19 July 2010

Weekend Roundup, 17-18 July 2010

This Weekend: Review of The German Genius; Netanyahu admits sabotaging Oslo; the stray dogs of Sofia; more on Saadanius; weird mammal headgear; the genetics of Down syndrome; evolutionary approaches to fiction; confirmation bias; Institutional Repositories; the history of obsenicons; Wendy Allanbrook RIP; review of Lebrecht on Mahler; they paid Maazel how much?; Adam Kirsch reviews two new books on E. M. Forster; voice actor Billy West; Dick Cavett on Arthur Godfrey.




Brian Ladd reviews Peter Wason, The German Genius, at the NYT Sunday Book Review. Some quotes:
Watson, a British journalist and the author of several books of cultural history, would like us to leave the Nazis aside and appreciate that our modern world — at least the world of ideas — is largely a German creation. But as he might have learned from his fictional fellow Englishman Basil Fawlty, it is futile to insist that we “don’t mention the war!”

“The German Genius” is a lengthy compilation of essential German contributions to philosophy, theology, mathematics, natural and social science and the arts since 1750. Watson enshrines a vast pantheon of creative thinkers, not dwelling very long on any of them.

Watson reminds us that the age of Kant produced (among much else) Haydn’s symphonies, Goethe’s poetry, Herder’s discovery of national history and Winckel­mann’s archaeology of ancient art .... Later, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud sought meaning in a world in flux,
The mention of Haydn and Freud, both Austrians, also suggests (although Ladd doesn't mention this) that Watson is taking a "Pan-Germanist" approach, claiming as part of "German" culture anyone who was a product of the German linguistic region. Given the ugly history of Pan-Germanism in the 20th century, this is more than a little creepy.

Ladd writes:
“The German Genius” is a great baggy monster of a book, mixing passionate advocacy with biographical trivia amid compressed summaries of some exceedingly difficult ideas.
And the closing paragraph:
Watson’s chapters on the anguish of postwar German intellectuals remind us that he is a world away from the ­mystical nonsense of his countryman Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Nonetheless, his attempt to exalt a national character suggests that he is offering something not altogether different for our chastened time.
The cover design is quite striking.





Jonathan Cook at The National (based in Abu Dhabi) reports on a newly surfaced home video from around 2001 in which Benjamin Netanyahu candidly admits duping Clinton in order to sabotage the Oslo accords.  The video (at YouTube) includes an English translation of the video content.

The story is also covered briefly in The Washington Post here.



Cognition

Jesse Bering at Bering in Mind at the Scientific American has a lovely meditation on the stray dogs of Sofia, which he uses as a starting point for an investigation of recent work on social cognition in dogs and humans, and specifically the importance of pointing.  Among other things, he writes on a recent paper by Monique Udell, Nicole Dorey, and Clive Wynne (all at the time at the University of Florida):
"The performance of stray dogs (Canis familiaris) living in a shelter on human-guided object-choice tasks," Animal Behavior (2009).
The article is behind a paywall at Science Direct, and costs $31.50.

To oversimplify somewhat, "human-guided object-choice tasks" means: "Will dogs understand the intent to share information when a human points at something?"  Previous studies (by Brian Hare and others) have suggested yes, and claims have been made on this basis that dogs have a rudimentary Theory of Mind.

But Udell's paper points out that previous experiments have been done almost entirely using dogs raised as pets.  As Bering explains:
In other words, Udell and her coauthors’ contention is similar to arguments made by many researchers studying human psychological evolution—that our ability to make claims about “human nature” are seriously limited by the fact that the data upon which such claims are made are derived almost entirely from middleclass American undergraduate students between 18-22 years of age and recruited from a psychology department subject pool.
This is, in essence, the "WEIRD" problem, except with dogs. And as it turns out, the stray dogs don't do nearly as well on this kind of task as do pet dogs, suggesting that the ability of dogs to understand pointing (insofar as they can do this) is learned, not a product of natural selection, as is sometimes assumed.



