Britannica’s Reference Galaxy 2016

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited

Overview

The Encyclopedia Britannica has long been much more than a venerable print reference work. Almost two decades ago, it pioneered a freemium website (some content free, other content behind a pay wall). This has now flourished into a comprehensive walled garden of knowledge. Additionally, the Britannica publishes books and DVDs about specific topics and issues (the venerable flagship print encyclopedia had been discontinued in 2012.) These are the best primers and introductions available to a host of fields and areas, from history to science. Add to these the Britannica newly-minted apps and you realize that the Britannica, more than ever, is now everywhere!

Britannica Online

The Britannica’s rich online content adds context and dollops of information to the already unsurpassed DVD (see below). It has been completely re-designed and is now Google-like in its simplicity, clutter-free and user-friendly as never before. Alas, buyers of any of the Britannica’s physical products no longer enjoy 30-180 days of free access to this cornucopian resource.

Admittedly, at 70-120 USD annually the Britannica Online is not cheap and thus more suited to institutions, universities, schools, and libraries than to individuals. It already sports an academic edition as well as editions geared at business, government, schools and libraries, which include special features such as Image Quest (downloadable, annotated videos) and STEM resources, including Pathways: Science. Journalists are granted free access. Still, the Britannica would do well to consider an affordable, more limited consumer version.

The Britannica has new Publishing Partner Program. It is an outreach program for contributors and institutions looking for greater visibility… (I)ndependent writers and members of a college, think tank, museum, academy, academic consortium, or graduate school are encouraged to contribute to Britannica in their areas of expertise, join Britannica’s stellar roster of contributors (which includes more than 110 Nobel Prize recipients and scores of Pulitzer Prize winners), and by doing so reach a large global audience. Likewise, companies and institutions with special assets such as videos, photographs, and primary documents, and which are looking for ways to expand their outreach, are encouraged to contribute as well. All articles and assets shared through this partnership will remain open to and freely accessible by the public.”

The home page – now far less cluttered than last year’s – includes “Britannica Stories”, which change frequently are related to the news; “Spotlight” stories and a “Demystified” item; a selection of videos from the Britannica’s impressive, vetted collection; “Explore Encyclopaedia Britannica”: randomly rotated in-depth articles; quizzes, lists, quotes and trivia; photo galleries; trending articles; and featured blogs. The menu bar is comprised of a search box, stories, quizzes, image galleries, and lists. Scroll to the very bottom to find a link to the newest and updated articles. That’s it: a combination of Google-like simplicity and social media verve immersed in the unparalleled deep learning that the Britannica reifies ever since 1768.

The search results are straightforward and every article page contains relevant images and videos as well a list of related topics, people, places, quotations, websites, bibliography, and contributors pulled from both the corpus itself and the Books of the Year. There’s even a Wikipedia-like “article history”, which reflects its editing process. The Article Tool Bar allows the user to print the article, share it on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Google Plus (and also the old-fashioned way, via e-mail), cite it (using a variety of styles), or contribute to it. Unlike Wikipedia, though in a nod to crowdsourcing, users’ comments, corrections, and suggestions, are vetted and reviewed for relevance and accuracy by the Britannica’s dedicated team of editors. Any word in any of the articles can be double-clicked for its definition in the resident Merriam-Webster Dictionaries. Subscribers to the Academic and Library edition gain access to a plethora of carefully chosen links to reviewed outside content and magazine articles.

But, in an age of mobile, wireless smartphones, tablets, and ultrabooks, the Britannica Online is also a stand-alone product: it provides the entire content of the DVD and much, much more besides. The Britannica offers access to its complete content via a range of apps for iPhones, iPads, and Android smartphones. There’s also a Britannica app for kids. The apps are available via Apple’s iTunes and Google’s Play Store. Alas, gone is the plug-in/app for Microsoft’s Word which offered unfettered and free-to-cheap access to the Concise Britannica, or to its full text and multimedia, depending on the version.

There is a variety of delightful apps for kids (US Presidents; Snakes; Knights and Castles; Aztec Empire; Ancient Rome; Rainforests; Solar System; Ancient Egypt; Volcanoes; and Dinosaurs.). There are also browser widgets which facilitate the surfing of the Britannica Online and fully benefit from its visual content. Although Britannica Online sports a Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube presence there does not seem to be coherent strategies in place either for content management, or for marketing via social networks. Britannica’s presence on YouTube, especially, seems to be an erratic afterthought.

The widgets as well as the main website are available in several languages, including Japanese, Russian, Korean, and Spanish. I tested the site on 8 mobile phones (older versions of SonyEricsson and Nokia, iPhone 3 and 6s, and Siemens, Samsung Note 3, Samsung Galaxy 4 and Samsung Note 4), several tablets (including iPad Air and Windows 8.1 device), and laptops and it worked well as far as text is concerned. Graphics and videos were another matter, but this is a problem common to all websites: from YouTube to the CNN.

Britannica Online is an entire ecosystem. It provides a gamut of educational resources: learning materials (lists, quizzes, image galleries, study guides, interactive lessons, online activities, printable worksheets, and other exercises); A portal dedicated to kids and parents (in English and in Portuguese for the Brazilian market); an “Advocacy for Animals” integrated blog; Arabic-English, Spanish-English, and English-English (Nglish) online dictionaries and learning resources; a “My Workspace” feature that serves as a kind of dedicated cloud storage for Britannica content, including images and videos; Teacher Handbooks; Educational Web sites; Britannica training documents for teachers, students, parents, and administrators; and a monthly newsletter, featuring new and updated content. The Britannica even organizes Professional Development workshop for educators. There is a delightful, colourful, and multimedia-rich Britannica Online for Kids and a hugely helpful SmartMath portal.

In total, the Britannica Online comprises more than 1 million pages. The paid content is augmented by loads of free features. The aforementioned “Spotlights” provide hand-picked multimedia-enhanced tours of broad subjects; newsletters provide a panoply of theme-specific information; RSS feeds allow the user to explore places, people, and topics.

Encyclopedia Britannica 2016 Ultimate Edition

My first pleasant surprise was the lightning speed at which this mammoth software installed on a 7 year old laptop. The user is prompted to choose from 3 encyclopaedias (Britannica, Student, and Elementary). Many articles in the Britannica Ultimate 2016 edition have been revamped to incorporate up to the minute developments. From Europe’s refugee crisis to ISIL (in the Book of the Year 2014), the Britannica is now fully up to date. This has not been the case in previous editions and it is a welcome development if the Britannica is to compete with online reference works such as Wikipedia. The DVD is a loss-leader, but a great promotional vehicle for the lucrative online edition, so hopefully it won’t go the way of the print edition, which was terminated in 2012. It is now produced and sold in India by the Britannica Southeast Asia (www.britannicaindia.com)

Compared to its predecessor, the Encyclopedia Britannica 2016 Ultimate Edition (formerly “Student and Home Edition”) contains 15% more text and 15% fewer images and videos. It incorporates the entire content of the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica print set (88,000 articles) plus another 60,000 articles in the Student and Elementary editions.

The 2016 DVD builds on the success of its completely revamped previous editions in 2006-10. The rate of innovation in the last eight versions had been impressive and welcome. It continues apace in this rendition with Britannica Biographies (Great Minds, 600+ Heroes and Villains, and Leaders), Classical Music (500 audio files arranged by composer), and a great Workspace for Project Management (a kind of friendly digital den).

The Britannica 2016 comes bundled with an atlas (close to 2500 maps linked to specific articles and 287 World Data Profiles of individual countries and territories, their economies and other national statistics); the Merriam-Webster Collegiate and Student Dictionaries and Thesaurus, augmented by a Spanish-English translation dictionary; classic articles from previous editions; twenty yearbooks (19,000 articles in total); Interactive Timelines with 4000+ indexed timeline entries; a Research Organizer; and a Knowledge Navigator (called The Brain or BrainStormer). All told, it offers a directory of more than 166,000 reviewed and vetted links to online content and pointers to thousands of videos and magazines online.

In its new form the Britannica is user-friendly, with an A to Z Quick Search feature. The Britannica’s newest interface is even more intuitive and uncluttered than previously and is great fun to use. It offers morsels of knowledge, some of it date-specific, appetizingly presented through a ticker-tape of visuals that leisurely scrolls across the bottom of the screen plus highly edifying interactive tours of articles and attendant media.

