11 August 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.08.09

Monday: Negroponte predicts demise of the book in 5 years; Gates predicts demise of university; Reynolds predicts burst of higher education bubble; Marc Hauser under investigation for research misconduct; new neurons tunnel their way to their new homes; the evolution of ecology; adaptation and admixture in evolution; the evolution of the human shoulder; a new review-article on gene-culture co-evolution; negatively associated stimuli generalize more broadly than positively associated ones; neuroeconomics and the role of oxytocin in economic decision making; an interview with Greil Marcus about Van Morrison; Villazón walks out of Copenhagen concert after 7 minutes (no refunds); how Star Trek: The Next Generation predicted the iPad.


Big Names in Technology have been making a variety of dubious, grandiose, unuanced, and poorly thought through claims about the future of various things at the Techonomy conference at Lake Tahoe. We've already heard from Eric Schmidt (see this past weekend's Roundup).

According to Charlie Jane Ander's at io9, Nicholas Negroponte has now stated that print books will be dead within 5 years.

This is one of those predictions by someone who seems to me not to have a grasp of the multifarious ways that books actually function. But lack of knowledge or experience has never stopped a person who is an expert in one thing from making wild claims about something else.

For a reasonably sober assessment, see Devin Coldewey's response at CrunchGear.


Blll Gates is predicting the end of the university.  MG Siegler at TechCrunch writes:
Five years from now on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world,” Gates said at the Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe, CA today. “It will be better than any single university,” he continued.
He believes that no matter how you came about your knowledge, you should get credit for it. Whether it’s an MIT degree or if you got everything you know from lectures on the web, there needs to be a way to highlight that.
Commentaries from John Hawks, and Larry Moran (unsympathetic) at Sandwalk.  I think we have to remember that Gates only went to college for a few months, and may not be the most reliable source in this case.

Hawks also points to an essay by Glenn Harlan Reynolds in The Washington Examiner predicting the coming collapse of the "higher education bubble." (This is a follow-up to a piece by Reynolds earlier this summer that I haven't read yet.) 

I've been saying something similar for some time: that the current state of higher education (in the U.S. at any rate) is unsustainable, and that some sort of major readjustment is inevitable.  Reynolds is especially making the economic argument:  unsustainable tuition inflation, decreasing state support, ballooning and unsustainable student debt. Some quotes:
Right now, people are still borrowing heavily to pay the steadily increasing tuitions levied by higher education.  But that borrowing is based on the expectation that students will earn enough to pay off their loans with a portion of the extra income their educations generate.  Once people doubt that, the bubble will burst.


Many people with college educations are already jumping the tracks to become skilled manual laborers:  plumbers, electricians, and the like.  And the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts  that seven of the ten fastest-growing jobs in the next decade will be based on on-the-job training rather than higher education.  (And they’ll be hands-on jobs hard to outsource to foreigners).  If this is right, a bursting of the bubble is growing likelier.


Finally, for the entrepreneurs out there, this bubble-bursting may be an opportunity.  One of the underpinnings of higher education is its value as a credential to employers:  A college degree demonstrates, at least, moderate intelligence - and, more importantly, the ability to show up and perform on a reasonably reliable basis, something that is of considerable interest when hiring people, a surprisingly large number of whom do neither.

But a college degree is an expensive way to get an entry-level credential.  New approaches to credentialing, approaches that inform employers more reliably, while costing less than a college degree, are likely to become increasingly appealing over the coming decade.

THE big news of the day in academia is that Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser is under investigation for research misconduct (the investigation has been going on for some time), and he will be on leave from Harvard for the coming academic year.  See the story in the Boston Globe by Carolyn Y. Johnson. 

A study led by Hauser on rule learning by cotton-top tamarinds, published in Cognition in 2002, has been retracted.  Papers in Science and Proceedings of the Royal Society B are also under question.

If you don't follow the literature on the evolution of language, morality, music and other basic aspects of human cognition and behavior, you may not realize just how central a figure Hauser has been:  tremendously prolific; a prominent voice in public presentations of this kind of science on public television and elsewhere; by all accounts one of Harvard's most popular teachers; and the mentor of many students who have gone on to positions of prestige and influence in their own right, including (just to mention a couple whose work I am acquainted with) Brian Hare (now at Duke) and Laurie Santos (now at Yale).  A few years ago, Hauser wrote a series of articles with his former student Josh McDermott on the evolution of music. 