Biology, Genetics, Evolution

Brian Switek, whose blog Laelaps was formerly at ScienceBlogs (and who left that site during the recent PepsiGate), has reappeared at Brian Switek: Musings on Evolution, The Fossil Record, and The History of Science. If the following two posts are any indication, it has the potential to be one of the best science blogs on the web:

Brian provides an outstanding summary and contextual explanation of the Nature paper on the newly discovered fossil Saadanius hijazensis, which I pointed to in last Wednesday's Digest.

Brian's post is science reporting as it should be done. If you have any interest in the discovery, and want to know why its important, read it.

Also highly recommended is Brian's post on the bizarre Prolibytherium, which may have looked sort of like this:



Although to me, this looks a bit as if the artist took a picture of a horsey, and added the sort of headgear one might find at, say, a Packers game.  And this is potentially misleading, since, as I understand it, Prolibytherium wasn't very closely related to the horsey.



A new article in Nature Neuroscience reports a discovery in the genetics of Down syndrome.  The article is:
Lina Chakrabarti, et al. (2010), "Olig1 and Olig2 triplication causes developmental brain defects in Down syndrome," Nature Neuroscience. The article is freely available for download.
Here is the abstract:
Over-inhibition is thought to be one of the underlying causes of the cognitive deficits in Ts65Dn mice, the most widely used model of Down syndrome. We found a direct link between gene triplication and defects in neuron production during embryonic development. These neurogenesis defects led to an imbalance between excitatory and inhibitory neurons and to increased inhibitory drive in the Ts65Dn forebrain. We discovered that Olig1 and Olig2, two genes that are triplicated in Down syndrome and in Ts65Dn mice, were overexpressed in the Ts65Dn forebrain. To test the hypothesis that Olig triplication causes the neurological phenotype, we used a genetic approach to normalize the dosage of these two genes and thereby rescued the inhibitory neuron phenotype in the Ts65Dn brain. These data identify seminal alterations during brain development and suggest a mechanistic relationship between triplicated genes and these brain abnormalities in the Ts65Dn mouse.



On Fiction points to the handbook chapter:
Joseph Carroll (2007). "Evolutionary approaches to literature and drama." In R. I. M. Dunbar and L. Barrett (Eds.) The Oxford handbook of evolutionary psychology, pp. 637-648. New York: Oxford University Press.
Not new, but it sounds like a useful introduction to the topic. As On Fiction describes it:
For a short but robust summary of the ways in which literary studies have been informed by evolutionary theory, have a look at Joseph Carroll’s chapter, “Evolutionary approaches to literature and drama” in The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (2007) , edited by R.I.M. Dunbar and Louise Barrett. The chapter defines adaptationist literary scholarship as that which assumes that the human mind has evolved to meet the demands of its environment, producing species-typical behaviors, the needs of which literary works in part fulfill. The description of the orthogonal relationship between postmodernism and adaptationism, as well as the nuances in the debate between the adaptationists and the cultural relativists, are impressive given the length of the chapter. Readers learn of how literature enhances knowledge acquisition (e.g., concerning the environment and kin relations), and the literary contribution to the cognitive and emotional mechanisms that keep humans alive (attention, social bonds, perspective-taking, rehearsing adaptive scenarios, among others). Research in the evolutionary bases of genre in emotion, status, and reproductive success is reviewed, as well as current work concerning how a notion of universal human experience engages theories of literary merit. A real strength of this chapter lies, I think, in its rich overview of studies of specific literary works through the evolutionary theoretical lens: current adaptationist work in folk and fairy tales, epics, Shakespeare, lyric poetry, and nineteenth and twentieth century narrative fiction is surveyed. Those wishing to discover “what’s not been done” will enjoy the detailed last section. In eight pages of text, accompanied by 130 references, Carroll provides a not-to-be-missed introduction for those new to the area.
The book is apparently not avialable in the Minuteman system, alas.  So it's not clear how I'm going to get it in order to read it. Ideas?



