04 August 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.08.03

Tuesday: Massachusetts and the Electoral College; FBI takes a classic Chevy Chase fall; Mike Masnick on the opponents of Open Access; Kent Anderson on OCLC; a neutral theory of sexual signaling; the role in "self learning" of the FoxP gene in Drosophila; a review of recent work on Artificial Language Learning and Constructed Communication Systems; an experiment in cat cognition; evolutionary "Just-So" stories at NPR; a critique of the DSM-V; a critique of a critique of the DSM-V; is Big Pharma abandoning psychiatry?; Sandow on Mac Donald; music is not compatible with the values of an Islamic republic; Lorenz reviews a biography of blind piano virtuoso Maria Theresia Paradis; Mitch Miller has died; tools (Anthologize, Instapaper, and the "Dave" laptop stand).




News

Emily Badger at Miller-McCune Online reports on a law just passed by the Massachusetts Legislature that would (provided the law is triggered) change the way the state's Electoral College votes are apportioned:
Under the bill, all of the state’s electoral votes would go to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote, whether that candidate also wins the local vote in Massachusetts or not.

The bill has a clever trigger mechanism — it would only go into effect if a majority of states (representing 270 electoral votes) adopt identical laws.
The procedure is designed to overcome perceived flaws in the current system, whereby a candidate with fewer votes nationally can nevertheless win the Presidency in the Electoral College vote (as notoriously happened in 2000, for example).



Mike Masnick at Techdirt (among many others) reports on the FBI's attempt to have Wikipedia remove the bureau's logo from the Wikipedia article. (See also the NYT story, brought to my attention by Michael Lorenz; thanks!) 

Masnick's post (which reproduces the logo at an extra-large size, presumably so that the FBI trolls won't miss it) copies the reply to the FBI of Wikipedia general counsel Mike Godwin.  Godwin points out that the FBI's letter omits key sentences of the statute that it cites, apparently in order to make the application of the statute look much broader than it was intended to be.  The statute was intended to prevent people from using the FBI's logo to represent themselves falsely as agents.



I look forward to my takedown notice, which I intend to frame and show off to all my friends.

(Seriously, it never ceases to amaze me that people consistently fail to realize that attempting this sort of silly and legally dubious "take down" is absolutely the best possible way to ensure that the logo will be plastered in hundreds of places all over the Internet within 24 hours.  Oh, wait...perhaps this really was a clever publicity stunt by the FBI....)

(Also, I just noticed the word "Integrity" in the logo, and am wondering exactly how this is seen within the Bureau to fit with the misleading redaction of the statute in the letter sent to Wikipedia.)



Access

Anyone who follows this blog at all regularly will know that one of my major themes is the issue of Closed Access, which I have described as follows in the introductory blurb to some of my posts on the subject:
"Closed Access" is the nearly universal practice among publishers of scientific and scholarly journals of charging prohibitively high prices for electronic access to single copies of the articles they publish: the dreaded "paywall." For more on the concept of "Closed Access," in the context of my personal experience as a scholar without a current institutional affiliation, see my post from 6 June 2010.
Mike Masnick at Techdirt has published a must-read post on current attempts by for-profit publishers and their toadies to fight regulations that would provide for Open Access: "The Intellectually Dishonest Claims of Those Fighting Against Open Access to Federally Funded Research."  Some quotes:
Scientific journals, as you probably know, are basically a huge scam. Unlike most publications, the journals don't pay the people who provide all the material in those journals. Instead, the researchers pay the journals to publish their research. Not only that, but in exchange for paying the journal, the researchers also have to hand over their copyright on the research. This gets really ridiculous at times, as professors I've spoken with have needed to totally redo their own experiments because some journal "owned" their research, and they couldn't reuse any of the data.

On top of that, these journals don't pay people to do peer review. Other researchers in the field are expected to do the peer review for free. Oh, and then did we mention that these journals charge ridiculous sums (thousands upon thousands of dollars) for subscriptions, which many university libraries feel compelled to pay? And that much of the research is paid for by your tax dollars anyway?

[...]

...it's really rather stunning the level of intellectual dishonesty being pushed by those who want to lock up federally funded research. Glyn Moody  points us to the astoundingly ridiculous claim from Steven Breckler of the American Psychological Association, that requiring free access to federally funded research one year after it's published would violate the administrations pledge for transparent government. Yes, read that again. With a straight face, this guy is claiming that a requirement for making federally funded research publicly accessible will violate a pledge for more transparency in government. This is shockingly dishonest.
And Masnick continues with much more on this latter aspect of the story.

