15 July 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.07.14

Bastille Day Edition: ScribeFire and I; new fossil sheds light on split between apes and Old World monkeys; can you teach yourself synesthesia?; is the ability to produce speech necessary for understanding it?; more on the "neutral model" of language evolution; Charles Mackerras is dead; making music together promotes cooperative behavior; practice doesn't necessarily make you a better sight reader; Tuli Kupferberg RIP; Argentine senate to vote on gay marriage; another cool tattoo (Euler's Identity).



Still irking (that should definitely be a word, if it isn't already) that ScribeFire sent the nearly completed draft of yesterday's Digest to bit heaven with no chance of resurrection.

What can you say about the design of a piece of software that allows an unrecoverable loss of work because of one errant keystroke, has no built-in undo stack to cover that possibility, and stores your working files somewhere you can't find them?

(Yes, I've burrowed all the way down through the wonderfully intuitively named folder {F807FACD-E46A-4793-B345-D58CB177673C} to /Library/Application Support/Firefox/Profiles/rwtenwx7.default/extensions/{F807FACD-E46A-4793-B345-D58CB177673C}/chrome/scribefire.jar.  Nope, no draft files here, or anywhere in the vicinity...)

Incompetent is one answer that comes to mind.

However, for various reasons (one is the tabbed interface, the other is the convenience of having it within the browser), I haven't quite given up on ScribeFire yet, and I'm using it to draft this post. Let's hope ScribeFire isn't hungry today.

And I really wish they'd fix the window refresh bug.

I'll also be testing ecto for some shorter posts today, including a couple that attempt to reconstruct sections from yesterday's evaporated digest.  More on that elsewhere.



Paleoanthropology

Science News reports that a newly discovered partial skull from a site in Saudi Arabia points to a later split between apes and Old World monkeys than had been thought. The new species is Saadanius hijazensis, and the fossil is estimated to date from 29 to 28 million years old. The skull's characteristics point to an origin before the split of the ape and monkey lineages, which was previously estimated to have taken place between 34.5 and 29.2 million years ago.



The article is:
Iyad S. Zalmout, et al. (2010), "New Oligocene primate from Saudi Arabia and the divergence of apes and Old World monkeys," Nature. The article is the cover story for the current issue. The article is behind a paywall, and costs $32.00.  All authors are associated with the University of Michigan or the Saudi Geological Survey, publicly-funded institutions.



Cognition

Can you teach yourself synesthesia? Maybe, writes Linda Geddes at New Scientist, summarizing a study led by Olympia Colizoli, who recently reported on the findings at the Forum of European Neuroscience.

Colizoli's group found that subjects who were trained on texts in which certain letters always appeared as certain colors were able to identify these letters more quickly in subsequent tests in which the letters weren't colored.  (If that doesn't seem entirely clear, it is probably because the story in New Scientist leaves out several steps in the reasoning—until the study actually appears, we'll have to guess what was meant.)





Greg Hickok at Talking Brains has a good post entitled "Can individuals perceive and understand speech without the ability to produce it?" Hickok writes that "Yes" is the correct answer to the question of his title. I haven't completely processed the post yet, but I mention it here because it looks to be a preliminary to Hickok's coming critique of a new article suggesting that the answer is "No":
Friedemann Pulvermüller and Luciano Fadiga (2010), "Active perception: sensorimotor circuits as a cortical basis for language," Nature Reviews Neuroscience. The article is behind a paywall at Nature, and costs $32.00. Pulvermüller is at the Medical Research Council (Cambridge, UK) and Fadiga is at the University of Ferrara.
Here is their abstract:
Action and perception are functionally linked in the brain, but a hotly
debated question is whether perception and comprehension of stimuli
depend on motor circuits. Brain language mechanisms are ideal for
addressing this question. Neuroimaging investigations have found
specific motor activations when subjects understand speech sounds, word
meanings and sentence structures. Moreover, studies involving
transcranial magnetic stimulation and patients with lesions affecting
inferior frontal regions of the brain have shown contributions of motor
circuits to the comprehension of phonemes, semantic categories and
grammar. These data show that language comprehension benefits from
frontocentral action systems, indicating that action and perception
circuits are interdependent.
Hickok's post concerns a related earlier study, from 1990:
D. V. Bishop, et al. (1990), "The relationship between phoneme discrimination, speech production, and language comprehension in cerebral-palsied individuals," Journal of speech and hearing research. The article is behind a paywall at the journal's website, and costs $10.00
Just out of college, I worked for three years in a group home for mentally-retarded young adults, one of whom had cerebral palsy and was dysarthric (a new word for me, meaning "with labored, and often unintelligible, speech"); two or three other residents had never been able to produce articulate speech.  And my (admittedly unscientific) experience was that all of these individuals were able to process receptive speech quite functionally and accurately.

At any rate, I'll be looking forward to reading more of Hickok's take on this, as it will give me an opportunity to reconnect with that era of my own experience.



A week ago, I pointed to a new article describing a possible "neutral mode" of language evolution (the article, by Reali & Griffiths in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is freely available for download until the end of July).

James Winters at a replicated typo now has an outstanding post on this article. If you have any interest in the evolution of language, read it.



Music

Alex Ross at The Rest is Noise reports that conductor Charles Mackerras has died (Ross has links to reports in the Australian press). No obituary has yet appeared in the NYT as of the time I'm posting this.

I never met Mackerras, although I did once hear him eviscerate a roomful of Gluck scholars for the stupidity and amusicality of the editorial practices of the Gluck edition (and he was right).

