Wikipedian in Residence at Presidential Library

Michael Barera has been named Wikipedian in residence at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library at the University of Michigan -- the first such position at a presidential library. Barera will focus on expanding the availability of information about President Ford and the library's holdings on Wikipedia through the Gerald Ford WikiProject.


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Essay on role of academe in the tragedy of Aaron Swartz's death

I don’t think there’s much more to say about Aaron Swartz. I didn’t know him personally, but like many others I am a beneficiary of the work he did. And I have agreed for much of my life as an academic with the thinking that led him to his fateful act in a closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most centrally, that there are several ethical imperatives that should make everything that JSTOR (or any comparable bundling of scholarly publication) holds freely available to everyone: much of that work was underwritten directly or indirectly by public funds, the transformative impact of open access on inequality is already well-documented, and it's in keeping with the obligations and values that scholars allege to be central to their work.

Blame is coming down heavy on MIT and JSTOR, both of which were at pains to distance themselves from the legal persecution of Swartz even before news of his suicide broke, particularly JSTOR, which very early on asked that Swartz not be prosecuted. Blame is coming down even more heavily, as it should, on federal prosecutors who have been spewing a load of spurious garbage about the case for over a year. They had discretion and they abused it grievously in an era when vast webs of destructive and criminal activities have been discretionarily ignored if they stem from powerful men and powerful institutions. They chose to be Inspector Javert, chasing down Swartz over a loaf of bread.

But if we’re talking blame, then there’s a diffuse blame that ought to be conferred. In a way, it’s odd that MIT should have been the bagman for the ancien regime: its online presence and institutional thinking about digitization have otherwise been quite forward-thinking in many respects. If MIT allowed itself to be used by federal prosecutors looking to put an intellectual property head on a pike, that is less an extraordinary gesture by MIT and more a reflection of the academic default.

I’ve been frustrated for years, like other scholars and faculty members who take an interest in these issues, at the remarkable lassitude of academia as a whole toward publication, intellectual property and digitization. Faculty who tell me passionately about their commitment to social justice either are indifferent to these concerns or are sometimes supportive of the old order. They defend the ghastly proposition that universities (and governments) should continue to subsidize the production of scholarship that is then donated to for-profit publishers who then charge high prices to loan that work back to the institutions that subsidized its creation, and the corollary, demanded by those publishers, that the circulation of such work should be limited to those who pay those prices.

Print was expensive, print was specialized, and back in the age of print, what choice did we have? We have a choice now. Everything, everything, about the production of scholarship can be supported by consortial funds within academe. The major added value is provided by scholars, again largely for free, in the work of peer review. We could put the publishers who refuse to be partners in an open world of inquiry out of business tomorrow, and the only cost to academics would be the loss of some names for journals. Every journal we have can just have another name and be essentially the same thing. Every intellectual, every academic, every reader, every curious mind that wants to read scholarly work could be reading it tomorrow if they had access to a basic Internet connection, wherever they are in the world. Which is what we say we want.

I once had a colleague tell me a decade ago that this shift wouldn’t be a positive development because there’s a digital divide, that not everyone has access to digital devices, especially in the developing world. I asked this colleague, whose work is focused on the U.S., if she knew anything about the costs and problems that print imposed on libraries and archives and universities around the world, and of course she didn’t. Digitized scholarship can’t be lost or stolen the way that print can be, it doesn’t have to be mailed, it doesn’t have to have physical storage, it can’t be eaten by termites, it can’t get mold on it. If it were freed from the grasp of the publishers who charge insane prices for it, it could be disseminated for comparatively small costs to any institution or reader who wants access. Collections can be uniformly large everywhere that there’s a connection: what I can read and research, a colleague in Nairobi or Beijing or Moscow or São Paulo can read and research, unless their government (or mine) interferes. That simply couldn’t be in the age of print. Collections can support hundreds or thousands of simultaneous readers rather than just the one who has something checked out. I love the materiality of books, too, but on these kinds of issues, there’s no comparison. And no justification.

