13 July 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.07.12

Monday: Swiss quash Polanski extradition; digital apocalypse; closing the digital frontier?; baby brains; heresy on Broca's area; are humans unique? (fists fly in New Zealand); Young Earth (well, a little younger, anyway); David Cope; Bill Dixon in memoriam; science and painting; World Cup statistics in R; base-pair necklace sets for the biogeeks in your life; the carbon footprint of the banana.


The NYT reports that the Swiss have rejected an American request to extradite director Roman Polanski, who fled the United States in 1978 shortly before sentencing in a case in which he had pleaded guilty to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl. Polanski's claim has consistently been that he had reason to believe that the judge in that trial was going to renege on a prior plea agreement that would have taken into account the time Polanski had already spent in Chico State Prison.
“He’s a free man,” the Swiss justice minister, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, said at a news conference on Monday.


The turning point in the case occurred in mid-March, when Mr. Polanski’s lawyers disclosed in an appeals brief that Roger Gunson, a now-retired lawyer who originally prosecuted the case, had given sealed testimony describing a plan by Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, the original judge, to limit Mr. Polanski’s sentence to a 90-day psychiatric evaluation, a portion of which Mr. Polanski had served during his 42 days in Chino State Prison.

Mr. Gunson, who gave the testimony in January, also described his own reservations about the handling of the case by Judge Rittenband, who is now deceased.


The Swiss authorities, without success, requested access to the Gunson account, arguing that it would have established whether the judge had assured Mr. Polanski that time he spent in a psychiatric unit would constitute the whole of his period of imprisonment.
See also the report on reactions here.

Jeffrey Toobin had an outstanding article on the case in the 14 December 2009 issue of The New Yorker, "The Celebrity Defense."  To read the article online unfortunately requires a subscription (there isn't, so far as I can see, an option to purchase a copy of this article alone). But the article is well worth reading, if you can hunt up a print copy.


I generally look with some skepticism on articles in the mainstream press (particularly short ones) that make sweeping claims or "sound the alarm" (whatever it may be) about the Internet and the digital age.  So I was prepared for the worst when I saw the headline on the post at Robert McCrum on Books at the Guardian:  "Apocalypse now? No, but we've lost our cultural way."

But this one isn't so bad.  It's written partly in response to a piece (which I haven't read) by Lee Siegel in The Observer claiming that the novel is dead. McCrum writes, quite rightly, I think, that
A cultural road map at least 100 years old has been torn up in the past decade, and we are still trying to navigate without it – or with the piece of it we happen to be clutching.
And he goes on to outline the components of what he calls the current "cultural panic":
1. No one knows the future of the book. Or of publishing. Or what digitisation really means in the long term. Everyone is betting on the basis of guesswork.
2. No one knows where – in storytelling – the centre of gravity lies. In journalism? In new movies? In the short story? Plays? The novel? Some new art form still unrecognised? There are so many options.
3. No one knows what mass culture has done to elite culture. Has literary discourse become a slave to bestseller lists? To celebrity culture? To television? Again, it's hard to decide.
4. No one knows if the audience is global or local, or a mixture of the two. Some writers, usually popular ones, seem to stumble on a global readership; others struggle to connect with a local constituency. Yet the global and the local are ceaselessly interacting, and provoking each other in countless literary transactions.
5. Finally, in the English-speaking world, are we writing in an Anglo-American standard, or Globish, or dialect, or what?
Couldn't have put it better myself.

I am somewhat more skeptical of Michael Hirschhorn's piece in the current Atlantic, "Closing the Digital Frontier," The subhead tells most of the story:
The era of the Web browser’s dominance is coming to a close. And the Internet’s founding ideology—that information wants to be free, and that attempts to constrain it are not only hopeless but immoral—suddenly seems naive and stale in the new age of apps, smart phones, and pricing plans. What will this mean for the future of the media—and of the Web itself?
Well, this seems just a teeny bit overheated.  And that the "era of the Web browser's dominance is coming to a close" will certainly come as a surprise to the programmers of Firefox, Safari, Explorer, Opera, &c. &c.

