20 August 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.08.19

Thursday: new details on the Hauser affair; nothing has changed; Atran on suicide bombers (and other violent extremists); the Savory collection and the high cost of copyright; using antitrust law to combat the excesses of IP?; how 10 powerful technology companies got that way; fMRI analysis in 1000 words; the neurobiology of math; small number representation across species; how do idea mongers get their ideas? (hint: it isn't genius); cooperative breeding and monogamy; a new blog on the evolution of culture; the importance of economics for historians; the wittily naughty films of Ernst Lubitsch; a new initiative for arts education.


Tom Bartlett at The Chronicle of Higher Education has published an article revealing new information on the Marc Hauser case, based on a copy of a statement given by one of Hauser's research assistants to Harvard investigators in 2007.  (The document was given to CHE by the former research assistant, who remains anonymous in the article, although it is not difficult to uncover a likely identity simply from reading the other press on the affair.)

Anyone following this case should read the full article.  The implications aren't pretty. The specifics of the complaint have to do with the "coding" of videotapes of cotton-topped tamarins in an experiment investigating the monkeys' ability to recognize changes in sound patterns.  As is typical in such an experiment, two researchers coded the videos independently; in this case, one coder was a research assistant and the other was Hauser.

When a second research assistant analyzed the results, he found that Hauser's coding conflicted frequently with that of the other coder, with Hauser often finding a reaction by the monkey where the other coder found none or found a different reaction.  When confronted with this discrepancy, Hauser expressed irritation in an e-mail ("i am getting a bit pissed here").

Bartlett continues:
The research assistant who analyzed the data and the graduate student decided to review the tapes themselves, without Mr. Hauser's permission, the document says. They each coded the results independently. Their findings concurred with the conclusion that the experiment had failed: The monkeys didn't appear to react to the change in patterns.

They then reviewed Mr. Hauser's coding and, according to the research assistant's statement, discovered that what he had written down bore little relation to what they had actually observed on the videotapes. He would, for instance, mark that a monkey had turned its head when the monkey didn't so much as flinch. It wasn't simply a case of differing interpretations, they believed: His data were just completely wrong.

As word of the problem with the experiment spread, several other lab members revealed they had had similar run-ins with Mr. Hauser, the former research assistant says. This wasn't the first time something like this had happened. There was, several researchers in the lab believed, a pattern in which Mr. Hauser reported false data and then insisted that it be used.

They brought their evidence to the university's ombudsman and, later, to the dean's office. This set in motion an investigation that would lead to Mr. Hauser's lab being raided by the university in the fall of 2007 to collect evidence. It wasn't until this year, however, that the investigation was completed. It found problems with at least three papers. Because Mr. Hauser has received federal grant money, the report has most likely been turned over to the Office of Research Integrity at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
(Via john hawks and Language Log, among others.  See especially David Dobbs at Neuron Culture, whose detailed reaction to the CHE piece Wednesday morning contrasts the rigorous experimental protocols at Elizabeth Spelke's lab, which are designed to avoid any possibility of coding bias, with those of Hauser, who was doing very similar experiments to Spelke, but with monkeys rather than human infants.  Suffice it to say that Hauser's protocols don't come off well in the comparison.)


I follow but do not often cite Charles Hugh Smith's oftwominds.  Smith's writings tend to read like rant.  They are, however, very well-informed rant, and in spite of my natural distrust of rant, it often seems to me that much of what he says is right.

His post on Tuesday is "Nothing Has Changed," by which he means that there have been no substantive institutional or structural changes in the United States since the beginning of the current financial and economic crisis.  In fact, quite the reverse in many respects: the prior status quo has become even more firmly entrenched. The whole list is worth reading, but I was (for personal reasons) particularly struck by points 17 and 18:
17. "Innovation" stays safely corralled in the realm of toys, gadgets and social media. Real innovations in education, governance, the legal system, etc. that threaten the status quo fiefdoms and Power Elites are smothered at birth.

