12 July 2010

Weekend Roundup, 10–11 July 2010

This Weekend: patent idiocy (Microsoft division); a case of nongenetic evolution; more on the WEIRD; Ariely on behavioral economics; don't confuse me with the facts; robotic teachers; AI in automobiles; a really bad review of books on Ellington and Monk; an Albert Ayler memorial concert (sorry I missed it); the history of Autotune; what a theory of music must explain (according to Changizi); film as philosophy; Facebook as subversion.

Department of Patent Idiocy

Microsoft has applied for a patent on animated page flips on ebook readers like the Kindle, the Nook, and .... what was the name of that other one that came out recently.... from Apple, wasn't it?

(From Rik Myslewski at The Register, via Slashdot)

Gosh, what an amazing, brilliant, novel idea!  Certainly we will want the inventors of that to reap fair benefit of their creativity!

(Now, let's see....when was the first time I saw an animated page flip?  Wasn't that about 10 years ago, at a library site where some rare books had been digitized.....?)

But, as Myslewski writes:
To be fair, the filing does include one breakthough we haven't yet seen in an ebook reader: the ability to turn a pile-o-pages with one gesture. Microsoft envisions the ability to flip through multiple pages by dragging your finger down the right margin. "Furthermore, the relationship between the speed of the gesture and the resulting speed of the page flipping can be linear, exponential, or any other suitable relationship," the filing notes.
Yes, that's certainly a significant patent-worthy advance, the notion of turning more than one page at at time, at a variety of speeds. No one has ever thought of that before. 


(Do you suppose the great-great-great-great grandchildren of the person who invented the little indent tabs in dictionaries could sue Microsoft?)


Jerry Coyne is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, and author of the recent Why Evolution is True. He has a blog of the same name; he does not post there often, but the posts are unfailingly interesting.

This weekend, he has a post on a case of nongenetic evolution: that is, a case of natural selection in which the variant "trait" that is passed from one generation to the next is a species of bacteria that provides protection to a particular kind of fruit fly (Drosophila neotestacea) against a parasitic nematode (a worm, Howardula aoronymphium) that interferes with the fly's reproductive cycle. Fascinating, and beautifully explained.

(I wonder who "Howard" was in the species name of the nematode? I've certainly known several people in my life whose names deserve to be immortalized in the names of nematodes...)

This past Tuesday, I pointed to a new study that critiques the nearly universal use of WEIRD subjects (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) in research in the behavioral sciences—that is, the overwhelming tendency for research in psychology (and cognitive science, &c.) to be based on a subject pool consisting entirely of American undergraduates. The study shows that these subjects are not at all typical of the human species as a whole, and they may skew or even invalidate any research that is attempting to uncover universals of human behavior and cognition...which is to say, basically, all of it.

Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology now has a superb summary and commentary on this article and the invited responses to it.  A couple of quotes. (Don't be put off by his ranting boldface:  if you read his post, you'll realize that this study is potentially of epochal importance in psychology and the "human sciences" in general, so it's only understandable that he, an anthropologist with expertise in cross-cultural issues, would feel very strongly):
If you have one blockhead colleague who simply does not get that surveying his or her students in ‘Introduction to Psychology’ fails to provide instant access to ‘human nature,’ this is the article to pass along. If that colleague still doesn’t get it, please stop talking to them. Really. You. Are. Wasting. Your. Breath. If Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan don’t shake their confidence, I’m not sure what can.


[And here is a quote that Downey gives from the original article:]

The fact that WEIRD people are the outliers in so many key domains of the behavioral sciences may render them one of the worst subpopulations one could study for generalizing about Homo sapiens…. WEIRD people, from this perspective, grow up in, and adapt to, a rather atypical environment vis-à-vis that of most of human history. It should not be surprising that their psychological world is unusual as well. (2010: 79-80)
Downey has a few quibbles, both with Henrich et al. and with the respondents. Most importantly, perhaps, he points out that the WEIRD characteristics aren't necessarily the ones that make American university students atypical.  And, he writes:
I worry that W.E.I.R.D. classification flatters the WEIRD, focusing on traits that Westerners typically highlight to describe themselves in ways that are, however inadvertently, pretty self-congratulatory. If we were to call the same group, Materialist, Young, self-Obsessed, Pleasure-seeking, Isolated, Consumerist, and Sedentary (MYOPICS)… you get the idea.
I hadn't read the target article yet, and I hadn't realized until reading Downey's post that it included invited responses (28, in fact), nearly all of them positive.  The article and responses are freely available:
Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan (2010), "The weirdest people in the world?," Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
Get and read it.  There will be much more on this topic here.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely of MIT, and author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality has a brief piece up at his blog, "Three Questions on Behavioral Economics."

I have long had difficulty understanding why it was not obvious to every clear thinking person (a category that seems not to include most economists) that the foundational assumptions of neoclassical economics are empirically false. But fortunately we now have scientists like Ariely and others showing us clearly that they are.

