happened in '94-'95, I have no idea how I knew anything about it. Part of the reason I assumed it had to be '97 or '98 was that surely I followed the progress of it via the internet. Surely. But...in 1994, we didn't have internet at home. We didn't own a TV. (Well, we did. But it was stored in the basement, unplugged.) We didn't subscribe to any newspapers, and I lived in a small town in central Wisconsin so I'm pretty sure I didn't hear about it over the radio.

This is mystifying. How on earth did I know things before the internet? And isn't it weird that I remember distinctly the process of receiving this information, but not the means by which I received it?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

How I run my advanced seminar

The topic of how to run seminars came up tonight on twitter:

I chimed in with some 140 character summaries of how I do things, and given some of the responses figured it would be worthwhile to lay things out in more detail here.

Last year I introduced a new 3rd year elective logic module at Durham. Over the course of 22 weeks I wanted to cover both basic model and proof theory of modal logic (essentially, the first half of Hughes & Cresswell's book) and Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem(s), and I was given the option of either one 1-hour lecture a week plus a 1-hour tutorial every other week, or a 2-hour seminar every week. You do the math; the seminar nets me more face-time, so that's what I went for.

One of the most important lessons I learned about learning logic I learned in my very first logic class. I was a senior in high school, enrolled at my local two-year university as a special student, and I was taking intro logic along with 8 other people. By the end of the semester, 6 of the other 7 had come to me for tutoring, because I was the only one who had any idea what was going on. And this is when I learned that the single best way to learn logic is to teach it to someone else. It's easy enough to read a textbook, read a proof, listen to someone go through a proof on a board and at each step go "yeah, okay, I buy that. Seems reasonable to me." It's a totally different story to be forced to understand the content well enough to be able to explain and justify it to someone else.

With this knowledge in hand, I went into the seminar with a plan, one that I figured would either work brilliantly or go completely pear-shaped: I would do the first seminar or two, to get everything going, but after that, we were going to treat this as a proper seminar, which means active student participation, which in my specific case meant: Every student was to be responsible for two of the seminars over the course of the year. And by "be responsible", they'd take the assign material and learn it well enough to be able to present it to the rest of the class, handling any questions. My primary role in the course was to (a) be available while they prepared for their presentations, in case they had any questions or needed clarification in advance; (b) to answer any questions that arose during the course of the presentation that the presenter couldn't answer; and (c) to add information or supplementary material that wasn't present in the textbook so I couldn't expect the presenter to know anyway. A secondary role was to be the back-up, so that if something went terribly wrong, I could step in and finish off the seminar.

When I explained the plan to the students, I specifically said that I didn't want to assign seminars, that I'd much rather take volunteers on a rolling basis; this way, people could pick weeks that worked for them in terms of content and their other workloads. And you know what? Only once or twice did I have to suggest to someone "Hey, you haven't yet done a seminar on this topic---" (since there were two broad topics, and each student had to do two seminars) "---why don't you do next week?" The first year I also had a number of auditors, and I, of course, didn't require that they do the presentations---but even some of them volunteered (some more than once!) The presentations are not assessed, and they do not contribute in any way to the student's final mark.

And it worked great. This was clear both from the capability of which they handled their responsibilities, giving clear and well-thought-out presentations, but also from the informal feedback I got---one student said that there is a lot more pressure to really understand the material if you are to present it, and thus he felt he learned it a lot better, and that of course gives them a better foundation for receiving the content they aren't presenting on.

Last year, the course was primarily technical in nature, so the extent of the content to be presented each week was pretty well circumscribed: We'd set a number of pages we hoped to get through---always a number that if we didn't get through them all, there was space in the schedule to let them roll over to the next week. This year, the course is half Gödel and half philosophy of math, but with the same seminar-presentation principle, I expect each student to do one technical presentation and one philosophical. We had our first of the philosophical ones last week, and I'll admit, I wasn't sure how it would go: On the one hand, it's relatively straightforward to take two hours worth of technical material, learn it, present it, and answer clarification or explanatory questions along the way. It's a completely different thing to, on the other hand, summarize and explain philosophical concepts and stimulate a good discussion. I was bowled over by how well it went. Because each of them has already been the person in the spotlight at least once in the course already, everyone knows everyone else and everyone is happy to talk to everyone else, so it meant that when discussion did get going, they were talking to each other (or to the presenter) and not to me, which is the thing I find most difficult about running a good discussion; as soon as I say something, they all turn and focus on me and try to answer to me, rather than to just talk.

