22 July 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.07.21

Wednesday: Niemann fellow denied visa; Techdirt on copyright, copywrong, and publishing; Michael Geist on the current ACTA draft; a French venture in "crowdfunded" literature; the eternal memory of the Web; the role (not) of mirror neurons in speech perception; life without language; videos from the conference "Religion and Tolerance"; philosophical dustup over statistical models in the social sciences; Richard King on C. P. Snow, and the current relationship of literature and science; Mozart fiction corner; BP also Photoshops incompetently; update on Kafka's papers; Gene Kelly dances on roller skates.


Colombian investigative reporter Hollman Morris has been denied a visa by the U. S. State Department to come to the United States to take up a yearlong Niemann Fellowship at Harvard; Emily Badger at Miller-McCune Online has the story:
The State Department, in its lone comment on the case, said Morris was denied due to a Patriot Act clause that bars entry into the U.S. by anyone who has engaged in loosely defined “terrorist activities.”
It seems that Morris's "terrorist activities" amount simply to investigating the activities of terrorist organizations:
Morris has covered both sides of Colombia’s decades-long battle between right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerillas in the Revolutionary Armed Force of Colombia (or FARC).

“In order to be able to report on the conflict, you have to get sources from these groups,” said Carlos Lauria, senior program coordinator for the Americas with the Committee to Protect Journalists. “And Hollman Morris has done so. That’s part of his reporting.”

Copyright and Publishing

I discovered the site Techdirt about a week ago, and it has quickly become my most important source of news on copyright and related issues. Michael Masnick writes clearly and incisively about the issues and is comprehensively informed, not just about current events, but about the history of copyright (he made an accurate and interesting reference to the Statute of Anne already in the first few days that I was following the site). I could include practically every one of Masnick's posts in my Daily Digests, but it would a lot easier if you just subscribed to the site's feed yourself.

Here are some items from Techdirt on Wednesday.
• A report, with some additional thoughts, on the new study showing that "pay-what-you-want" plus charitable contribution elicits more and higher donations than other models (I reported on this story on 15 July). Masknick's survey of real-life examples of "pay-what-you-want" is especially useful.

•Via Glyn Moody, Masnick links to and discusses a new report (in German) from the Deutsche Bank that suggests it's time to rethink copyright; a quote from a Google translation as given in Masnick's post:
The copyright in its extreme form, "all rights reserved" can suppress creativity. In the worst case, inhibiting innovation potential. It raises the question whether, in the digital age, a conflict of interest exists between the understanding of copyright as a source or as a handicap for innovation.
I've downloaded the original of the report, and will try to find time to take a look at it later today.

•Masnick points to a column in the Telegraph explaining why it makes good business sense for record labels to give mp3s away for free.
And that was just Wednesday. There's at least this much worth reading on his site every day.

Related news:

(via BoingBoing) Michael Geist details the remaining "rifts" in the current (leaked) draft of ACTA—which mainly come down to the U.S. (not always the villain in this case) vs. the E. U. 

Geist's site is also a good source of information on the history and current status of ACTA.  Which is not to say that he's disinterested...

Alison Flood at The Guardian reports on "France's first venture into crowdfunded literature," a project of Éditions du Public.  From the story:
Launched this spring by publisher Éditions du Public, the initiative – slogan: "I invest in what I want to read" – has already received 80 manuscripts. Sixteen have been merited good enough to make it onto the publisher's website, from Nathalie Tavignot's Croissant de lune (Crescent Moon), in which a series of murders occur in a village whose inhabitants have just woken from a long sleep and remember nothing, to Ghislain Hammer's poetry collection Les colosses nus (The Naked Colossi).
The publishers are now looking for co-editors to help fund publication of the books. Each co-editor must invest €11 in their chosen title, and will then be able to discuss the book with its author on Éditions du Public's forum, following each stage as it is written. Each title has six months to sign up 2,000 co-editors and some are already proving more popular than others: Tavignot's thriller has 45 subscribers, while Hammer has just two.
Once the 2,000 threshold has been reached, an editor at Éditions du Public will go over the text and layout with the author. The book will then be sold online and through bookshops, with each co-editor able to recoup "up to eight times the amount of their initial subscription" depending on sales, as well as receiving a free copy of the book they have edited.


