19 August 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.08.18

Wednesday: embarrassing states; sentences you won't see in English; are minds like computers or search engines?; successful psychopaths; developmental dyscalculia, continued; Cleese on creativity; the autobiographical self; the correlation of chimpanzee genes and culture; the world's oldest animal?; more on the Savory collection of jazz recordings; a night-club map of Harlem from the early 1930s; Stephen Hough on vibrato in orchestral string playing; Hillier strikes back; Clouzot's Inferno; the death of Frank Kermode.


Matt Palmquist at Miller-McCune Online has a series of short posts grouped around the theme "Ranking States' Citizen Embarrassment Levels."  He has vignettes of the "not-so-magnificent seven" of state citizen embarrassment: Virginia, Illinois, California, New York, Tennessee, Arizona, and Texas. Each vignette includes the sections "You've Probably Heard About," describing well-publicized embarrassments (for example, Rod Blagojevich in Illinois, or the new immigration law in Arizona), and a second section "But Did You Know," on less well-known ones.

The whole thing is a bit superficial.  But I was struck by the "But Did You Know" section for Tennessee, where I lived for a couple of pretty dreadful years:
Tennessee is our most corrupt state, according to a study commissioned by the political website The Daily Beast, which combed a decade’s worth of federal data on racketeering, fraud, embezzlement and public corruption cases. Of particular note: Last year a retired police captain was indicted by the FBI on charges that he allegedly joined up with gang members to move stolen property and drugs across state lines.


Things You Won't See in English-language Journalism (Not Even on Fox):

Denis Yücel in an essay at taz.de ("Kein Herz für Mullah Omar") writes:
Nicht nur das Image Pakistans ist beschissen; Pakistan selbst ist ein Scheiß-Staat.

(Non only is Pakistan's image shitty; Pakistan itself is a shit-state.)


Melody Dye has a wonderful and thought-provoking essay at Child's Play, "A Thinking Machine: On metapors for mind."

It resists superficial summary. She takes her departure from the nativist (Chomskian) vs empiricist debate about language, and the post is inspired in part by a new article by Michael Ramscar (in whose lab Dye is a researcher), "Computing Machinery and Understanding," in the most recent Cognitive Science. (The article is freely available for download from Ramscar's page at Stanford.)

Ramscar's article, as Dye describes it, asks whether we may have been using the wrong model for the mind.  The reigning model since the start of the cognitive revolution in the 1950s has been "mind as computer."  But Ramscar suggests that perhaps the mind is more like a search engine, "a probabilistic, predictive learning machine."

I can't wait to read it.

Dye also includes many other extremely useful links that I hope to be able to investigate in more depth later, particularly the links on learning theory.

BPS Research Digest has a good post, "Hunting the successful psychopath," summarizing a new study on psychopaths who succeed in life, rather than, say, ending up in prison:
Like their criminally violent cousins - the standard psychopaths - these people are ruthless, callous, fearless and arrogant. But thanks to their superior self-control and conscientiousness, rather than landing in prison, they end up as  company chief executives, university chancellors and Queen's Council barristers
The study is:
Stephanie N. Mullins-Sweatt, et al. (2010), "The search for the successful psychopath," Journal of Research in Personality. The article is behind a paywall at ScienceDirect, and costs $31.50.
Here is the abstract:
There has long been interest in identifying and studying “successful psychopaths.” This study sampled psychologists with an interest in law, attorneys, and clinical psychology professors to obtain descriptions of individuals considered to be psychopaths who were also successful in their endeavors. The results showed a consistent description across professions and convergence with descriptions of traditional psychopathy, though the successful psychopathy profile had higher scores on conscientiousness, as measured within the five-factor model (FFM). These results are useful in documenting the existence of successful psychopathy, demonstrating the potential benefit of informant methodology, and providing an FFM description that distinguishes successful psychopaths from unsuccessful psychopaths studied more routinely within prison settings.
A sample of the descriptions collected from informants is available as a Word document here. These are certainly worth reading for anyone who has known people of this sort (and most of us have).  I can easily think of at least a couple of very prominent examples in my former field of musicology.  This description sounded eerily familiar:
“Superficially charming, glib, exploitative of others, deceitful; lack of genuine empathy for others but aware enough to feign concern and empathy well when it was socially appropriate to do so; manipulative of others and would set up situations to sacrifice colleagues in order to advance himself”
The  BPS Research Digest summarizes:
The key difference between successful and standard psychopaths seemed to be in conscientiousness. Providing some rare, concrete support for the 'successful psychopath' concept, the individuals described by the survey respondents were the same as prototypical psychopaths in all regards except they lacked the irresponsibility, impulsivity and negligence and instead scored highly on competence, order, achievement striving and self-discipline.