But I have friends who knew him well, and I grieve with them.  From everything I know about him, he seems to have been a man to whom music was always central, not his ego.  Not many conductors you can say that about.



Tom Jacobs at Miller-McCune Online has a good summary of a new study out of Michael Tomasello's lab at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig (where I wish I worked) suggesting that making music together promotes cooperative behavior....among four-year-olds, at any rate.

The experimental design is too involved to describe here (Jacobs gives a clear description). The bottom line:
Children who had sang and marched together were more likely to help one another pick up marbles. They were also more likely to choose the cooperative solution to the task.
Girls were more helpful and more likely to be cooperative than boys, whether they were in the singing group or not. But like the boys, their level of cooperation and helpfulness increased if they had participated in the music-making.
The researchers conclude that engaging in the “shared goal of vocalizing and moving together in time” strengthened the children’s “sense of acting together as a unit.” Their results support the hypothesis that music originally evolved as a way of fostering group cohesion, by “generating an intuitive feeling of community and bonding among the performers.”
The article is:
Sebastian Kirschner and Michael Tomasello (2010), "Joint music making promotes prosocial behavior in 4-year-old children," Evolution and Human Behavior (corrected proof, in press). The article is behind a paywall at ScienceDirect, and costs $31.50.  (Angel alert: I'd really like to read this one, as I'm hoping to write a review on the evolution of music.)
Here is the abstract:
Humans are the only primates that make music. But the evolutionary
origins and functions of music are unclear. Given that in traditional
cultures music making and dancing are often integral parts of important
group ceremonies such as initiation rites, weddings or preparations for
battle, one hypothesis is that music evolved into a tool that fosters
social bonding and group cohesion, ultimately increasing prosocial
in-group behavior and cooperation. Here we provide support for this
hypothesis by showing that joint music making among 4-year-old children
increases subsequent spontaneous cooperative and helpful behavior,
relative to a carefully matched control condition with the same level of
social and linguistic interaction but no music. Among other functional
mechanisms, we propose that music making, including joint singing and
dancing, encourages the participants to keep a constant audiovisual
representation of the collective intention and shared goal of vocalizing
and moving together in time — thereby effectively satisfying the
intrinsic human desire to share emotions, experiences and activities
with others.
Some of you may be thinking "Well duh..."

However, there has still been relatively little experimental work on this point, partly because it is difficult to figure out how to design experiments that will get at this sort of question in a scientifically sound way.  Tomasello's lab has been extraordinarily good at devising clever ways to do so, and this is another example.



A couple of music-related items that disappeared in yesterday's Disappearing Digest Incident:

Deric Bownds links to a new study suggesting that sight-reading skill is not entirely a matter of practice—some people (with more capacious working memory) seem just to be better at it than others, "out of the box," so to speak.

The article is:
Elizabeth J. Meinz and David Z. Hambrick (2010), "Deliberate Practice is Necessary but Not Sufficient to Explain Individual Differences in Piano Sight-Reading Skill: The Role of Working Memory Capacity," Psychological Science.
The article is, alas, behind a paywall (alas, because knowing about this sort of thing is, currently, my job).  It costs $35.00 from Sage Journals.  The article is 6 pages long, and both authors work at publicly-funded institutions (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and Michigan State University, respectively).
Here is the abstract:
Deliberate practice—that is, engagement in activities specifically
designed to improve performance in a domain—is strongly predictive of
performance in domains such as music and sports. It has even been
suggested that deliberate practice is sufficient to account for expert
performance. Less clear is whether basic abilities, such as working
memory capacity (WMC), add to the prediction of expert performance,
above and beyond deliberate practice. In evaluating participants having
a wide range of piano-playing skill (novice to expert), we found that
deliberate practice accounted for nearly half of the total variance in
piano sight-reading performance. However, there was an incremental
positive effect of WMC, and there was no evidence that deliberate
practice reduced this effect. Evidence indicates that WMC is highly
general, stable, and heritable, and thus our results call into question
the view that expert performance is solely a reflection of deliberate
practice.
The result is not a tremendous surprise.  We all know anecdotally that some people are much stronger sight readers than others.  (I used to know someone who was nearly legally blind who could sight-read the most complicated modern orchestral scores at the piano flawlessly.)

But don't tell my students.  Practice may not make perfect, but at least it makes better.



Tuli Kupferberg, "Bohemian and Fug," died on Monday at the age of 86.

I first learned about Kupferberg's band, the Fugs, when I was in high school, from an article in one of the disreputable magazines that I read at the time (remember Ramparts and Avant-Garde?).

And honestly, I don't know their music.  But I remember to this day the lyrics of one of their songs, that were quoted in the article that I read. 

The song had to do with CocaCola.  That's all I'm saying about it here (after all, my family reads this blog....)



GLBT

Alexei Barrionuevo writes in Tuesday's New York Times that the Argentine Senate is about to vote on gay marriage. The move is being promoted by the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and is being resisted (no surprise) by the Catholic Church.



&c.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about one tattoo I would consider if I were of a mind to get a tattoo (not very likely, but you never know): a tattoo of Darwin's first sketch of a species tree.

Here's another (also from Carl Zimmer's ongoing thread on this topic at The Loom).



This is Euler's Identity, often said to be the most beautiful (and perhaps also the most mysterious) equation in mathematics. If it isn't immediately obvious to you why this is so, you should have stayed awake in math class. (And read the Wikipedia article, which is very good on the background of the equation and its reception.)
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