Science

Chris Lee at Ars technica has an excellent piece on "Confirmation bias in science: how to avoid it."  Examples include N-Rays (France's answer to X-Rays), Jacques Benveniste and homeopathy (reminding us that Benveniste's results were originally published in Nature), and the more complicated case of Margaret Mead and Samoan free love. Plus an example from Lee's own work.  Quotes from the conclusion:
This is the difference between doing science from the inside and observing it from the outside. We attack each other's ideas mercilessly, and those attacks are not ignored. Sometimes, it turns out that the objection was the result of a misunderstanding, and once the misunderstanding is cleared up, the objection goes away. Objections that are relevant result in ideas being discarded or modified. And the key to this is that the existence of confirmation bias is both acknowledged and actively fought against.
You will note that in the two clear cases of confirmation bias, once it was confirmed, scientists stopped pursuing the claim. Those that continued to try and publish were quickly isolated. In the third case [Mead and her critics], we see how hard it can be to detect confirmation bias. Nevertheless, the debate surrounding the work remains robust, and new evidence is presented as it becomes available. Critically, neither side of the debate is actively suppressed.
This is why I have been using the term "denier." If you carefully examine the debate in the climate science community, you will find that objections are considered carefully and seriously—even the ones that originate from the likes of McIntyre and McKitrick. However, once a problem is addressed to the point where another problem is bigger, scientists move on. 
Deniers, however, do not move on. Even if the objection is shown to be completely spurious—for instance, creationists often falsely claim that evolution is in conflict with the second law of thermodynamics—deniers do not give them up. In effect, this means that anything you say and do to help them understand your work is ignored completely. This is why some figures in the climate debate end up the denier camp and outside the science camp.
For more on Confirmation Bias, see the Wikipedia article.



Access (Closed and Open)

Christina's LIS Rant (still at ScienceBlogs) writes on a new study on the prevalence of self-archiving in academia.

Unfortunately, the post contains unexplained jargon and acronyms.  A brief guide for the perplexed:
IR = Institutional Repositories (that is, repositories at institutions such as universities of the scholarly and research publications of their employees)

DSpace = An open source software platform for creating and managing such a depository.
It is worth wading through the post, however, in spite of the jargon, because the issue is central to this blog's concern with Open vs. Closed Access to research.

The study is:
Jihyun Kim (2010), "Faculty self-archiving: Motivations and barriers," Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology.
Ironically, the article is behind a paywall at Wiley InterScience, where it costs $29.95.

Here is the abstract:
This study investigated factors that motivate or impede faculty participation in self-archiving practices - the placement of research work in various open access (OA) venues, ranging from personal Web pages to OA archives. The author's research design involves triangulation of survey and interview data from 17 Carnegie doctorate universities with DSpace institutional repositories. The analysis of survey responses from 684 professors and 41 telephone interviews identified seven significant factors: (a) altruism - the idea of providing OA benefits for users; (b) perceived self-archiving culture; (c) copyright concerns; (d) technical skills; (e) age; (f) perception of no harmful impact of self-archiving on tenure and promotion; and (g) concerns about additional time and effort. The factors are listed in descending order of their effect size. Age, copyright concerns, and additional time and effort are negatively associated with self-archiving, whereas remaining factors are positively related to it. Faculty are motivated by OA advantages to users, disciplinary norms, and no negative influence on academic reward. However, barriers to self-archiving - concerns about copyright, extra time and effort, technical ability, and age - imply that the provision of services to assist faculty with copyright management, and with technical and logistical issues, could encourage higher rates of self-archiving.
Christina's LIS Rant summarizes the point on "copyright concerns" as follows:
Copyright concerns. Some don't self archive because they believe they don't have the right. The nice part is that at least a few knew that they could amend the publication agreement. This sort of counteracts the idea that faculty don't know about or get copyright. These folks were pretty clear on it.
I'd be more interested in knowing the proportion who "were pretty clear on it," rather than being told that it's "these folks," implying that such understanding is common.  I'm guessing that clear knowledge of copyright is still relatively rare among academics.



