24 July 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.07.23

Friday: U.S. lags in college degrees; more on tenure (and finally some light); annals of copywrong; the history of the study of prejudice; the science of morality; major depression impairs processing of emotions in music; jazzed-up Chopin; tools for exploring texts; so where is all that oil going, anyway?; UK changes rules so that Pope won't be arrested.


The NYT reports that the U.S. is currently 12th of 36 developed nations in the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees, a category in which the U.S. long topped the leader board (Canada is now on top).  Degree completion rates in the U.S. are also low and falling.  Everyone is alarmed. 

But why does everyone seem surprised?

More on tenure, in reaction to the recent piece in the CHE and the subsequent blog discussion at the NYT (see also my posts here, here, and here):

First, Tyler Cowen, who not surprisingly looks at the economic side of tenure, but in a rather more contextualized and critical way than, say, the discussants at the NYT:
With the pro-tenure arguments, you might wonder how higher education is supposed to differ from other sectors of the economy.  I believe it is this: given that higher education is in part about signaling and certification, socialization and networking of students, "warm glow" of the donors, and research superstars, the later-period shirking of the typical laggard doesn't hurt actual productivity nearly as much as the schools themselves might like to think.  
This also suggests that schools themselves will never make an intellectually convincing [case] for tenure, since they can't come out and admit that "in the longer run, most of us don't really matter, we only pretended our productivity was worth something in the first place."  Education as theatre, and all that...
Cowen links to two posts (here and here) by Megan McArdle at The Atlantic. Finally someone who tells part of the story as I see it, and talks about the human costs. From her post "Tenure: An Idea Whose Time Has Gone":
The arguments for academic tenure have always struck me as pretty weak, and more to the point, transparently self-serving.  The best you can say of the system is that it preserves a sort of continuity in schools that is desireable for the purposes of cultivating alumni donations.  But the cost of such a system is simply staggering.

Consider what the academic job market now looks like.  You have a small elite on top who have lifetime employment regardless of how little work they do.  This lifetime employment commences somewhere between 35 and 40.  For the ten-to-fifteen years before that, they spend their lives in pursuit of the brass ring.  They live in poverty[,] suck up to professors, and publish, for one must publish to be tenured.  It's very unfortunate if you don't have anything much worth saying; you need to publish anyway, in order to improve your chances.  Fortunately, for the needy tenure seeker, a bevy of journals have sprung up that will print your trivial contributions.  If nothing else, they provide a nice simple model which helps introductory economics professors explain Say's Law.

At the end of the process, most of the aspirants do not have tenure; they have dropped out, or been dropped, at some point along the way. Meanwhile, the system has ripped up their lives in other ways.  They've invested their whole youth, and are back on the job market near entry level at an age when most of their peers have spent ten years building up marketable skills.  Many of them will have seen relationships ripped apart by the difficulties of finding not one, but two tenure-track jobs in the same area.  Others will have invested their early thirties in a college town with no other industry, forcing them to move elsewhere to restart both their careers and their social lives.  Or perhaps they string along adjuncting at near-poverty wages, unable to quite leave the academy that has abused them for so long.
This is, one hastens to add, the average or ordinary case. My personal experience, and the devastation wreaked on my life was much worse.

She continues:
Is this producing better education?  Doubtful; there's no particular relationship between scholarship and the ability to teach.  How about valuable scholarship?  Well, define valuable--in many liberal arts fields, the only possible consumer of the research in question is a handful of scholars in the same field.  That sort of research is valuable in the same way that children's craft projects are priceless--to their mothers.  Basically, these people are supporting an expensive hobby with a sideline business certifying the ability of certain twenty-year olds to write in complete sentences.

And what about the people who do get tenure, and are producing scholarship in areas that other people care about?  Doesn't tenure protect free intellectual inquiry?  Diversity of thought?  Doesn't it allow teachers to be more demanding of students?

Perhaps--but the question is, at what point?  Most scholars in their sixties are not producing path-breaking new research, but they are precisely the people that tenure protects.  Scholars in their twenties and thirties, on the other hand, have no academic freedom at all.
Yes, absolutely.

I could easily quote the whole thing; just go read it. 

And feel free to comment or argue here.

Annals of Copywrong

Wired has an article on RightHaven, founded by Steve Gibson, a company which exists entirely to buy up copyrights of news articles in order to sue blogs and websites that repost the articles without permission.  In other words, it exemplifies perfectly the noxious and absurd effects of treating copyright as property, and the sort of slimy behavior that the current system encourages.

I would say also that outfit that Gibson is wearing in the photo accompanying the story exemplifies the style sense of someone who would start a company like this.  Never trust a man wearing a black vest, chinos, and a light pink tie.

