10 July 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.07.09

Friday:  Soros on the Euro crisis; Berlusconi's latest censorship initiative; Doctorow on Landmark "vs" van Rijn; verdict slashed in SONY v Tenenbaum; follow the money (higher education edition); USC disqualified from football coaches polls; thin gruel from Brooks on Internet v books; judge rules federal policy of not recognizing gay marriages is unconstitutional; the neuroscience of gender orientaton; a genetic switch for homosexual behavior in mice; scientists screw up on old-age genes?; all the links you could want on the ScienceBlogs fiasco; more on tiny protons; grapheme-color synesthesia; Eureka moments; Joya Sherrill dies; Pletnev gets bail; Boulez composing Godot opera?; Nagano quits Munich; Wieseltier dismembers Badiou; Brown interviews (or at least listens to) Žižek; I propose new mottoes for MIT and Harvard; fun with prisoners and R code; a wiki for lost films; live enactments of classic Trek episodes; headline edit fail (homosexual allusion division); grades, then and now; Dr. Mike and I see Predators.

Mama said there'd be days like this. 

(Well, actually, she didn't, because there wasn't a Web then....)

Anyway, Friday produced a superabundance of interesting stuff, so much so, that some items have been offloaded to the weekend edition, and others (gasp) have been jettisoned altogether.


Read George Soros in The New York Review of Books on the Euro crisis, its relationship to the worldwide financial crisis, and the utter wrongheadedness of the current policies of the German government, which (Soros believes) will lead to a deflationary spiral.

The piece in the NYRB began as a lecture at Humboldt University; Soros has added a post-G-20 postscript. Some quotes (Soros is not a great prose stylist, but persevere; what he has to say is important):
The situation is eerily reminiscent of the 1930s. [Ed. note: This seems to be a common theme among the famous economists and the like cited around here.] Doubts about sovereign credit are forcing reductions in budget deficits at a time when the banking system and the economy may not be strong enough to do without fiscal and monetary stimulus. Keynes taught us that budget deficits are essential for countercyclical policies in times of deflation, yet governments everywhere feel compelled to reduce them under pressure from the financial markets. Coming at a time when the Chinese authorities have also put on the brakes, this is liable to push the global economy into a slowdown or possibly a double dip. Europe, which weathered the first phase of the financial crisis relatively well, is now in the forefront of causing the downward pressure because of the problems connected with the common currency.

It is only this year that financial markets started to worry about the accumulation of sovereign debt within the eurozone. Greece became the center of attention when the newly elected government revealed that the previous government had lied and the deficit for 2009 was much larger than indicated.
Interest rate differentials started to widen but the European authorities were slow to react because the member countries held radically different views. Germany, which had been traumatized by two episodes of runaway inflation, was allergic to any buildup of inflationary pressures; France and other countries were more willing to show their solidarity. Since Germany was heading for elections, it was unwilling to act, but nothing could be done without Germany. So the Greek crisis festered and spread. When the authorities finally got their act together they had to offer a much larger rescue package than would have been necessary if they had acted earlier.
Even more troubling is the fact that Germany is not only insisting on strict fiscal discipline for weaker countries but is also reducing its own fiscal deficit. When all countries are reducing deficits at a time of high unemployment they set in motion a downward deflationary spiral. Reductions in employment, tax receipts, and exports reinforce each other, ensuring that the targets will not be met and further reductions will be required. And even if budgetary targets were met, it is difficult to see how the weaker countries could regain their competitiveness and start growing again because, in the absence of exchange rate depreciation, the adjustment process would require reductions in wages and prices, producing deflation.
And the postscript:
Germany went into the G-20 meeting in Toronto on June 26–27 largely isolated. Before the meeting, President Obama publicly pleaded with Angela Merkel to change her policies. At the meeting the tables were turned. Canada’s Stephen Harper as the host and David Cameron, the newly elected Conservative prime minister of the UK, lined up behind Merkel, leaving Obama isolated. Supporting Merkel’s approach, the G-20 endorsed a halving of budget deficits by 2013 as the target. This has extended the threat of a deflationary spiral to the global economy, making the experience of the 1930s even more relevant than it was when I gave much of the preceding text as a speech at Humboldt University.
The political leaders claim to take their cue from the financial markets but they are misreading the signals. Sovereign risk premiums have widened in Europe because of the situation of the banks; but yields on the government bonds of the US, Japan, and Germany are at or near all-time lows, yield curves are flattening, and commodity prices are declining—all foreshadowing deflation. Equity markets have also come under pressure but that is because of the lack of clear leadership. The range of uncertainties is unusually wide: markets need to discount inflation, default, and disintegration, all at the same time. No wonder that equity prices are falling.

Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing reports on Silvio Berlusconi's latest censorship initiative:
Italy's media is going on strike today [Thursday], and practically no news will be reported. This is in protest of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's plan to ram through anti-wiretapping legislation that includes a gag order on reportage concerning government investigation (especially investigation of corruption).
Berlusconi's notoriously corrupt government has been the subject of numerous scandalous investigations, and the media oligarch previously passed legislation prohibiting the courts from prosecuting him while he was in office (this law was struck down by the courts, prompting Berlusconi to denounce his country's judiciary).

Copyright & Intellectual "Property"

Doctorow also weighs in on Landmark Digital Service, Roy van Rijn, and software patents (this is the story I pointed to on Thursday). Also see the comments thread, which is unusually interesting (it even includes a comment from van Rijn's lawyer).

Recording Industry vs The People reports that "$675,000 verdict reduced to $67,500 in SONY v Tenenbaum."

The decision, by District Judge Nancy Gertner, found that the original jury award of $675,000, or $22,500 per "infringed" work (i.e., illegally downloaded mp3) was unconstitutionally excessive.

Yes (for those of you who've done the math), both the original and revised judgments refer to 30 downloaded songs. 

(How many illegally copied or downloaded mp3s do you have?  Be honest now... Now do the math, using either the original judgment or the revised one. Now raise your hands: how many of you have a figure that would resolve the Greek debt crisis?)

As the editor's note at RIvTP points out, however,
Since the Court concluded that the actual damages were ~ $1 per work, or $30 total, I don't understand how it arrived at the conclusion that an award of 2250 times that amount passes constitutional muster.
And Tenenbaum was quoted on All Things Considered this afternoon saying that: 1) he doesn't have $70,000, and 2) it did, still, seem a little excessive, considering that you could buy all the tracks from iTunes for 99 cents each.

Exactly.  So make him pay $1 restitution and a $1 (or even a $5) fine per song.  That would be reaonsable.

But of course it wouldn't pay for all the lawyers that the Recording Industry, in it's infinite wisdom, has seen fit to waste money on, instead of just getting down to dealing with restructuring how they do business in the digital age.


Jack Stripling at Inside Higher Education reports on the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability, which has just released its third annual "Trends in College Spending," and has also put online a publicly available database (TCS Online) that allows anyone to investigate and compare publicly available information about the income and spending of institutions of higher education. (The interface is not intuitive; from the introductory page linked to here, one has to navigate to the actual database through one of the pull-down menus.)

A quote from Stripling's summary of the "Trends" report:
Too much money is wasted on fat cat bureaucrats and administrators. While the report doesn’t place a value judgment on how much is too much, it certainly will give critics some fodder with which to work. In the 10-year span that predated the “great recession,” public research universities ramped up spending on lawyers, senior-level administrators and accountants at nearly twice the rate of expenditures on faculty salaries and other items directly tied to instruction, the report finds. On a per-student basis, funding for instruction grew by about 10 percent between 1998 and 2008 at public research universities, while institutional support -- a category that captures senior vice presidents and other administrative positions that have boomed at many institutions in recent years -- grew by just under 20 percent.
No big surprise there, certainly not to anyone who has worked in an American university in the past 20 years.

I wonder if the database tracks expenditure on sports. (I haven't checked.)

USC has been disqualified from the football coaches' poll for all of the upcoming season. Yay. 

However, they will still be eligible for the AP poll. Boo.

Books v Internet

David Brooks has an op-ed piece in Thursday's NYT, "The Medium Is The Medium," on book culture vs Internet culture.  And he's really talking about literary culture vs Internet culture.

The essay covers a lot of ground in a short space: recent research purporting to show that having books around the house makes students perform "better" in school; research showing that computers and broadband are correlated with lower math and reading scores; and Nicholas Carr's new book The Shallows (which argues that the Internet is making us all have short attention spans).  A quote:
But the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.
This is, I think, rubbish.  Or, more precisely, it is rubbish that becoming "cultivated" in this traditional sense means "mastering significant things of lasting import." It all too often means engaging in exclusionary and elitist posturing about things that members of the "cultivated club" designate as having "lasting import," while utterly ignoring entire spheres of accumulated human knowledge (such as the sciences) of tremendous current and future import.  It's essential to realize that it's entirely possible for discoveries in the sciences to supersede the supposed "significant things of lasting import" purportedly inculcated by "great works."