So, 1.5 years into using this technique in my advanced seminar, and I have found it an utterly resounding success, and everything I have heard from my students has been positive. If you've got the right number of people do do it (I've 15-18 students; occasionally two will present jointly, either one doing the first hour and the other doing the second hour, or both doing it in tandem---and this reminds me of a important point which is that given that it's two hours, and logic is hard, we ALWAYS take a short break half-way through), I highly recommend this approach.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

What interdisciplinarity looks like

I had a very varied day today.

A colleague in classics and I hope to become the co-directors of a new Center for Ancient and Medieval Philosophy in Durham (the meeting to approved the center will be next week, and we've been assured it'll happen, but it isn't official yet). We met this morning for our first "directorial" meeting, to discuss what we want to do, assuming we get approval, to launch the center in fall. There was a lot of discussion of what sorts of philosophy cut across both the ancient and medieval periods so that we can truly get our two departments (plus history and theology) all involved.

In the afternoon, I'd arranged to meet someone in the algorithms and computation group, who is interested in having Durham host Computability in Europe here in 2019. I haven't been to CiE since 2010, but when he approached the governing board of the conference series, someone on it suggested he get in contact with me, as someone who wants to promote the profile of logic in Durham. So we had a lively discussion about model checking and logics for verification and descriptive complexity.

In between the two, I popped by the library to pick up an ILL book, containing the diary of an early 15th century Florentine shipping captain.

Afterwards, it was back to my office to do some quick fact checking in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for a student of mine working on logical models of time-travel, and then prepare to give a seminar on recursive sets and recursive functions.

Yeah. This is what interdisciplinarity looks like.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Norms of publication

As Draft Two of my novel continues percolating with my beta readers, I've been thinking about publication. Not because I have any concrete plans (perhaps my ontology only allows for plans to be abstract) in that direction myself, at the moment, but because I hang out in an FB group for NaNoWriMo participants and many of THEM are interested in publication and write about their pursuit of it. And there's a number of ways in which the whole "publication of a novel" business is so different from the whole "publication fo a journal article" business.

Join me for a moment in putting on Idealist Glasses, and take a look at the academic publication process -- for journal articles, book manuscripts, conference proceedings, etc. Seen through those glasses, the (or maybe an) ultimate goal of publication is to Promote Truth. How do we decide what gets published, in academia? At one point, we decided that Truth was what mattered. So many artefacts of the academic publication process can be traced to an attempt to realize this goal: Anonymity. Peer review. Retractions. How do we determine whether something is true? We get other experts to read it and give their opinion on it. (In some fields, they may also give their opinions on other things, such as novelty, importance, linguistic beauty, and many, less relevant, aspects.) How do we ensure that it is Truth we are promoting, and not some lesser virtue such as Nepotism? We make the reviewing system anonymous, not only for the people doing the reviewing but also (though not always) the authors. If sufficient doubt is cast on The Truth of an academic publication, there are means in place to issue corrections or even to retract the piece altogether (though that doesn't seem to prevent some people from still acting as if the retraction never happened.)