The major thing that stands in the way of the potentiality of this change is the passivity of scholars themselves. Aaron Swartz’s action, and its consequences, had as much to do with that generalized indifference as it did with any specific institution or organization. Not all culture needs to be open, and not all intellectual property claims are spurious. But scholarship should be and could be different, and has a claim to difference deep in its alleged values. There should be nothing that stops us from achieving the simplest thing that Swartz was asking of us, right now, in memory of him.

Timothy Burke is professor of history at Swarthmore College.

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Essay on political science study of dog ownership and voting

Intellectual Affairs

Between all the fiscal cliff-hanging and the preparations for the inauguration later this month, nobody inside the Beltway is paying much attention to the burgeoning political-science literature on the electoral significance of presidential dog ownership.

Well, official Washington has its priorities, and I have mine. A paper on the topic appears in the January issue of the American Political Science Association’s journal PS: Political Science & Politics. “Burgeoning” is something of an overstatement, but it’s the second time an article on dogs and the presidency has appeared there in a couple of years. So, close enough.

The work of Matthew L. Jacobsmeier and Daniel C. Lewis, two assistant professors of political science at the University of New Orleans, “Barking Up the Wrong Tree: Why Bo Didn’t Fetch Many Votes for Barack Obama in 2012,” is full of statistics and (let its title be fair warning) puns. Their argument builds on the work of Diana C. Mutz (right, I know) whose paper “The Dog That Didn’t Bark: The Role of Canines in the 2008 Campaign” appeared in the October 2010 issue of PS. It would be more accurate to say that Jacobsmeier and Lewis undermine and overturn her analysis, but at least they are friendly about it. (Mutz is a professor of poli sci at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University.)

Documentation of the role of pets in the history of the executive branch already existed when Mutz set to work, though it was, for the most part, anecdotal. But she could cite a survey from 2006 indicating that, in local elections at least, not quite 99 percent of dog owners responded that “a candidate’s position or track record on issues such as breed discrimination, breed bans, or leash laws played a significant role in their electoral choice.”

That statistic is at least somewhat questionable, coming as it does from My Dog Votes™, identified as “the world’s only company with a mission of Saving Dogs and Democracy … [by means of] clothing, accessories, and real campaign gear.” And the effect of dog-related issues on voter behavior during national elections remains very much an understudied question. Be that as it may, Mutz ventured a significant interpretation of the 2008 election -- which, while historic, was short of the landslide many expected.

She wrote: “Early in his run for the presidency, Obama made a widely publicized promise to get his daughters a dog after the election, regardless of the outcome. This gesture may have been superficially endearing, as promises go. However, I argue that in the end, this promise backfired on Obama by raising the salience of his family’s doglessness and thus alienating a significant proportion of the population.”

Mutz drew on data collected by the National Annenberg Election Study, a poll that “tracked a large, randomly selected sample of respondents throughout the 2008 presidential campaign.” Pet ownership was one of numerous characteristics recorded in the survey, along with gender, income, educational level, size of household, gun ownership, party identification, and the respondent’s perception of whether the economy was improving or worsening.

The problem was to determine how much weight dog ownership had as a variable affecting voters’ feelings about whether they would be likely to support a candidate. That means taking into account, through regression analysis, the strength of the other factors (gender, income, etc.) and any confluence between them. The results varied across Mutz’s four models, but dog ownership consistently proved to be a negative predictor for an Obama ballot for 1.7 to 5 percent of those surveyed – and among subjects who reported their votes, “the odds decreased by 16 percent if the respondent was a dog owner.”

Mutz offered two possible explanations for this remarkable gap. One was the failure of group identification: “The minimal group paradigm suggests that in-group favoritism can be stimulated even by very weak, transient, and meaningless group identifications.... Whether for symbolic or imputed substantive reasons, group identification theory suggests that, all else being equal, dog owners should be drawn to dog-owning candidates.”

An alternative (not mutually exclusive by any means) was the “congruity-oriented theory” that owners of a particular sort of pet will prefer candidates with similar characteristics, such as “emotional transparency and straightforward displays of emotion” in the case of dogs. That would present difficulties for an altogether feline politician such as Obama.