See also this comment on RightHaven from open ...
Strangely, perhaps, I think this is a great development. As the world of music shows, once rights-holders start making unreasonable demands, the implicit compact with the public is broken, and people no longer respect a copyright system that does not even attempt to treat them fairly.

The Troll Economy will simply lead to more people rejecting intellectual monopolies altogether, sowing the seeds of its own destruction. Troll away, chaps....

Meanwhile, Mike Masnick at Techdirt reports on Bourne Music Publishers' threat against 10-year-old Bethany Hale, who created a video of herself singing the song "Smile" in order to raise money for the charity site JustGiving.

The melody for "Smile" was written by Charlie Chaplin in 1936 for his film Modern Times. Chaplin died 33 years ago, in 1977.

Lyrics were added in 1954 by John Turner (whose date of death is not readily available, but it's safe to assume he's no longer with us) and Geoffrey Claremont Parsons (who died 23 years ago in 1987).

So it's not at all clear why anyone at this point should be making money from the melody or the lyrics. And it's absurd that the law should abet a puported rights "owner" in harrassing someone for a perfectly natural use of a song, as in this case.

Peter Mühlbauer at Telepolis reports (auf Deutsch) on an egregious German case of Closed Access.

According to an advertisement in Die Welt, the publisher Walter de Gruyter has, with the help of Springer Verlag (one of the principal for-profit villains in our Annals of Closed Access), arranged to digitize 16-years worth of the Vossische Zeitung from the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, and to make the digitized version available for a price of €27,390, or a yearly subscription of €5,390.

The Vossische Zeitung originated in the 18th century, and ceased publication in 1934.  The Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin is, of course, a publicly-funded institution. As Mühlbauer explains (my translation):
The Vossische Zeitung is important as a classic bourgeois newspaper that is often drawn on for assignments in history seminars, where students are to evaluate the coverage of a given event in two or more papers.
Because of losses during the Second World War, Mühlbauer points out, many of these papers are now relatively rare.

Mühlbauer writes that neither de Gruyter nor the Staatsbibliothek give any justification for the price.

Yet another example of monopoly rights over public goods being ceded to a commercial enterprise, abetted by a thoroughly broken copyright system that now serves only the interests of corporations, not creators or the public at large.


The BPS Research Digest summarizes a new article on unsung pioneers (that is, before Gordon Allport) in the study of prejudice, including William Hazlitt, Josiah Morse (born Moses), who drew on his own experience of anti-Semitic prejudice, and G. T. W. Patrick. The article is:
Russell J. Webster, et al. (2010), "Before the measurement of prejudice: Early psychological and sociological papers on prejudice," Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. The 14-page article is behind a paywall at Wiley InterScience and costs $29.95.  All three authors are affiliated with Kansas State University, a publicly-funded institution.

Edge, a site founded by John Brockman to promote discourse in what he calls (in obeisance to C. P. Snow) "The Third Culture," has just posted the presentations from a seminar held in Connecticut this past week, "The New Science of Morality." Participants include Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloom, Joshua Greene, Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, Marc Hauser, Joshua Knobe, Elizabeth Phelps, and David Pizarro. This looks like a must read for anyone interested in the scientific investigation of morality (that should be all of you), and I hope to report further after I've had time to read the presentations.

In the meantime, two reactions that have already appeared:

—dlende at Neuroanthropology suggests (not surprisingly, given the theme of that blog) that perhaps the scientific study of morality needs to look more carefully at culture—for (this is my summary) the manifestations of moral reasoning and behavior are more various than research has so far been taking into account. 

(And it occurs to me that much of the research on morality so far has very probably been based largely on the WEIRD.)

—Columnist David Brooks writes on the Edge seminar at the NYT.

It's difficult to decide how to react to Brooks.  On the one hand, one feels grateful to have at least one self-identified conservative in public American discourse who doesn't give the impression of mental derangement and who shows some interest in engaging with science as it is actually done. 

On the other hand, one wishes he would write about the science more intelligently.  (To be fair he sometimes does...but this, to me, is not one of those times.) 

He begins by dividing the ideas on the source of morality into three categories: those who believe morality comes from God; those who believe it comes from reason; and "moral naturalists," by whom Brooks means scientists of the sort participating in the Edge seminar.  Thus, on the face of it, Brooks depicts "moral naturalism" as a belief system on a par with religious belief. This seems an obvious category mistake; whatever science is, it is not a "belief system" in anything like the same way that a religion is.