See Hauser's online Harvard bio here.  Hauser is co-director of Harvard's Mind, Brain and Behavior program, and has hosted public symposia and similar events that I have attended.

For additional details on the research that has been called into question, see the report by Neuroskeptic.


Kevin Mitchell at Wiring the Brain summarizes a new study showing that new neurons generated in the sub-ventricular zone of the brain are equipped with a way of clearing their own path through a dense thicket of glial cells as they migrate to the olfactory bulbs along the so-called rostral migratory stream.  Mitchell writes:
The migrating neurons in the RMS thus have some hostile terrain to cross.  It now turns out that they accomplish this by turning the tables on the cells in their environment.  Rather than simply responding to attractive or repulsive cues that they encounter, they actively secrete a repulsive molecule themselves, which helps to clear out glial cells from their path.  These star-shaped glial cells, called astrocytes, then form a tunnel through which the migrating cells are free to pass. 
Sort of like they have little machetes to hack their way through the glial jungle.

The study is:
Naoko Kaneko, et al. (2010), "New Neurons Clear the Path of Astrocytic Processes for Their Rapid Migration in the Adult Brain," Neuron.
The article is freely available for download.

Simon A. Levin has an interesting (if slightly windy) piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education on the history and present status of the field of ecology.

I've just become aware of LabSpaces.net, which bills itself as "Science news, blogs, forum, protocols and social networking for science afficionados."  I haven't had time to explore yet, but I've subscribed to the site's main feed.  (Update on Tuesday:  I see now that the RSS News feed is just a conduit for science press releases, which is not something I particularly need or want; so I've unsubscribed. The rest of the site may nevertheless be worth investigation.)


Dienekes summarizes what sounds like a useful open-access article on local adaptation and admixture (a process of general importance in evolutionary theory). The article (available here) is:
Koen J. F. Verhoeven, et al. (2010), "Population admixture, biological invasions and the balance between local adaptation and inbreeding depression," Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The Human

Christopher Joyce at NPR has an interesting piece on the evolution of the human shoulder, a part of the series The Human Edge on All Things Considered

The human shoulder differs very considerably from that of our closest living relative, the chimpanzee.  A quote:
"Because it's pointing straight out," says David Green, an anthropologist at George Washington University who studies the evolution of the shoulder, "our arms are allowed to just kind of hang freely, and then we can flex our arms at the elbow and have our hands out front, and that's useful for manipulation. In apes, the joint actually points almost toward the ceiling."

The ape shoulder is good for hanging from a tree, but when our ancestors started walking on two legs, the shoulder started to change. Early on, the joint descended lower on the chest. For a while, the shoulder-blade was more on the side, over the rib cage. Then it moved onto the back.

Most importantly, perhaps, the altered shoulder allowed humans to throw efficiently:  not just rocks, but spears and baseballs.

And, although the piece doesn't mention this, it also allows us to play the piano.

James Winters has a typically excellent post at a replicated typo, "Genetic Components and Cultural Differences: The social sensitivity hypothesis."

With one small caveat: he neglects to make clear (this looks like an editing error) that he is summarizing a new review article on gene-culture coevolution (although this becomes clear enough if you read through to the end).  The article is:
Baldwin M. Way and Matthew D. Lieberman (2010), "Is there a genetic contribution to cultural differences? Collectivism, individualism and genetic markers of social sensitivity," Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.  The article is behind a paywall at Oxford Journals, and costs $32.00.
Here is the abstract:
Genes and culture are often thought of as opposite ends of the nature–nurture spectrum, but here we examine possible interactions. Genetic association studies suggest that variation within the genes of central neurotransmitter systems, particularly the serotonin (5-HTTLPR, MAOA-uVNTR) and opioid (OPRM1  A118G), are associated with individual differences in social sensitivity, which reflects the degree of emotional responsivity to social events and experiences. Here, we review recent work that has demonstrated a robust cross-national correlation between the relative frequency of variants in these genes and the relative degree of individualism–collectivism in each population, suggesting that collectivism may have developed and persisted in populations with a high proportion of putative social sensitivity alleles because it was more compatible with such groups. Consistent with this notion, there was a correlation between the relative proportion of these alleles and lifetime prevalence of major depression across nations. The relationship between allele frequency and depression was partially mediated by individualism–collectivism, suggesting that reduced levels of depression in populations with a high proportion of social sensitivity alleles is due to greater collectivism. These results indicate that genetic variation may interact with ecological and social factors to influence psychocultural differences.
Based on Winters' summary, I have some concerns, but can't say more without reading the article, except to suggest that sometimes it reaily is a good idea for geneticists and others to consult with someone (an anthropologist, say) who actually studies culture, and has a more nuanced sense of the problems encountered in defining groups, cultures, and "nations."