Jason Goldman at Child's Play continues with the third post in his series on developmental dyscalculia, "Developmental Dyscalculia Explained: Strategy, Memory, Attention."

David DiSalvo at Neuronarrative points to this (edited) 10-minute video of John Cleese speaking (seriously) on the creative process.  Very much worth watching.

Bill Benzon at New Savanna has published the fifth and probably final post in his series on "Mode & Behavior," on  "The Autobiographical Self."

I had been hoping to find time to read the preceding posts in the series, but this one can also be read independently of the others. Benzon argues that play-acting and story-telling are key (evolutionarily and neurologically) to the narrative construction of identity.

The topic of identity construction is of great personal and theoretical interest to me, my own identity narrative having been fragile and continually disrupted for many years.  Benzon's post also dovetails nicely with my current reading of Ben Yagoda's Memoir: A History, about which I hope to write at more length.  A memoir is, among other things, a narrative construction (or reconstruction) of identity.

(This book is on my Amazon Wishlist, by the way, and is available at a bargain price right now.  It would be a lot easier to write about if I owned a copy that I could mark up, rather than reading the library copy.)

The Evolution of Culture

Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science writes on a new study showing that differences in chimpanzee culture are strongly correlated with differences in their mitochondrial DNA. Yong writes:
Langergraber studied almost 250 chimps, who came from 9 groups, including 3 from the west African subspecies and 6 from the east African one. For each one, he noted whether they performed any of 39 different behaviours, and he sequenced DNA from their mitochondria (small energy factories in animal cells that have their own small accessory genome).
Langergraber found that the differences in their genes were mirrored by differences in their behaviour. Groups of chimps with starkly differing cultures are also genetically distant and the greater the gap between their behaviours, the greater the gap between their genes. And only a small number of actions varied between groups that were genetically similar.
This does not mean that the cultural variation is "explained" by genetic differences (and, after all, it is mtDNA we're talking about).  But it does suggest that the cultural variation may not all necessarily be "purely" cultural.

The article is:
Kevin E. Langergraber, et al. (2010), "Genetic and 'cultural' similarity in wild chimpanzees," Proceedings of the Royal Society B.  The article is freely available for download.
Here is the abstract:
The question of whether animals possess ‘cultures’ or ‘traditions’ continues to generate widespread theoretical and empirical interest. Studies of wild chimpanzees have featured prominently in this discussion, as the dominant approach used to identify culture in wild animals was first applied to them. This procedure, the ‘method of exclusion,’ begins by documenting behavioural differences between groups and then infers the existence of culture by eliminating ecological explanations for their occurrence. The validity of this approach has been questioned because genetic differences between groups have not explicitly been ruled out as a factor contributing to between-group differences in behaviour. Here we investigate this issue directly by analysing genetic and behavioural data from nine groups of wild chimpanzees. We find that the overall levels of genetic and behavioural dissimilarity between groups are highly and statistically significantly correlated. Additional analyses show that only a very small number of behaviours vary between genetically similar groups, and that there is no obvious pattern as to which classes of behaviours (e.g. tool-use versus communicative) have a distribution that matches patterns of between-group genetic dissimilarity. These results indicate that genetic dissimilarity cannot be eliminated as playing a major role in generating group differences in chimpanzee behaviour.


80beats reports on a new study in Nature Geoscience that describes what are claimed to be the oldest known fossils of animal life, a type of primitive sponge, dating from 650 million years ago, 70 million years earlier than the previous claimant to the title of "earliest known animal."

What makes the early sponge of particular interest is that it dates from before the so-called "Snowball Earth," during which the entire (or nearly the entire) surface of the planet became frozen. It has even been suggested that these early animals may have contributed to the onset of Snowball Earth by creating a carbon sink that drew carbon dioxide out of the air, leading to global cooling.

