23 June 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.06.22

Today: Google Scholar Alerts; Manute Bol and the true origins of "my bad"; composer biopics; Penn Jillette on belief (and much else); more on the Callao Cave metatarsal; a new A. afarensis skeleton suggests he walked upright; more on oxytocin; Nicaraguan Sign Language and Sapir-Whorf; Hubble and R; History and Theory 49.

Google Scholar Alerts have just come online, allowing you (at least theoretically) to set a query that will report whenever new articles that match the query are indexed in Google Scholar. I immediately set up a query for "evolution music," and I've already received two emails worth of hits, almost all of them useless.  So I guess I'll need to refine my query. It is, by the way, nearly (but not quite) impossible to find your queries and modify them once you've got them set up.  Let's hope Google improves this aspect.

Manute Bol, the 7 ft 6 (or 7) Dinka tribesman who became an NBA star, died this past weekend at the age of 47 (see the NYT obituary here). The story is widely circulating that, among his many remarkable accomplishments, he was also originator of the idiom "my bad." But there is ample evidence to suggest that this isn't so. According to Ben Zimmer's latest "Word Routes" column at Visual Thesaurus, it is more likely that "my bad" originated earlier as a "playground term" that Bol helped popularize. The earliest known usage in print comes from the Google News Archive, in a story from Gainesville on 14 November 1985.

Ray Sawhill has a piece in Opera News on the composer biopic. Worth reading, although Sawhill becomes entangled in his own cleverness, as so often happens with critics these days. And he misses my favorite film depictions of composer "creative process"—but I won't tell you what these are just yet, because I have in mind to write about them at some point. (I am also considering writing a piece on documentary biographies of musicians, a genre I seem to have been sampling heavily lately.)  And it's difficult for me to take seriously someone who takes  Impromptu seriously (the 1991 movie on Chopin and Georges Sand—which Sawhill spells "George").

A quote from Sawhill:
What was Agnieszka Holland thinking when she chose Ed Harris to star in her film Copying Beethoven? God knows you can't criticize Harris for failing to give the role his all — but he is what he is, and this is surely the only Beethoven in movie history who comes across like a beer-swigging, iron-pumping ol' Austin cowboy-hippie.

Penn Jillette on belief:
You've said that you're beyond atheism. What does that mean?
I have trouble believing that other people believe. (Laughs.)
You think they're lying?
I'm sure they're not lying. Their belief may be genuine. But it's like arguing that fairies are coming out of my toaster in the middle of the night. You can't prove to me that there aren't fairies in my toaster, but that doesn't mean you should take me seriously. What I have a problem with is not so much religion or god, but faith. When you say you believe something in your heart and therefore you can act on it, you have completely justified the 9/11 bombers. You have justified Charlie Manson. If it's true for you, why isn't it true for them? Why are you different? If you say "I believe there's an all-powerful force of love in the universe that connects us all, and I have no evidence of that but I believe it in my heart," then it's perfectly okay to believe in your heart that Sharon Tate deserves to die. It's perfectly okay to believe in your heart that you need to fly planes into buildings for Allah.

See the complete Vanity Fair interview here.

Paleoanthropology News:

John Hawks gives a characteristically lucid, professional, and contextualized take on the 67,000-year-old third metatarsal, apparently human, from Callao Cave in the Phillipines, the discovery of which was announced in an article I pointed to here.

We live in an era in which game-changing new discoveries in paleoanthropology seem to be announced every couple of weeks. Today, Bruce Bower at Science News reports on the discovery in Ethiopia of a partial skeleton of a male Australopithecus afarensis, the same species as the celebrated Lucy. The new skeleton, nicknamed "Big Man" because of his estimated height of 5 to 5 ½ ft to Lucy's 3 ½, is estimated to be 3.6 million years old, to Lucy's 3.2 million. The skeleton lacks a skull, but preserves 32 bones from a single individual, including a shoulder blade and several ribs.

The discovery was made by a team led by Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, one of the world's premiere fossil spotters, who has been involved with many of the most significant finds in human evolution of the past two decades, including, most recently (at least in terms of its date of announcment) Ardipithecus ramidus. Although the point is far from universally accepted at this early stage, Haile-Selassie argues that Big Man's skeleton indicates that he was an efficient upright walker:
“Whatever we’ve been saying about afarensis based on Lucy was mostly wrong,” Haile-Selassie says. “The skeletal framework to enable efficient two-legged walking was established by the time her species had evolved."
The article reporting the discovery is Yohannes Haile-Selassie, et al. (2010), "An early Australopithecus afarensis postcranium from Woranso-Mille, Ethiopia," in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The article is behind a paywall, and costs $10.00 for 2 days of access to the pdf.

Cognitive Corner

Deric Bownds has a nice short summary with links to three key recent articles on oxytocin, which is coming to be seen as more than just a "touchy-feely" hormone, but instead one that mediates a "tend and defend" response.

The articles are:

Greg Miller (2010), "The Prickly Side of Oxytocin," Science.

Carsten K. W. De Dreu et al. (2010), "The Neuropeptide Oxytocin Regulates Parochial Altruism in Intergroup Conflict Among Humans," Science.

Matthias Gamer et al. (2010), "Different amygdala subregions mediate valence-related and attentional effects of oxytocin in humans," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Regrettably, all three articles are behind paywalls; the two in Science cost $15.00 each, and the one in PNAS is $10.00.

Ed Yong, at Not Exactly Rocket Science, just won the Top Quark award from 3quarksdaily for best science blog post, for his "Gut bacteria in Japanese people borrowed sushi-digesting genes from ocean bacteria." The contest was judged by Richard Dawkins, who got this one right at least.

Today Ed has an excellent post on Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL). NSL is a sign language that spontaneously developed among deaf children in schools that were established in Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s.  It has gained great notoriety because it is the first full-fledged language that scientists have been able to watch develop "from scratch." Ed particularly highlights a new study from Jennie Pyers showing that children who learned NSL before it had developed a fully stable set of words for spatial relationships (left, right, and so on) have a more difficult time with various spatial tasks than those who learned the language after it had developed such words. This would seem (according to Pyers via Yong) to support a modified version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

So far as I can determine, the article by Pyers, said to be in PNAS, has not yet appeared on the journal's site; the DOI link given by Yong, as I write this, does not lead anywhere, and Pyers name does not come up on the journal's site.

More R-flavored geekaliciousness: Neil Gunther has a wonderful post (if you like this sort of thing...and I do) explaining how Edwin Hubble, working from flaky data, was able to deduce in 1929 that there is a linear relationship between a galaxy's distance from earth and its speed relative to us, one of the great discoveries of 20th-century cosmology.  And all clearly illustrated by Gunther with R code and graphs.  If I'd had a teacher like Gunther, I probably would have become a statistician.  Possibly a piano-playing statistician....

For old-times' sake, or perhaps out of sheer perversity, I follow the blog Philosophy's Other: Theory on the Web, which is my only current link to the wild and wacky world of Theory in the arts and humanities—that is, Theory that is generally not subject to any coherent or consistent standard of empirical testing and verification. My eye was caught today by the table of contents posted there for the latest issue (49) of the journal History and Theory, which I used to read in an earlier lifetime. Two of the articles are freely available (although not the ones that look most interesting to me), so I'll probably download them and take a look at them when I haven't got anything else to read (which is scheduled to happen sometime in 2047).
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