So I find that Brooks's piece is intellectually pretty thin gruel.

I'm not going to argue this point at length here.  But my main points might be something like:
  • There are, indeed, many great artworks (literary and otherwise) from the past that repay deep and repeated engagement. Some of these works come from the European tradition, and some don't.
  • However, much of what is canonical in literature, philosophy, and criticism doesn't wear well, because it is so hopelessly out of step with what we now know about human cognition, behavior, and evolution, and the universe as a whole.
  • The canonical status of works of the second class is mainly upheld by self-selected mavens who are largely if not completely ignorant of even the basics of science.  And there is no reason that the intellectual authority of these mavens should be respected, because what they have to say about these works is largely said in an echo chamber that is concerned mainly with promoting the reputations and self-esteem of the mavens themselves.
The resonances in what I've just said to C. P. Snow are not coincidental: for the particular problem that Snow noted in The Two Cultures—that scholars of literature are woefully ignorant of science, while expecting that "every educated person" should know some body of canonical literature that they specify–is, in fact, if anything even more pronounced now now than it was when Snow was writing.

Brooks's piece is thin on other grounds, as well.  While I'm happy to see that the NYT provides links out to Brooks's sources, this also allows us to see, for example, that his reference to a study by Richard Allington on the effects of giving children books to take home over the summer comes from an article in USA Today.  Not my go-to source for science journalism.

So I can't take Brooks seriously.

Please feel free to argue.


The NYT reports: "Judge Topples U.S. Rejection of Gay Unions."
A federal judge in Massachusetts found Thursday that a law barring the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, ruling that gay and lesbian couples deserve the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples.

Judge Joseph L. Tauro of United States District Court in Boston sided with the plaintiffs in two separate cases brought by the state attorney general and a gay rights group.


Tracy Schmaler, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said federal officials were reviewing the decision and had no further comment. But lawyers for the plaintiffs said they fully expected the Obama administration to appeal.
Oh, come on Obama administration, do the right thing for once, and let this stand.

“This court has determined that it is clearly within the authority of the commonwealth to recognize same-sex marriages among its residents, and to afford those individuals in same-sex marriages any benefits, rights and privileges to which they are entitled by virtue of their marital status,” Judge Tauro wrote [....]

Massachusetts has allowed same-sex couples to marry since 2004, and while more than 15,000 have done so, they are denied federal benefits like Social Security survivors’ payments, the right to file taxes jointly and guaranteed leave from work to care for a sick spouse.


The Obama administration’s Justice Department was in the position of defending the Defense of Marriage Act even though Barack Obama had called during the 2008 presidential campaign for repealing it.
And so they would appeal because....why?  Just because they want to be in control?

Kevin J. Mitchell at Wiring the Brain provides an excellent overview of the neuroscience of sexual orientation, in "Sexual orientation—wired that way." This follows up his overview at the beginning of June of the genetics of homosexuality, "Sexual orientation—in the genes?."

And are brains "wired" differently?  Yes, on average (and Mitchell is very good on this point) male and female brains are different in a number of aspects (Larry Summers was right about this, just extraordinarily inept in framing the point). And, not terribly surprisingly, the brains of male homosexuals more closely resemble those of women in some respects than they do those of heterosexual men, and those of lesbians tend to resemble those of men. On average (which is what one looks at in science), it feels necessary to stress.  Just read Mitchell on this.

(People in general seem to have a terribly difficult time understanding basic statistical ideas, and as a result misunderstand even simple scientific conclusions like this one.  I think we'd be a lot better off if everyone in school were made to spend a year on statistics.  That would be much more important for an informed populace than yet another "classic" of literature.)

Mitchell has cross-posted these at Gene Expression as khmtchl.

"Genetic Switch Makes Female Mice Try to Mate with Other Females"; 80beats reports.
Geneticists have found a way to alter the sexual preference of lab mice. When they bred mice who had one gene deleted, the females declined male companions and preferred instead to court other females, according to a study published yesterday in BMC Genetics. But whether these results have any implications for humans is still far from clear.
The study is:
Dongkyu Park, et al. (2010), "Male-like sexual behavior of female mouse lacking fucose mutarotase," BMC Genetics. The article is freely available for download.