These assumptions, conveniently summarized in the Wikipedia article on "Neoclassical economics," from the formulation of E. Roy Weintraub, are:
  1. People have rational preferences among outcomes that can be identified and associated with a value.
  2. Individuals maximize utility and firms maximize profits.
  3. People act independently on the basis of full and relevant information
If you have any doubt at all that these assumptions (which are still the foundation of economics as it is taught and practiced in the United States) are false, read Ariely's post and his books.  (And if you still aren't convinced, I can recommend some other books...)

Economics as it has been taught and practiced for more or less the entire post-War era is a pseudo-science....a very very influential pseudoscience that has been the basis for government policy and a great deal of the behavior of corporations and large institutions.  And the evidence is now clear that the great disaster of 2008, which should have been the nail in the coffin of this pseudo-science, wasn't.

In essence (and I don't think this is an exaggeration) it is as if courses in phrenology were currently required for a degree in cognitive science.

There will be more ranting about this from me, because I am tired of having my life continually disrupted and made difficult by this particular pseudoscience and the actions of the members of its cult.

Joe Keohane has a good article in the "Ideas" section of yesterday's Boston Globe, "How facts backfire," on the very strong tendency for people, even highly educated people, to become even more stubbornly entrenched in mistaken beliefs after being shown factual evidence that their beliefs are mistaken.  We can call this, the "I know I'm right" syndrome. Some quotes:
The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.
“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”
What’s going on? How can we have things so wrong, and be so sure that we’re right? Part of the answer lies in the way our brains are wired. Generally, people tend to seek consistency. There is a substantial body of psychological research showing that people tend to interpret information with an eye toward reinforcing their preexisting views. If we believe something about the world, we are more likely to passively accept as truth any information that confirms our beliefs, and actively dismiss information that doesn’t. This is known as “motivated reasoning.” Whether or not the consistent information is accurate, we might accept it as fact, as confirmation of our beliefs. This makes us more confident in said beliefs, and even less likely to entertain facts that contradict them.
This is also closely related to the concept of "confirmation bias," although, oddly, Keohane never mentions this term.

Keohane discusses a new study in Political Behavior in which students were given mock news stories that were demonstrably false (about, for example, the presence of WMD in Iraq or taxes), but were also given a factual correction. Keohane describes the results:
The participants who self-identified as conservative believed the misinformation on WMD and taxes even more strongly after being given the correction. With those two issues, the more strongly the participant cared about the topic — a factor known as salience — the stronger the backfire. The effect was slightly different on self-identified liberals: When they read corrected stories about stem cells, the corrections didn’t backfire, but the readers did still ignore the inconvenient fact that the Bush administration’s restrictions weren’t total.
What accounts for this effect?  No one is quite sure.  But it may be that people with weak self-esteem are less apt to change their beliefs:
Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.
I can certainly think of cases among people of my acquaintance for whom this seems to be true.

Unfortunately, Keohane's article includes no links to the research that he discusses.  The central study is:
Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler (2010), "When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions," Political Behavior.

An extensive literature addresses citizen ignorance, but very little research focuses on misperceptions. Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? Previous studies have not tested the efficacy of corrections in a realistic format. We conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.
The article is freely available for download, so get it and read it. (And this makes it all the more mystifying that the Globe would fail to link to it.)

Benedict Carey and John Markoff have a fascinating story in the NYT on teaching robots: "Student's Meet Your New Teacher, Mr. Robot." It's part of an ongoing series on recent developments in AI and robotics.

The blog .csv has a superb article on "New developments in AI" (via a replicated typo).  A must read, that goes far beyond the implications of its title.

As an extended example, the post considers the case of the "computational car": automobiles that make autonomous decisions about safety issues.  What makes the post so fascinating is that it goes far beyond simply discussing AI to consider how the cost and benefits of such technology are calculated (and, in fact, one is horrified to learn, the responsible agencies are woefully bad at this and sometimes fail to investigate the questions altogether).  The post will teach you about "risk homeostasis" and Markov Chain Monte Carlo methods, and it ends by considering (this in an article ostensibly on AI) the implications of autonomous safety features and improved Bayesian predictive methods  for the auto insurance industry. And this turns out to be a very interesting point.

Some quotes:
What will it mean when our computers know everything — every single fact, the entirety of human knowledge — but can only reason at the level of a cockroach?


...for all their confidence about the technologies per se, every researcher I spoke to admitted they had no clue - but were intensely curious - how these developments will affect society.
Boy, does that ever sound like the premise for a 1950s science fiction movie.

Or, considering the autonomous cars, a Stephen King novel.

Romeo Vitelli continues with Part 3 (the final installment?) of his history of homosexuality as a psychiatric "disease." The tide turns in 1972, ending with the removal of homosexuality from the DSM-II. If you've missed this series so far, here are part 1 and part 2. Well worth reading in full.