This coming Sunday's NYT Magazine has a major piece by George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen, "The Web Means the End of Forgetting," on how items from our pasts are now eternally "remembered" on the Web, and can come back to haunt us. 

I've only begun to read this, but it's clearly a must read.  He begins with the case of Stacy Snyder, who was denied a teaching degree because of a photo of herself she had posted on MySpace, wearing a pirate costume and drinking from a plastic cup, with the caption "Drunken Pirate."  A federal district judge turned down her appeal, saying that the "Drunken Pirate" post was not protected speech. 

A quote from the first page:
According to a recent survey by Microsoft, 75 percent of U.S. recruiters and human-resource professionals report that their companies require them to do online research about candidates, and many use a range of sites when scrutinizing applicants — including search engines, social-networking sites, photo- and video-sharing sites, personal Web sites and blogs, Twitter and online-gaming sites. Seventy percent of U.S. recruiters report that they have rejected candidates because of information found online, like photos and discussion-board conversations and membership in controversial groups.


David Poeppel at Talking Brains points to a new paper by his co-blogger Greg Hickok:
Gregory Hickok, "The role of mirror neurons in speech perception and action word semantics," Language and Cognitive Processes. The article is freely available for download until 15 August.
Here's the abstract (my emphasis):
The discovery of mirror neurons in the macaque monkey has ignited intense interest in motor theories of cognition, including speech and language. Here we examine two such claims, that the perception of speech sounds critically depends on motor representations of speech gestures (the motor theory of speech perception) and that the representation of action-related semantic knowledge critically depends on motor representations involved in performing actions. We conclude that there is strong evidence against the claim that speech perception critically depends on the motor system and that there is no conclusive evidence in support of the view that the motor system supports action semantics. We propose instead that motor-related activity during perceptual processes stem from spreading activation in sensory-motor networks that are critical for speech and language production.
Poeppel edits the journal and Hickok is his co-blogger.  Incestuous?  Who cares?  They're being completely open about it, and the paper looks very interesting. 

(See also Hickok's post, to which I linked on 14 July, critiquing a recent study by Pulvermüller and Fadiga that purports to show that speech perception does depend critically on the motor system.)

An outstanding post (an article, really) by Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology on "Life without language."

Downey's piece is built around a consideration of the work of Susan Schaller with a profoundly deaf Mexican immigrant whom she calls "Ildefonso," who had, at the age of 27, when Schaller first met him, no language of any kind (including sign), and no concept of how language worked. 

Schaller's description (from an interview online here, quoted extenisvely in Downey's piece) of the day that Ildefonso suddenly "got" the idea of language brought tears to my eyes (and I've been immune to having tears brought to my eyes since the summer of 2007....but that's another story).  I'm very much looking forward to reading the rest of the interview with Schaller, and I'll also look for her 1995 book on her work, A Man Without Words.

Downey's piece ranges widely:  he considers the (still poorly studied) extent of languagelessness; examines the theoretical debate between adherents of "languge-first" models (Dummett, Donald, Dennett, and others), who would claim that language is (to some degree) necessary for thought, and adherents of "thought-first" models (Spelke, for example), which seems to have more empirical support; current thinking on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; speculations on what thought without language might be like; and much more.  If you're interested in current thinking on language, read it.

I was especially struck by Schaller's account of her difficulty in conveying to Ildefonso the idea of "idea," and Downey's commentary:
On so many levels, the ‘idea-is-an-object-in-head-can-be-passed-to-another-head’ is pretty absurd, yet she was trying to use it to get a languageless man to understand the very possibility of language.

If it doesn’t sound absurd to you, think about it for a second; the very fact that Schaller was struggling so hard to get Ildefonso to perceive this demonstrates how long the chain of metaphoric assumptions is to get to this cultural common sense. Schaller wasn’t just asking Ildefonso to learn a name for a thing, she was asking him to recognize he had ‘ideas,’ conceive of ideas as things, locate ideas in his head, understand that ideas were different from every other kind of thing (popping into existence, for example), imagine that ideas could be thrown… You get the ‘idea.’
This brought to mind my 2-year-old neighbor A. across the street, who for the past three weeks, whenever she sees me, shouts out: "Hey Dexter, I have an idea."  Sometimes the "idea" is that I should come over to say hi; sometimes it is "chocolate"; and sometime it seems that there's no idea at all—it's just a way to get my attention.  So I can watch her learning the idea of "idea" as it happens...