When you enter even the first few letters of a term in the search box, it offers various options and is persistent: no need to click on the toolbar’s “search” button every time you want to find something in this vast storehouse of knowledge. Moreover, the user can save search results onto handy, printable “Virtual Notecards”. Whole articles – replete with videos and images – can be copied onto the seemingly inexhaustible Workspace.

The new Britannica’s display is tab-based, avoiding the erstwhile confusing proliferation of windows with every move. Most importantly, articles appear in full, not in sections. This major improvement facilitates the finding of relevant keywords in and the printing of entire texts. These are only a few of the numerous alterations and enhancements.

Perhaps the most refreshing change is the Britannica’s Update Center. Dozens of monthly updates and new, timely articles are made available online (no registration required now!). A special button alerts the user when an entry in the base product has been updated.

Regrettably, the updates are not incorporated into the vast encyclopedia and its search interface: they are out there on a website. Moreover, the product does not alert its user to the existence of completely new articles, only to updated ones. It takes a manual scan of the monthly lists to reveal newly added content.

Speaking of updates, one must not forget to dwell on the Britannica’s unequalled yearbooks. Each annual volume contains the year in events, scientific developments, and everything you wanted to know about the latest in any and every conceivable field of human endeavour, or Nature. About 15,000 articles culled from the last 20 editions buttress and update the Encyclopedia’s anyhow impressive offerings. In the 2016 edition, the content of the yearbooks is more neatly and intuitively arranged than before, both chronologically and thematically.

The Britannica provides considerably more text than any other extant traditional encyclopedia, print or digital (close to 70 million words). While it has noticeably enhanced its non-textual content over the years (the 1994-7 editions had nothing or very little but words, words, and more words), it has now reverted to its roots and scaled back on images and videos in favour of augmented text offerings. It still boasts in excess of 19,000 images and illustrations (depending on the version) and 900 video and audio clips. This is not to mention the Britannica Classics: articles from Britannica’s most famous contributors: from Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein to Harry Houdini and from Marie Curie to Orville Wright.

The Britannica fully supports serious research. It is a sober assemblage of first-rate essays, up to date bibliographies, and relevant multimedia. It constitutes a desktop university library: thorough, well-researched, comprehensive, trustworthy.

The Britannica’s 88-148,000 articles (depending on the version) are long and thorough, supported by impressive bibliographies, and written by the best scholars in their respective fields, including 110 Nobel laureates. The company’s Editorial Board of Advisors reads like the who’s who of the global intellectual and scientific community.

The Britannica is an embarrassment of riches. Users often find the wealth and breadth of information daunting and data mining is fast becoming an art form. This is why the Britannica incorporated the “Personal Brain” to cope with this predicament. But an informal poll I conducted online shows that few know how to deploy it effectively.

The Britannica also sports Student and Elementary versions of its venerable flagship product, replete with 60,000 articles, a Homework Helpdesk, “how to” documents, and hundreds of interactive games, activities, and math and science tutorials as well as social science walkthroughs. Still, the Britannica is far better geared to tackle the information needs of adults and, even more so, professionals. It provides unequalled coverage of its topics.

Ironically, this is precisely why the market positioning of the Britannica’s Elementary and Student Encyclopedias is problematic: compared to Wikipedia, the Britannica’s brand is distinctly adult and scholarly. The vacuum left by Encarta’s (lamented) discontinuance, though, should make it easier to market the Student and Elementary versions (which are an integral part of the Ultimate Edition and not sold separately).

Still, the 2016 editions of both the Student and Elementary Encyclopaedias improve on the past in terms of both coverage and facilities: the Homework Helpdesk is a collection of useful homework resources including a video subject browse; online learning games and activities; online subject spotlights; and how-to documents on topics such as writing a book review. There are also Learning Games and Activities: hundreds of fun and interactive games and activities to help students with subjects like Math, Science, and Social Studies. Both versions are updated monthly with new online-only articles. There is a Workspace for managing projects and many timelines and tutorials regarding people, events, and places in history.

The current edition is fully integrated with the Internet. Apart from articles about new topics and personalities in the news, it offers additional and timely content and revisions on a dedicated Web site. The digital product includes a staggering number of links (166,808!) to third party content and articles on the Web. The GeoAnalyzer, which compares national statistical data and generates charts and graphs, is now Web-based and greatly enhanced.

The Britannica would do well to offer a browser add-on search bar and to integrate with desktop search tools from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and others. Currently it offers search results through Google but this requires the user to install add-ons or plug-ins and to go through a convoluted rite of passage. A seamless experience is in the cards. Users must and will be able to ferret content from all over – their desktop, their encyclopedias, and the Web – using a single, intuitive interface.

Some major and minor gripes:

I couldn’t find a way to install all three encyclopaedias at the same time. Households with adults and children may need different versions of the Britannica installed on the same computer.

The Britannica DVD cannot be downloaded as a DRM-protected ISO or EXE file from the Internet. In an age of widespread broadband this is a curious omission of a powerful, all-pervasive distribution channel. The Britannica DVD – now available only in India – could also be distributed through marketing affiliates in the dozens of developing countries where postal services are dysfunctional or non-existent.

The atlas, dictionary, and thesaurus incorporated in the Britannica are still surprisingly outdated. Why not use a more current – and dynamically updated – offerings (perhaps team up with Google)? What about dictionaries for specialty terms (medical or computer glossaries, for instance)?

Despite considerable improvements over the previous editions, the Britannica still consumes (not to say hogs) computer resource far in excess of the official specifications. This makes it less suitable for installation on older PCs and on netbooks. If you own a machine with anything earlier than Pentium 4, less than 1 Gb RAM, and fewer than 10 Gb of really free space, the Britannica would be clunky at best. It is not available for Windows XP and earlier operating systems.

But that’s it. Don’t think twice. Run to the closest retail outlet (or surf to the Britannica’s Web site) and purchase the 2014 edition now. It offers excellent value for money. For less than the price of an antivirus software and for a fraction of the cost of Windows 7, you will significantly enhance your access to the sum total of human knowledge and wisdom.

With the demise of Microsoft’s Encarta (it has been discontinued) and the tribulations of Wikipedia (its rules have been revamped to resemble a traditional encyclopedia, alienating its contributors in the process), the Encyclopedia Britannica 2016 (established in 1768) may have already won the battle of reference.

Britannica Guides and CD-ROMs

Britannica guides come in two forms: books and CD-ROMs. By now, the range of titles and issues tackled is staggering: from climate change to Renaissance artists. I have written extensively and have read widely on many of the topics, but have yet to find more balanced and roundly-informed offerings than The Britannica’s. A typical print guide sports 400+ pages, densely packed with state-of-the-art data and research, the Britannica team having covered every conceivable aspect, bringing to the fore the most current knowledge; the most recent studies; the most erudite interlocutors; and the hardest of facts.

Take, as an example, the Britannica Guide to Climate Change, a typical product: it starts with an edifying vade mecum: an introduction by the eminent scientist, Robert M. May. While clearly on the side of environmentalists, he is no starry-eyed tree hugger but a hard-nosed scientist, worried sick about our abuse of our only planet, Earth. This is followed by concise but comprehensive chapters dedicated to climate, climate change, and weather forecasting; the changing planet (land, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and the decline in biodiversity); and an overview of ideas and arguments about the environment, replete with a synoptic sweep of history and prominent thinkers. Finally, the book charts our (relative) progress and what more needs to be done, including an overview of all available alternative energy technologies. The book is refreshing in its objectivity and candor. It refrains from taking sides or from preaching. This does not mean that it is a soulless inventory of data: on the contrary, it is yet another passionate plea to save our planet and our future. But it addresses our brains rather than our hearts and this makes for a welcome departure from contemporary practices.

The CD-ROMs are actually compilations of topic-specific content – both text and visuals – from the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Encyclopedia is sprawling and, despite its exhaustive internal hyperlinks, the chances of missing out on relevant content are high and the effort required in tracking down all the branches of its tree of knowledge is considerable. Britannica’s CD-ROMs come to the rescue. Consider, for example, the “Discovering Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Life” disc: it aggregates hundreds of articles about dinosaurs, ancient plants, ancient marine life, ancient amphibians, reptiles, and birds, ancient mammals, fossils, paleontology, geologic time, and pertinent biographies. The disc contains hundreds of videos, animations, and images as well as homework tools and research organizers. The CD-ROM constitutes an ideal – and guided – tour of the treasure trove that is the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is easy to install and comes with a 30-day free trial of the Britannica Online.