The article is:
Adam C. Maloof, et al. (2010), "Possible animal-body fossils in pre-Marinoan limestones from South Australia," Nature Geoscience.  The article is behind a paywall, and costs $32.00.
Here is the abstract:
The Neoproterozoic era was punctuated by the Sturtian (about 710 million years ago) and Marinoan (about 635 million years ago) intervals of glaciation. In South Australia, the rocks left behind by the glaciations are separated by a succession of limestones and shales, which were deposited at tropical latitudes. Here we describe millimetre- to centimetre-scale fossils from the Trezona Formation, which pre-dates the Marinoan glaciation. These weakly calcified fossils occur as anvil, wishbone, ring and perforated slab shapes and are contained within stromatolitic limestones. The Trezona Formation fossils pre-date the oldest known calcified fossils of this size by 90 million years, and cannot be separated from the surrounding calcite matrix or imaged by traditional X-ray-based tomographic scanning methods. Instead, we have traced cross-sections of individual fossils by serially grinding and scanning each sample at a resolution of 50.8 μm. From these images we constructed three-dimensional digital models of the fossils. Our reconstructions show a population of ellipsoidal organisms without symmetry and with a network of interior canals that lead to circular apertures on the fossil surface. We suggest that several characteristics of these reef-dwelling fossils are best explained if the fossils are identified as sponge-grade metazoans.


More from the NYT on the Savory Collection of jazz recordings, now at the National Jazz Museum (for the background, see my Digest from yesterday).

Ben Ratliff writes on the live recording of Coleman Hawkins playing "Body and Soul" in May 1940. As Ratliff describes it:
This “Body and Soul,” from May 1940, comes from a gig broadcast from the Fiesta Danceteria, then a new joint in Times Square, where you could buy cafeteria food as a cover charge and dance to music free. According to “The Song of the Hawk,” John Chilton’s biography of Hawkins, the engagement went badly. The owners asked him to play stock arrangements of pop songs until the late set, and even then asked Hawkins to quiet down his brass players. Hawkins quit after a week.

But you wouldn’t suspect any of that. The Savory version, clear enough to indicate the breadth of his sound, is three minutes and two choruses longer than the studio recording seven months earlier, at a marginally faster tempo, and just as psychologically intense. Presumably many listeners knew the whole recorded improvisation by heart, but here he rarely refers to it. The performance takes its time, as Hawkins develops his improvisation alone over bass and drums, with gathering abstraction from the tune.

After the beginning of the fourth chorus the band comes in with a gingerly backing arrangement, as Hawkins enters his final stretch, starting to pour it on. (It’s like watching a great swimmer turning into lap 16 out of 20.) At around five minutes, before the coda, he does something extraordinary: a set of big upward arpeggios, bold wipes of sound, weird for the time. It’s remarkable, this recording. It’s not just nice. It’s not just helpful to the historical record. It might be better than the one we feel obligated to compare it with.

(Tidbit for Lorenz: Ratliff mentions in passing that William Savory married the singer Helen Ward after she left Benny Goodman's band.)

Larry Rohter at the Arts Beat blog discusses what may be yet to come as the Savory Collection is analyzed, preserved, and digitized.  Only around 10 percent of the collection has been digitized so far, equivalent to about 20 hours of music. Eventually the collection will amount to 100 hours or more of music.  Even the curators of the collection do not yet know the full extent of what's in it.  Rohter writes:
[Loren] Schoenberg [executive director of the National Jazz Museum] said there may be high-quality surprises on discs that have not even been opened, much less played yet; some are unlabeled, so it is not known who is playing, and on others, the labels have fallen off. After initially thinking that there were very few tracks by Charlie Christian, for example, Mr. Schoenberg has come across several performances featuring the pioneering electric guitarist, who died of tuberculosis in 1942 and the age of 25.
Rohter reports that the museum is in discussion with Mosaic Records over the release of the collection on CD. In the meantime, the museum plans to allow visitors to listen to what has been digitized so far.

The NYT has posted several extracts from the Savory collection here, including a 47 second extract of the arpeggios metioned by Ratliff in the Hawkins "Body and Soul" and 45 seconds of Benny Goodman playing "Oh, Lady Be Good!" with Teddy Wilson on harpsichord.

And serendipitously, Frank Jacobs at Big Think has just uncovered a "Night-Club Map of Harlem" from around 1932 (via BoingBoing). The map was drawn by African-American cartoonist Elmer Simms Campbell.