Hovering at the boundaries of my consciousness this past week was the widely reported story about a new study in Science purporting to find characteristic genetic markers in people who live past 100.

The methodology of this study is now under serious fire. Charlie Petit summarizes at Knight Science Journalism Tracker, and provides links (although the links are hard to find, since the are not highlighted unless you mouse over them) to relevant stories elsewhere.  The key story (which I have not yet read) seems to be Nicholas Wade, in the NYT, "Scientists Criticize Study on Genetics of Old Age," published on Thursday.

John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts has all the links you could possibly want for updates on the ScienceBlogs fiasco, or as he calls it, "PepsiGate."

And if your thirst isn't quenched, see David Crotty at The Scholarly Kitchen, "The Pepsi Syndrome: Did ScienceBlogs Sell Out, or Was This Just Business As Usual?," who comments on the economics of the situation. (Just how is a site like ScienceBlogs going to make money?):
Social media in general has a history of difficulty in finding working business models.  You can’t charge for content, so alternative revenue streams must pay the bills.  This is less a problem for smaller, low-budget sites not run for profit, but for big, high-profile sites backed by investors, pressure mounts over time to supply the return those investors demand.  Often the business model is in clear opposition to the best interests of the site’s users.  Facebook is the current best example, and their recent moves toward eliminating privacy and selling user data to advertisers and others have come under scrutiny.
Well worth reading for his other thoughtful criticisms of the moral outrage shown by many of the the bloggers at ScienceBlogs (and their fellow travelers).

Charlie Petit at Knight Science Journalism Tracker rounds up news coverage of the "tiny protons" story.

Cognition & Neuroscience

NeuroKüz has a great short post on "The neural basis of synesthesia." In a short space, the post gives a clear exposition of the two main theories of synesthesia (the "cross-activation theory" and the "disinhibited feedback theory"), and considers the implications for these theories of a new study by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran's group on grapheme-color synesthesia (people "who experience specific colours when they view specific graphemes (i.e., letters and numbers)."

A quote:
This is the first study of synesthesia to demonstrate simultaneous activation of the two brain areas, known as the posterior temporal grapheme area (PTGA) and colour area V4 (pictured below in the brain of a representative synesthete). The finding was made possible because the researchers used a neuroimaging technique called magnetoencephalography(MEG) to measure weak magnetic fields emitted by specific areas of the brain while the subjects viewed graphemes. Compared to other neuroimaging techniques, such as fMRI and EEG, MEG offers the best combination of temporal and spatial precision in measuring brain activation.
Did you know that you had a "posterior temporal grapheme area"?  I didn't.  I think mine must be unusually big (after all, I wrote a dissertation on graphemes).

The study is:
D. Brang, et al. (2010), "Magnetoencephalography reveals early activation of V4 in grapheme-color synesthesia," NeuroImage. The corrected proofs are behind a paywall at ScienceDirect, and cost $31.50

Mark Changizi at The Vision Revolution (at Science 2.0, my first visit there) has an interesting post on "Eureka" moments.


Joya Sherrill, who sang with Ellington and toured the Soviet Union with Benny Goodman, died on 28 June; her obituary in the NYT is by Peter Keepnews.  One of her hits was "I'm Beginning to See the Light," which must be the first time I heard her voice...evidently when I was very young, because "IBtStL" was a song I discovered to my surprise that I already knew when I heard it as a teenager.

(The NYT reports that Sherrill was born on 20 August 1924, which would have made her 85; Wikipedia has her date of birth as 20 August 1927. I don't know who is right.)

Thailand allows Pletnev to leave country The Independent reports.  And on only $9,000 bail.  He promises to come back. Sure.  (I'm guessing he may well pull a Polanski.)

Rumor has it that Pierre Boulez is composing an opera on Waiting for Godot, scheduled to premiere at La Scala in 2015.  (Via Ionarts.)

Welt Online reports (auf Deutsch) on the circumstances of Kent Nagano's departure as Generalmusikdirektor of the Bayerische Staatsoper ("Der stille Amerikaner—Bitteres Ende im Münchner Musikstreit: Nach einer kulturpolitischen Intrige verlässt Kent Nagaon die Bayerische Staatsoper")

Nagano has announced that he will not be available for a contract extension past 2013.

