20 July 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.07.19

Monday, Monday: the history and mathematics of voting systems; The Washington Post reports on "Top Secret America"; books in progress online (sort of); a group blog on artists and creative rights; NYT says government should regulate Google's search algorithm (aieee!); an incompetent trademark troll; memorizing Paradise Lost; how superstitions help performance; how do I really, really feel? (don't ask me, I'd be the last to know); don't trust them dang furriners when they give directions; evolution and morality; are we evolved for war?; Bolles on Fitch's The Evolution of Language; really recent human evolution; the history of evolution; homeopathy in Europe; same-sex marriage and first-cousin marriage; Everest glaciers are melting, melting (oh what a world); Callow reviews Rosen; Tim Parks on words and the construction of self; Mendeley.

Politics & Society

Anthony Gottlieb at The New Yorker reviews George Szpiro, Numbers Rule: The Vexing Mathematics of Democracy, from Plato to the Present.

The review is an entertaining survey of voting schemes, real and theoretical: the convoluted system by which Venetians elected a Doge; "first-past-the-post" or "winner-take-all" voting (which everyone agrees is the worst system, and yet is the one most of us have); ideas for voting reform from Jean-Charles de Borda, the Marquis de Condorcet, Laplace, and Charles Dodgson (who became interested in voting at a time when Christ Church college was deciding on the design for a new belfry); proportional representation; "instant runoff" voting; Kenneth Arrow's Nobel-prize winning proof that (basically) there aren't any good voting systems; and rating methods (beloved on the Internet).

Lucid, fascinating, and witty—in other words, The New Yorker at its best.

The Washington Post has published a major new investigative report, "Top Secret America," concerning the construction of a vast secret national security apparatus in the U.S. since 9/11. Some quotes from the central article by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin:
The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.
These are some of the findings of a two-year investigation by The Washington Post that discovered what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight. After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.
The investigation's other findings include:
• Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
• An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.
• In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings - about 17 million square feet of space
I haven't had time to read the entire article yet. For a good summary, with more quotes, see TechDirt, "To Find Needles in Haystacks."

The apparent bottom line?  The U. S. government has spent an enormous amount of money creating agencies and systems the are wasteful, incompetent, unaccountable, and undermine the privacy and rights of citizens.  In other words:  just what you would expect

Isn't it perhaps time to change a system that is dysfunctional to this degree, wastes our money, and in fact doesn't do anything to help us?

Publishing and Creative Rights

The LA Times reports that publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux has set up a new website allowing readers to follow books in progress.  The site is called (as the LA Times says, "with editorial exactitude") FSG Work in Progress. In the first installment, editor Jonathan Galassi talks with author Jeffrey Eugenides about his next book.

At first glance, the project strikes me as a marketing ploy to generate prior buzz.  But that's hardly surprising given the source.

From 19-23 July, ArtsJournal is hosting a group blog, Creative Rights and Artists, a joint project of the Future of Music Coalition, the National Alliance for Art Media + Culture, Fractured Atlas, and ArtsJournal.

There are 22 bloggers, some of whom are even actually artists and musicians—although this constituency seems to me, at first glance, rather underrepresented. Most everyone involved (artist or not) is from the world of arts advocacy, arts management, and/or academia.  So far as I can see, no one in the discussion represents the worlds of classical music, or, for that matter, jazz.  But I may have missed something.

That's all I've had time for so far.  I will report back on anything noteworthy.

Joseph Esposito at The Scholarly Kitchen sounds off on the NYT's misguided and self-serving editorial suggesting that the government should regulate Google ranking algorithm.

TechDirt reports on notorious (and apparently incompetent) trademark troll Leo Stoller. A few years ago, Stoller claimed a trademark on the word "stealth" (no really), and attempted to extort money for this alleged trademark from Columbia Pictures for the movie "Stealth," from George Brett for the "Stealth" bat, and even (no really) from Northrup Grumman for the stealth bomber. Things fell apart legally and financially for Stoller around 2007.  But he's back.