His description of "moral naturalism" is, to me, incoherent:
Moral naturalists, on the other hand, believe that we have moral sentiments that have emerged from a long history of relationships. To learn about morality, you don’t rely upon revelation or metaphysics; you observe people as they live.
I have no idea what the first sentence means (although I suspect he's writing "emerged" to avoid the word "evolved").  "Observing people as they live" seems to have something to do with using the methods of science to investigate morality...but why didn't he just say so?

Brooks goes on to summarize briefly his understanding of some of the views presented at the Edge symposium (I can't comment on these, as I have not yet read the pieces at the Edge site), but his summaries don't inspire confidence.

He ends:
For people wary of abstract theorizing, it’s nice to see people investigating morality in ways that are concrete and empirical. But their approach does have certain implicit tendencies.

They emphasize group cohesion over individual dissent. They emphasize the cooperative virtues, like empathy, over the competitive virtues, like the thirst for recognition and superiority. At this conference, they barely mentioned the yearning for transcendence and the sacred, which plays such a major role in every human society.

Their implied description of the moral life is gentle, fair and grounded. But it is all lower case. So far, at least, it might not satisfy those who want their morality to be awesome, formidable, transcendent or great.
Surely it is an empirical question whether "yearning for transcendence and the sacred" plays a "major role in every human society." Provided, of course, that one can come up with a satisfactorily precise definition of "transcendence" and "the sacred"—which I suspect will be difficult to do, as, like "God," these words tend to be infinitely malleable ones, without denotation.

But if we could come up with such definitions, I think it is very likely that his generalization would turn out to be false.

Nou Stuff has a post, "Major depression associated with impaired processing of emotions in music?", pointing to this new article:
C. Naranjo, et al. (2010), "Major depression is associated with impaired processing of emotion in music as well as in facial and vocal stimuli," Journal of Affective Disorders. The article is behind a paywall at ScienceDirect, and costs $31.50.

John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts points to a new article at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Computation in Physical Systems," which I've just started to read (it's up my alley).

While this may not be up your alley, it gives me the opportunity to tout the SEP, which is one of the outstanding intellectual resources on the web. If you haven't been using it yet, why not?


The NYT reports on a concert that will take place in Millenium Park in Chicago on Sunday in honor of the 200th birthday this year of Frédéric Chopin. The concert is called Chopin 200, and was organized by the Polish jazz singer Grazyna Auguscik:
Concerts worldwide are celebrating the bicentennial of the birth of the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, but until this weekend none have involved an American jazz vocalist, a Polish accordionist and an international trombone choir, spiced with harmonica and oud.


The program is made up entirely of Chopin’s works in unexpected arrangements that omit piano, the instrument for which the composer wrote almost exclusively. (The program does include a pianist, Andrzej Jagodzinski, who will play a jazz interpretation of the Sonata in B-flat Minor.)

Yesterday afternoon I watched a live streaming broadcast of Don Giovanni from Glyndebourne, via medici.tv. I'll be posting a review later this weekend.

Tools for Research

Aditi Muralidharan at Text Mining and the Digital Humanities has an extraordinarily helpful post, "Tools for Exploring Text: Natural Language Processing," the second of two posts in a series (I haven't read the first post yet). The post is full of links to online resources and software, all of it (insofar as I have checked) open source, and all of extraordinary interest (to me, at any rate), which I can't wait to start playing with.

A sampler:
The Natural Language Toolkit (NLTK), which runs under Python on Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux. I'm going to install this later today and play with it.

The Standford Parser, from The Stanford Natural Language Processing Group, which has a version that runs online.

The Berkeley Parser, from The Berkeley Natural Language Processing Group, also with an online version (click the "Demo" tab).

OpenNLP, "an organizational center for open source projects related to natural language processing."
Here, for example, is the parse diagram generated from the online demo at The Berkeley Parser for the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice:

See here for a list explaining some (not all) of the abbreviations in diagrams of this sort.


So where's all that oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster going to go?  Slate has an animated visualization of three scenarios from the National Center for Atmospheric Research.  Oil ends up on the Atlantic seaboard in all of them; it's only a matter of when.


Andrew John at Digital Journal reports: "UK government acts to prevent arrest of Pope" (via 3quarksdaily).
Officials in Whitehall – the UK government’s administrative offices – are said to be worried over plans by the atheist authors Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens to have Pope Benedict arrested for crimes against humanity, because of his alleged cover-up of priestly assaults on children.

“Mr Dawkins, the atheist campaigner, and Mr Hitchens, an atheist author, asked human rights lawyers in April to put together a case for charging the Pope over his alleged cover-up of sexual abuse of children in the Catholic church,” reports Pink News today.

Its report adds: “Justice Secretary Ken Clarke proposed changes to the law today which would require the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions to any arrest warrant issued under universal jurisdiction.”
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