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Author Bio

Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain – How the West Lost the East, as well as many other books and ebooks about topics in psychology, relationships, philosophy, economics, international affairs, and award-winning short fiction.
He is the Editor-in-Chief of Global Politician and served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He was the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.
Visit Sam’s Web site at http://www.narcissistic-abuse.com

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Network vs. Hierarchy as Organizing Principles in Business and the Economy

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited

National economies and the global arena are organized as networks of producers, suppliers, and consumers or users. Indeed, the network is one of two organizing principles in business, the other being hierarchy. Business units process flows of information, power, and economic benefits and distribute them among the various stakeholders (management, shareholders, workers, consumers, government, communities, etc.)

Within networks, timing determines priority and privileged access. First movers (pioneers) benefit the most from network effects. In hierarchies, positioning is spatial, not temporal: one’s slot in the pyramid determines one’s outcomes. But this picture is completely reversed when we consider interactions with the environment: The spatial scope and structure of the network (e.g., the number of nodes, the geographic coverage) determine its success while the storied history of the hierarchy (its longevity, in other words: its temporal aspect) is the best predictor of its reputational capital and its capacity for wealth generation.

Counterintuitively, access to information and the power it affords are not strongly correlated with accrued benefits. In networks, information and power flow horizontally: everyone is equipotent and, like a fractal or a crystal, every segment of the network is identical to the other both structurally and functionally (isomorphism). But benefits accrue vertically to the initiators of the network and are heavily dependent on tenure and mass: the number of nodes “under” the actor. Thus, the earlier participants or members enjoy an exponentially larger share of the benefits than latecomers (MLM commissions, ad revenues, etc.)

In hierarchies, benefit accrual is also closely correlated with one’s position in the organization and, less often, with one’s tenure. Power, information, and benefits are skewed and flow vertically and asymmetrically: the hierarchical organization is based on diminishing potency and heteromorphism (no functional cross-section of the structure resembles another).

Networks evolve from informal, diffuse structures to increasingly formal ones. Hierarchies go the other way: from formal to informal. The formal hierarchy ends up playing host to numerous informal networks (e.g. in the boardroom). The informal networks introduces terms of service, regulations, and etiquette that tend to render it less nimble and more focused.

Finally, hierarchies tend to concentrate their concerted efforts on problem-solving and on fending off challenges. They seek equilibrium and homeostasis and avoid creative destruction, disruptive technologies, and paradigm-altering innovation. Networks thrive on challenges and novelty. They benefit from disequilibrium and disruption. They foster technological instability as well as other forms of chaotic interaction. Consequently, they tend to attract mavericks and entrepreneurs, not managers and academics, for instance.

Both hierarchies and networks are homophilic (attract same-minded people) and, therefore, are threatened by the emergence of in-house monocultures which are susceptible to external shocks (“silos”). But networks are far better suited to leverage synergies: they are less rigid than hierarchies and, therefore, have the upper hand as far as response times and dissemination of new information go. They are also far better suited to optimize their social capital because they emphasize social, peer-to-peer interactions over top-down flows.
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Author Bio

Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain – How the West Lost the East, as well as many other books and ebooks about topics in psychology, relationships, philosophy, economics, international affairs, and award-winning short fiction.
He is the Editor-in-Chief of Global Politician and served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He was the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.
Visit Sam’s Web site at http://www.narcissistic-abuse.com

Macedonia National and University Library’s Digital Revolution

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited

A quiet revolution is happening in the National and University Library (NUL) in Skopje, in the tiny Republic of Macedonia. Increasingly and inexorably, it is augmenting its print collections with digital offerings, in line with international developments and practices. The wider public now has unprecedented access online to a wealth of bibliographic materials and primary sources. We met Žaklina Gjalevska, M.Sc., Senior Librarian – Head of Sector Virtual Library of Macedonia, Miodrag Dadasovic, M.Sc., Library Adviser – Head of the Referral Centre, and Aleksandar Stojanov, a system analyst/programmer.

Zaklina Gjalevska: During the 1970s and 1980s, NUL was involved in developing offline applications for cataloguing serial publications and for recording the data of Macedonian research institutions and the work of researchers. These proved highly successful. In late 1980s NUL and several other Macedonian institutions adopted the former Yugoslavia’s shared cataloguing system, which later evolve into the COBISS system. With the dissolution of Yugoslavia this system ceased operating, but in 1996 NUL and several libraries decided to implement COBISS again and use it locally for the automation of their work and building their online public access catalogues (OPACs). One of the reasons for choosing COBISS was its ability to support the Cyrillic script.

When MANU (the Macedonian Academy for Sciences and Arts) came on board, bibliographic databases of participating libraries were connected into a library system, later named COBISS.MK, and an online union bibliographic database COBIB.MK was launched. COBISS, as an organizational model for developing the national library information system with shared cataloguing as well as software application, is used in more than 40 Macedonian libraries and encompasses the holdings of mostly public libraries in Macedonia as well as NUL’s.

Regional integration with the systems of Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Albania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina – a total of 700 libraries – followed. Egged on by the Ministry of Culture, starting in 2007, specialized and academic libraries in Macedonia have begun to join the effort and current research is added daily. Budgetary constraints and a pervasive lack of staff are still holding back the majority of these institutions and several have left the system.

Users at home now have free access to and can search online library catalogues through COBISS/OPAC, renew the loan period of borrowed materials, reserve items, make interlibrary loan requests, and view their accounts. Libraries which joined the system saw a rise in both the number of users and in the level of user interest, rendering them information hubs.

Aleksandar Stojanov: The digitisation of medieval manuscripts in Macedonia dates back to 1999. More than 70 such illuminated treasures were captured on microfilm as well as digital artefacts. The project naturally evolved from in-house CDs to an online Website in cooperation with PMF. A mobile app is in the cards. New materials of a higher quality are now made available to the public via a digital library portal which boasts a customized Macedonian interface. Cutting edge scanning equipment now buttresses this 3-year program.

In a striking break with tradition, the programming code developed in NUL will be published as open source in order to allow programmers and developers from the public to modify and improve it, thereby alleviating the nagging staff shortage. Such community contributions are solicited in hackathons which will hopefully attract mainly students. There are also bilateral attempts, such as the digitisation and cataloguing on the NUL premises of 2700 Ottoman, Persian and Arab historic documents which will be shortly added online (as part of the Yunus Emre Institute’s Reconstruction of the Cultural Heritage of the Balkans project, initiated and financially supported by the Central Bank of Turkey). There is close cooperation with the National Library of Serbia, Europeana (the all-European online portal), World Digital Library, Wikimedia, OCLC, Internet Archive (whose software we use), and other national libraries, from Bavaria and Hungary to London. There are problems with the digitisation of Cyrillic script, though, and this temporary obstacle is holding back several initiatives.

Scholars and researchers now work with the digitised versions of manuscripts because they afford them higher resolution and the ability to zoom in. It’s a win-win situation: the originals are preserved even as the academic community – and all Internet users – are granted unlimited, around the clock access.

Miodrag Dadasovic: Online databases have been available in Macedonia on the premises of the NUL since 1987, with the introduction of the Dialog databases and databanks. Many other information services were accessible as well, including Science Citation Index and Journal Citation Reports (JCR) and several encyclopaedias on networked CD-ROMs.

In 2003, the Ministry of Culture established MeL (Macedonian eLibraries) with around 80 member libraries today. In collaboration with EiFL (Electronic Information for Libraries), a consortium that provides affordable access to commercial e-journals for academic and research libraries in developing countries, MeL secured access to the EBSCO databases. These are used by the entire academic community and several government Ministries and are available to all the member libraries and their patrons. The databases are accessible to users throughout the country in the various sites of the MeL member libraries, including many public libraries and NGOs, as they are IP-authenticated. But universities, members of faculty, librarians, and employees at the Ministries can access them from other locations with usernames and passwords. Home access to these databases is denied in line with the licensing terms of the providers.

