26 July 2010

Weekend Roundup, 24 to 25 July 2010

This Weekend: a biography of Ernst Gellner; Interview with the Copy Editor; Lara (um, I mean Lera) in the WSJ; Benzon rethinks memes; even earlier examples of obscenicons; Razib Khan roasted over coals; a review of Crazy Like Us; the evolution of the human brain; the evolution of madness; watching gene transcription in action; dates in R explained; the musicology job market; a pop opera quiz; iPhone users just love AT&T....no, really (a survey says so, so it must be true).

Books and Words

Scott McLemee at The National reviews John A. Hall,  Ernst Gellner: An Intellectual Biography (via Crooked Timber).  Gellner has long been on my list of "thinkers I ought to read"; this review shows why I'm right to have him on the list (now if I could only find the time...).

Andy Ross at Ask the Agent interviews Mary Norris, copy editor at The New Yorker.  Her description of the multiply redundant copy-editing process at The New Yorker (which hardly ever makes a mistake) is fascinating.

A good copy editor is a rare beast; a copy editor with a degree of intellectual humility ("before I change this, let me consider whether the author may have had a good reason") is nearly extinct, and Norris is one of these.  I've known precisely one member of this subspecies in my life (and I've had to work with many copy editors). 

Oh, and I've been a copy editor....perhaps not of Norris's subspecies, although neither do I belong to the much more common "I'm the copy editor, and I know better" subspecies.

Language & Culture

Lera Boroditsky (the Lara Croft of cognitive science, as regular readers of this blog will recall) has an essay in the Wall Street Journal on linguistic relativity. Boroditsky is at the center of the new wave of empirical research on linguistic relativity.  It's a pity, though, that her essay includes no links out to any of the research she summarizes. But that is not the way of the venerable WSJ....

Bill Benzon at New Savanna rethinks his take on memes.

Does that mean his previous take will disappear from the meme pool?

Ben Zimmer at Language Log has discovered even older uses of "obscenicons" (see my post last weekend).  Here's one in the Katzenjammer Kids from 14 December 1902:

And here's the first of several examples that Zimmer gives from Gene Carr's strip Lady Bountiful, this one from 8 February 1903:

So I had been aware that a couple of weeks ago, Razib Khan at Gene Expression has published several posts suggesting that perhaps the loss of linguistic diversity, through the extinction of languages, might not be a bad thing (see his posts here, here, and here).  I generally enjoy Razib's blog, but this smelled like a rant, so I hadn't taken the time to read them.

Over the weekend, Razib posted (and responded to) extracts from some of the many comments on those posts.

And then yesterday, Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology tore him a new one.  I'm reading Downey's post (it's long), and I recommend it. A taste:
I had started to do a quick survey of the obvious, easily Googled data that might support or refute Khan’s argument, but decided that it was petty to point out the glaring logical, empirical and philosophical problems with his arguments, so I was just going to let it go. But then Khan took the liberty of demeaning my discipline and even linked through to my own site to supposedly support his argument, so I’m going to take the liberty of blogging while angry, which is kind of like drunk texting only more time consuming. I’m not really worried that Khan will actually read this post carefully, however, as he apparently didn’t bother to read closely the post to which he actually linked.


Hans Pol at h-madness has a review of Ethan Watters, Crazy Like Us. Rather missing the point, it seems to me.

Hannah makes a debut at a replicated typo, with two interesting posts:

"What Makes Humans Unique? (I): The Evolution of the Human Brain," a good short summary with an excellent bibliography, and

"How and Why did Madness Evolve??," on Jonathan Burns, The descent of madness: Evolutionary origins of psychosis and the social brain.  A book I would really like to read...


Nature News
reports on new study in Nature Methods describing the observation of the transcription of an individual gene "in action". The article is:
Sharon Yunger, et al. (2010), "Single-allele analysis of transcription kinetics in living mammalian cells," Nature Methods. The article is behind a paywall at Nature, and costs $32.00.


Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution links to new online database, Historical Financial Statistics (from the Center for Financial Stability), covering the period from from 1492 to present.  (One of the commenters to Cowen's post aptly writes: "Wot? Not back to the great Genoa Municipal Bond Crisis? Hmph.")

I love RBut its handling of dates is anything but intuitive.

As I discovered two years ago, when I was first playing around with R.  My first thought then was naturally to import my database of receipts from the Viennese court theater from the seasons 1789-90 and 1790-91 (gleaned from the now notorious ledger M 4000).  I had first created this database in 1991 using dBase III+ on a Toshiba laptop running MS DOS (i.e., with stone knives and bearskins). Fortunately, at some point (I don't remember when) I had had the good sense to import that data into Filemaker; the dBase III+ data is buried somewhere in storage on 3 1/2" disks, and it's been years since I've had a device that would read one of these).

So in 2008, I imported that (also by then rather dusty) FileMaker file into a newer version of FileMaker, then exported that to .csv, and imported that into R. All very easy to do.

But I spent an entire evening at the time trying to figure out how to deal with the dates in this file so that I could replicate and extend in R some of the analyses that I had done for my 1991 paper on these receipts (published eventually here).

It would have saved hours in 2008 if I'd looked at this section from Michael J. Crawley, The R Book

And so now I can tell you, for example, that it is 92,952 days since Mozart was born.


What appears to be one of the only functioning musicology blogs on the Web, Amusicology, has posted its "Musicology Job Wiki Roundup 2010—Some Data and Hiriing Figures."  In 2010, they report that there were 28 successfully completed tenure-track searches, only 15 in Music History or Musicology. (These statistics are derived, one supposes, from the U.S. or North American scene, although this is not made clear.)

For comparison, one would like to know the number of new Ph.D.s granted in music history and musicology this past academic year, and also the number of new students admitted to Ph.D. programs in those subjects (way too many, one suspects).

Pop Quiz

What opera is depicted in the following photo (via The Rest is Noise)?:

Don't know?  Here's a bonus hint:

Yes, that's right!  It's Hans Neuenfel's new Lohengrin at Bayreuth.... the "rat-infested production" as Ross aptly describes it.


"Survey Says Most iPhone Users Love AT&T" (via Slashdot).

Bookmark and Share


  1. " easily Googled data that might support or refute Khan’s argumen"

    it says something about your standards that you find someone who goes around "googling" for information to confirm his biases a good read. bravo to you :-)

  2. It's an honor to be dissed by you.

    And please feel free to look around a little longer next time to learn more about my "standards." I wouldn't want my readers to think you were cherry-picking.