All of these seems sensible provisions to put in place when seeking The Truth. But when that is not the ultimate goal, some of these provisions seem downright weird. Can you imagine someone retracting a novel? We can all imagine someone prohibiting or banning a novel (and there fiction does not differ from nonfiction, for Aristotle's works were routinely banned and their study prohiited), and we can also imagine someone issuing a new and improved edition, one which takes into account certain infelicities which arose when the narrator did not want his traveling companions to know just exactly he had found that magical ring -- but on what sort of basis would someone retract their novel? "I'm sorry, I made a mistake, what I said was wrong." One of the deliciously freeing parts about writing fiction is that it is difficult to actually write anything wrong. You can write something badly, or you can write something self-contradictory, or you can write something offensive, but (and this is basically the problem of fictional entities and fictional discourse in a nutshell) in what sense can a novel be described as wrong, in the way that academic publications can be wrong in failing to adhere to The Truth? It's certainly not clear to me. Maybe I just haven't thought about it enough.

One might think that anonymity would still be a good thing, because it is there not because it promotes Truth directly but because it helps demote other things, such as Nepotism or Cronyism. One might think that even if promoting Truth is not the aim of the publication process in fiction, reducing cronyism might be. Which is why I find it so weird, coming from a well-entrenched position in the academic side of things, the requirements of certain publishers. For example, the "Rules for Submitting" for one Australian publisher include:

In the body of your email, tell us about yourself:

  • 100 words about you
  • Where in cyberspace we can find you (links are good)
  • What you've done, including any previously published or self-published works
  • Whether you're part of any writers groups
  • Whether you have any media contacts/a blogger profile

If you're an academic, I'd like you to pause for a moment and reflect on what you'd feel like being asked to provide this information before sending off your next journal article or book manuscript. If you're like me, you're probably thinking "why the hell should any of that matter??"

It's because the aim of fiction publication is not The Truth but The Readers. The point of publication is to be read -- either as an end in itself, or as a means to money. One may complain about the failings of academic peer review and publication processes in the early 21st century, but I have to admit, I am really really glad that whether my work gets published does not depend solely on whether the publisher thinks its worth their financial while to publish it. [Note: I am going to completely avoid the issue of predatory academic publishers whether they be genuine scams which take payment and provide no guarantee of quality of publication or whether they be things like Springer and Elsevier, whose bottom line is money. They are not -- yet -- the ones making the individual decision on my individual publications.] Of course, for many academic presses, financial matters do matter, and not every book that says true things is going to be published. But there is still much more space out there for academics books which say true things but will not generate much money than there are for non-revenue-generating fiction.

Which brings up another norm where the two fields differ significantly, and that's the legitimate possibility of self-publication in the fiction side of things. Sure, there is a lot of self-published dross out there, but there are also some really good things, and increasingly (but not universally), saying a book is self-published is not taken as a slur. While blogs, et al., are all plausibly construed as "self-publishing" venues in academia, I think very few people would, upon having their academic book turned down by press after press after press, decide that the thing to do was to self-publish. And I would be surprised if such a book would carry much weight when it came to the author's annual review, or tenure/promotion. (Maybe I'm wrong. If anyone has any good examples of recent -- last 10-15 years -- self-published academic books which are treated as legitimate in their fields, please comment, I'd love to know.) The academic alternative to self-publication is perhaps the setting up of academic small presses (College Publications, I'm looking at you), but these are still rare, and few people have the wherewithal (including the clout!) to establish a new one.

There are plenty of other differing norms. Simultaneous submissions are often acceptable unless otherwise stated in the fiction side of things, whereas they are seriously and significantly frowned upon in academic publishing. In academic publication, we generally have the luxury of submitting without having to pay for the right to have our submission be read by the referee/editor -- not so for many fiction venues, particularly journals. But there is one norm that I look at from my comfortable academic seat and wonder -- wouldn't that be nice? or at least how would it work in academic context? -- and that is the literary agent. You convince an agent your work is worth representing, and they promote you and support you. They are your go-between with the publisher. And they only get paid if you get paid (Oh. There it is. That's why it wouldn't work. When was the last time you got paid for a piece of academic writing?). I find the idea of having one's own personal cheerleader, essentially, someone who believes enough in you to be your champion, a really attractive idea. Too often academic publishing is a horrible and horribly isolating process. Wouldn't it be nice to have someone whose job was to be on your side -- but since you aren't paying them to be on your side, you know that they're on your side because they think you can do it? (Sort of like Your Personal Penguin for academics.)

