13 August 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.08.12

Thursday: The benefits of self-organizing peer review; the dwindling choice of "other" e-readers; free software for creating ePub e-books; the pros and cons of science blog networks; the sky is always falling for the "content industry" (just ask John Philip Sousa); a review of Faye's Heidegger; defending evolution in the 31st century; the worse recording ever made?; The Beatles complete, on ukelele; Thompson and Bordwell on exposition and cross-cutting in Inception; A Hundred Thousand Billion poems online; two four-eared cats (making eight ears altogether).


Mike Masnick at Techdirt critiques peer review as it is currently implemented, and looks at the potential of open "self-organizing" peer review.

The motivation for his post was the claim a few days ago by Vinay Deolalikar to have proved P≠NP, which, if valid, would resolve one of the major unresolved problems in mathematics and computer science. The problem is so important that the Clay Mathematics Institute has offered a prize of $1 million for its correct solution.

Go here for links on P versus NP, including the original and a revised version of Deolalikar's paper. Because the paper was made publicly available before (or instead of) going through peer review, there has been an outpouring of work on it by people trying to find holes, errors, or flaws.  Some of that work is summarized and linked to here.

Masnick (following a tip from Glyn Moody) points to a post by Cameron Neylon at Science in the Open that considers the implications of this episode for peer review.  Neylon writes:
We are starting to see examples of post-publication peer review and see it radically out-perform traditional pre-publication peer review. The rapid demolition [1, 2, 3] of the JACS hydride oxidation paper last year (not least pointing out that the result wasn’t even novel) demonstrated the chemical blogosphere was more effective than peer review of one of the premiere chemistry journals. More recently 23andMe issued a detailed, and at least from an outside perspective devastating, peer review (with an attempt at replication!) of a widely reported Science paper describing the identification of genes associated with longevity. This followed detailed critiques from a number of online writers.


Many of us have argued for some time that post-publication peer review with little or no pre-publication review is the way forward. Many have argued against this on practical grounds that we simply can’t get it to happen, there is no motivation for people to review work that has already been published. What I think this proof, and the other stories of online review tell us is that these forms of review will grow of their own accord, particularly around work that is high profile. My hope is that this will start to create an ecosystem where this type of commenting and review is seen as valuable. That would be a more positive route than the other alternative, which seems to be a wholesale breakdown of the current system as the workloads rise too high and the willingness of people to contribute drops.

The argument always brought forward for peer review is that it improves papers. What interests me about the online activity around Deolalikar’s paper is that there is a positive attitude. By finding the problems, the proof can be improved, and new insights found, even if the overall claim is wrong. If we bring a positive attitude to making peer review work more effectively and efficiently then perhaps we can find a good route to improving the system for everyone.
What about peer review in the humanities?  I haven't yet researched the critical literature on the current state of peer review in the humanities (I suspect the literature is meager), but there seem to me to be two obvious fundamental problems:
  1. Most fields or subfields in the humanties are very small, and thus the population of potential reviewers is very small. This creates a landscape in which the scholarly equivalent of corruption and insider trading is almost inevitable (and does, in fact, happen all too often).
  2. To the extent that the humanities have, for the past few decades, come increasingly under the reign of "Theory," there has been decline (some would say a collapse) in agreed and well-defined standards for the evaluation of scholarly work in many fields.  To be blunt:  many of us know that much of what is published in the humanities is incoherent moonshine, but there is no longer a reliable mechanism within peer review to identify that moonshine for what it is.
It would be very interesting to see what would happen in, say, my former field of musicology if published work were subject to crowd-sourced and open peer review.  I suspect the results might be quite enlightening.


Jon Stokes at ars technica writes on the collapse of the market for e-readers competing with the Kindle and the iPad.  E-readers were the highlight of the CES this past January, but most of the other major projects (the Skiff e-reader, the Plastic Logic QUE, the Iliad) are now defunct for one reason or another.  Stokes writes:
The problem for these products is that the e-reader market appears to consist almost exclusively of people who want to use the devices to read, which means that they don't really care about being able to bend or flex the e-reader a little bit, nor are they willing to pay the huge premium that a touchscreen commands. Neither of these features enhances the basic reading experience that's at the core of why people pick an E-Ink device over a reader with an LCD screen.