Downey's piece is long, and perhaps for that reason, imperfectly edited.  This is just carping; after all, it is a blog post, and as I know all too well, self-editing is time-intensive and imperfect at best.

But perhaps I should point out to Greg that it's Oliver Sacks, not "Sachs."

Evolution of/and Religion

John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts links to videos from the conference "Religion and Tolerance" at Oxford, which he recently attended.  A few of these look like they might be worth watching; the ones that caught my eye are  Patricia Churchland (with commentator Julian Savulescu) on "The relation between the neurobiology of morality and religion"; Miles Hewstone (with commentator Nick Southwood) on "Social psychological aspects of religion and prejudice: evidence from experimental and survey research"; and perhaps also the commentary of Richard Dawkins, and the closing panel on "Science and Religious Conflict."  Perhaps others.

The videos are hosted, by the way, at The Science Network, which I had run into before, but which deserves further investigation.


It's Only A Theory links to a philosophical dustup over statistical models in social sciences.  Looks fascinating and educational; hope I have time to read it.

A beautiful, erudite, elegant, and profound essay by Richard King on C. P. Snow, and the ongoing mistrust and outright dislike of science among the literary: "Flesh and Stardust: C. P. Snow's Two Cultures Fifty Years On."  Some quotes:
And herein lies the problem as I see it. For notwithstanding excellent novels like Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005), with its scalpel-like descriptions of brain surgery, literature that treats of scientific themes appears to be very thin on the ground. Perhaps the greatest disappointment is that poetry has remained almost entirely science-free – determined, indeed, to translate new experiences back into the myths and legends of the past...


The official Romantic view is that Reason and the Imagination are antithetical, or at best that they provide alternative pathways leading to the truth, the pathway of Reason being long and winding and stopping short of the summit, so that while Reason is breathing heavily, there is Imagination capering lightly up the hill.

For Edgar Allan Poe, science was a ‘Vulture, whose wings are dull realities’; For Keats, it ‘will clip an Angel’s wings, / Conquer all mysteries’ and ‘Unweave a rainbow’; Wordsworth, no enemy of science on the whole (in Lyrical Ballads, he envisages a time when the ‘remotest discoveries of the chemist, the botanist, or mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed’), could still write, in ‘The Tables Turned’,

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things: –
We murder to dissect.

And then there is my personal favourite: Walt Whitman stomping off from the astronomy lecture to gaze ‘in perfect silence at the stars’ – a Romantic tantrum in a class of its own. But perhaps I’m being too hard on old Walt. After all, he had the misfortune to live in the century before the Hubble telescope began to beam back images of space that seem to attest to Albert Einstein’s notion of ‘cosmic religious feeling’. When, each morning, I turn on my computer, I am greeted by one such photograph: Supernova Remnant LMCN 63A – an exploded star that hangs in space like a rare and exquisitely delicate jellyfish. ‘“Knowledge” has killed the sun, making it a ball of gas with spots’, wrote D. H. Lawrence in ‘A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. But in my opinion the opposite is true. Science can be a source of the numinous, and is no less inspirational than poetry.


Of course, it isn’t only the poets who display a lack of love for science. Novelists, too, are guilty of coldness. As with poetry, the principal problem is really one of indifference, but that is not the whole story. Of the novels that do engage with science most take a largely negative view. From Mary Shelley to Robert Louis Stevenson to H. G. Wells to Honoré de Balzac – novelists, not all of them hostile to science, have given us a veritable Rogues Gallery of scientists to which no alternative Heroes Gallery of scientists can be said to exist. Models of hubris whose reckless curiosity has invariably set them on the road to ruin, these scientists are less Promethean than Faustian. Indeed, the literary archetype I’m describing goes back at least as far as the Faust legend and probably goes back further than that – to the medieval tales of alchemists, such as Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale. Even science fiction is more often concerned with the dangers of science than it is with its successes, while the very designation ‘science fiction’ is revealing of a pejorative attitude that regards all literature dealing with science as a discrete and slightly dubious category, as if Jules Verne’s delightful stories belonged with the drivel of L. Ron Hubbard and not with the works of Charles Dickens.