The scholarship has advanced considerably since the says of Gibbs Davis’s Wackiest White House Pets (2004) and it should come as no surprise to learn that others have revisited Mutz’s data from an alternative perspective. While admiring her analysis as “particularly elegant and compelling,” Jacobsmeier and Lewis challenge it on the basis of “our graduate school experiences [which] included Pavlovian training in the detection of omitted variable bias.”

The omitted variable, in this case, is region. The American Veterinary Medical Association reports that 37.2 percent of American households included a dog in 2006, but they are not evenly distributed. “Rates of dog ownership clearly vary with geographical location,” write Jacobsmeier and Lewis. “Using census region as the geographical unit, dog ownership is most common in the South and least common in the Northeast.”  

The data also shows that “a large gap in dog ownership exists between black and white respondents” -- with whites having the higher rates, as do gun owners, home owners, and people living in rural areas. Mutz’s regression models took into account respondents’ party affiliations and how strongly they identified themselves as liberal or conservative, and tried thereby to isolate dog ownership as an independent factor. Instead, it proves to be a kind of proxy for “red state”-ism.  

Among the pools of data the authors tapped into while doing their research, evidently, was an exhaustive collection of canine-pertinent verbs, images, sayings, etc., every single one of which was then incorporated into the paper. It seems like something best done with monomaniacal thoroughness, if you’re going to do it at all. I have managed to keep most of them out of this column, but you can find them all -- and many other interesting points scanted here -- in a prepublication copy of the paper here.

JSTOR to offer limited free access to content from 1,200 journals

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After a successful pilot, JSTOR is launching its Register & Read program, which lets anyone read up to three articles from 1,200 of its journals every two weeks in exchange for demographic information.

New book argues for favoritism and against 'fairness'

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Philosopher discusses new book on why favoritism is better than fairness.

How Economics Journals Have Evolved

A new analysis released by the National Bureau of Economic Research (abstract available here) tracks the changes among the five leading economics journals from 1970 to 2012. Among the trends over that time span:

  • Annual submissions to the top-5 journals nearly doubled.
  • The total number of articles published declined from 400 per year to 300 per year.
  • One journal, American Economic Review, now accounts for 40 percent of publications among these five publications, up from 25 percent.
  • Papers are on average three times longer.



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Essay on "The Best Writing on Mathematics 2012"

Writing about music, the saying goes, is like dancing about architecture. The implication is that even trying is futile and likely to make the person doing so look absurd.

The line has been attributed to various musicians over the years – wrongly, as it happens, though understandably, given how little of what they do while playing can be communicated in words to people who don’t know their way around an instrument. I don’t know if mathematicians have an equivalent proverb, but the same principle applies. Even more strictly, perhaps, since most nonmathematicians can’t even tell when things go out of tune. And in many of the higher realms, math drifts far from any meaning that could ever be expressed outside whatever latticework of symbols has been improvised for the occasion. (Kind of like if Sun Ra went back to performing on his home planet.)

Against all odds, however, there is good writing about music – as well as The Best Writing on Mathematics 2012, the third anthology that Mircea Pitici has edited for Princeton University Press in as many years. He is working toward a Ph.D. in mathematical education at Cornell University, and teaches math and writing there and at Ithaca College. A majority of the pieces come from journals such as Science, Nature, The Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society and The South African Journal of Philosophy, or from volumes of scholarly papers. But among the outliers is an article from The Huffington Post, as well as a chapter reprinted from an anthology called Dating Philosophy for Everyone: Flirting With the Big Ideas (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)

There’s also a paper from the proceedings of the Fifth International Meeting of Origami Science, Mathematics, and Education, which opens with the sentence: “The field of origami tessellations has seen explosive growth over the past 20 years.”

Chances are you did not know that. It came as news to me, anyway, and I cannot claim to have followed every step of the presentation, which concerns the algorithms for creating fantastically intricate designs (resembling woven cloth) out of single flat, uncut sheet of paper.

The author, Robert J. Lang, is a retired specialist in lasers and optoelectronics; his standards of numeracy are a few miles above the national average, even if the math he’s using is anything but stratospheric. But Lang is also an internationally exhibited origami artist. The images of his work accompanying the article offer more than proof of what his formulas and diagrams can produce; they are elegant in a way that hints at the satisfaction the math itself must have yielded as he worked it out.