For those who just want to read, the Kindle is now very cheap. And if you're going to pay for a touchscreen, you might as well spend a bit extra get an iPad.

While there is a significant price gap between the $500 iPad and the $140 Kindle, nothing compelling has emerged that really fits in that gap (aside from maybe the DX, which really isn't that compelling when compared to the iPad). And given how far E-Ink is from offering a compelling color option (seriously, the color prototypes look awful), it's hard to imagine anything based on the technology filling that void. Again, the three readers above tried, but nobody cares about touchscreens or flexibility.

FreeMacWare led me to Sigil, a free cross-platform WYSIWYG editor for creating e-books in ePub format.  I've downloaded the software and am going to take a look at it (although I don't have an immediate use for it). I may or may not report back; but I mention it here as just one more small brick in the new structure of publishing:  yes, you really can do this at home, and no, you really don't need a big publishing house to prepare your writing for publication anymore.  Publishing is no longer a scarce resource.

If you need an editor (and you probably do), hire a freelance.  I'm available.

John Hawks has a thought-provoking post on the science-blog networks (such as Science Blogs, or Discovery blogs).  A quote:
My feeling is pretty simple -- I don't want to look like any other site, I don't want to be on a feed with people who talk about politics and religion all the time, and I want to be free to develop things like the bibliography section  that enhance my research and can be widely shared. I've been invited on many networks in the past, and I've always turned down those invitations politely, leaving them open for the future. Maybe someday the up/down will change. But I think many people forget that the internet is already a network, and embedding oneself in a clique has many foreseeable costs.

Annals of the "Content Industry"

Mike Masnik at Techdirt, on a tip from Michael Scott, points to a draft paper by intellectual property lawyer and scholar Mark Lemley on the history of the reactions of the "content industries" to new technology:  the consistent pattern has been that these industries claim that each successive new technology is going to destroy life as we know it.  Masnick summarizes:
From photographs (going to destroy painting) to musical recordings (going to destroy live music) to radio (going to destroy recorded music) to cable TV (going to destroy regular TV) to the photocopier (going to destroy books) to the VCR (going to destroy the movie industry) to audio cassettes (home taping is killing music) to the MP3 player (ditto) to file sharing (ditto) to the DVR (killing TV) and onwards -- the content industries seem to have a problem in immediately declaring that the sky is falling... when it turns out it's never actually falling at all.
Lemley's paper, "Is the Sky Falling on the Content Industries?" is freely available for download at the Social Science Research Network.  A quick, breezy, and entertaining (but enlightening) read. 

Lemley cites an essay from last October by Nate Anderson at ars technica, "100 years of Big Content fearing technology—in its own words." Anderson's first exhibit is a 1906 article by our very own John Philip Sousa in Appleton's Magazine: "The Menace of Mechanical Music," on the threat of the gramophone and player piano:
"From the days when the mathematical and mechanical were paramount in music, the struggle has been bitter and incessant for the sway of the emotional and the soulful," [Sousa] wrote. "And now in this the twentieth century come these talking and playing machines and offer again to reduce the expression of music to a mathematical system of megaphones, wheels, cogs, disks, cylinders, and all manner of revolving things which are as like real art as the marble statue of Eve is like her beautiful living breathing daughters."


What [Sousa] really cared about was the rampant copying of his compositions for use of player pianos and other playback devices without any payment for the use of his work. "When I add to this that I myself and every other popular composer are victims of a serious infringement on our clear moral rights in our own work I but offer a second reason why the facts and conditions should be made clear to everyone alike in the interest of musical art and of fair play," he wrote.

His piece concluded, "Do they not realize that if the accredited composers who have come into vogue by reason of merit and labor are refused a just reward for their efforts a condition is almost sure to arise where all incentive to further creative work is lacking and compositions will no longer flow from their pens or where they will be compelled to refrain from publishing their compositions at all and control them in manuscript? What, then, of the playing and talking machines?"
And of course it didn't turn out that way at all.