Owing to budgetary constraints, databases from other providers – like Sage, Emerald, Cambridge and Oxford Journals, and SCOPUS – are no longer available. Various member-libraries in the consortium have access to HINARI, JSTOR, the World Bank eLibrary, Clinical Key, Elgar, New England Journal of Medicine, Oxford Textbook of Medicine and others priceless resources. Usage has increased dramatically over the last 13 years: from several thousand queries a year to hundreds of thousands of searches and tens of thousands of downloaded documents. In a country of 2 million inhabitants and several thousand users, these are impressive figures. I don’t have a demographic breakdown of the user community, but I believe that most of them are students and researchers. Users are kept informed of the databases and trained and skilled in their usage, including via dedicated and very popular Webinars, training sessions, librarian skilling, and on-demand visits and presentations. We rely on the local contact of MeL, usually a librarian, to disseminate this information, but we reach out to our users, mainly to students.

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Author Bio

Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain – How the West Lost the East, as well as many other books and ebooks about topics in psychology, relationships, philosophy, economics, international affairs, and award-winning short fiction.
He is the Editor-in-Chief of Global Politician and served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He was the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.
Visit Sam’s Web site at http://www.narcissistic-abuse.com

FBI Warns: Google Used by Malicious Hackers

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited

  1. In July 2014, the Department of Homeland Security in the USA and the FBI warned the various branches of the US government, police, and public safety and security organizations of a malicious online activity called “Google Dorking”. What is it?
  2. “Google dorking” or “Google hacking” is the use of advanced search queries in Google, Bing, or Yahoo to locate sensitive information, such as usernames and passwords, account numbers, social security numbers, etc. The FBI explains it well in its confidential circular which, ironically, was leaked to the press:

“Malicious cyber actors are using advanced search techniques, referred to as ‘Google dorking,’ to locate information that organizations may not have intended to be discoverable by the public or to find website vulnerabilities for use in subsequent cyber attacks. By searching for specific file types and keywords, malicious cyber actors can locate information such as usernames and passwords, e-mail lists, sensitive documents, bank account details, and website vulnerabilities.”

Oddly and disconcertingly, these data are often available publicly. High schools post mostly valid passwords and usernames to expensive subscription databases and for-pay media on their internet-facing library portals; Public libraries publish the first 8 or 9 digits of their library card numbers or barcodes, making it relatively easy to guess the rest; a variety of service providers neglect to deny to search engines access to client lists, social security numbers, confidential and sensitive commercial information, and even state secrets (all it takes to deny Google’s spider access is a robot.txt file on the server); sites like Bugmenot encourage users to create fake email accounts and submit thousands of usernames and passwords to numerous restricted online services and products; and government agencies and other national bodies are as leaky as sieves. The syntax of the search strings needed to elicit these bits of sometimes crucial data is laughably simple.

Both malicious actors and more benign types avail themselves of this cornucopia. The less savory operators hide behind proxy servers and applications or online anonymizers and harvest (dump) prodigious amounts of data from databases, sometimes using automated tools and scripts.

White hackers, grey hackers, and intrepid reporters openly conduct penetration testing or simply verify the validity of publicly posted access credentials. These types of actors end up sharing their findings in order to improve the overall safety of the Internet and they never disguise their identity. Then there are “collectors” who amass huge piles of information but never make use of it and students and, more rarely, faculty who illegally access specific databases for limited periods of time in order to conduct targeted studies.

  1. But is Google dorking legal?
  2. The situation is not helped by the fact that laws in the USA and the EU are outdated or exceedingly vague allowing criminals to go unpunished or overzealous prosecutors to terrorize minor infringers for mere contractual violations of terms of service. In 2013, a prominent Net activist and the inventor of the web feed format RSS, Aaron Swartz, committed suicide in the wake of such a ruthless investigation of what many – including the victim, the online database JSTOR – perceived to have been a misdemeanour.
  3. Where do most of these hackers come from?
  4. During a 2-months period, I came across dozens of forums in Iran and other developing countries where students and faculty posted usernames and passwords for online academic and research databases. Via YouTube, I found websites which provide simultaneous access to the ezproxies (access points) of several universities or force-download full text documents from paid subscription academic and research databases.

This surprised me. I knew that many of these databases were supposed to be made available at reduced rates or at no charge to poor and developing nations and to their intellectuals. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Individuals (even students or faculty members in countries which are not subject to sanctions like Iran) are actually unable to obtain legal access to databases in their dirt-poor locales. Even the cheapest, most heavily subsidized repositories (for example: the UN’s HINARI) are available solely to select to institutions and only for the exorbitant equivalent of 6-24 monthly salaries ($1500).

The repugnant avarice of most database providers and academic publishers has already spawned phenomena like the open access movement: scholarly publishing at no cost to the reader. But the last few years witnessed a virtual onslaught of indignant hackers from developing and impoverished countries who feel that knowledge should be democratized and made available to all, subject to differential pricing. While it may be reasonable to charge $50 per published academic paper in the USA, UK, or Norway – it is usurious in countries like Mali and Macedonia.

Even legitimate sites, such as Scribd, are now inundated with pirated copies of textbooks, lists of passwords for research databases, and usernames for university ezproxies. It is nothing short of a rebellion, civil disobedience, a protest movement the magnitude and effects of which are kept under wraps by its victims.

The overwhelming majority of these hackers are mostly idealists – though they do charge a pittance for the information they harvest in order to defray the hosting and bandwidth costs. They still naively believe that the academic community is about furthering learning, not about turning a profit. Many cannot help but feel that while these crackers may be acting illegally, they are not the only Bad Guys in this outright war of attrition.

  1. What can commercial providers of research or academic databases do to protect themselves?
  2. Three simple steps would reduce malicious cracking and unauthorized access and use to almost nil: (1) Authenticate users not only with a username and password, but also with their IP address (where the Internet connection is initiated and coming from), a practice known as geolocation; (2) Implement rigorous database audit and monitoring (DAM) tools to spot, alert, and block intrusions; and (3) Welcome white hat and grey hat hackers and investigative reporters to test the systems and offer their insights. Shockingly, the current practice is to sue and prosecute such helpful people as malicious crackers even if they helpfully share their findings with the affected database providers and vendors!

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Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain – How the West Lost the East, as well as many other books and ebooks about topics in psychology, relationships, philosophy, economics, international affairs, and award-winning short fiction.
He is the Editor-in-Chief of Global Politician and served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He was the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.
Visit Sam’s Web site at http://www.narcissistic-abuse.com

The Ubiquitous Britannica 2015

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited

Encyclopedia Britannica 2015 Ultimate Edition

My first pleasant surprise was the lightning speed at which this mammoth software installed on a 5 year old laptop. The user is prompted to choose from 3 encyclopaedias (Britannica, Student, and Elementary). Many articles in the Britannica Ultimate 2015 edition have been revamped to incorporate up to the minute developments. From Ukraine to ISIL (in the Book of the Year 2013), the Britannica is now fully up to date. This has not been the case in previous editions and it is a welcome development if the Britannica is to compete with online reference works such as Wikipedia. The DVD is a loss-leader, but a great promotional vehicle for the lucrative online edition, so hopefully it won’t go the way of the print edition, which was terminated in 2012.

Compared to its predecessor, the Encyclopedia Britannica 2015 Ultimate Edition (formerly “Student and Home Edition”) contains 15% more text and 15% fewer images and videos. It builds on the success of its completely revamped previous editions in 2006-10. The rate of innovation in the last eight versions had been impressive and welcome. It continues apace in this rendition with Britannica Biographies (Great Minds, Heroes and Villains, and Leaders), Classical Music (500 audio files arranged by composer), and a great Workspace for Project Management (a kind of friendly digital den).

The Britannica 2015 comes bundled with an atlas (close to 2900 maps linked to articles and 287 World Data Profiles of individual countries and territories); the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus, augmented by a Spanish-English translation dictionary; classic articles from previous editions; eighteen yearbooks (14,800 articles in total); Interactive Timelines with 4000+ indexed timeline entries; a Research Organizer; and a Knowledge Navigator (called The Brain or BrainStormer). All told, it offers a directory of more than 166,000 reviewed and vetted links to online content.

In its new form the Britannica is user-friendly, with an A to Z Quick Search feature. The Britannica’s newest interface is even more intuitive and uncluttered than previously and is great fun to use. It offers morsels of knowledge, some of it date-specific, appetizingly presented through a ticker-tape of visuals that leisurely scrolls across the bottom of the screen plus highly edifying interactive tours of articles and attendant media.