Other papers make similar connections between mathematics and photography, dance, and (of course) music. But one of the themes turning up in various selections throughout the book is the specificity of what could be called mathematical pleasure itself, which can’t really be compared to other kinds of aesthetic experience.

In his essay “Why is There Philosophy of Mathematics at All?" Ian Hacking -- retired from a university professorship at the University of Toronto – considers the hold that math has had on the imagination and arguments of (some) philosophers. Not all have been susceptible, of course. Among humans, “a high degree of linguistic competence is [almost] universally acquired early in life,” the ability “for even modestly creative uses of mathematics is not widely shared among humans, despite our forcing the basics on the young.” And as with the general population, so among philosophers.

But those who have thought carefully about mathematics (e.g., Plato and Husserl) or even contributed to its development (Descartes and Leibniz) share something that Hacking describes this way:

“[T]hey have experienced mathematics and found it passing strange. The mathematics that they have encountered has felt different from other experiences of observing, learning, discovering, or simply ‘finding out.’ This difference is partly because the gold standard for finding out in mathematics is demonstrative proof. Not, of course, any old proof, for the most boring things can be proven in the most boring ways. I mean proofs that deploy ideas in unexpected ways, proofs that can be understood, proofs that embody ideas that are pregnant with further developments…. Most people do not respond to mathematics with such experiences or feelings; they really have no idea what is moving those philosophers.”

Beyond the pleasure of proof (“Eureka!”) lies unfathomable mystery – of at least a couple of varieties. One is the problem addressed in “Is Mathematics  Discovered or Invented?” by Timothy Gowers, a professor of mathematics at Cambridge University.  Be careful how you answer that question, since the nature of reality is at stake: “If mathematics is discovered, then it would appear that there is something out there that mathematicians are discovering, which in turn would appear to lend support to a Platonist conception of mathematics….”

Or to put it another way and leave Plato out of it for a moment: If “there is something out there that mathematicians are discovering,” then just exactly where is “out there”? Answering “the universe” is dodging the question. We might naively think of arithmetic or even some parts of geometry as some kind of generalization from observed phenomena, But nobody has empirical knowledge of a seven-dimensional hypersphere. So how – or again, perhaps more pertinently, where, in what part of reality – does the hypersphere exist, such that mathematicians have access to it?

A neurobiological argument could be made that the higher mathematical concepts exist in certain cognitive modules found in the brain. (And not in everyone’s, suggests Hacking’s essay.) If so, it would make sense to say that such concepts are created. But if so, the mystery only deepens. Scientists have repeatedly found the tools for understanding the physical universe in extremely complex and exotic forms of mathematics developed by pure mathematicians who not only have no interest in finding a practical application for their work, but feel a bit sullied when one is found.

Translating math’s hieroglyphics into English prose is difficult but – as the two dozen pieces reprinted in Best Writing show – not always completely impossible. Mircea Pitici, the editor, pulls together work at various levels of complexity and from authors who pursue their subjects from a number of angles: historical or biographical narrative, philosophical speculation both professional and amateur, journalistic commentary on the state of math education and its discontents.

And the arrangement of the material is, like the selection, intelligent and even artful. Certain figures (the 19-century mathematicians Augustus de Morgan and William Hamilton) and questions (including those about math as experience and mystery) weave in and out of the volume -- making it more unified than “best of” annuals tend to be.

That said, I am dubious about there being a Best Writing ’13 given the dire implications of certain discoveries (or whatever) by Mayan numerologists. This will be the last Intellectual Affairs column for 2012, if not for all time. I’d prefer to think that, centuries ago, someone forgot to carry a digit, in which case the column will return in the new year. And if not, happy holidays even so.


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Amherst College launches open-access scholarly press

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Amherst College starts publishing unit that will feature peer review and close editing -- while also making all books digital and free.

New book says campus environment plays a role in students' political identities

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New research suggests that campus environment greatly impacts conservative students' political styles, and that they can thrive on predominantly liberal campuses.

OpenStax announces first iPad version of its free, online textbooks

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OpenStax College, an open-access textbook publisher, introduces its first offering through iTunes -- and hopes the $4.99 charge will allow students to benefit from extras and the business model to grow.


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