BPS Research Digest reports on (now) septuagenarian John Basinger, who at the age of 58 in 1993 decided to memorize all 10,565 lines of the second edition of Paradise Lost.  Basinger has recited the poem publicly, and the accuracy of his memory is the subject of a new study:
J. Seamon, et al. (2010), "Memorising Milton's Paradise Lost: A study of a septuagenarian exceptional memoriser," Memory.  The article is behind a paywall at InformaWorld, and costs $30.00
Here is the abstract:
At age 58, JB began memorising Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost. Nine years and thousands of study hours later, he completed this process in 2001 and recalled from memory all 12 books of this 10,565-line poem over a 3-day period. Now 74, JB continues to recite this work. We tested his memory accuracy by cueing his recall with two lines from the beginning or middle of each book and asking JB to recall the next 10 lines. JB is an exceptional memoriser of Milton, both in our laboratory tests in which he did not know the specific tests or procedures in advance, and in our analysis of a videotaped, prepared performance. Consistent with deliberate practice theory, JB achieved this remarkable ability by deeply analysing the poem's structure and meaning over lengthy repetitions. Our findings suggest that exceptional memorisers such as JB are made, not born, and that cognitive expertise can be demonstrated even in later adulthood.
Why am I underwhelmed?  Could it be, perhaps, the many pianists in their 70s, 80s, and even 90s (one thinks of Rubinstein and Horszowski) who have performed huge memorized repertoires, far beyond the scope of Basinger's accomplishment?

Deric Bownds points to a new study on the effect of superstition (good-luck charms, rituals, and the like) on performance. The study is:
Lysann Damisch, et al. (2010), "Keep Your Fingers Crossed!: How Superstition Improves Performance," Psychological Science. The article is behind a paywall at Sage Journals, and costs $35.00. Damisch is at the Universität zu Köln, a public institution.
Here is the abstract:
Superstitions are typically seen as inconsequential creations of irrational minds. Nevertheless, many people rely on superstitious thoughts and practices in their daily routines in order to gain good luck. To date, little is known about the consequencesand potential benefits of such superstitions. The present research closes this gap by demonstrating performance benefits of superstitions and identifying their underlying psychological mechanisms. Specifically, Experiments 1 through 4 show that activating good-luck-related superstitions via a common saying or action (e.g., “break a leg,” keeping one’s fingers crossed) or a lucky charm improves subsequent performance in golfing, motor dexterity, memory, and anagram games. Furthermore, Experiments 3 and 4 demonstrate that these performance benefits are produced by changes in perceived self-efficacy. Activating a superstition boosts participants’ confidence in mastering upcoming tasks, which in turn improves performance. Finally, Experiment 4 shows that increased task persistence constitutes one means by which self-efficacy, enhanced by superstition, improves performance.

A short meditation at Neuroskeptic on a quote from Schopenhauer:
If you want to find out your real opinion of anyone, observe the impression made upon you by the first sight of a letter from him.
Modern psychology tends to concur. As Neuroskeptic explains:
The point is that you do not enjoy direct and perfect knowledge of your own feelings. You can be wrong about them, just like you could misjudge anyone else's feelings. Maybe you think that you like someone, when you really find them annoying. You believe that you like someone as a friend, but you really feel more than that.

In fact, it's not clear that we have any special insight into our own emotions, beyond that which is available to others.

Vaughan at Mind Hacks discusses a new study that shows people are less prone to believe something that is told them in a foreign accent.  The study is
Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar (2010), "Why don't we believe non-native speakers? The influence of accent on credibility," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (in press). The article is behind a paywall at Science Direct, and costs $31.50.
The abstract:
Non-native speech is harder to understand than native speech. We demonstrate that this “processing difficulty” causes non-native speakers to sound less credible. People judged trivia statements such as “Ants don't sleep” as less true when spoken by a non-native than a native speaker. When people were made aware of the source of their difficulty they were able to correct when the accent was mild but not when it was heavy. This effect was not due to stereotypes of prejudice against foreigners because it occurred even though speakers were merely reciting statements provided by a native speaker. Such reduction of credibility may have an insidious impact on millions of people, who routinely communicate in a language which is not their native tongue.


Read Peter Railton's essay "Moral Camouflage or Moral Monkeys?," on the evolutionary status of human morality.  The essay is posted at his blog The Stone (at the Opinionator, at the NYT), but is the focus for discussion this week at the On the Human site of the National Humanities Center.  I have not yet read the responses, except for Bill Benzon's, which he has cross-posted at his blog New Savanna.

Railton's piece is very much worth reading.

Primatologist Frans de Waal has an excellent essay,  "Academic War about War," at 3quarksdaily.

According to De Waal, the widespread notion that war is based in (a presumably evolved) human aggression is not well supported, and is in fact contradicted by much of what we know about the history and experience of war.  Some quotes:
Part of the problem is that modern warfare seems to have little to do with the raw aggressive instinct. Modern warfare rests on a tight hierarchical structure of many parties, not all of which are driven by aggression. In fact, most are just following orders. The decision to go to war is typically made by older men in the capital. When I look at a marching army, I don’t see aggression in action. I see the herd instinct: thousands of men in lock-step, willing to obey superiors.
De Waal points out that there is little evidence for human war before the development of agriculture:
Although archeological signs of individual murder go back hundreds of thousands of years, we lack similar evidence for warfare (such as graveyards with weapons embedded in a large number of skeletons) from before the agricultural revolution. Even the walls of Jericho -- considered one of the first pieces of evidence of warfare and famous for having come tumbling down in the Old Testament -- may have served mainly as protection against mudflows.
Before that time, the human population was too thin for confrontation to have happened more than very rarely.  And although our close cousins the chimpanzees are sometimes warlike, our just as close cousins the bonobos deal with most strife by having sex.