When you enter even the first few letters of a term in the search box, it offers various options and is persistent: no need to click on the toolbar’s “search” button every time you want to find something in this vast storehouse of knowledge. Moreover, the user can save search results onto handy “Virtual Notecards”. Whole articles can be copied onto the seemingly inexhaustible Workspace.

The new Britannica’s display is tab-based, avoiding the erstwhile confusing proliferation of windows with every move. Most importantly, articles appear in full, not in sections. This major improvement facilitates the finding of relevant keywords in and the printing of entire texts. These are only a few of the numerous alterations and enhancements.

Perhaps the most refreshing change is the Britannica’s Update Center. Dozens of monthly updates and new, timely articles are made available online (no registration required now!). A special button alerts the user when an entry in the base product has been updated.

Regrettably, the updates are not incorporated into the vast encyclopedia and its search interface: they are out there on a website. Moreover, the product does not alert its user to the existence of completely new articles, only to updated ones. It takes a manual scan of the monthly lists to reveal newly added content.

Speaking of updates, one must not forget to dwell on the Britannica’s unequalled yearbooks. Each annual volume contains the year in events, scientific developments, and everything you wanted to know about the latest in any and every conceivable field of human endeavour, or Nature. About 14,800 articles culled from the last 18 editions buttress and update the Encyclopedia’s anyhow impressive offerings. In the 2015 edition, the content of the yearbooks is more neatly and intuitively arranged than before, both chronologically and thematically.

The Britannica provides considerably more text than any other extant traditional encyclopedia, print or digital (close to 70 million words). While it has noticeably enhanced its non-textual content over the years (the 1994-7 editions had nothing or very little but words, words, and more words), it has now reverted to its roots and scaled back on images and videos in favour of augmented text offerings. It still boasts in excess of 17,000 images and illustrations (depending on the version) and 900 video and audio clips. This is not to mention the Britannica Classics: articles from Britannica’s most famous contributors: from Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein to Harry Houdini and from Marie Curie to Orville Wright.

The Britannica fully supports serious research. It is a sober assemblage of first-rate essays, up to date bibliographies, and relevant multimedia. It constitutes a desktop university library: thorough, well-researched, comprehensive, trustworthy.

The Britannica’s 87-125,000 articles (depending on the version) are long and thorough, supported by impressive bibliographies, and written by the best scholars in their respective fields, including 110 Nobel laureates. The company’s Editorial Board of Advisors reads like the who’s who of the global intellectual and scientific community.

The Britannica is an embarrassment of riches. Users often find the wealth and breadth of information daunting and data mining is fast becoming an art form. This is why the Britannica incorporated the “Personal Brain” to cope with this predicament. But an informal poll I conducted online shows that few know how to deploy it effectively.

The Britannica also sports Student and Elementary versions of its venerable flagship product, replete with 23,000 articles, a Homework Helpdesk, “how to” documents, and interactive games, activities, and math and science tutorials. Still, the Britannica is far better geared to tackle the information needs of adults and, even more so, professionals. It provides unequalled coverage of its topics.

Ironically, this is precisely why the market positioning of the Britannica’s Elementary and Student Encyclopedias is problematic: compared to Wikipedia, the Britannica’s brand is distinctly adult and scholarly. The vacuum left by Encarta’s (lamented) discontinuance, though, should make it easier to market the Student and Elementary versions (which are an integral part of the Ultimate Edition and not sold separately).

Still, the 2015 editions of both the Student and Elementary encyclopedias improve on the past in terms of both coverage and facilities: the Homework Helpdesk is a collection of useful homework resources including a video subject browse; online learning games and activities; online subject spotlights; and how-to documents on topics such as writing a book review. There are also Learning Games and Activities: hundreds of fun and interactive games and activities to help students with subjects like Math, Science, and Social Studies. Both versions are updated monthly with new online-only articles. There is a Workspace for managing projects and many timelines and tutorials.

The current edition is fully integrated with the Internet. Apart from articles about new topics and personalities in the news, it offers additional and timely content and revisions on a dedicated Web site. The digital product includes a staggering number of links (166,808!) to third party content and articles on the Web. The GeoAnalyzer, which compares national statistical data and generates charts and graphs, is now Web-based and greatly enhanced.

The Britannica would do well to offer a browser add-on search bar and to integrate with desktop search tools from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and others. Currently it offers search results through Google but this requires the user to install add-ons or plug-ins and to go through a convoluted rite of passage. A seamless experience is in the cards. Users must and will be able to ferret content from all over – their desktop, their encyclopedias, and the Web – using a single, intuitive interface.

Some major and minor gripes:

I couldn’t find a way to install all three encyclopaedias at the same time. Households with adults and children may need different versions of the Britannica installed on the same computer.

The Britannica DVD cannot be downloaded as an ISO or EXE file from the Internet. In an age of widespread broadband this is a curious omission of a powerful, all-pervasive distribution channel. The Britannica DVD – now shipped via regular mail from locations around the globe – could also be distributed through marketing affiliates in the dozens of developing countries where postal services are dysfunctional or non-existent.

The atlas, dictionary, and thesaurus incorporated in the Britannica are still surprisingly outdated. Why not use a more current – and dynamically updated – offerings (perhaps team up with Google)? What about dictionaries for specialty terms (medical or computer glossaries, for instance)?

Despite considerable improvements over the previous editions, the Britannica still consumes (not to say hogs) computer resource far in excess of the official specifications. This makes it less suitable for installation on older PCs and on netbooks. If you own a machine with anything earlier than Pentium 4, less than 1 Gb RAM, and fewer than 10 Gb of really free space, the Britannica would be clunky at best. It is not available for Windows XP and earlier operating systems.

But that’s it. Don’t think twice. Run to the closest retail outlet (or surf to the Britannica’s Web site) and purchase the 2014 edition now. It offers excellent value for money. For less than the price of an antivirus software and for a fraction of the cost of Windows 7, you will significantly enhance your access to the sum total of human knowledge and wisdom.

With the demise of Microsoft’s Encarta (it has been discontinued) and the tribulations of Wikipedia (its rules have been revamped to resemble a traditional encyclopedia, alienating its contributors in the process), the Encyclopedia Britannica 2015 (established in 1768) may have already won the battle of reference.

Britannica Online

The Britannica’s rich online content adds context and dollops of information to the already unsurpassed DVD (see below). It has been completely re-designed and is now Google-like in its simplicity, clutter-free and user-friendly as never before. Alas, buyers of any of the Britannica’s physical products no longer enjoy 30-180 days of free access to this cornucopian resource.

Admittedly, at 70-120 USD annually the Britannica Online is not cheap and thus more suited to institutions, universities, schools, and libraries than to individuals. It already sports an academic edition as well as editions geared at business, government, schools and libraries, which include special features such as Image Quest (downloadable, annotated videos) and STEM resources, including Pathways: Science. Journalists are granted free access. Still, the Britannica would do well to consider an affordable, more limited consumer version.

The Britannica has new Publishing Partner Program. It is an outreach program for contributors and institutions looking for greater visibility… (I)ndependent writers and members of a college, think tank, museum, academy, academic consortium, or graduate school are encouraged to contribute to Britannica in their areas of expertise, join Britannica’s stellar roster of contributors (which includes more than 110 Nobel Prize recipients and scores of Pulitzer Prize winners), and by doing so reach a large global audience. Likewise, companies and institutions with special assets such as videos, photographs, and primary documents, and which are looking for ways to expand their outreach, are encouraged to contribute as well. All articles and assets shared through this partnership will remain open to and freely accessible by the public.”

The home page includes one “Did You Know?” article, which changes frequently; Today on the Britannica (an “on this day in history” feature); 5 other randomly chosen articles; excerpts from the Britannica’s Advocacy for Animals website; an interview blog; and a list of articles by category. Gone are yesteryear’s spotlight topics (women who changed the world; US Presidents; D-Day; Black history; Holocaust; Oscar winners; Titanic; and more) and “Browse Experts” (a gallery of the Britannica’s contributors.)

The menu bar is comprised of a search box, “popular topics”, quizzes, image galleries, lists, and “Your Stories”: community projects in conjunction with the encyclopedia’s team of editors. There’s a Google Ads bar at the bottom, which is both unseemly and incongruent.