Steven B. Smith at the Claremont Review of Books reviews Emmanuel Faye, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935, translated from the French by Michael B. Smith.  Faye's book, which originally appeared in 2005, notoriously argues that (in Smith's words) "Heidegger's works should [henceforward] be removed from the philosophy sections of libraries and bookstores and placed under the category of Nazi Studies."

Smith's review is generally sympathetic, but includes the following barb:
This is a book with many virtues; writing, however, is not one of them.
I've never found anyone who could explain to me why I should consider Heidegger a great philosopher or devote any time to reading his work. His repulsive behavior during the Nazi era and after makes me all the more skeptical.

Anyone want to make a case for him?


Evolution is still under attack in the 31st century: watch the clip from the latest episode of Futurama here

(I'd embed the video, but the HTML from Comedy Central is much more complicated than necessary. Blogger keeps choking on it, and I don't want to take the time to troubleshoot it.)

Alasdair Wilkins at io9 has a detailed review of the episode.

Please invite me over so I can watch.


Alex Ross at The Rest is Noise offers his candidate for the Worst Recording Ever Made:  A 1996 recording by the Quatuor Elysee of Wilhelm Furtwängler's Piano Quintet.

Ross writes:
The performance is wretched. The recording is badly made. And it goes on and on and on  — for seventy-three minutes and twenty-three seconds, to be exact. It's the only disc of late-Romantic chamber music that makes me laugh out loud. I provide an audio sample to back up my case
I haven't had the courage to listen to the sample yet....

Mark Liberman at Language Log writes on the "Beatles Complete on Ukulele" project, whose creator, David Barratt, has enlisted the help of Language Log in helping cull words from Obama's speeches to construct a version of him singing "Let It Be."

Liberman takes the opportunity to bring us up to date on the current state of corpus-based speech synthesis, and how you could use these techniques to synthesize a version of Obama singing "Let It Be."  But he leaves it as an exercise for the reader.


David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson revisit Inception after reading Jeff Goldsmith's interview with Christopher Nolan in Creative Screenwriting, unfortunately not freely available on line.  (See their long post on Inception last week.) Thompson focuses in this post on the handling of exposition in Inception, and Bordwell on Nolan's use of cross-cutting here and in his earlier films.

Bordwell writes:
From this perspective, Inception marks a step forward in Nolan’s exploration of telling a story by crosscutting different time frames. You can even measure the changes quantitatively. Following contains four timelines and intercuts (for the most part) three. Memento intercuts two timelines, but one moves backward. Like Following, The Prestige contains four timelines and intercuts three, but it opens the way toward intercutting embedded stories. The climax of Inception intercuts four embedded timelines, all of them framed by a fifth, the plane trip in the present. For reasons I mentioned in the previous post, it’s possible that Nolan has hit a recursive limit. Any more timelines and most viewers will get lost. What can he do next?
And no, I ain't seen it yet.

Bordwell makes me want to see Nolan's The Prestige.  But all three copies in the Newton Library are currently checked out.


language hat points to this site, which generates poems from Raymond Queneau's Cent mille milliards de poèmes (Hundred Thousand Billion Poems). The Cmmdp was first published in 1961, and comprises 10 sonnets with identical rhyme schemes. In the original publication, each individual line was printed on a separate strip, so that any line could be combined with any other line in a kind of flip book, giving 1014 possible different poems.

The website is an instantiation of this same idea, with the wrinkle that it provides both the original French sonnets and English translations. Languages can be mixed or not, as you wish. The first quatrain of the sonnet that appeared the last time I visited the site:
Il se penche il voudrait attraper sa valise
he's cast out like a snobby Romeo
he'd much to learn despite his four degrees
il ne trouve aussi sec qu'un sac de vieux fayot

Annalee Newitz at io9 passes on two ridiculously cute photos of mutant four-eared kitties, one Russian, one American.

Bookmark and Share

1 comment:

  1. At least the cat's heads are not cut off ;)