21 July 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.07.20

Tuesday: the future of tenure; the future of AI; more on extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation; depression dulls the senses; more on Wade on very recent human evolution; the co-evolution of humans and their animals; the olm; why music is good for you; classical music is in great health—really, it is (at least Heather Mac Donald thinks so); Varèse and jazz; another day another Caravaggio attribution; the ongoing saga of Kafka's papers.


The New York Times has a "discussion" on tenure: "What if College Tenure Dies?," inspired by the story in The Chronicle of Higher Education that I linked to on 6 July. Contributors are:
  • Cary Nelson (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), who argues that academic freedom and student learning are at stake.
  • Adrianna Kezar (University of Southern California), who says we haven't done enough studies (!) to know what the effect of the decline of tenure will be—but it's certainly true that the conditions for non-tenure-track faculty are very poor (guess we have enough studies to show that, anyway).
  • Richard Vedder (Ohio University), who argues that tenure may actually reduce intellectual diversity: "The fact is that tenured faculty members often use their power to stifle innovation and change." (Gosh, ya think?)
  • Cathy A. Trower (Harvard Graduate School of Education), who writes that tenure as it is currently constituted no longer fits the lifestyles and goals of a younger generation, and speculates about how things might be designed if we were to start from scratch.
  • Mark C. Taylor (Columbia University), who writes: "Tenure is financially unsustainable and intellectually indefensible. The fundamental problem is liquidity – both financial and intellectual"
So far as I can tell, all but perhaps one of these people are tenured (Trower's position at Harvard is "research associate").

There is no input from the as-yet-untenured-but-on-the-tenure-track (who, however, are usually too terrified to write anything controversial or even to write in public forums at all), the non-tenure-track, or students.  The point of view is resolutely and entirely parochially American.  There is not even a whisper that America's system is (so far as I know) unique in the world. And it certainly cannot be argued that the university systems in other countries (Britain for example) lack academic freedom or diversity.  You would think that someone in the debate might at least allude to this...but no.

And discussions like this one seem never to cite specific examples of cases in which "academic freedom" has demonstrably been protected by tenure.  It seems to be dogma rather than empirically verified generalization.

I would say, just off hand, that in my former field, the tiny and marginal one of musicology, the vast overproduction of Ph.D.s scrambling after an ever-diminishing pool of tenure-track jobs has led to a thorough corruption of the (largely unaccountable) hiring system, which is distorted by old-boy networks and insider trading, and where several successive generations of the mediocre hiring the even more mediocre have led to the effective death of the field.  Of course I'm just a tiny bit biased....but that doesn't mean I'm wrong.

And my personal experience as an untenured faculty would suggest that there is virtually no freedom of expression at that level. To be untenured is perhaps more like living under a totalitarian regime in which one errant word can destroy your career and get you sent to a reeducation camp. (Actually, I might have enjoyed a reeducation camp; at least they would probably have fed me and given me a place to sleep...)

In any case, the contributions at the Times have obviously hit a nerve.  As of Wednesday morning, the numbers of comments on the respective contributions are: Nelson, 142; Kazar, 36; Vedder, 32; Trower, 85; and Taylor, 125.  Some of these comments are quite long. 


Noted computer scientist David Gelernter has a rambling thought-piece at Edge, "Dream-Logic, The Internet and Artificial Thought." It may well include startling insights, but I haven't been able to wade all the way through it.  Must be my Internet-induced short attention span...

A short post (with useful bibliography) at Beyond the Bench on extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation—which, however, makes no mention of the highly relevant new paper in Psychological Science that I wrote about last Friday, and which was the topic of a good post at The Frontal Cortex.

Sandy Gautam at The Mouse Trap has an interesting post on the sharpening of senses in mania and the their dulling in depression (an ongoing topic of his blog).