Language

Ben Zimmer at Language Log has a wonderful short history of what he calls "obsenicons" (also called "grawlixes"), the punctuation marks and other symbols used (especially in comics) to represent cursing. The earliest occurrence Zimmer has found is from an installment of the comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids from 8 August 1909.  Here's one panel:





Music

I was saddened to learn of the death of musicologist Wye Jamison "Wendy" Allanbrook on 15 July. She had been fighting cancer for many years. Here is Richard Taruskin's announcement to the AMS List (the e-mail list of the American Musicological Society).

Members of the AMS will be saddened to learn that Wye J. (Wendy) Allanbrook, President of the organization in 2003 (until illness forced her resignation), died yesterday morning, July 15, at her home in Oakland, CA. She leaves a son, John, and two sisters. She was 67. The cause of death was cancer.

Wendy's work on Mozart's operas, culminating in her book "Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart" (Chicago, 1983), has had a wide influence on opera studies generally, as well as on staging. (Roger Norrington and Peter Sellars have both paid tribute to her work as inspiration for theirs.) At the time of her death she was working on another major book, "The Secular Commedia: Comic Mimesis in Late Eighteenth-Century Music", based on the Ernest Bloch lecture she delivered as visiting professor at Berkeley in 1994-95. She was appointed to the regular Berkeley faculty the same year, and taught here until 2004. She was chair from 1997 to 2003, and was responsible, along with music librarian John Roberts, for raising the funds and supervising the plans for the Jean Hargrove Music Library, which was dedicated during Wendy's last year as chair.

Her death leaves us all quite distraught.

Richard Taruskin
I met Wendy around 1989 (I believe at the Ann Arbor Mozart conference that November). It was a great thrill to meet her, because her book on Mozart had been a central (and very inspiring) text when I was a student, and it is still perhaps the greatest contribution of the "topical" approach to the analysis of 18th-century music pioneered by her mentor Leonard Ratner.  I did not know Wendy well, but she was always tremendously warm and encouraging to me whenever I saw her, qualities that have become distressingly rare in academic musicology. I will miss her.



The Economist reviews Norman Lebrecht's new book on Mahler, Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World.

I can't imagine why anyone would ever buy or read a book with a title like that.  (You can look it up on Amazon yourself.)



The New York Times reports that the New York Philharmonic paid Lorin Maazel $3.3 million during his last year as music director.

And one can only ask:  Why?

Maazel's performance of Beethoven's 9th—I believe at his inaugural concert as music director in New York in 2002, which was broadcast on the radio—was surely the most bombastic and egocentric I have ever heard, and could be counted as a crime against music.  I never willingly listened to Maazel again.



Literature


Adam Kirsch has a very fine review at The New Republic of two new books on E. M. Forster:
Wendy Moffat, A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster, and

Frank Kermode, Concerning E. M. Forster
The review begins with a meditation on Forster's famous phrase "only connect," pointing out that the kind of connection that Forster had in mind was rather more physical than the abstract and intellectualized sort that is usually associated with the phrase:
Whenever E.M. Forster is discussed, the phrase “only connect” is sure to come up sooner or later. The epigraph to Howards End, the book he described with typical modesty as “my best novel and approaching a good novel,” seems to capture the leading idea of all his work—the moral importance of connection between individuals, across the barriers of race, class, and nation. What is not as frequently remembered is that, when Forster uses the phrase in Howards End, he is not actually talking about this kind of social connection, but about something more elusive and private—the difficulty of connecting our ordinary, conventional personalities with our transgressive erotic desires.
Kirsch shows that literary reviewing still lives. 

Frankly, the Moffat biography sounds derivative and self serving (although Kirsch is too polite to put it so bluntly), and I don't feel any greater urge to read Forster than I did before, although it seems clear that he could turn a phrase ("only connect" is, after all, rather good).

But the review itself is very much worth reading.



