12 August 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.08.10

Tuesday: Fish on plagiarism; college students transfer bad study habits from paper to computer; review of a new history of copyright; books are dying, and that's okay; review of a history of the German language; the 15 most overrated contemporary American writers; the genetics of morphological variation in dogs; Britain's oldest house; Culture Evolves!; a bibliograhic database on human evolution; a neuroscientist's description of her own psychosis; the Seattle Opera girds for battle; Magic Purple Sunshine; 1906 color photos of Europe.


Stanley Fish opines on plagiarism at the Opinionator at the NYT:  "Plagiarism Is Not a Big Moral Deal."

Well, yes it is.  (Only those who have not been materially harmed by the theft of their ideas would claim that it isn't.)

Some quotes:
Whenever it comes up plagiarism is a hot button topic and essays about it  tend to be philosophically and morally inflated. But there are really only two points to make. (1) Plagiarism is a learned sin. (2) Plagiarism is not a philosophical issue.


The rule that you not use words that were first uttered or written by another without due attribution is less like the rule against stealing, which is at least culturally universal, than it is like  the rules of golf. 


Plagiarism is like that; it’s an insider’s obsession.  If you’re a professional journalist, or an academic historian, or a philosopher, or a social scientist or a scientist, the game  you play for a living is underwritten by the assumed value of originality and failure properly to credit the work of others is a big and obvious no-no.  But if you’re a musician or a novelist, the boundary lines are less clear (although there certainly are some) and if you’re a politician it may not occur to you, as it did not at one time to Joe Biden, that you’re doing anything wrong when you appropriate the speech of a revered statesman.
Typical Fish.

I normally avoid reporting press releases on research or newly published studies, but this one has now pursued me from two different directions, so I capitulate.

ScienceDaily reports (based on material from University of Nebraska-Lincoln) on a new study that is effectively summed up in the SD headline: "College Undergrads Study Ineffectively on Computers, Study Finds: Students Transfer Bad Study Habit from Paper to Screen."

We're astonished.

A quote from the SD story:
The research ... found that students tend to study on computers as they would with traditional texts: They mindlessly over-copy long passages verbatim, take incomplete or linear notes, build lengthy outlines that make it difficult to connect related information, and rely on memory drills like re-reading text or recopying notes.
Not surprisingly, the study goes on to show that students learn more effectively using methods that take into account how the brain learns.

The article (oddly, not directly linked from the SD report) is:
Dharmanana Jairam and Kenneth A. Kiewra, "Helping students soar to success on computers: An investigation of the SOAR study method for computer-based learning," Journal of Educational Psychology.  The article is behind a paywall at APA PsycNET and costs $11.95.
A rather silly title, which gives the impression of self-promotion (caveat: I haven't read the article, and am not likely to).


Mike Masnick at Techdirt links to an article in Der Spiegel on copyright. There is some lack of clarity in Masnick's post (and in the comments) on the actual content of the article, which is in German (Masnick's summary is based on the version produced by Google Translate).

The article in Der Spiegel, by Frank Thadeusz, is actually a book review (this is not clear in Masnick's post).  The book is:
Eckhard Höffner, Geschichte und Wesen des Urheberrechts (Verlag Europäische Wirtschaft), vol. 1 and vol. 2.
The title can be translated as The History and Essence of Copyright.

A précis of Höffner's argument (as summarized in the review):

Copyright was adopted in the German lands much later than in Great Britain.  The first copyright law in Britain dates from 1710; the first German state to adopt copyright, Prussia, did so only in 1837, and the other German states and principalities later still.  Höffner argues that in the period before adoption of copyright in the German lands, many more books were published there than in Britain: 14,000 new publications appeared in "Germany" (not yet a unified country) in 1843, whereas the rate in Britain in this era was roughly only 1000 publications per year.  Many of the books published in Germany appeared in inexpensive editions that ordinary people could afford, whereas in Britain, because of the monopolistic effect of copyright, prices remained very high, and books were a luxury item for the wealthy elite. Höffner argues that the wide availability of books in Germany, and the open market in publication encouraged an outpouring of books on sciences, medicine, and "how to" manuals that allowed Germany to catch up to and overtake Britain as an industrial power, in spite of Britain's substantial head start.

Sounds like a book I very much will want to read, if I can ever get my hands on it.

The summary at Techdirt isn't really wrong:  it gets some of the essential points right.  It's just that it isn't placed in the context of a review of Höffner's book.  At any rate, followers of Techdirt will certainly be interested to know about this major (the two volumes are both around 440 pages) new history of copyright, even if they don't read German.