Edmund Blair Bolles at Babel's Dawn has an initial review of W. Tecumseh Fitch's 2009 book The Evolution of Language.  Fitch, as Bolles explains, is a "nativist" firmly in the Chomsky school, rather than an empiricist (as Bolles is) regarding the evolution (and acquisition) of language.  But Bolles persuasively makes the case that in spite of his many critiques, Fitch's book is a must-have for the library of anyone seriously interested in the evolution of language, and I've added it to my Amazon Wishlist.

Nicholas Wade at the NYT has a characteristically excellent and well-informed summary of research on recent human evolution—"recent" here meaning within the last few thousand years.

A replicated typo has begun what promises to be an interesting series on the history of evolution, as a concept and theory.


Spiegel Online has an excellent article (in English) on evolving European attitudes towards homeopathy. Homeopathy is highly popular in Britain and Germany. It is also utterly without scientific support, and is condemned as pseudoscience by many major scientific and medical organizations. Yet it is paid for by state insurance in some countries, including Britain and Germany. In these straightened economic times, many would like to see the end of state health insurance payments for homeopathy.

But homeopathy has much support from powerful quarters:
For months now, a bitter battle has been taking shape in Great Britain between defenders of homeopathy, who are supported by no less than Prince Charles, and detractors who point to the lack of scientific evidence that the remedies offer anything more than a placebo effect. The royal family themselves have been adherents to homeopathy for generations and even Queen Elizabeth is given homeopathic remedies. After the war, her father King George VI even saw to it that Britain's National Health Service (NHS), the country's subsidized healthcare system, picked up the tab for homeopathic treatments.

While many medical experts dismiss the theories behind homeopathy as pure hocus pocus, it has long since become a mass movement in Germany. It is championed by a number of celebrities in the country, too. Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, for example, claims to have lost 42 kilograms with the help of homeopathy. Doris Schröder-Kopf, wife of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, served as the honarary patron of the Homeopathic World Medical Congress this year. Renate Künast, who heads the Green Party in the German parliament, promotes the treatments. And even philosopher Peter Sloterdijk praises homeopathy as "plausible and unbelievable in how mysterious and effective it is."

A recent survey by pollster Allensbach found that 57 percent of Germans have taken homeopathic remedies at some time or other, and 25 percent consider themselves to be "convinced users."
But the article goes on to show that homeopathy is popular, in part, because practitioners will spend a significant amount of time with a patient, taking a detailed history, in contrast to regular doctors, who will see a patient for five minutes, scribble a prescription, and show them the door.


Justin E. H. Smith (via 3quarksdaily) has a thoughtful and challenging essay on same-sex marriage.  He makes the point (and I can't see any obvious refutation) that if we argue for same-sex marriage, we can (if we are going to be logically consistent) hardly maintain that first-cousin marriage should continue to be illegal, as it has widely become throughout much of the West over the past century.

Some quotes:
...I believe that we are right to decide to make same-sex unions equal before the law, but that it is not up to us to decide that the primary meaning of 'marriage' will cease to be 'basic unit of kinship, involving the monogamous pair-bonding of a male and a female'. This meaning will remain primary not only because other-sex couples are, as everyone agrees, statistically more common than same-sex couples, but because there is a fairly rigid system of organization in societies throughout the world that continues to be based on a presumption of gender dimorphism, and that continues to take cross-gender pairings as the elementary units of social reality. This is not what I want (I personally couldn't be less interested in 'defending' traditional marriage, though as it happens I don't think it's going to need defending), but rather what I believe to be the case.


...at present roughly 15% of marriages worldwide occur between first cousins. The eminent kinship scholar Robin Fox estimates that fully 80% of marriages in human history have been between either first or second cousins. In the Muslim world, first-cousin marriage continues to account for up to half of all marriages. Such marriage was always less frequent in Europe than in many other parts of the world, but its stigmatization only took hold in the 19th century (although two of my greatest heroes, who withstood that century's various prejudices fairly well, and who understood that human beings could be studied as products of nature, were both married to their own first cousins: Charles Darwin, and the founder of the science of kinship, Lewis Henry Morgan). Generally, the arguments in favor of exogamy were proferred by the same eugenic theorists who defended racial purity. Cousin marriage constituted one limit (too close), with racial miscegenation (too distant) at the other extreme. The ideal mating pool in the 19th century was the nation, ethnically construed, while both the extended family as well as those beyond the ethnie were held to pose a threat to the purity of the stock. Cousin marriage was consequently outlawed in most American states as part of the same wave of racial-purity laws in the decades following the end of slavery. Somehow, in the Civil Rights era no one thought it a priority to do away with these ungrounded laws against a form of endogamy, even as they rightly fought to reverse the laws restricting reproduction at the other end of the scale of perceived difference.