I would add only that Masnick neglects to mention the absurd prices typically charged for single pdfs of scholarly articles (in my last summary, the average price was close to $25.00, and the median was $29.95—this typically for 24-hour access from a single computer to pdfs of articles typically ranging in length from 3 to 10 pages).  And I would also note that this problem is not confined to the United States.  Most of the research published worldwide is based in whole or in substantial part on public funding, and the absurdity of the current situation is made all the more apparent when one considers the total cost of the research:  for research is not based solely on grants for particular projects, but also on the salaries of the researchers, the large majority which are paid in whole or in part out of public funds.  Thus, for example "free" peer review is, in fact, not free at all.  It is paid for by the tax dollars that pay the salaries of a very large proportion of those who do the reviewing.

And it is worth adding, I think, that this problem of access to research is not one that should be framed entirely in terms of public funding.  If an employee of a private institution (such as, say, Harvard) is involved in this system of publication and access, either as a researcher or a peer-reviewer, this is still a scam:  the institution (and those who fund it, including those who pay tuition) is still giving away for free the rights to research work that it then has to pay to access through journal subscriptions.

In other words, the current system is a scam not because of the source of the funds, but because the publishers are charging extortionate prices for material and services that they were given for free.

When you look at this without blinders, it's astonishing that we've allowed for-profit publishers to get away with this for so long.



Kent Anderson at The Scholarly Kitchen has an interesting post on OCLC: "OCLC: Indispensable Database Collaborative or Social Media Prelude?"

Among other things, Anderson's post makes me aware that OCLC is yet another corporation that is financially benefiting from information that is freely provided, is crucial for research, and which, to some extent, is "locked up" behind paywalls and license fees.



Science

Several items today show that blogs are not just passive reporters of science; there is actual science being done in them and through them, in various ways and at various stages of the process:

Carl Zimmer at The Loom, as the final post (now a few days old) in his "Sex Week" series, has an outstanding and lucid discussion (yes, you can understand it even if you skipped biology class) on a neutral model of the evolution of sexual signaling.  If you don't know what a "neutral model" is, Zimmer's post would be a great place to begin to learn.

Many animals have evolved extravagant sexual signals—the classic example is the peacock's tale. By one theory, these signals have evolved as "honest" reports of the signaler's fitness: in other words, a male peacock with a great tail is, on this theory, signaling great genes.

However, recent work, building on an idea first put forward early in the 20th century by the prominent mathematician and statistician Ronald Fisher, has developed a neutral model for the evolution of sexual "signals" (in other words, a model in which the "signals" aren't actually signals of fitness).

Zimmer refers to a new review article on the topic:
Richard O. Prum (2010), "The Lande-Kirkpatrick Mechanism is the Null Model of Evolution by Intersexual Selection: Implications for Meaning, Honesty, and Design in Intersexual Signals," Evolution

The article is unfortunately behind a paywall at Wiley Interscience, and costs $29.95.  I say "unfortunately" because the evolution of sexual signaling is intimately bound up with the question of the evolution of communication in general, which is (obviously) an avid interest of mine.  Good review articles are often the best means of entry into areas of current research that one is trying to learn about, and it is especially unfortunate when reviews are locked behind paywalls, as this directly impedes education.

Zimmer's post is highly recommended.  The comments section includes lengthy contributions from Richard Prum and from Marlene Zuk, who was one of the reviewers of Prum's paper.  Yet another example showing that science blogging can actually sometimes bring you the science in process, not just journalism about the science.

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Bjoern Brembs at the eponymous bjoern.brembs.blog reports on work in his lab on the role of the FoxP gene in "self-learning" in Drosophila (fruit flies). A human gene in this family, FOXP2, has been implicated in the human language capacity (see Brembs's post for links).

What particularly struck me about this post, apart from its inherent interest, is the fact that Brembs is explicitly using the blog post as a form of publication to establish priority for a research finding in his lab.  (He also provides as an illustration the poster for the upcoming International Congress of Neuroethology.)

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James Winters at a replicated typo has posted what is, in essence, a mini review article (and a good one) on recent work in artificial language learning and constructed communication systems. Relatively technical, but fascinating, and a useful entry into some of the recent empirical work on language structure and acquisition.

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Anne Corwin, at Existence is Wonderful describes the results of her home version of an experiment on cat cognition. Corwin attempts to replicate (with improvements) the experimental setup of a published study that she had critiqued in an earlier post:
Emma Whitt, et al. (2009), "Domestic cats (Felis catus) do not show causal understanding in a string-pulling task," Animal Cognition. This 5-page article is behind a paywall at SpringerLink, and costs $34.00. All three of the researchers involved are employed by publicly-funded universities in Britain.
Because of the paywall, I have not read that article, but it is closely based on a study I have read:
Britta Osthaus, et al. (2004), "Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) fail toWh show understanding of means-end connections in a string-pulling task," Animal Cognition, likewise behind a paywall at SpringerLink, and likewise $34.00 (likewise produced by researchers employed by a publicly-funded university in Britain).
When I read the latter article for Irene Pepperberg's class on Animal Cognition at Harvard Extension in 2008, I was astonished by (to me) obvious gaping holes in the experimental design: for example, the researchers failed to take into account (or, so far as I can recall, even to mention) the possibility that dogs might orient themselves to a food reward using smell rather than vision.