Kent Anderson at The Scholarly Kitchen writes on the end of the book as we know it (without explicit reference to Negroponte's recent statement about the demise of books)...and he's just fine with it.  He nearly even has me convinced.

But I still feel that there is a kind of browsing that one can do only with physical books in a library or a bookstore, a kind of improvisational interactive browsing that simply isn't possible at Amazon or Google Books, no matter how clever their "Look Inside" or snippet views may be.  And, to me, that kind of browsing is essential to efficient and creative research and learning.

But it's certainly also true that there are new kinds of browsing made possible by digital forms of text that weren't possible before.

The Economist reviews Ruth H. Sanders, German: Biography of a Language.  Their bottom line:
Ms Sanders’s book is a biography, not of the modern German language proper, but of the Germanic languages and the people who speak them. She takes in the development of Yiddish, Dutch, Icelandic and of course English, as well as others. As such it is an ingenious telling of just how German emerged from the primordial Germanic soup, and how many other ways it could have been if, say, Luther had been born 100 miles farther north. For all its flaws, this is an enjoyable yet still-scholarly read for the historian, linguist and Germanophile alike. It would be a fine thing to have more such brief histories, made easily readable to the non-specialist, of the major world languages.

Anis Shivani at The Huffington Post gives his personal list of the "15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers."  The essay begins:
Are the writers receiving the major awards and official recognition really the best writers today? Or are they overrated mediocrities with little claim to recognition by posterity? The question is harder than ever to answer today, yet it is a worthwhile exercise to attempt (along with identifying underrated writers not favored by bureaucracy).

It's difficult to know today because we no longer have major critics with wide reach who take vocal stands. There are no Malcolm Cowleys, Edmund Wilsons, and Alfred Kazins to separate the gold from the sand. Since the onset of poststructuralist theory, humanist critics have been put to pasture. The academy is ruled by "theorists" who consider their work superior to the literature they deconstruct, and moreover they have no interest in contemporary literature. As for the reviewing establishment, it is no more than the blurbing arm for conglomerate publishing, offering unanalytical "reviews" announcing that the emperor is wearing clothes (hence my inclusion of Michiko Kakutani).

The ascent of creative writing programs means that few with critical ability have any incentive to rock the boat--awards and jobs may be held back in retaliation. The writing programs embody a philosophy of neutered multiculturalism/political correctness; as long as writers play by the rules (no threatening history or politics), there's no incentive to call them out. (A politically fecund multiculturalism--very desirable in this time of xenophobia--is the farthest thing from the minds of the official arbiters: such writing would be deemed "dangerous," and never have a chance against the mediocrities.)


If we don't understand bad writing, we can't understand good writing. Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite. Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself.
Among the writers he disses is Marilynne Robinson, whom I have praised here. (Of her, Shivani writes: "Others hide behind a smokescreen of unreadable inimitability--Marilynne Robinson, for example--to maintain a necessary barrier between the masses and the overlords.")

But I'm all for direct and truly critical criticism, even if I don't agree with it.

An entertaining read, and wonderfully snarky.  Victims include William T. Vollmann (about whose work I know nothing), Amy Tan, John Ashbery, Mary Oliver, Helen Vendler ("America's most banal critic"), Antonya Nelson, Sharon Olds, Jorie Graham (Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard), Jonathan Safran Foer, Jhumpa Lahiri ("Utterly unwilling ... to write about anything other than privileged Bengali immigrants with PhDs living in Cambridge's Central and Inman Squares"), Junot Díaz (whom I just recommended to a student of mine), Louise Gluck ("She is perhaps our greatest example of mediocrity ascending to the very top "), Michael Cunningham ("Yet another gimmick man, yet another shtick peddler"), Billy Collins, and Michiko Kakutani.

There are (as of Wednesday morning) 1639 comments. I haven't read them; but obviously various nerves have been touched.

I'm sympathetic, having been chewed up and spit out by a culture, academic musicology, that likewise rewards (sometimes very highly) posturing mediocrity and even outright incompetence, and has become largely a mutual admiration society of the talentless.


A new study in PLoS Biology finds that much of the extraordinarily wide diversity of morphology (body size, shape, and so on) in the domestic dog can be attributed to a relatively small number of genes.  The study is:
Adam R. Boyko, et al. (2010), "A Simple Genetic Architecture Underlies Morphological Variation in Dogs," PLoS Biology.  Open access.
ScienceNOW has a good executive summary; Razib Kahn at Gene Expression summarizes the study in more detail.

The Human

The BBC reports that archaeologists have discovered what it said to be Britain's oldest house, a circular structure near Scarborough dating from around 8,500 BC. Quotes:
It was a round house - a smaller version of iron age round houses - with a circle of timber posts around a sunken circular floor area, which could have been covered by reeds.


