07 July 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.07.06

Today: I'm melting, melting...oh what a world.  In other news: U. S. tax breaks for donations to illegal West Bank settlements; the end of tenure?; two articles pointing toward the future of publishing; the problem with studying WEIRD people; do language universals exist?; early literature on neuroplasticity; one hell of a bad earworm; maybe the 2.1 Gya Gabon fossils are bacterial mats after all; Cesare Siepi dies; Pletnev arrested for pedophilia.

Today is the day I finally gave in and installed my window air conditioners. The 4th was very hot (in the mid 90s), but dry and breezy all day, and it was quite pleasant if I kept all the windows open. Yesterday was much more problematic.

And so this morning, when it became too hot to sit outdoors, even in the shade, before 9 am, I realized that I was going to have to give in and install the window units if I was going to get any productive work done at all today. And it's a good thing I did, since the local weather site that I track showed the temperature at just below 102 F around 2 pm, and the heat index at 3:30 pm was 109. (For my European readers: those last two numbers convert, respectively, to 38.9 and 42.8 C.)  As I finished drafting this post at 12:30 AM, it was still much too hot and muggy to work outside (the temperature was nearly 80 F, and the humidity nearly 85%).

It started off looking like a very slow news day, but then suddenly there was an avalanche of interesting news. So here we go:

Today's NYT has an extended story by Jim Rutenberg, Mike McIntire, and Ethan Bronner on American tax breaks for donations to illegal settlements in the West Bank. I haven't read all of this yet, because it makes me want to throw things across the room.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a forthcoming study from the U. S. Department of Education that will make even more clear what has been obvious for some time: the tenure system in the U. S. is disappearing:
Over just three decades, the proportion of college instructors who are tenured or on the tenure track plummeted: from 57 percent in 1975 to 31 percent in 2007. The new report is expected to show that that proportion fell even further in 2009. If you add graduate teaching assistants to the mix, those with some kind of tenure status represent a mere quarter of all instructors.
The tenured professoriate seems finally to be waking up to this decline and the possibility that it might not be a good thing.

However, to me, this is just one of the symptoms of a deeper rot in higher education, but that's a topic for another time.

The future of publishing

Two items via Dr. Mike pointing to possible futures for publishing:

"Independence day for newspapers" by Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine reports that the small newspaper group Journal Register has switched over completely to free, web-based tools, and has opened up their journalism to their audience, all as part of what they are calling the "Ben Franklin Project."

Jarvis has been a consultant to the new CEO of Journal Register, John Paton. Jarvis writes:
Paton told me he was looking at having to spend $25 million just to get the company’s technology up to date. Hold on. We took to the white boardand brainstormed how one could publish a paper today using Google Docs, Flickr, and WordPress. Paton, as is his habit, took my bull(shit) by the horns and ran with it. His staff found other, better free tools to do everything (even advertising). He printed one test edition of a paper to prove it could be done. Then he decreed that all his dailies would do this on one day, on July 4. More important, he used this as a means to get the staffs to think differently about their relationships with their communities, to act differently in how they made journalism. And they did it. Theyr’e not dealing in some theoretical future of news talked about by consultants and professors. [cough] They are building it.
Take a look at the project website, which shows much better than the quote above how Paton and the Journal Register have reimagined pretty much every aspect of the process.

This is perhaps just one more indication that the future of publishing isn't going to come from the big publishers, who are too deeply mired in the old way of doing things to be able to adapt. The future will come from small organizations and start-ups.

Dr. Mike also shares a fascinating article at TechCrunch Europe about Flattr, a Swedish startup that has formulated a new approach to micropayments. The system is still in closed beta, and I'm not sure that I understand yet how it works.  But here's how they describe it on their website:
  • Flattr is a social micropayment platform that lets you show love for the things you like.
  • Help support the people you like and enable them to continue with what they do.
  • Add your own things to Flattr and receive appreciation from other
Sounds good to me. At any rate, I registered today for a possible invitation to the beta, so with any luck I'll be able to find out first hand.