The study to which Sandy refers is:
Emanuel Bubl, et al. (2009), "Seeing Gray When Feeling Blue? Depression Can Be Measured in the Eye of the Diseased," Biological Psychiatry.  The article is behind a wall (probably pay), but I would have to register at the site to find out the cost, and don't feel like it right now.
Just a warning that in my experience (and on this site alone out all the blogs and sites I follow), pages at The Mouse Trap chronically and for some months now will not open properly in Firefox 3.5 + on the Mac. So I have to read Sandy's posts in a different browser (Safari in this case). An annoyance, and probably unnecessary.


John Hawks (who is deeply involved in research on the topic) and Larry Moran (at Sandwalk) both respond to Nicholas Wade's article in Monday's NYT on recent human evolution.

Physorg has a press release about a new study (with a book not far behind) that makes the case that the close interaction between humans and other animals (eventually leading to domestication and pets) has been an important driving force in human evolution. The work is by Pat Shipman at Penn State University; according to the press release, her paper on the topic will appear in the August 2010 issue of Current Anthropology. There is no direct link to any version of the paper in the press release, and the article is, so far as I can see, not yet posted in any form at the journal's website, where the "current issue" is June.

Some quotes from the press release:
....in addition to describing her theory in the scientific paper, Shipman has authored a book for the general public, now in press with W. W. Norton, titled The Animal Connection. "No other mammal routinely adopts other species in the wild -- no gazelles take in baby cheetahs, no mountain lions raise baby deer," Shipman said. "Every mouthful you feed to another species is one that your own children do not eat. On the face of it, caring for another species is maladaptive, so why do we humans do this?"
But what about those ants that "ranch" aphids, and the like? Granted, these aren't mammals; but from an evolutionary perspective, that's irrelevant.
Shipman suggests that the animal connection was prompted by the invention of stone tools 2.6-million years ago. "Having sharp tools transformed wimpy human ancestors into effective predators who left many cut marks on the fossilized bones of their prey," Shipman said. Becoming a predator also put our ancestors into direct competition with other carnivores for carcasses and prey. As Shipman explains, the  who learned to observe and understand the behavior of potential prey obtained more meat. "Those who also focused on the behavior of potential competitors reaped a double evolutionary advantage for natural selection," she said.
A later quote suggest that Shipman subscribes to the notion that dogs were actively domesticated by humans:
Shipman concludes that detailed information about animals became so advantageous that our ancestors began to nurture wild animals -- a practice that led to the domestication of the dog about 32,000 years ago. She argues that, if insuring a steady supply of meat was the point of domesticating animals, as traditionally has been assumed, then dogs would be a very poor choice as an early domesticated species. "Why would you take a ferocious animal like a wolf, bring it into your family and home, and think this was advantageous?" Shipman asks. "Wolves eat so much meat themselves that raising them for food would be a losing proposition.
The Coppingers' notion that dogs are, at least to some degree, self-domesticated seems much more plausible to me.  And the date of domestication is still very much up in the air.

Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science has a great piece on the olm:
a blind, cave-dwelling salamander, also called the proteus and the “human fish”, for its pale, pinkish skin. It has spent so long adapting to life in caves that it’s mostly blind, hunting instead with various supersenses including the ability to sense electricity. It never grows up, retaining the red, feathery gills of its larval form even when it becomes sexually mature at sweet sixteen. It stays this way for the rest of its remarkably long life, and it can live past 100.
With a gallery of wonderful and weirdly cute photos. How can you resist?


Philip Ball has a column at Nature News, "Why Music is Good for You," inspired by a new study on the benefits of musical training in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Some quotes (on practical grounds, I've omitted Ball's footnotes, which link to relevant research literature, and are well worth following up):
Many sorts of mental training and learning alter the brain, just as physical training alters the body, and learning-related structural differences between the brains of musicians and non-musicians are well established. Moreover, both neurological and psychological tests show that music processing draws on cognitive resources that are not music-specific, such as pitch processing, memory and pattern recognition — so cultivating these mental functions through music would naturally be expected to have a wider pay-off


We can hardly be surprised, meanwhile, that music lessons improve children's IQ, given that they will nourish general faculties such as memory, coordination and attentiveness.