But, I'm really not sure at all how one could adapt the idea of a literary agent to the academic realm. Until then, I guess I'll just have to keep Believing in Myself.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Books my friends have recommended to me

Middle of last month I was purchasing a few things on amazon to bring to the US for friends at Christmas, and was about 3GBP short of getting free shipping. So of course I did the sensible thing: I asked my FB friends for book recommendations so that I could spend an extra 20GBP buying books in order to save 3GBP in shipping. But instead of any old book recommendations, I asked people for the best book they'd read in the previous year (with the option of telling me why they were recommending it, but not required). I got a huge response (and within a few hours had purchased Ann Leckie's Ancillary trilogy which had gotten a number of independent recommendations; I'm nearly done with the last one, and if the rest of the books recommended me to are as good as these, I'll be quite happy), and since searching through old FB posts for book recommendations is inconvenient, I've collected them all here:

  • Achebe, Chinua, Things Fall Apart.
  • Anghelides, Peter, Warship (Blake's 7).
  • Archer, Jeffrey, The Clifton Chronicles.
  • Backman, Fredrik, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She is Sorry.
  • Barry, John M., The Great Influenza.
  • Beard, Mary, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.
  • Bergman, S. Bear, The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You and Blood, Marriage, Wine, and Glitter.
  • Blessed, Brian, Absolute Pandemonium.
  • Bronte, Charlotte, Villette.
  • Bryson, Bill, At Home: A Short History of Private Life.
  • Bujold, Lois McMaster, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen.
  • Bujold, Lois McMaster, The Warrior's Apprentice.
  • Bujold, Lois McMaster, Shards of Honor and Barrayar.
  • Butcher, Jim, The Aeronaut's Windlass.
  • Chambers, Robert W., The King in Yellow.
  • Clarke, Stephen, 1000 Years of Annoying the French.
  • Cline, Ernest, Ready Player One.
  • Cornell, Paul, The Lost Child of Lychford.
  • Doerr, Anthony, All the Light We Cannot See.
  • Eco, Umberto, The Name of the Rose.
  • Evanovich, Janet, The Stephanie Plum Series.
  • Fisher, Catherine, Incarceron.
  • Frey, James, A Million Little Pieces.
  • Gibson, William, The Peripheral.
  • Gradin, Temple, Animals Make Us Human.
  • Graebner, Debt: The First 5000 Years.
  • Hobb, Robin, Elderling Saga.
  • Hobb, Robin, Soldier Son trilogy.
  • Hope, Anna, Wake.
  • Ishiguro, Kazuo, The Buried Giant.
  • Jackson, Shirley, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
  • Jemisin, N.K., The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate [[Review of The Fifth Season]].
  • Kingfisher, T., The Raven and the Reindeer.
  • Kowal, Mary Robinette, The Ghost Talkers.
  • Leckie, Ann, Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy. [[Review of Ancillary Justice; of Ancillary Sword.]]
  • Le Guin, Ursula K., A Wizard of Earthsea.
  • Maguire, Seanan, Every Heart a Doorway.
  • Mason, Haven, Rainbow Gold.
  • Melville, Herman, Moby Dick.
  • Miller, Laura, The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia.
  • Moore, Alan, Jerusalem.
  • Novik, Naomi, Uprooted.
  • North, Claire, The Sudden Appearance of Hope.
  • Oates, Joyce Carol, Blonde.
  • O'Brien, Stacey, Wesley the Owl.
  • O'Farrell, John, An Utterly Impartial History of Britain: (or 2000 Years Of Upper Class Idiots In Charge).
  • Okorafor, Nnedi, Phoenix Rising. [[I started off with Binti, which has been elsewhere recommended to me. I reviewed it here.]]
  • O'Malley, Daniel, The Rook and its sequel The Stiletto.
  • Pushkin, Alexander, Evgeny Onegin.
  • Reynolds, Alistair, Blue Remembered Earth and sequels.
  • Riddell, Chris, Goth Girl.
  • Robertson, Al, Crashing Heaven.
  • Rovelli, Carlo, 7 Brief Lessons on Physics.
  • Samatar, Sofia, Winged Histories.
  • Scalzi, John, Redshirts.
  • Schiff, Staci, Cleopatra.
  • Schulz, Anne, Essen und Trinken im Mittelalter (1000-1300).
  • Simsion, Graham, The Rosie Project.
  • Smith, Patti, We Were Just Kids.
  • Smollett, trans., Gil Blas.
  • Stross, Charles, The Atrocity Archives.
  • Vermes, Timur, Er ist wieder da/Look Who's Back.
  • Walton, Jo, The Just City.
  • Wiesel, Elie, Night.
  • Willis, Connie, The Doomsday Book.
  • Woolfit, Susan, Idle Women.
  • Zeh, Juli, Treideln.
  • (author unknown), The True Story of the Pirate Long John Silver.