Corwin makes a similar point about the cat study, and attempts to correct for it in her own experimental design (about which I think she is too modest). She also contributes some interesting anecdotal reports about noticing how her cats seem to use smell in preference to vision in near distance searching for treats.

It astonishes me that labs continue to design experiments in animal cognition and behavior that fail to take into account obvious and well-documented facts about the perceptual abilities of the animals involved; but it happens all the time.  I think it's perhaps a legacy of the Behaviorist paradigm, which still has a strong presence in animal studies, although it has more or less gone the way of Freud elsewhere.



Paleoanthropologist John Hawks rightly criticizes the current series "The Human Edge" on NPR Morning Edition for presenting various important theories of human evolution (such as the "expensive tissue" hypothesis or the theory that Homo erectus evolved for long-distance running) as "just-so stories."

I haven't been following the series (instead of lying in bed in the morning listening to Morning Edition, I get up in order to work on these blog posts!), but they are available on the NPR Website, and may be worth checking out, with Hawks's critique as a caveat.



Psychology

Two separate posts on critiques of the DSM-V.

Romeo Vitelli at Providentia ("What is 'Normal'?" target="_blank") summarizes a critical editorial on the DSM-V by Til Wykes and Felicity Callard in the Journal of Mental Health. Vitelli writes:
In their editorial, Professor Wykes and Dr. Callard issued a "health warning" concerning proposed new diagnoses that are likely to substantially increase the number of people who could meet a diagnosis for a mental disorder, including those who might have simply been considered "eccentric" up to now.  One of these proposed diagnoses is "Psychosis Risk Syndrome" (people thought to be at risk for developing a mental illness) with suggested criteria including mood changes, feelings of distress, or transient psychotic episodes.  Other proposed diagnoses include "mixed anxiety depression", "binge eating", and "temper dysregulation disorder with dysphoria".

[...]

Professor Wykes and her colleagues argue that including "at-risk" patients may lead to unnecessary psychological or medical treatments.  In a joint statement, they added that "Technically, with the classification of so many new disorders, we will all have disorders. This may lead to the belief that many more of us 'need' drugs to treat our 'conditions' -- (and) many of these drugs will have unpleasant or dangerous side effects." 
Oddly, Vitelli links to a story in the Telegraph on this editorial, but not to the editorial itself (the story in the Telegraph also lacks a link).  This is especially odd because the editorial is freely available to read online here.  The article is also freely available for download as a pdf, which, however, has one of the most obtrusive copyright notices I've ever seen.



(Hint to publishers: when your copyright notice interferes with the legibility of the text, you've gone overboard.)


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Meanwhile, Neuroskeptic has a good post critiquing a critique of the DSM-V, by Dorothy Rowe at the Guardian online. Neuroskeptic rightly takes Rowe to task for a severely misleading use of the term "manic." Rowe writes:
Believing that when we're anxious it's best to keep busy can mean that our intense mental distress drives us into manic activity.
Neuroskeptic responds:
No it doesn't. No-one who has experienced mania or hypomania, or known someone who has, or... actually let's just say that no-one except Dorothy Rowe would be able to take that seriously as an account of mania.

Mania is when you write a letter to every one of your relatives proposing a grand family reunion. On a cruise ship in Hawaii. You'll pay for everything. Actually, you're broke. Mania is being literally unable to stop talking, because there are just so many interesting things to say. Actually, you're ranting at strangers on public transport.

The point is that when you're manic, these things don't seem weird, because mania is a mental state in which everything seems incredibly exciting and important, and you think you can do anything. It's like being on crack, without the link to reality of knowing that actually, you're not Jesus, you're on crack. Not all manic episodes are this extreme, and by definition hypomania is less dramatic, but the essential feeling is the same. That's what makes mania, mania.
In my first years out of college, my best friend was a manic depressive, and I can fully substantiate Neuroskeptic's criticism from my own experience.

Neuroskeptic goes on to give pointed (and to my mind valid) criticisms of Rowe's depiction of depression, which does, indeed, transmit a standard "psychological explanation" of depression, which I believe Neuroskeptic is right to call into question.

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In light of these new critiques of the DMS-V (Rowe, and Wykes & Callard), it may be of interest to revisit Sandy Gautam's interview with Thomas Armstrong, who has a quite different take on the notion that the DSM-V is going to make "everyone" have a mental disorder.




Vaughan at Mind Hacks asks "Is Big Pharma abandoning psychiatry?," based on a "News Focus" article in this week's Science by Greg Miller, "Is Pharma Running Out of Brainy Ideas?"