It's quite true, though, that Apple (as Hirschhorn makes clear) is turning increasingly to closed models, and (I regret to say, as a longtime Apple fanboy) that's not a good thing.  (Although we shouldn't forget that under the hood, OS X is still an open source version of Unix.)

Cognition & Neuroscience

80beats and io9 report on a new study in PNAS showing (as 80beats puts it):
...not only that the brain grows in a non-uniform way, but also that the parts of the brain that change most rapidly as people grow up are the same parts that changed the most as humans evolved away from our primate relatives.
The article is:
Jason Hill, et al. (2010), "Similar patterns of cortical expansion during human development and evolution," Proceedings of he National Academy of Sciences. The article is (as I write this) freely available for download.
Here is the abstract:
The cerebral cortex of the human infant at term is complexly folded in a similar fashion to adult cortex but has only one third the total surface area. By comparing 12 healthy infants born at term with 12 healthy young adults, we demonstrate that postnatal cortical expansion is strikingly nonuniform: regions of lateral temporal, parietal, and frontal cortex expand nearly twice as much as other regions in the insular and medial occipital cortex. This differential postnatal expansion may reflect regional differences in the maturity of dendritic and synaptic architecture at birth and/or in the complexity of dendritic and synaptic architecture in adults. This expression may also be associated with differential sensitivity of cortical circuits to childhood experience and insults. By comparing human and macaque monkey cerebral cortex, we infer that the pattern of human evolutionary expansion is remarkably similar to the pattern of human postnatal expansion. To account for this correspondence, we hypothesize that it is beneficial for regions of recent evolutionary expansion to remain less mature at birth, perhaps to increase the influence of postnatal experience on the development of these regions or to focus prenatal resources on regions most important for early survival.

Greg Hickok at Talking Brains reports that a controversial review paper on the role of Broca's are in sentence comprehension that he jointly wrote with Corianne Rogalsky will now appear in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.  Why was it controversial?
Basically we argue, despite the claims of Grodzinsky, Friederici, and colleagues, that there is no evidence for Broca's area playing any specific role in syntactic and/or basic hierarchical processing during sentence comprehension.
In other words: heresy!

The article is:

Corianne Rogalsky and Gregory Hickok (2010), "The Role of Broca's Area in Sentence Comprehension," Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Alas, the article is behind a paywall at the MiT Press Journals site, and costs $12.00.  Please Greg, let us read the article.
I am happy to report that heretic Rogalsky is at my doctoral alma mater, USC.

A fascinating post from Neuroskeptic draws together a passage from Stendahl, Le Rouge et le Noir, the placebo effect, and Ethan Watters, Crazy Like Us (the latter is an absolute must read).

Edmund Blair Bolles at Babel's Dawn reports on an argument at the New Zealand Science Review over whether and to what extent the abilities of humans are unique.  The combatants are:
David Penny, "The Continuity of mind from Great Apes to Humans," and

Michael Corballis, "The Great Leap to Humankind"
Both pieces are freely available for download

Bolles also discusses an important article from 2006 that I did not previously know:
J. L. Locke and B. Bogin (2006), "Language and life history: A new perspective on the development and evolution of human language," Behavioral and Brain Sciences. A version of the article is available for download here.  If you want to get it from the journal website at Cambridge Journals, it is behind a paywall, and will set you back $45.00.


80beats reports on a new "young earth" theory.  No, not that kind of "young earth."  Rather, a new study in Nature Geoscience suggests that the Earth only became a fully-formed planet 70 million years later than the currently accepted date.  So that would make the planet 4.467 billion years old instead of 4.537 billion. That will save on candles when the Earth's next birthday rolls around, in any case.

The article is:
John F. Rudge, et al. (2010), "Broad bounds on Earth's accretion and core formation constrained by geochemical models," Nature Geoscience.
The article is behind a paywall, and costs $18. You cannot follow the links to the institutional affiliations of the researchers without buying the article. Anyone want to take bets that the institutions for which they work are publicly funded?  (In fact Rudge, according to the report in 80beats, is at the University of Cambridge, which is, indeed, publicly funded.)


A good article at The Guardian on composer David Cope, who for 30 years has worked on two successive software-based "composers" called Emmy and Emily Howell, that learn to compose by imitating, in a deep way, the styles of the pieces to which they have been exposed.