So why, then, has the educated liberal Western elite taken up the cause of same-sex marriage so vigorously, even as it remains perfectly content to permit laws against cousin marriage to remain on the books throughout the United States? I think I know. It is because cousin sex is white-trash, Muslim, jungly, primitive: other, in short, in a way that gay sex --for heterosexuals who live in cosmopolitan urban centers in the West-- is not. It would not be difficult to demonstrate that being at ease with homosexuality can often serve as a marker of social advancement for heterosexuals.


We aren't married to the past, but let us at least admit that there is something curious going on when same-sex marriage, virtually unknown in the ethnographic and historical record, is hailed categorically in our own day as 'what is right' and as a 'human right', while by contrast first-cousin marriage, widespread in the same record, is first banned in the name of the horribly unjust and discriminatory pseudoscience of eugenics, and then permitted to remain under prohibition by the same people who claim to be so concerned about what is right.
This is a rich and erudite essay, and worth reading in full.

The Environment

The Asia Society has a fascinating and alarming comparison of photos of the Main Rongbuk Glacier on Mount Everest taken in 1921 and 2010. The 2010 photo was taken from exactly the same spot, so the photos could be overlapped and compared in a detailed way. The site includes an embedded Flash object allowing the user to manipulate the dividing point between the two photographs, so that different points on the photos can be compared.

The glacier has receded dramatically, and at some points has lost 300 vertical feet of ice since the photo in 1921.


In the Guardian, Simon Callow reviews Charles Rosen, Music and Sentiment. A quote:
In Music and Sentiment [Rosen] turns to the big subject of how music performs its miracles, but, characteristically, he focuses on a seemingly limited aspect of it: "how the change in representing sentiment in music was developed, and what it could mean for the conception of music". The apparent dryness of this theme is contradicted on every page.
Working his way from the end of the 18th century to the 20th, Rosen shows how composers evolved the ways in which they communicated and how audiences learned to understand what they were doing. He declines to define the emotions the composers were expressing (easily identifiable anyway, he reckons): what interests him is the discourse, and how it was conducted. Eighteenth-century composers, for example, played with the relationship between dissonance and consonance, dissonance creating a tension which is then released, to gratifying effect, by a consonance. Audiences knew and expected this pattern; they weren't taught it; they simply imbibed it with the rest of the culture.
I'm a Rosen skeptic. His Classical Style was the first serious book about music that I ever read, when I was in college, and I was admittedly enthralled. However, when I returned to it in graduate school, I wanted to throw it across the room after practically every other page, because of Rosen's cavalier disdain for history, and the consequent incompetence of some of his historical generalizations. In the 1990s, several downright silly or careless statements in his various pieces for The New York Review of Books placed Rosen on the list of writers I couldn't justify spending time on.  Some of my acquaintances like his Romantic Generation, which I've owned for years, but haven't read. He strikes me as someone who has occasional deep insights into music, but on other topics, writes much better than he thinks.

Callow nearly convinces me, though, that I might want to read this one.  And it's short.  So it probably won't cause too much damage if I throw it across the room.


An excerpt from Tim Parks's memoir, at the Guardian, "Sticking the world together with words"
But what if language and literature were as much a part of the problem as the solution?
An interesting meditation on words and the narrative construction of self and identity.


Julie Meloni at ProfHacker (at The Chronicle of Higher Education) describes her experiments with Mendeley, which combines Web-based research bibliography and management with elements of social networking.  (Many of the creators of Mendeley also were responsible for Last.fm, and they're trying to bring the idea of "scrobbling" to online research bibliography... at least, that's how I understand it). 

Bottom line: It's not going to make her give up Zotero.  Yet.

I've been using Zotero for around a year, although I tend to use it more as a kind of super bookmarking program than as a bibliography program (mainly because I'm not currently writing research articles with references...but this may change).  In theory, I like Zotero's abilities to highlight and annotate saved copies of web pages, which I would use a lotwhile preparing items for this blog, were it not for Zotero's mysterious and extremely irritating tendency to discard these annotations without warning.

I may play with Mendeley when time permits.
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