In fact, [E. O. Wilson's] approach has much in common with that of the so-called Literary Darwinists, whose stated aim is to bring the theory of evolution to bear on literature, largely as an interpretive tool. Reading this stuff, I have to say, is like trying to eat an entire lettuce, albeit a lettuce lightly tossed in a vinaigrette of unintended humour. How to respond to a serious study of mating patterns in Jane Austen’s novels or a survey designed to test the hypothesis, put forward by Barthes, that the author is dead, if not by falling off one’s chair and rolling around in an agony of laughter? ‘Is narrative well-engineered to perform a fitness-promoting task?’ asks one of the contributors to The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (which includes a foreword by E. O. Wilson). I don’t think it’s putting it too strongly to say that here an understandable bullishness on the part of the devotees of science has left a heap of bullshit in its wake. Quite apart from anything else, the Literary Darwinists miss the fact that criticism is conterminous with literature. Indeed, it is a branch of literature. Its aim is not to explain it away, but understanding and appreciation. The best literary criticism aims to exalt literature even as it attempts to comprehend it.
And there is much more in this vein, all fascinating.  Just read it.


Mozart Fiction Corner

For many months, I followed Greg Laden's blog at ScienceBlogs, although I had recently unsubscribed.  Yesterday I ran across his Evolution...not just a theory anymore, where his SciBlogs posts are apparently cross-posted.

While browsing his "Books" tab (under, very oddly, the category "Human Evolution and Biology") I ran across a link to the Amazon page for Louise Marley's novel Mozart's Blood, which was new to me.  Here's the blurb from Booklist:
Marley, a musician and writer, has produced a stunning drama inspired by the life of Teresa Saporiti, the first Donna Anna. Teresa, an aspiring singer, was turned into a vampire by a Czech aristocrat. As bad as the need for blood are the memories of the victims, which remain with the taker. Teresa has learned to deal with them, but Mozart, whom the baroness bit at the same time, never did and died painfully because he could not bring himself to satisfy the unnatural thirst. In San Francisco in 1906, Teresa meets Ugo, a Silician werewolf with a very curious past of his own. They become partners, guarding each other's backs. In twenty-first-century Milan, an egoistic baritone thinks he has figured out Teresa's secret and abducts Ugo to obtain the blood that holds Mozart's memories. The story covers four centuries, but the shifts between the past and the present are seamlessly handled, and the development of Teresa and Ugo over those centuries is impressive. An engrossing piece, from overture to final chord. --Frieda Murray
Already on the first page (available online) we have an ancient Italian woman with blackened teeth mixing a potion.  (So we can kind of see where this is going....)

No comment.

The subtitle, in red, in the upper-left corner, in case you can't read it, is "a single drop is all it takes."


Via Slashdot, from AmericaBlog, "BP photoshops fake photo of crisis command center, posts on main BP site," with a detailed visual analysis of the tell-tale bad Photoshopping artifacts. With several updates, and a link to yet another faked photo from the BP site.

Look at the large versions of the snippets: they truly are incompetently done.  Just what one would expect, I guess, from the perpetrators of the worst anthropogenic environmental disaster of all time.

And an update Thursday morning from Mike Masnick at Techdirt, with yet another mindbogglingly inept example, this one of a helicopter cockpit, purportedly flying toward the scene of the spill...but close examination shows that in the original photo, the helicopter was parked at an airport:  you can see the control tower, and the instrument panel shows that the door and ramp are open and the parking brake is on....

An update from The Guardian on the case of Kafka's papers (see my Digest for Tuesday):
An Israeli judge overseeing a tussle over papers that once belonged to the author Franz Kafka has ruled that details of the documents should be made public.
The literary world now awaits previously unpublished works emerging from boxes containing manuscripts, letters and journals written by the Czech author and his adviser and friend Max Brod.
According to the newspaper Haaretz, the items include a handwritten short story by Kafka that has never been seen by the public. More boxes have yet to be opened, it reported.

Via 3quarksdaily, a clip from It's Always Fair Weather (1955), which I haven't seen, of Gene Kelly dancing (including tap) on roller skates. A very clever and rather elegant sequence, cleverly filmed, although the song is rather stupid.  Several resonances with the iconic "Singin' in the Rain" sequence in that movie (from 1952), including Kelly's "who cares?" shrugs, and the "curb" sequence using the different levels of street and sidewalk.

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