Archaeologists are also examining a wooden platform made from split timbers, near to the lakeside house, which is being claimed as the oldest example of carpentry so far discovered in Europe.
Includes an on-site video interview with archaeologist Nicky Milner, including a quick view of the wooden platform, but not of the "house," which is under a protective tent.

One of the Summer Science Exhibitions put on by The Royal Society in honor of its 350th anniversary is (was?) Culture Evolves!

The website for the exhibition is well worth exploring.  Some extracts from the introduction to the website:
Culture so strongly shapes us humans that it might seem at first sight to separate us from the rest of biology and from Darwinian evolution. Our recent research paints a very different picture.

We've discovered that 'culture' (broadly, the passing on of traditions by learning from others) is a much more important force in the animal kingdom than has been assumed. It's richer in quality than anybody thought, in a range of animals from fish to apes, and even insects. And because culture provides a second kind of inheritance (1), piggy-backing on existing genetic inheritance, discovering the forms it takes is extending and transforming our understanding of biology and Darwinian evolution. Our exhibit shows how we have revealed examples of culture in fish, meerkats and chimpanzees.

These represent one meaning of our title, 'culture evolves' - the discovery that our human culture has not appeared out of the blue, because forms of culture have evolved in widespread ways in the animal kingdom.  Our own cultural complexity has evolved from simpler forms, that we can begin to reconstruct through our studies of apes and other animals.

But there is also a second meaning of 'culture evolves'.  Once culture appears, a new form of evolution can take off - cultural evolution ....

John Hawks has made available through his website a bibliographical database on human evolution containing (as of Wednesday) 11,639 entries.  The database is here, and his introduction and commentary is here.  Looks incredibly useful.


Vaughan at the ever excellent Mind Hacks points to a striking short essay by a neuroscientist describing her own experience with psychosis: Erin Stefanidis (2006), "Personal Account: Being Rational," Schizophrenia Bulletin. Free to read online or to download.  Schizophrenia Bulletin apparently publishes such personal accounts on a regular basis, and these deserve closer investigation.  The first paragraph of Stefanidis's account:
I was awash in a sea of irrationality. The Voices swirled around me, teaching me their Wisdom. Their Wisdom was of the Deep Meaning, and I struggled to understand. They told me their secrets and insights, piece by piece. Slowly, I was beginning to make sense of it all. It was no delusion, I knew—in contrast to what the doctors said.


Red Room reproduces excerpts from Kelly Tweeddale's address on 3 August to the annual meeting of the Seattle Opera, replete with overheated militaristic rhetoric:
At Seattle Opera we have been at battle.  We have been at war with multiple enemies.  There have been very real casualties.  And it isn’t over.  This past season, ranks have closed to protect the art of this company, to protect the artistic vision that General Director Speight Jenkins has dedicated a good portion of his life to.  There are now many enemies, some such as mediocrity, predictability, and indifference we will never allow to penetrate our front lines.  But there are three enemies that are gaining ground, and they threaten who we are and what we do:
In fact, the title of the post is "Battle Ready." The three "enemies" are: "the precarious economy" (of course), "obsolescence" (trouble getting opera onto teenage iPods), and "the emergence of a risk-averse approach to creativity."

This bit of rhetorical excess also caught my eye:
For opera to survive, we, you, and the community need to believe that opera is a necessity, not a frill.
Well, no. Food is a necessity.  Whatever the role of opera in culture may be, it is not necessary for survival.  And billions of people on the planet are successfully surviving right now (and have been for thousands of years) without opera.  Amazing, but true.

And yet more militaristic (in this case Wagner-tinged) rhetoric:
Whether we are the Grail knights of Parsifal, protecting the Holy Grail we call opera or a staff of starry-eyed performing arts devotees, what I can say is this year has been fought by an amazing army of sure-footed and fierce warriors.
Also, given that Red Room is a "writers" site, I'm surprised to find a confused sentence like the following:
Seattle Opera has huge obstacles standing in the way of participating in these spaces and relating to the next generation of audiences; obstacles such as collective bargaining agreements that prevent the digital release of no more than 3 minutes of content...
Surely she meant simply "that prevent the digital release of more than 3 minutes of content..."

A reader points to the unusual but interesting music site, Magic Purple Sunshine, which seems to specialize in unusual and out-of-print jazz.

An example:  the subject of the post for 5 August is the Earl Hines and Jaki Byard (!) album Duet! from 1972.

Now that I've got to hear....


Mike Shaughnessy at BoingBoing has posted a lovely collection of 1906 color photos of Europe.

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