Whoa. That was a lot longer than it seemed when it was just a bunch of comments on an FB post.

Edited to add: I will add comments and links to my reviews of them over the course of the year. These comments will be [[in double brackets]].

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

New Year's Resolutions, 2017

2014 was the first year I ever made a New Year's resolution. It was thus the first year I ever broke a New Year's resolution, but the reason for breaking it is one that more than amply compensated for what I would've gotten by keeping it, so I don't mind.

2015 I was way too busy with a new job (coincidently, my reason for breaking the 2014 resolution) to even consider any resolutions.

2016 I resolved the same thing I did in 2014, and this year, I kept the resolution. In fact, despite it being a year-long thing, I'd already met the winning conditions by September.

2017, I'm going to resolve the same thing. Since academics look at me in shock and horror when I tell them this resolution, I thought I'd write about it. It's a pretty simple resolution, actually:

Submit one item per month, or 12 over the course of the year.

In 2014, I made it to 8 items by June, but then in early July I interviewed for my current job in Durham, and the rest of the year was spent moving, teaching, etc. In 2016, I hit 12 items by September. The secret is a combination of the productivity techniques I find useful and a flexible definition of "item". An "item" can be: a journal paper, a full-length conference paper, a significant journal paper revision, a book chapter, an edited volume, an edited journal issue, a book review, a grant proposal, a piece of fiction, a substantial job application. I don't generally treat abstracts sent to conferences as "items" (even if they are long/extended abstracts) or minor revisions. And an item has to be something that is being sent off to someone and can result in either a publication or money. In 2016, my 12 items were: four book reviews (January, February, March, August), two full-length conference papers (March), a book chapter (April), an edited journal issue (June), three journal articles (July, August, September), and a short story (August). Of these, three of the book reviews have been published and the fourth is forthcoming; one of the conference papers was accepted and has been published; the book chapter and the journal issue will be coming out early next year; the short story will be published in spring, and one journal article has received an R&R and has already been resubmitted (still waiting to hear on one journal article, the other has now been returned twice and will be resubmitted early in the New Year. If I revise it substantially -- and with a new venue I'd have the word count to -- then it might get counted as a new "Item"). It's because I'd hit my 12 by September that I felt free to spend the rest of the year writing a novel.

So why this resolution? I work better with arbitrary deadlines; it motivates me to actually finish things up and send them out. I also found this advice to set rejection goals (the author aims for 100 per year) to really resonate. I'm not sure that aiming for rejections really works in academia, but certainly the idea that the way to publish a lot is to submit a lot is true. Sure, I had two rejections last year (one conference paper, one journal paper rejected twice); and two would be a lot if I'd only submitted two things. But two out of twelve is a lot less of a sting: And the thing about rejections is they aren't final. You take the comments, you revise, and you try again.

I'm looking forward to 2017. I've got all sorts of plans for my 12 (or more!) items. And this year if I "win" by September, I'm not planning to write another novel...