Science, Cognitive and Otherwise

Dienekes points to a new study that investigates whether white Westerners, who are by far the most frequent subjects of psychological research (they are known in the trade as Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, or WEIRD), are typical of the human species as a whole.

The bottom line: no, they aren't.

So will it be back to the drawing board for the Evolutionary Psychology? One can only hope....  But I'm not holding my breath.  It's so much easier and cheaper just to use that captive audience of 20-year-old university students.

The article is:
J. Henrich, et al. (2010), "The weirdest people in the world?," in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. The article seems to be currently free for download from the Cambridge UP journals site. If by any chance you have a problem getting it this way, Dienekes has a link to a free pre-publication version.

An excellent short piece at games with words, "Do Language Universals Exist?" This was my first visit to this blog, maintained by Joshua Hartshorne, a graduate student in psychology at Harvard, and it instantly went into my list of subscribed feeds.

The post engages with some of the arguments made in this article from last year:
Nicholas Evans and Stephen C. Levinson (2009), "The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science," in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. I was able to download this article for free from the Cambridge UP journals site.

Vaughan at Mind Hacks recently wrote on the fuzziness of the term "neuroplasiticity."  Today he points out that there were discussions of neuroplasticity in the scientific literature as early as (at least) 1896, thus countering the hype that neuroplasticity (however defined) is a recent discovery.

Neuroskeptic reports on a new article discussing the case of a man who continually heard in his head the songs of Neapolitan popular singer Renato Carosone—a really severe case of an earworm, apparently caused by a combination of partial hearing loss and damage to the temporal lobe in an accident. The condition was partially ameliorated by repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation.

The article is:
G. Cosentino et al. (2010), "A case of post-traumatic complex auditory hallucinosis treated with rTMS," Neurocase.  The article is behind a paywall, and costs $30.00 from Informaworld.

Chris Nedin has an extended post at Ediacaran explaining in detail why he thinks (and this is his area of specialty) that the 2.1 Gya fossils from Gabon announced in Nature last week are actually bacterial mats, not very early multicellular creatures, as the authors of the Nature article have proposed. I'm convinced.

Yesterday I expressed skepticism that the Dutch government report on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would get much attention from the mainstream media.  But it has received some, of varying ideological slants, as Charles Petit at Knight Science Journalism Tracker points out today.

I can't understand why Petit doesn't give direct links to the articles he's talking about.  It sure would make it a lot more convenient to follow up on what he's reporting.

Music News

Alex Ross reports that the great bass Cesare Siepi died yesterday in Atlanta. He was 87. Here is an obituary (somewhat thin) by David Ng at the Los Angeles Times. I'm sure there will be more and richer ones to come.  [Early morning update: here is Anthony Tommasini's obituary in the NYT.]

Siepi is widely considered to have been one of the great operatic basses of the 20th century, and he was especially renowned for his Mozart.  He made his debut at the Salzburg festival in 1953 in a production of Don Giovanni conducted by Furtw√§ngler. A recording of this production is available, although I have not heard it; the production was filmed in 1954, and Ross has posted a link to a YouTube video of Don Giovanni's final scene with the Commendatore. It gives a good sense of the richness of Siepi's voice and characterization.  His final "Ah!" as he is dragged to hell is blood-curdling, and it's worth watching the video to the end for that alone.  Much better than the Wilhelm Scream.

Siepi is in the cast of two other classic Mozart recordings that I know very well.  He again sings the title role in a 1955 recording of Don Giovanni with the Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Josef Krips, and he sings Figaro in a 1955 recording of that opera, likewise with the Wiener Philharmoniker, this time conducted by Erich Kleiber. The latter is still perhaps my favorite recording of Figaro, and Siepi is one of my favorite Figaros.

This story is breaking early Wednesday morning:

Pianist Mikhaeil Pletnev has been arrested in Thailand at a beach resort, where he has been charged with raping a 14-year-old boy, and of "appearing in compromising photographs with several others."  NYT story (via Reuters) here.

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