I write this potted summary with some trepidation because, although I have known of Cope for a long time, I haven't had the time or opportunity to engage with his writings or the compositions produced by his software.

I recently got to thinking about Cope and wanting to learn more about his work after reading an excellent article about him by Ryan Blitstein at Muller-McCune in February. I was disappointed to find, though, that the Minuteman Library system (my principal library at the moment, since I do not have access to a proper research library) does not have any of Cope's key books on computers and music, nor does the system have any of the recordings of the compositions of Emmy or Emily Howell.  This makes following up on my interest in Cope difficult.

I hope to find out more, though.  In the meantime, Blitstein's article includes two sound samples of piano works by Emily Howell, a pretty piece in a Rachmaninoff mode (but which doesn't sound like a straight copy of Rachmaninoff):

 Click here to listen without Quicktime

And a lovely fugue:

Click here to listen without Quicktime

destination: OUT has a excellent post in honor of the late trumpeter, pianist, composer, and artist Bill Dixon, who died this past 16 June. The post incudes six sound files (which I'm listening to as I write this), several from rare recordings, as well useful links out to additional information on Dixon. Here's a quote:
With the death of Bill Dixon last month, the world lost an utterly distinctive voice. Adept at various settings — solo, small group, orchestral — Dixon presented the antithesis of “licks.” His was a music of surprise, of expressing a personal sound. Unafraid of silence, or unconventional sonics — and seemingly allergic to cliche — he created a body of work that offers the patient and open-eared listener unparalleled joy and depth of feeling. Though Dixon could be the sort of musician who starts arguments, we believe the often strong reactions to his playing grew out of his unique approach to his instrument; it was very hard not to have an opinion. We come down alongside Dixon’s colleague and student Stephen Haynes: “Dixon was the next technical extension of the trumpet after Dizzy Gillespie.”
I hadn't realized, by the way, that Dixon was from Nantucket.

Arts & Sciences

Michael Kimmelman at the NYT reports on an exhibition at the National Gallery in London, "Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes, and Discoveries."


Two different posts that appeared on R bloggers yesterday use R to chart statistics from the recently ended World Cup, based on data made available at the Guardian Data Blog (motto: "Facts are sacred"):
From R-Chart, "World Cup 2010 Statistics Plotted with R
From Revolutions, "Charting the World Cup"
The post at Revolutions gives the commands to allow R to download the data directly from the Guardian site:
players <- read.csv("http://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=tOM2qREmPUbv76waumrEEYg&single=true&gid=1&range=A1%3AH596&output=csv")

teams <- read.csv("http://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=tOM2qREmPUbv76waumrEEYg&single=true&gid=0&range=A1%3AAG15&output=csv")
These work without a hitch: I just used them to download the information for all 595 players and all of the teams.

The statistics for the players include:  Player Surname, Team, Position, Time Played, Total Shots Attempted, Total Passes, Tackles Attempted, Saves Made

The statistics for the teams include: Games Played, Goals, Average Goals per Game, Shots (excluding blocked shots), % Shots on Target, % Goals to Shots, Overall Pass Completion %, Cross Completion %, Goals Conceded, Average Goals Conceded per Game, Tackles Won %, Fouls, Yellow Cards, Red Cards.

Even though I barely watched any of the World Cup (I saw five minutes of the final standing in line at the pharmacy the other day), the data will be a lot of fun to play with. Let me know if you have any questions you'd like answered.

The post at R-Chart has instructions for creating various cool charts from this data, including, for example, this barchart of fouls committed per team (notice that Netherlands leads the list):

Those of you with more sophisticated tastes can learn how to make charts like this one (from Jason Priem):


DNA or RNA base pair friendship necklace sets (via David Pescovitz at BoingBoing), for the biogeek in your life.

From the Green Living  blog at the Guardian online, via BoingBoing: Why the carbon footprint of a banana is relatively low, compared to, say, a kiwi from New Zealand.

The comment thread at BoingBoing is particularly interesting, as many of the writers there make clear that assessing the environmental impact of a banana (its carbon footprint may be low, but it's water usage is very high) or the kiwi (I didn't know that the kiwi was now an important crop in Italy) is, well, complicated.
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