Deric Bownds points to a new study showing that in humans, a sound source associated with a negative stimulus is generalized over a broader range of frequencies than is one associated with a positive stimulus.

The study is:
Eitan Schechtman, et al. (2010), "Negative Valence Widens Generalization of Learning," The Journal of Neuroscience.  The article is behind a paywall, and costs $25.00.
Here is the abstract:
Learning includes the ability to generalize to new situations and respond to similar, yet not identical stimuli. We use stimulus generalization in humans to show that tones that were negatively reinforced induce wider generalization curves than tones that were positively reinforced, and these in turn induce wider curves than neutral memory. Importantly, these wider generalization curves persist even if outcomes for all tones are made identical, indicating that the learning induced a perceptual change, and not merely a decision bias. Moreover, it persists after taking into account loss-aversion, suggesting it is a result of valence per se, and not intensity that reflects overweighting of the aversive stimuli. This effect of emotional valence on learning suggests different locations of plasticity and network mechanisms in the brain. Particularly, it suggests that brain areas that mediate reinforcement and emotions are involved during the learning process to induce a neural representation that can support this broader behavioral generalization. In addition, these findings highlight a model for anxiety and trauma disorders in which aversive experiences affect more than they should, sometimes even in seemingly irrational situations.

Michael Haederle at Miller-McCune Online has a good article on neuroeconomics, focusing especially on the work of Paul Zak, who has been one of the leading researchers on the effect of the "trust-hormone" oxytocin on human behavior, including economic decision making.


3quarksdaily has posted a transcript of Colin Marshall's interview with with Greil Marcus about Van Morrison, the subject of Marcus's most recent book; the interview as originally produced for the radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas.  Marcus is persuasive enough to make me want to get to know Van Morrison's music better; my current knowledge doesn't go much beyond "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Moondance."

Given my interest in musical biography as a genre, I was particularly struck by the following statement by Marcus
I don't have any interest in the private lives of the people I am intrigued by and that I might end up writing about. To trace anybody's work, what they produce, what they put into the world, what you or I respond to, to somebody's life, their biography, is utterly reductionist. It's simply a way of protecting ourselves from the imagination, from the threat of the imagination. Some people are very uncomfortable with the idea they can be moved, they can be threatened, they can be thrilled by something that is just made up.

John Irving, the novelist, once said to me, "You know why that is? It's because people who don't have an imagination are terrified of people who do." I don't know if that's true, but we live in culture of the memoir, where we're not supposed to believe anything unless it's documented that it actually happened. Never mind that most memoirs are more fictional than novels. We want that imprimatur: "This really happened. This is really true." You can respond to it. You can feel "okay" about being moved by it. Whereas with art, whether music, movies, novels, painting, ultimately, to be moved by art, by something somebody has made up, is, from a certain perspective, to be tricked. To be fooled. You made me cry, and you just did it like you hypnotized me. I love that. Not everybody does.

(Via Codex flores:) The Copenhagen Post Online (in English) reports that tenor Ricardo Villazón, who was suffering from a cold, walked out of a concert at Tivoli Gardens after 7 minutes. There were no refunds; tickets had cost between 500 and 1,250 kroner (ca. €67 to €168 or $88 to $220).  The concert continued with soprano Stéphanie Loris and mezzo Audry Kessedjian.

I'm no longer including links to Codex flores until they start to include links to the stories they cite.


Chris Foresman at ars technica talks to some of the people who designed props for Star Trek: The Next Generation and other installments of the franchise, about touch-based control panels in the show.  In particular, the PADD (Personal Access Display Device) in ST:TNG eerily anticipates the iPad.

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