Unfortunately (it's appalling, really, given the importance of the topic), the article is behind a paywall.  It is three pages long, and costs $15.00 for 24-hour access.  Here is the complete summary as given at the Science site (Vaughan also reproduces this in full):
On 4 February, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) announced that it planned to pull the plug on drug discovery in some areas of neuroscience, including pain and depression. A few weeks later, news came that AstraZeneca was closing research facilities in the United States and Europe and ceasing drug-discovery work in schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety. These cutbacks by two of the top players in drug development for disorders of the central nervous system have raised concerns that the pharmaceutical industry is pulling out, or at least pulling back, in this area. In direct response to the cuts at GSK and AstraZeneca, the Institute of Medicine Forum on Neuroscience and Nervous System Disorders organized a meeting in late June that brought together leaders from government, academia, and private foundations to take stock. But the biggest problem, researchers say, is that there is almost nothing in the pipeline that gives any hope for a transformation in the treatment of mental illness. That's worrying, they say, because the need for better treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders is vast. Hundreds of millions of people are afflicted worldwide. Yet for some common disorders, like Alzheimer's disease, no truly effective treatments exist; for others, like depression, the existing drugs have limited efficacy and substantial side effects.
Vaughan also laments the paywall, but points out that Miller covers the same ground in the freely available Science podcast.  Which is great, but doesn't excuse the paywall for the digital version of the text.



Music

I've now read Greg Sandow's series of posts critiquing Heather Mac Donald's recent essay in City Journal, "Classic Music's New Golden Age."  His critiques are highly recommended (and can perhaps save you from having to read Mac Donald's essay).  Sandow's critiques, in order, are here, here, here, here, and here.  Much of the commentary to Sandow's posts is also worth reading, particularly that which provides some useful ideological background on Mac Donald and City Journal.



Saeed Kamali Dehghan at The Guardian reports that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, has issued an opinion saying (in Dehgahn's words) "that music is 'not compatible' with values of Islamic republic, and should not be practised or taught in the country."

To which one can only respond:  "Oy"



Michael Lorenz has made me aware of a radio broadcast at ORF in Austria on the celebrated 18th-century blind piano virtuoso Maria Theresia Paradis (for whom Mozart composed a concerto, probably K. 456). Unfortunately, the broadcast does not seem to be available as a podcast, and I didn't have the chance to listen to it streamed during either of its broadcasts on Tuesday.  The ORF link does, however, have a text summary (auf Deutsch). 

The story was based largely on a biography of Paradis by Marion Fürst, published in 2005.

Inspired by the broadcast, Lorenz has just published online his highly critical review (auf Deutsch) of Fürst's book, after waiting in vain for several years for the review to appear in the venue for which it was originally intended, the Mozart-Jahrbuch. Unfortunately, the MJb seems yet again to be in the midst of yet another unexplained multi-year hiatus, of which it has had several in its history.  (Perhaps these wouldn't occur if the relevant authorities would just occasionally hire an actual Mozart scholar.  There are some available.)

The executive summary: Fürst didn't do her homework; in fact, the dog ate it; and there's good reason to believe that if she had done it, it wouldn't have been done well, because the part she did do is unacceptably error-laden.



Mitch Miller, oboist, producer, and "sing along with" star, died this past Saturday in Manhattan at the age of 99; Richard Severo has an obituary at the NYT.

I unfortunately date myself by admitting that much of my early education in American popular music traditions came from "Sing Along with Mitch."

It amazed me many years later to find Miller on recordings with Charlie Parker.



Tools

Dan Cohen at Digital Humanities has a fascinating report on the creation of Anthologize at the recent One Week | One Tool institute funded by the NEH and run by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

As Cohen describes it, Anthologize is:
...software that converts the popular open-source WordPress system into a full-fledged book-production platform. Using Anthologize, you can take online content such as blogs, feeds, and images (and soon multimedia), and organize it, edit it, and export it into a variety of modern formats that will work on multiple devices. Have a poetry blog? Anthologize it into a nice-looking ePub ebook and distribute it to iPads the world over. A museum with an RSS feed of the best items from your collection? Anthologize it into a coffee table book. Have a group blog on a historical subject? Anthologize the best pieces quarterly into a print or e-journal, or archive it in TEI.
I can't try it yet, as I use Blogger instead of WordPress.  But this project looks like it will be worth keeping an eye on.

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Cohen's post also led me to Instapaper, which I'm trying out today, and which looks as if it has the potential to alleviate some of my browser tab overload in a simple but effective way.  Cohen mentions Instapaper in the same sentence as Readability, which instantly became one of my standard tools when I first ran across it a couple of months ago:  very simple, but seamlessly does something extremely useful.  Looks like Instapaper has this kind of potential.  I'll report back.





Richard Blumberg at Cool Tools loves his "Dave" laptop table from IKEA.  I want one.


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