Patrick Kingsley at The Guardian on the slow reading movement,
a disparate bunch of academics and intellectuals who want us to take our time while reading, and re-reading. They ask us to switch off our computers every so often and rediscover both the joy of personal engagement with physical texts, and the ability to process them fully.
I'm not a fan of the kind of pop sociology that sounds the alarm that "the Internet is making us stupid" or "links are shortening our attention spans."  How we interact with the Web and our technology does, indeed, offer new ways of interacting with text and information. But it doesn't erase the old ways. One can read at different "resolutions," so to speak.

A quote:
"If you want the deep experience of a book, if you want to internalise it, to mix an author's ideas with your own and make it a more personal experience, you have to read it slowly," says Ottowa-based John Miedema, author of Slow Reading (2009).

But Lancelot R Fletcher, the first present-day author to popularise the term "slow reading", disagrees. He argues that slow reading is not so much about unleashing the reader's creativity, as uncovering the author's. "My intention was to counter postmodernism, to encourage the discovery of authorial content," the American expat explains from his holiday in the Caucasus mountains in eastern Europe. "I told my students to believe that the text was written by God – if you can't understand something written in the text, it's your fault, not the author's."
I find that last point particularly distasteful. We certainly don't need to be treating more texts as if they were written by God, but rather fewer.

And quite often when something in a text is difficult to understand, even if written by a "great" writer or thinker, it is because it is: 1) badly written, 2) gibberish, 3) nonsense, or 4) some combination of the above.  We do no favor to students by pretending the case is otherwise.

(Kingsley links to a recent piece by Keith Thomas in the London Review of Books, on, as Kingsley describes it,"junior colleagues who analyse sources with a search engine, instead of reading them in their entirety."  I haven't read this yet, but think that I probably will.)



&c.

Dave Davies at Fresh Air interviews voice actor Billy West, who provides the voices of Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg, Zapp Brannigan, and the head of President Nixon in past and present Futurama.

I'm a big fan of great voice actors. Mel Blanc, the voice of hundreds of characters in the classic Warner Brothers cartoons (as well as Jack Benny's Maxwell), has been a hero of mine since I was in high school.

West gives entertaining descriptions of the sources for some of his voices.  He has also voiced Popeye (voiced for most of the classic run of cartoons by Jack Mercer) in a recent anniversary special, and describes his Eureka moment when he realized that the key to the voice could be found in Tuvan throat singing.
"I loved Jack Mercer, and I got him. I understood him. And what helped me understand that Popeye voice — it's a high voice and a low voice at the same time — cause when I was a kid, we all used to try to do that and we all stunk. It didn't sound right. So one day, I see this film — it was an independent film called Genghis Blues. And it was about this blind singer in San Francisco who wrote a hit for Steve Miller. ... And he was listening to a world-band radio one night, and he heard this strange noise. And it was a program about Tuvan singers. And Tuvans had a way of singing where they could do one and two voices. And I realized, 'Oh man, that's how this guy did it. Jack Mercer.' [He imitates both voices.] There'd be two voices, an octave apart. And he'd put them together."
West demonstrates the two different octaves of Popeye's voice, and then puts them together simultaneously.

There is also a wonderful sequence (not transcribed at the NPR site) on how a voice actor observes (as if he were an "alien") and borrows from the characteristics of voices of people he meets or that he hears in public life, and how the "melody" of a character's voice becomes the key to it.

Unfortunately, I can't watch the revivified Futurama on Comedy Central. No cable.



Dick Cavett at the Opinionator at the NYT has two posts (here and here) reminiscing on Arthur Godfrey, a media giant in his day, by Cavett's account a fascinating and complex man, and now almost entirely forgotten.  A quote (from the second post):
The arc of his life brings to mind the old phrase “American success story”: disintegrated family, poverty, scuffling for food and lodging, body smashed in head-on crash, cancer survivor, and a career that brought fame and fortune beyond his dreams. And then a kind of re-birth in later life as an ardent and effective ecologist and conservationist before either word was widely known.
And, ultimately, fade-out from the public mind.
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