The search results are straightforward and every article page contains relevant images and videos as well a list of related topics, people, places, quotations, websites, bibliography, and contributors pulled from both the corpus itself and the Books of the Year. There’s even a Wikipedia-like “article history”, which reflects its editing process. The Article Tool Bar allows the user to print the article, share it on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Google Plus (and also the old-fashioned way, via e-mail), cite it (using a variety of styles), or contribute to it. Unlike Wikipedia, though in a nod to crowdsourcing, users’ comments, corrections, and suggestions, are vetted and reviewed for relevance and accuracy by the Britannica’s dedicated team of editors. Any word in any of the articles can be double-clicked for its definition in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

But, in an age of mobile, wireless smartphones, tablets, and ultrabooks, the Britannica Online is also a stand-alone product: it provides the entire content of the DVD and much, much more besides. Until recently, the Britannica provided a range of apps to its offerings: owners of iPhones, iPads, Android smartphones, and Microsoft’s Word 2013 could enjoy unfettered and free-to-cheap access to the Concise Britannica, or to its full text and multimedia, depending on the app and apps were made available via iTunes and Google’s Play Store.

There is a variety of delightful apps for kids (US Presidents; Snakes; Knights and Castles; Aztec Empire; Ancient Rome; Rainforests; Solar System; Ancient Egypt; Volcanoes; and Dinosaurs.). There are also browser widgets which facilitate the surfing of the Britannica Online and fully benefit from its visual content. Although Britannica Online sports a Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube presence there does not seem to be coherent strategies in place either for content management, or for marketing via social networks. Britannica’s presence on these sites seems to be an afterthought.

The widgets as well as the main website are available in several languages, including Japanese, Russian, Korean, and Spanish. I tested the site on 6 mobile phones (older versions of SonyEricsson and Nokia, iPhone 3, and Siemens, Samsung Note 3, and Samsung Galaxy 4), several tablets (including iPad Air), and laptops and it worked well as far as text is concerned. Graphics and videos were another matter, but this is a problem common to all websites: from YouTube to the CNN.

Britannica Online provides a gamut of educational resources: learning materials (lists, quizzes, image galleries, study guides, interactive lessons, online activities, printable worksheets, and other exercises); Teacher Handbooks; Educational Web sites; Britannica training documents for teachers, students, parents, and administrators; and a monthly newsletter, featuring new and updated content. The Britannica even organizes Professional Development workshop for educators. There is a delightful, colourful, and multimedia-rich Britannica Online for Kids , and a hugely helpful SmartMath portal.

In total, the Britannica Online comprises more than 1 million pages. The paid content is augmented by loads of free features. The aforementioned “Spotlights” provide hand-picked multimedia-enhanced tours of broad subjects; newsletters provide a plethora of theme-specific information; RSS feeds allow the user to explore places, people, and topics.

Britannica Online Retired Features

Online research tools include: an A to Z, biography, and subject browsers and a sophisticated search box of the entire encyclopedia content; access to Webster’s Dictionary; Annals of American History; more than 350,000 primary source documents; and the entire Project Gutenberg e-books collection; in-depth (“extended play”) videos about selected topics coupled with an impressive assortment of other media; a quotations finder; a world atlas; World Data Analyst (statistics by country, replete with analytical, comparative, and graphing tools); timelines on a multitude of subjects, from sports to evolution; the browseable content of more than 500 magazines (otherwise not available online for free); and an “on this day” (“Born This Day”, “This Day in History”) feature which aggregates date-sensitive content from the entire corpus of information. A selection of new and revised full-text articles is highlighted. The Britannica is also available in Spanish (Enciclopedia Universal) and French (Encyclopedie Universalis.)

Everything is grouped into 7 channels which display rotating daily samples culled from the Encyclopedia: History and Society, Arts and Entertainment, Travel and Geography, Science and Technology, Featured Video, Britannica Blog (as content-rich as the Encyclopedia itself!), and the aforementioned Advocacy for Animals. Aggregated newsfeeds from the BBC News and the New-York Times sit right atop a Merriam-Webster dictionary searchbox.
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Author Bio

Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain – How the West Lost the East, as well as many other books and ebooks about topics in psychology, relationships, philosophy, economics, international affairs, and award-winning short fiction.
He is the Editor-in-Chief of Global Politician and served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He was the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.
Visit Sam’s Web site at http://www.narcissistic-abuse.com

God’s Antivirus: Godel and The Matrix

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited

The second movie in the Matrix series – “The Matrix Reloaded” – culminates in an encounter between Neo (“The One”) and the architect of the Matrix (a thinly disguised God, white beard and all). The architect informs Neo that he is the sixth reincarnation of The One and that Zion, a shelter for those decoupled from the Matrix, has been destroyed before and is about to be demolished again.

The architect goes on to reveal that his attempts to render the Matrix “harmonious” (perfect) failed. He was, thus, forced to introduce an element of intuition into the equations to reflect the unpredictability and “grotesqueries” of human nature. This in-built error tends to accumulate over time and to threaten the very existence of the Matrix – hence the need to obliterate Zion, the seat of malcontents and rebels, periodically.

God appears to be unaware of the work of an important, though eccentric, Czech-Austrian mathematical logician, Kurt Gödel (1906-1978). A passing acquaintance with his two theorems would have saved the architect a lot of time.

Gödel’s First Incompleteness Theorem states that every consistent axiomatic logical system, sufficient to express arithmetic, contains true but unprovable (“not decidable”) sentences. In certain cases (when the system is omega-consistent), both said sentences and their negation are unprovable. The system is consistent and true – but not “complete” because not all its sentences can be decided as true or false by either being proved or by being refuted.

The Second Incompleteness Theorem is even more earth-shattering. It says that no consistent formal logical system can prove its own consistency. The system may be complete – but then we are unable to show, using its axioms and inference laws, that it is consistent

In other words, a computational system, like the Matrix, can either be complete and inconsistent – or consistent and incomplete. By trying to construct a system both complete and consistent, God has run afoul of Gödel’s theorem and made possible the third sequel, “Matrix Revolutions”.

Similarly, software applications – such as antivirus or anti-spyware, firewalls, or anti-malware – that aspire to comprehensiveness (completeness) are likely to be rendered imperfect and inefficient by Gödel’s theorems. Their detection rate is bound to suffer, inversely affected by their very scope. Malware pieces are computer code: strings of formal-logical statements. A consistent security program would inevitably come across undecidable propositions or sentences (pieces of malware that cannot be identified as such by the system.)

The Second Incompleteness Theorem explains false negatives and false positives: the misidentification of innocuous strings of code as malicious and the labelling of malevolent exploits as innocent. This is because complete computer security suites are inconsistent (or at least not provably consistent.)

It is easy to confuse the concepts of “virtual reality” and a “computerized model of reality (simulation)”. The former is a self-contained Universe, replete with its “laws of physics” and “logic”. It can bear resemblance to the real world or not. It can be consistent or not. It can interact with the real world or not. In short, it is an arbitrary environment. In contrast, a model of reality must have a direct and strong relationship to the world. It must obey the rules of physics and of logic. The absence of such a relationship renders it meaningless. A flight simulator is not much good in a world without airplanes or if it ignores the laws of nature. A technical analysis program is useless without a stock exchange or if its mathematically erroneous.

Yet, the two concepts are often confused because they are both mediated by and reside on computers. The computer is a self-contained (though not closed) Universe. It incorporates the hardware, the data and the instructions for the manipulation of the data (software). It is, therefore, by definition, a virtual reality. It is versatile and can correlate its reality with the world outside. But it can also refrain from doing so. This is the ominous “what if” in artificial intelligence (AI). What if a computer were to refuse to correlate its internal (virtual) reality with the reality of its makers? What if it were to impose its own reality on us and make it the privileged one?

In the visually tantalizing movie, “The Matrix”, a breed of AI computers takes over the world. It harvests human embryos in laboratories called “fields”. It then feeds them through grim looking tubes and keeps them immersed in gelatinous liquid in cocoons. This new “machine species” derives its energy needs from the electricity produced by the billions of human bodies thus preserved. A sophisticated, all-pervasive, computer program called “The Matrix” generates a “world” inhabited by the consciousness of the unfortunate human batteries. Ensconced in their shells, they see themselves walking, talking, working and making love. This is a tangible and olfactory phantasm masterfully created by the Matrix. Its computing power is mind boggling. It generates the minutest details and reams of data in a spectacularly successful effort to maintain the illusion.

