15 June 2010

Daily Digest, 15.06.2010

Today: Life is stranger than fiction; oxytocin drives aggression toward outgroups perceived as threats; how many genes in a grape?; more on autism genes; Uta Frith on autism and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore on the Friths, the mind, and the brain; a new Nova show on the "hobbit"; why you should use R; Eco vs Panebianco; if you give me your phone number now, we could look back in 30 years and call this "our song"; Beethoven's 9th and the first modern police state.

A quote from Neil Gaiman, in an interview with Prospect Magazine (via The Browser): "Life is always going to be stranger than fiction, because fiction has to be convincing and life doesn’t"

According to a press release at ScienceDaily, a new study by a group at the University of Amsterdam shows that oxytocin not only promotes bonding, but also drives aggression towards out-groups that are perceived as threats. The article is: Carsten K. W. De Dreu et al. (2010), "The Neuropeptide Oxytocin Regulates Parochial Altruism in Intergroup Conflict Among Humans," Science.  The article, which is 4 pages long, is behind a paywall, and costs $15.00 for 24-hour access.

Carl Zimmer at The Loom marks the 10th anniversary of the Human Genome Project by reproducing two graphics from a recent article: a graph showing the history of estimates of the number of human genes, decreasing from 100,000 in 1990, to between 18,877 and 22,619 in 2009; and a bar chart showing the relative number of genes for select species, with humans (here shown as weighing in at 22,333) in second place behind the grape, with 30,434.

The graphics come from an article by Mihaela Pertea and Steven L. Salzberg, "Between a chicken and a grape: estimating the number of human genes," in Genome Biology. The article is currently freely available for download.  Larry Moran of Sandwalk gives his (justifiably) curmudgeonly take on this article in his post "False History and the Number of Genes," where he points out that there were scientists already in the the late 1960s and early 1970s who arrived at much lower estimates for the number of human genes.

Neuroskeptic has a helpful follow-up on the recent study in Nature from the Autism Genome Project.

The Browser has two new installments of its "Five Books" series, both published online today. "Five Books" consists of interviews with prominent figures, who discuss the five "best" books on....well, ostensibly on their areas of expertise, but results tend to cover a wide range of topics.

Today, cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore discusses books by Uta Frith on autism (Autism: Explaining the Enigma), and her husband Chris Frith's book Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World, among others. Uta Frith discusses five books that profoundly influenced her groundbreaking thinking on autism.

There was a new Nova episode tonight, "Alien from Earth," on Homo floresiensis, the "Hobbit." Unfortunately I didn't have time to watch it, but I think it is going to be available to watch online.  I'll report on it when I get a chance.

If you want to see why you should use R, the free statistical package and programming language, a good place to start would be this post on Diego Valle's blog, "Statistical Analysis and Visualization of the Drug War in Mexico" (via R bloggers). Just try producing these graphs and charts in Excel (which isn't free).

One of my repressed personalities is a wannabe statistics geek, and this post may inspire me finally to learn to create a proper dataframe in R for my Closed Access stats, rather than continually creating adhoc objects each week. Then I can make pretty graphs too.

I can read a little Italian, but let's say that I'm still slightly short of perfect mastery. The following two articles give some fodder for practice: Angelo Panebianco, "Neo Dogmatici Quando gli scienziati non ammettono errori," in the Corriere della sera of 6 June 2010; and Umberto Eco's response on 11 June in L'espresso, "Tra dogmatismo e fallibismo."

Tom Jacobs at Miller-McCune Online reports a new study in Psychology of Music suggesting that romantic background music may make women more likely to give their phone number to a man they don't know. At least, it seems to work with female undergraduates aged 18 to 20. No report on the efficacy of this technique with women aged 35 to 50. Damn.

The article is Nicolas Guégen et al. (2010), "'Love is in the air': Effects of songs with romantic lyrics on compliance with a courtship request," in Psychology of Music. The article is freely available for download from Sage Journals, which in this case feels a bit like a marketing ploy, both for the researcher and the journal.

Jacobs also links to an earlier article, Guégen (2007), "Courtship compliance: the effect of touch on women's behavior," in Social influence. The article (17 pages) is behind a paywall, and costs $30.00 from Informaworld. Oddly and misleadingly, the abstract page for the article contains an "Open Access" logo.

I don't normally listen to On Point with Tom Ashbrook on the local NPR station WBUR, because his manner irritates me. But today, his second hour was devoted to a discussion of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. His guests were author Harvey Sachs, discussing his new book The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824, and conductor James Conlon.  Sachs points out that the "Ode to Joy," that "towering hymn to freedom, joy, brotherhood" (as the blurb on the site for the show phrases it), was written while Beethoven was living in what was essentially the first modern police state, Prince Metternich's Vienna.

Sachs was billed as a "music historian," but does not have a degree in it, so far as I can see.  This fits with my theory that all or nearly all writing about classical music that ordinary educated people actually want to read is written by non-musicologists.  (Alex Ross is another case in point.)

The show was, frankly, not all that (pardon me) enlightening, but is perhaps worth listening to in any case. The show was interspersed with snippets from a wide variety of performances of the 9th, from Dudamel at Hollywood Bowl, to Toscanini, to Furtwängler at Hitler's birthday concert in 1942.

The first hour of today's On Point was a discussion of the whistle-blower site Wikileaks, a project for which I have great respect, as I feel transparency in governments and institutions is crucial. Unfortunately I wasn't able to listen to all of that, but it's available online.
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