Fun with Theory
At the New Republic read the first page of Leon Wieseltier's intellectual dismemberment of Alain Badiou, who (in his own words) is “the most widely read and translated French philosopher in the world.”  (Really, this is apparently an actual quote, as is “I was quite aware of having written a ‘great’ book of philosophy," said of his own Being and Event.)  He truly sounds like a pompous and arrogant idiot who spouts repellent ideas.  An aberration among French philosophers, of course...

Unfortunately the article is available complete only to subscribers; but the start is very good, so you might want to look for it in the library or your chiropractor's office.

(via Philosophy's Other)

Helen Brown at the Telegraph has an entertaining interview with Slavoj Žižek (via Philosophy's Other). Or perhaps it's more accurate to say she withstood the verbal flood, and lived to write about it.


Slashdot has the tradition of placing a new quotation in the page footer every day.  Friday's quotation:
"Wish not to seem, but to be, the best." -- Aeschylus
This gave me an (admittedly snarky) idea: This could be MIT's new motto. And Harvard's could be "Wish to seem the best."

"100 Prisoners, 100 lines of code," at Probability and statistics blog (via R bloggers). I don't completely understand this yet (I understand the code, but haven't quite grasped why the results turn out as they do). But it is very entertaining (for a wannabe statistics geek), and it is headed by an amusing photo (a mugshot of Frank Sinatra).

I was particularly amused to learn of the "100 Prisoners and a Light Bulb" problem.

And I'm sure all of this will have applications to opera.... Surely this must shed light on Fidelio....(I think I'll organize a conference).

Paul Collins at Slate writes on the German site Lost Films, run by the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin. Lost Films is a wiki that lists over 4,000 lost early films, providing a place for anyone to report recovered sources for any of these. The site also has an "Identify" section in which users are asked for help in identifying "orphaned" films: that is, those without title cards, or any other identifying information.

Collins provides the best short explanation I have seen of why so many early films have been lost:
The nitrocellulose film used before 1951 was a pyromaniac's dream, and movie studios suffered catastrophic vault fires nearly every decade of the 20th century. Approximately 80 percent of the silent era's films are now thought to be lost. What flash fires didn't destroy, the studios themselves did by deliberately burning silent-era prints to recover the film stock's silver content; they saw little commercial value left in the outdated old films. The occasional discovery of forgotten and unmarked caches in far-flung locales like New Zealand—which just this month turned up a lost 1927 John Ford film—only makes the sense of what must have been lost all the more staggering.

I wish I could attend the live reenactments of classic Star Trek episodes by Atomic Arts in Portland, Oregon (via Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing).

Those of you who live closer (like the Trek geeks in my family) should go! (How could you not?)

"Space Seed" is (for you non Trek-heads), the original Khan episode.


(via David Pescovitz at BoingBoing, via via ...)

Arnold Zwicky at Language Log points out that if Tyson Gay had won, the headline could have been:
Tired Gay licks Dix in 200 meters

Grades in 1960 vs grades in 2010.

via Dr. Mike

Last night Dr. Mike took me to see the new Predators at the Legacy Place theaters in Dedham; I hadn't been to these since they were opened.

This is one of the reasons I'm finishing Friday's digest on Saturday afternoon rather than on Friday night.

This is a break from my usual film fare.  Send me to the DVD collection of the Newton Library (where I send myself once a week anyway), and I'll come home with Kurosawa, Keaton, or (as have been in my stacks recently) Murnau (Noseratu and Der letzte Mann) and Hawks (Twentieth Century).

But I enjoyed Predators.  Annalee Newitz's review at io9 pretty much mirrors my take on it.  As she says, it is very well paced (and as anyone concerned with pacing knows, "well paced" does not always mean "fast").  She calls it a "classy B movie," and that about sums it up.  And it's worth seeing just for Laurence Fishburne's turn as Noland, the old and cracked survivor.  As Newitz notes, very little gratuitous CGI; for me, CGI explosions got old and boring a long time ago...and I don't even go to movies like this.

The weakest aspect of the film was the score, by John Debney.  The score sounds as if had been written by someone who had taken a correspondence course in scoring Hollywood action films. It's terribly generic (in a bad way), and thus detracts from suspense, rather than adding to it.  Perhaps it's part of the intended B-movie ambience?  If so, it doesn't work.

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1 comment:

  1. I'm at the same time happy and disappointed regarding the Tenenbaum judgement. I'm glad the fine was reduced, but it is still ridiculously high. I hope he continues appealing the judgement. I think EFF was helping him out, if I remember correctly, so I imagine they will try to do another appeal.

    And I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of "Predators!"