Yet all these benefits of music education have done rather little to alter a common perception that music is an optional extra to be offered only if children have the time and inclination. Ethnomusicologist John Blacking put it more damningly: we insist that musicality is a rare gift, so that music is to be created by a tiny minority for the passive consumption of the majority.


Kraus and Chandrasekaran rightly argue that the marginalization of music training in schools "should be reassessed" in the light of the benefits it may offer by "improving learning skills and listening ability". But it will be a sad day when the only way to persuade educationalists to embrace music is via its side effects on cognition and intelligence. We should be especially wary of that argument in this age of cost-benefit analyses, targets and utilitarian impact assessments. Music should indeed be celebrated (and studied) as a gymnasium for the mind; but ultimately its value lies with the way it enriches, socializes and humanizes us qua music.
The study to which Ball is referring is:
Nina Kraus and Bharath Chandrasekaran (2010), "Music training for the development of auditory skills," Nature Reviews Neuroscience.  The seven-page article is, alas, behind a paywall at the Nature site, and costs $32.00.
Here is the abstract:
The effects of music training in relation to brain plasticity have caused excitement, evident from the popularity of books on this topic among scientists and the general public. Neuroscience research has shown that music training leads to changes throughout the auditory system that prime musicians for listening challenges beyond music processing. This effect of music training suggests that, akin to physical exercise and its impact on body fitness, music is a resource that tones the brain for auditory fitness. Therefore, the role of music in shaping individual development deserves consideration.

I intend to write in more detail about Heather Mac Donald's essay in the current City Journal, "Classic Music's New Golden Age," which (going against the conventional wisdom) argues for the ruddy health of the current classical music scene. No more comment from me on this here, but my musical readers (that's quite a lot of you) will want to read it.  And if you do, perhaps we can have a good discussion about it here.

More from Alex Ross on Varèse, including a link to a site with recordings of jazz improvisation sessions with which Varèse was involved in 1957 (participants included Teo Macero, Art Farmer, Hall Overton, and apparently Charles Mingus), and also Varèse's own touching description of his encounter with Charlie Parker.

Literature & The Arts

If you follow news stories on attribution in the arts, as I have for several years, you quickly realize that such stories turn up quite regularly and frequently, and that they tend to follow predictable patterns. Already in the first two months of this blog I've covered two stories on new attributions (and I haven't been going out of my way to look for them): the story of the attribution of Caravaggio's bones (for this is, in fact, likewise a case of attribution, and the story follows the same dynamics as if the bones were a work of art); and a new Velázquez attribution (see, respectively, my Digests for 5 July and 8 July).

We now have our third new attribution this month, an alleged new Caravaggio, reported by Michael Day in The Independent.  It is a painting of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence, and "was found recently among the possessions of the Society of Jesuits in Rome." So far as I can tell from the story in The Independent, the basis for the attribution seems to be that 1) someone thinks it's a good painting, and 2) it looks kind of like a Caravaggio.

My "blink" reaction says no.

A large cache of papers of Franz Kafka and Max Brod are the subject of an ongoing legal battle and have long been inaccessible in safety deposit boxes in Zürich and Tel Aviv.  Mark Tran at The Guardian reports that
The documents form the heart of a dispute over ownership between the state of Israel and the Hoffe sisters who say they inherited Kafka's estate from their mother Esther Hoffe – Brod's secretary. Brod not only ignored Kafka's wishes but published his work and bequeathed the originals to Esther Hoffe.
Israel, however, claims that Kafka's documents are the property of the state as Brod migrated to Israel in 1939.
As Tran describes the material:
The boxes are believed to contain thousands of manuscripts by Kafka and Brod, including letters, journals, sketches and drawings, some of which have never been published ...
The safety deposit boxes in Zürich were opened on Monday at a judge's order, apparently so that an accurate inventory could be taken, following a similar move recently in Tel Aviv.
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