Ian Thomson has a review in The Telegraph of Harvey G. Cohen, Duke Ellington's America and Robin D. G. Kelley, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original. It could serve as a model of how to write a maximally incompetent review in a short space.

The review consists, largely, of irritatingly uninformed hagiographic prose and snippets of inaccurate potted history, leavened by a kind of implicit condescension that (to me) smacks of "oh those musical darkies."

Lest you think I'm exaggerating, here's the first paragraph:
At a funeral in New Orleans in 1901, Joe “King” Oliver played a blues-drenched dirge on the trumpet. This was the new music they would soon call jazz. A century on, from the hothouse stomps of Duke Ellington to the angular doodlings of Thelonious Monk, jazz survives as an important musical voice of America.
If there were a Bulwer-Lytton prize for reviewing, this would be a very strong candidate.  It is definitely on a par with "It was a dark and stormy night..."

(I might also point out that Oliver was born in 1885, and I don't think we have any idea what he was doing in 1901.  Perhaps Thomson meant Buddy Bolden, and couldn't be bothered to look it up?)

Other offenses against prose, fact, and logic include:
"In mesmeric detail, Cohen charts the course of Ellington’s music..."  "Mesmeric detail"?  You mean the book will hypnotize me?  I think I won't buy it, then.

"With his choppy time signatures and quirky chords, Monk straddled the pre-war swing of Ellington and the post-war bop-derived avant-garde." Which ones, exactly, would be the "choppy time signatures"?  7/8 perhaps? (But I don't recall that Monk ever used 7/8; he tended to like good old 4/4).

"The best jazzmen had all learnt to keep rhythm in church, and Monk was no exception."  This sentence is a minor miracle of condensation, packing in more misinformation, dubious generalization, implicit racism, and smug ignorance into fewer words than one would have thought possible. It would require a separate post to unpack it.

"All his adult life [Monk] suffered from depression, however, and the anxieties accumulated darkly around him even as he took lithium."

Not only is this cliched and overheated, it's also misleading. Kelley makes the case that Monk suffered from bipolar disorder (not the same as "depression").
One of the most important and successful aspects of Kelley's biography (which I read a couple of months ago) is his attempt to provide deep historical and cultural contexts for Monk's life. An excellent early example in the book is his several-page digression on the San Juan Hill neighborhood in Manhattan, where Monk was based for most of his life.

But you'd never know from Thomson's review that this historical contextualization was one of the principal reasons you might actually want to read the book.

I'm in the midst of preliminary work on an extended review of Kelley's book (for which I'm attempting, among other things, to listen to all of Monk's recorded work).

This review will eventually appear here, although probably still a few weeks hence.  Must finish Robert Johnson (and a half-dozen other things) first.

Howard Mandel at Jazz Beyond Jazz writes on a 7-hour concert (that unfortunately we missed, because it took place yesterday) in honor of what would have been Albert Ayler's 74th birthday (he was born on 13 July 1936). The concert took place at Riverwalk Commons of Roosevelt Island, near where Ayler's body was found floating in the East River in 1970. 

I recently relistened to Spiritual Unity, which was a real blast from the past for me. (I may be one of the few people you know for whom Albert Ayler counts as nostalgia.) There was something fitting about driving through Newton Centre (the capital of WEIRD) with the windows rolled down, blasting "Ghosts."

Mandel also points to a recent documentary on Ayler, "My Name is Albert Ayler," which I am now very keen to watch.

Musicology corner

Know Your Meme and "Weird AL" Yankovic explain the history of Autotune (via 3quarksdaily).

Mark Changizi has a post "What Must a Theory of Music Explain?"  The post hints at the material in his new book (which will appear next year), Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man.

I hope I'll have the opportunity to review that (hint hint).  In the meantime, I'm hoping to write a review article on the evolution of music.

Here are the four questions that Changizi thinks any "Theory of Music" must explain:
Brain: Why do we have a brain for music?
Emotion: Why is music emotionally evocative?
Dance: Why do we dance?
Structure: Why is music structurally organized as it is?
Hmmm.  I don't think Schenker does too well on the first three of these. 

I'll reserve judgment on Changizi's points until I see more.

Other Arts

The Philosophers' Magazine on "Film as Philosophy"  Part of a series, "Ideas of the Century."  Hmmmm.

(Why do I think that, say, evo-devo or the cosmic background radiation are unlikely to be on this list?)

Well, I'll try to find the time to look at the series in more depth.


China accuses U.S. and Western governments of using Facebook and other social networking sites to spur political unrest (report by Anita Change at AP, via Skunkpost).  The accusation stems from from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

It's high time someone rooted out the radicals, subversives, and malcontents in Farmville!  Not to mention the well-known coded revolutionary messages on Twitter using the #justinbieber hashtag.

But of course, from their point of view, they're right.
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