A group of human miscreants succeeds to learn the secret of the Matrix. They form an underground and live aboard a ship, loosely communicating with a halcyon city called “Zion”, the last bastion of resistance. In one of the scenes, Cypher, one of the rebels defects. Over a glass of (illusory) rubicund wine and (spectral) juicy steak, he poses the main dilemma of the movie. Is it better to live happily in a perfectly detailed delusion – or to survive unhappily but free of its hold?

The Matrix controls the minds of all the humans in the world. It is a bridge between them, they inter-connected through it. It makes them share the same sights, smells and textures. They remember. They compete. They make decisions. The Matrix is sufficiently complex to allow for this apparent lack of determinism and ubiquity of free will. The root question is: is there any difference between making decisions and feeling certain of making them (not having made them)? If one is unaware of the existence of the Matrix, the answer is no. From the inside, as a part of the Matrix, making decisions and appearing to be making them are identical states. Only an outside observer – one who in possession of full information regarding both the Matrix and the humans – can tell the difference.

Moreover, if the Matrix were a computer program of infinite complexity, no observer (finite or infinite) would have been able to say with any certainty whose a decision was – the Matrix’s or the human’s. And because the Matrix, for all intents and purposes, is infinite compared to the mind of any single, tube-nourished, individual – it is safe to say that the states of “making a decision” and “appearing to be making a decision” are subjectively indistinguishable. No individual within the Matrix would be able to tell the difference. His or her life would seem to him or her as real as ours are to us. The Matrix may be deterministic – but this determinism is inaccessible to individual minds because of the complexity involved. When faced with a trillion deterministic paths, one would be justified to feel that he exercised free, unconstrained will in choosing one of them. Free will and determinism are indistinguishable at a certain level of complexity.

Yet, we KNOW that the Matrix is different to our world. It is NOT the same. This is an intuitive kind of knowledge, for sure, but this does not detract from its firmness. If there is no subjective difference between the Matrix and our Universe, there must be an objective one. Another key sentence is uttered by Morpheus, the leader of the rebels. He says to “The Chosen One” (the Messiah) that it is really the year 2199, though the Matrix gives the impression that it is 1999.

This is where the Matrix and reality diverge. Though a human who would experience both would find them indistinguishable – objectively they are different. In one of them (the Matrix), people have no objective TIME (though the Matrix might have it). The other (reality) is governed by it.

Under the spell of the Matrix, people feel as though time goes by. They have functioning watches. The sun rises and sets. Seasons change. They grow old and die. This is not entirely an illusion. Their bodies do decay and die, as ours do. They are not exempt from the laws of nature. But their AWARENESS of time is computer generated. The Matrix is sufficiently sophisticated and knowledgeable to maintain a close correlation between the physical state of the human (his health and age) and his consciousness of the passage of time. The basic rules of time – for instance, its asymmetry – are part of the program.

But this is precisely it. Time in the minds of these people is program-generated, not reality-induced. It is not the derivative of change and irreversible (thermodynamic and other) processes OUT THERE. Their minds are part of a computer program and the computer program is a part of their minds. Their bodies are static, degenerating in their protective nests. Nothing happens to them except in their minds. They have no physical effect on the world. They effect no change. These things set the Matrix and reality apart.

To “qualify” as reality a two-way interaction must occur. One flow of data is when reality influences the minds of people (as does the Matrix). The obverse, but equally necessary, type of data flow is when people know reality and influence it. The Matrix triggers a time sensation in people the same way that the Universe triggers a time sensation in us. Something does happen OUT THERE and it is called the Matrix. In this sense, the Matrix is real, it is the reality of these humans. It maintains the requirement of the first type of flow of data. But it fails the second test: people do not know that it exists or any of its attributes, nor do they affect it irreversibly. They do not change the Matrix. Paradoxically, the rebels do affect the Matrix (they almost destroy it). In doing so, they make it REAL. It is their REALITY because they KNOW it and they irreversibly CHANGE it.

Applying this dual-track test, “virtual” reality IS a reality, albeit, at this stage, of a deterministic type. It affects our minds, we know that it exists and we affect it in return. Our choices and actions irreversibly alter the state of the system. This altered state, in turn, affects our minds. This interaction IS what we call “reality”. With the advent of stochastic and quantum virtual reality generators – the distinction between “real” and “virtual” will fade. The Matrix thus is not impossible. But that it is possible – does not make it real.

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Author Bio

Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain – How the West Lost the East, as well as many other books and ebooks about topics in psychology, relationships, philosophy, economics, international affairs, and award-winning short fiction.

He is the Editor-in-Chief of Global Politician and served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He was the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.

Visit Sam’s Web site at http://www.narcissistic-abuse.com

Britannica Online, Britannica DVD 2014

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited

Britannica Online

The Britannica’s rich online content adds context and dollops of information to the already unsurpassed DVD (see below). It has been completely re-designed and is now Google-like in its simplicity, clutter-free and user-friendly as never before. Indeed, buyers of any of the Britannica’s physical products enjoy 30-180 days of free access to this cornucopian resource (they merely need to register their products online). Admittedly, at 30-50 USD annually the Britannica Online is not cheap and thus more suited to institutions, universities, schools, and libraries than to individuals. It already has an academic edition as well as editions geared at schools and libraries, which include special features such as Image Quest (downloadable, annotated videos) and STEM resources, including Pathways: Science. Still, the Britannica would do well to consider an affordable, more limited consumer version.

The home page includes one major article, which changes frequently; Today on the Britannica (an “on this day in history” feature); a selection of 5 other articles, apparently randomly selected; excerpts from the Britannica’s Advocacy for Animals website and Blog; and a few spotlight topics (women who changed the world; US Presidents; D-Day; Black history; Holocaust; Oscar winners; Titanic; and more.) The menu bar is comprised of a search box, “popular topics”, quizzes, image galleries, lists, and “Browse Experts” (a gallery of the Britannica’s contributors.) There’s a Google Ads bar at the bottom, which is both unseemly and incongruent.

The search results are straightforward and every article page contains relevant images and videos as well a list of related topics, people, places, quotations, websites, bibliography, and contributors. There’s even a Wikipedia-like “article history”, which reflects its editing process. The Article Tool Bar allows the user to print the article, share it on Facebook, Twitter, or Google Plus (and also the old-fashioned way, via e-mail), cite it (using a variety of styles), or contribute to it. Unlike Wikipedia, though in a nod to crowdsourcing, users’ comments, corrections, and suggestions, are vetted and reviewed for relevance and accuracy by the Britannica’s dedicated team of editors. Any word in any of the articles can be double-clicked for its definition in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

But, in an age of mobile, wireless smartphones, and ultrabooks, or netbooks, the Britannica Online is also a stand-alone product: it provides the entire content of the DVD and much, much more besides. Recently, the Britannica added a range of apps to its offerings: owners of iPhones, iPads, Android smartphones, and Microsoft’s Word 2013 can enjoy unfettered and free-to-cheap access to the Concise Britannica, or to its full text and multimedia, depending on the app. Apps as well as the main website are available in several languages, including Japanese, Russian, Korean, and Spanish. I tested the site on 4 mobile phones (older versions of SonyEricsson and Nokia, iPhone 3, and Siemens) and it worked well as far as text is concerned. Graphics and videos were another matter, but this is a problem common to all websites: from YouTube to the CNN. The apps can be obtained via Google Play.

There is a variety of delightful apps for kids (US Presidents; Snakes; Knights and Castles; Aztec Empire; Ancient Rome; Rainforests; Solar System; Ancient Egypt; Volcanoes; and Dinosaurs.). There are also browser widgets which facilitate the surfing of the Britannica Online and fully benefit from its visual content. Although Britannica Online sports a Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube presence there does not seem to be coherent strategies in place either for content management, or for marketing via social networks. Britannica’s presence on these sites seems to be an afterthought.

Britannica Online provides a gamut of educational resources: learning materials (lists, quizzes, image galleries, study guides, interactive lessons, online activities, printable worksheets, and other exercises); Teacher Handbooks; Educational Web sites; Britannica training documents for teachers, students, parents, and administrators; and a monthly newsletter, featuring new and updated content. The Britannica even organizes Professional Development workshop for educators. There is a delightful, colourful, and multimedia-rich Britannica Online for Kids , and a hugely helpful SmartMath portal.