Pianist Stephen Hough writes at Telegraph.co.uk on the use of string vibrato in orchestral playing. He writes:
It has become commonly accepted in the 21st century that until the post-war period string players did not use much vibrato – that wiggle of the fingers on the string which produces a quiver of pitch in the note being played. The evidence for this comes almost exclusively from early recordings from the first decades of the 20th century. There is no doubt that string sections back then did not have the same constant vibrato that we tend to hear in present-day performances.  But there is a problem with taking that particular historical practice and simply copying it in today’s situation
He cites three crucial differences between current and pre-War string playing that bear on the question of vibrato: before the Second World War, most string players still used gut rather than steel strings; string players today tend to play more in tune than they did in the first half of the 20th century; players today uses less portamento than formerly.  Read his post for his discussion of the implications.

Paul Hillier fights back.

On Monday, we learned that Paul Hillier had been arrested at Newark International Airport last week on an Oregon warrant for non-payment of child support.  He was released after wiring $90,000 to the authorities in Multnomah County.

The Daily Mail reports that Hillier claims he had withheld payment because his rights as a father had been "trampled." From the Mail's report:
And last night Mr Hillier told how he was detained by officials of the Department of Homeland Security at Newark Airport and taken to Essex County Jail in New Jersey.

'I have to say that I was treated by them with great courtesy and understanding,' he said.
The article continues:
He had withheld the payments after his former wife prevented their daughters from visiting him. 'My rights as a father have been comprehensively trampled into the ground', he added in a statement.The divorce agreement mandated, first, that I would pay child support, and second, that our two children would reside with their mother but that I would have very specific visitation rights in the form of substantial periods of time during Christmas and summer holidays when they would reside with me.

'I paid child support regularly for several years, but apart from a single two-week visit by my younger daughter, the visitation was totally and very effectively prevented by the girls' mother.

'Eventually I told her I would stop sending child support unless and until she started to keep her side of the agreement. She never did.

'During the past year I had been trying various ways to settle the matter amicably between us, but without success. The arrest was a very brief affair: the issue with the Oregon Court was settled overnight and I have made full restitution of the outstanding payments, which I had been holding in reserve for that purpose.

'Of course, there is no way, now, in which the lost years with my children-can be restored. I feel this loss very deeply and I feel that my rights as a father have been comprehensively trampled into the ground.


Through a round-about route (via a review that isn't freely available at FAZ) I learned about a new DVD release of a documentary on Henri-Georges Clouzot's unfinished film Inferno (L'enfer).  Clouzot was the director of The Wages of Fear (an extraordinary and great film, in my estimation), Les Diaboliques (an explicit inspiration for Hitchcock's Psycho), and Le Corbeau (a film about anonymous denunciation, made under the Nazi occupation).

Inferno starred Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani. Shooting began in 1964 but production was halted when Clouzot had a heart attack.  Serge Bromberg's documentary reproduces some of the surviving footage (including many test shots), and features interviews with many surviving members of the cast and crew.  Here is a quote from a review by Joe Ewens at Den of Geek:
The early test footage impressed Columbia Pictures so much that it awarded L’Enfer an unlimited budget. Clouzot invested huge piles of cash in yet more tests and employed three separate crews to shoot the film. The stories of the assembled filmmakers provide a neat counterpoint to the short arty extracts, which, without the context of a completed film, are often only visually engaging.

In the latter stages, we finally get to see some meaningful chunks of the unfinished film. The 10 minute section suggests that the completed project could have been a truly great work of art. The original recorded dialogue is still lost, so contemporary actors Bérénice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin provide the voices. They also fill in the unfilmed gaps by acting out missing scenes in front of a blank set. It’s an effective way of translating some sense of Clouzot’s vision, with Bejo presenting a particularly compelling version of Odette [Schneider's role].
This will be a must-see for anyone interested in Clouzot.


Alison Flood at The Guardian reports that literary critic Sir Frank Kermode died on Tuesday in Cambridge, England, at the age of 90. (Via 3quarksdaily)

I have not read any of Kermode's books, but I found myself regularly reading his essays in the New York Review of Books, and I think it is safe to say that he is the only literary critic whose work I consistently found worth reading.  A quote from Flood's obituary
"One of the great benefits of seriously reading English is you're forced to read a lot of other things," he said. "You may not have a very deep acquaintance with Hegel but you need to know something about Hegel. Or Hobbes, or Aristotle, or Roland Barthes. We're all smatterers in a way, I suppose. But a certain amount of civilisation depends on intelligent smattering."
That could be the name of this blog, "intelligent smattering."
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