In total, the Britannica Online comprises more than 1 million pages. The paid content is augmented by loads of free features. The aforementioned “Spotlights” provide hand-picked multimedia-enhanced tours of broad subjects; newsletters provide a plethora of theme-specific information; RSS feeds allow the user to explore places, people, and topics.

Encyclopedia Britannica 2014 Ultimate Edition

My first pleasant surprise was the speed at which this mammoth software installed on a 4 year old laptop. The user is prompted to choose from 3 encyclopaedias (Britannica, Student, and Elementary). Many articles in the Britannica Ultimate 2014 edition have been revamped to incorporate up to the minute developments. From the “Morsi, Mohammed” (Egypt’s deposed president) to the Edward Snowden (in the updates section), the Britannica is now fully up to date. This has not been the case in previous editions and it is a welcome development if the Britannica is to compete with online reference works such as Wikipedia. The DVD is a loss-leader, but a great promotional vehicle for the lucrative online edition, so hopefully it won’t go the way of the print edition, which was terminated in 2012.

The Encyclopedia Britannica 2014 Ultimate Edition (formerly “Student and Home Edition”) builds on the success of its completely revamped previous editions in 2006-10. The rate of innovation in the last seven versions had been impressive and welcome. It continues apace in this rendition with Britannica Biographies (Great Minds, Heroes and Villains, and Leaders), Classical Music (500 audio files arranged by composer), and a great Workspace for Project Management (a kind of friendly digital den). Six months of free access to the myriad riches of the Britannica Online complete the package (as well as monthly updates and discounts on a plethora of products).

The Britannica 2014 comes bundled with an atlas (close to 2900 maps linked to articles and 287 World Data Profiles of individual countries and territories); the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus, augmented by a Spanish-English translation dictionary; classic articles from previous editions; seventeen yearbooks (14,200 articles in total); Interactive Timelines with 4000+ indexed timeline entries; a Research Organizer; and a Knowledge Navigator (called The Brain or BrainStormer). All told, it offers a directory of more than 166,000 reviewed and vetted links to online content.

In its new form the Britannica is user-friendly, with an A to Z Quick Search feature. The Britannica’s newest interface is even more intuitive and uncluttered than previously and is great fun to use. It offers morsels of knowledge, some of it date-specific, appetizingly presented through a ticker-tape of visuals that leisurely scrolls across the bottom of the screen plus highly edifying interactive tours of articles and attendant media.

When you enter even the first few letters of a term in the search box, it offers various options and is persistent: no need to click on the toolbar’s “search” button every time you want to find something in this vast storehouse of knowledge. Moreover, the user can save search results onto handy “Virtual Notecards”. Whole articles can be copied onto the seemingly inexhaustible Workspace.

The new Britannica’s display is tab-based, avoiding the erstwhile confusing proliferation of windows with every move. Most importantly, articles appear in full, not in sections. This major improvement facilitates the finding of relevant keywords in and the printing of entire texts. These are only a few of the numerous alterations and enhancements.

Perhaps the most refreshing change is the Britannica’s Update Center. Dozens of monthly updates and new, timely articles are made available online (subject to free, pain-free, registration). A special button alerts the user when an entry in the base product has been updated.

Regrettably, the updates are not incorporated into the vast encyclopedia and its search interface: they are out there on a website. Moreover, the product does not alert its user to the existence of completely new articles, only to updated ones. It takes a manual scan of the monthly lists to reveal newly added content.

Speaking of updates, one must not forget to dwell on the Britannica’s unequalled yearbooks. Each annual volume contains the year in events, scientific developments, and everything you wanted to know about the latest in any and every conceivable field of human endeavour, or Nature. About 14,200 articles culled from the last 17 editions buttress and update the Encyclopedia’s anyhow impressive offerings. In the 2014 edition, the content of the yearbooks is more neatly and intuitively arranged than before, both chronologically and thematically.

The Britannica provides considerably more text than any other extant traditional encyclopedia, print or digital (a total of 62 million words). But it has noticeably enhanced its non-textual content over the years (the 1994-7 editions had nothing or very little but words, words, and more words): it now boasts in excess of 23,000 images and illustrations (depending on the version) and 900 video and audio clips. This is not to mention the Britannica Classics: articles from Britannica’s most famous contributors: from Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein to Harry Houdini and from Marie Curie to Orville Wright.

The Britannica fully supports serious research. It is a sober assemblage of first-rate essays, up to date bibliographies, and relevant multimedia. It constitutes a desktop university library: thorough, well-researched, comprehensive, trustworthy.

The Britannica’s 85-107,000 articles (depending on the version) are long and thorough, supported by impressive bibliographies, and written by the best scholars in their respective fields. The company’s Editorial Board of Advisors reads like the who’s who of the global intellectual and scientific community.

The Britannica is an embarrassment of riches. Users often find the wealth and breadth of information daunting and data mining is fast becoming an art form. This is why the Britannica incorporated the “Personal Brain” to cope with this predicament. But an informal poll I conducted online shows that few know how to deploy it effectively.

The Britannica also sports Student and Elementary versions of its venerable flagship product, replete with 19,500 articles, a Homework Helpdesk, “how to” documents, and interactive games, activities, and math and science tutorials. Still, the Britannica is far better geared to tackle the information needs of adults and, even more so, professionals. It provides unequalled coverage of its topics.

Ironically, this is precisely why the market positioning of the Britannica’s Elementary and Student Encyclopedias is problematic: compared to Wikipedia, the Britannica’s brand is distinctly adult and scholarly. The vacuum left by the Encarta (lamented) discontinuance, though, should make it easier to market the Student and Elementary versions (which are an integral part of the Ultimate Edition and not sold separately).

Still, the 2014 editions of both the Student and Elementary encyclopedias improve on the past in terms of both coverage and facilities: the Homework Helpdesk is a collection of useful homework resources including a video subject browse; online learning games and activities; online subject spotlights; and how-to documents on topics such as writing a book review. There are also Learning Games and Activities: hundreds of fun and interactive games and activities to help students with subjects like Math, Science, and Social Studies. Both versions are updated monthly with new online-only articles. There is a Workspace for managing projects and many timelines and tutorials.

The current edition is fully integrated with the Internet. Apart from articles about new topics and personalities in the news, it offers additional and timely content and revisions on a dedicated Web site. The digital product includes a staggering number of links (166,808!) to third party content and articles on the Web. The GeoAnalyzer, which compares national statistical data and generates charts and graphs, is now Web-based and greatly enhanced.

The Britannica would do well to offer a browser add-on search bar and to integrate with desktop search tools from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and others. Currently it offers search results through Google but this requires the user to install add-ons or plug-ins and to go through a convoluted rite of passage. A seamless experience is in the cards. Users must and will be able to ferret content from all over – their desktop, their encyclopedias, and the Web – using a single, intuitive interface.

Some major and minor gripes:

I couldn’t find a way to install all three encyclopaedias at the same time. Households with adults and children may need different versions of the Britannica installed on the same computer.

The Britannica DVD cannot be downloaded as an ISO or EXE file from the Internet. In an age of widespread broadband this is a curious omission of a powerful, all-pervasive distribution channel. The Britannica DVD – now shipped via regular mail from locations around the globe – could also be distributed through marketing affiliates in the dozens of developing countries where postal services are dysfunctional or non-existent.

The atlas, dictionary, and thesaurus incorporated in the Britannica are still surprisingly outdated. Why not use a more current – and dynamically updated – offerings (perhaps team up with Google)? What about dictionaries for specialty terms (medical or computer glossaries, for instance)?

Despite considerable improvements over the previous editions, the Britannica still consumes (not to say hogs) computer resource far in excess of the official specifications. This makes it less suitable for installation on older PCs and on netbooks. If you own a machine with anything earlier than Pentium 4, less than 1 Gb RAM, and fewer than 10 Gb of really free space, the Britannica would be clunky at best.

But that’s it. Don’t think twice. Run to the closest retail outlet (or surf to the Britannica’s Web site) and purchase the 2014 edition now. It offers excellent value for money. For less than the price of an antivirus software and for a fraction of the cost of Windows 7, you will significantly enhance your access to the sum total of human knowledge and wisdom.

With the demise of Microsoft’s Encarta (it has been discontinued) and the tribulations of the Wikipedia (its rules have been revamped to resemble a traditional encyclopedia, alienating its contributors in the process), the Encyclopedia Britannica 2013 (established in 1768) may have won the battle of reference.