18. The rot at the center of the Empire--the culture of lies, marketing, prevarication, misrepresentation, embezzlement, parasitic looting, cheating, gaming the system and ceaseless distractions, the culture based on presenting facsimiles as "the real thing," remains firmly in place, strengthened every day by the political classes' prevarications and PR and the notion that lying, cheating, stealing and hiding the truth are all "the name of the game" and justified to nail down your share of the swag. That is the national politics of experience which remains safely unexamined.

Point 18 also makes a telling juxtaposition with the preceding item, no?

Irtiqa has posted a video of a lecture at Hampshire College last spring by Scott Atran (author of, among other books, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landcape of Religion) entitled "For Friends and Faith: Understanding the Paths and Barriers to Political Violence.

I haven't had time to watch this yet, but here is the abstract:
Many creatures will fight to the death for their close kin, but only humans fight and sacrifice unto death for friends and imagined kin, for brotherhoods willing to shed blood for one another. The reason for brotherhoods-- unrelated people cooperating to their full measure of devotion--are as ancient as our uniquely reflective and auto-predatory species. Different cultures ratchet up these reasons into great causes in different ways. Call it love of God or love of group, it matters little in the end... especially for young men, mortal combat in a great cause provides the ultimate adventure and glory to gain maximum esteem in the eyes of many and, most dearly, in the hearts of their peers. This century's major terrorist incidents are cases in point.


David Post at The Volokh Conspiracy (a group blog consisting mostly of lawyers) has written an article, "The High Cost of Copyright," inspired by the story of the Savory collection of live jazz recordings from the late 1930s, and the potential (even likely) copyright problems in making these recordings publicly available. (For more on the Savory collection see my posts here and here.)

Post begins by writing:
In my classes in IP law and copyright, I sometimes have difficulty conveying to students the “cost” side of the copyright regime. That is, though we often make reference to implementing the right copyright “balance” in our law, I think students (and others, for that matter) are often uncertain as to exactly what is being balanced against what. The benefits of a copyright regime are pretty obvious — if you give people a property interest in their creations, they’ll be able to work out market arrangements to receive compensation for them; knowing that in advance, they’ll create more works of art than they otherwise would absent that protection, and we’re all better off as a result. That’s easy enough to see.
This does seem, indeed, to be commonly believed:  that copyright gives creators the incentive to create more, and that we're all better off as a result.

I wonder, though, if this first of these statements is empirically true.  Telemann, Haydn, and Schubert were all tremendously prolific composers, without the "benefit" of copyright.  In fact, one might suppose that many creators would use income from copyrighted works as an incentive not to create.  Why, if you've got a steady stream of income from having written, say, "We've Only Just Begun," would you want to spend your time trying to create new songs?  (Instead, like Paul Williams, you could become the head of ASCAP and fight to squeeze very last penny out of the music you've already created.)

Post is certainly correct, however, that copyright law as it currently stands works against the public good in a case like the Savory collection. He writes:
...[T]he potential copyright liability that could attach to redistribution of these recordings is so large — and, more importantly, so uncertain — that there may never be a public distribution of the recordings. Tracking down all the parties who may have a copyright interest in these performances, and therefore an entitlement to royalty payments (or to enjoining their distribution), is a monumental, and quite possibly an impossible, task, and it may well be that nobody steps forward with the resources to (a) undertake the efforts required and (b) take on the risk of liability. Because copyright is a “property,” rather than a “liability” regime, you can’t just go ahead with redistribution, wait for those who have an interest to surface and prove their interest and then to pay them their fair share of the proceeds — copyright holders get injunctions, and injunctions mean they can “hold you up” for far more than their “fair share” of the proceeds. (The egregiously high statutory damage provisions of the Copyright Act, which provide for damages far in excess of any actual damage suffered, also serve an in terrorem function here for anyone considering taking on this task).

It’s not just that copyright protection lasts absurdly long, still protecting recordings made more than seventy years ago; it’s that copyright, inherently, operates to the detriment of the public when applied in retrospect, to works that have already been created. Lester Young, alas, can no longer be incentivized to produce these performances — they’ve already been created. We won’t get any more brilliant performances by Teddy Wilson if we protect these works. All we — the public — get from applying copyright here is a restriction on our ability to encounter magnificent works of art. Now of course, copyright is only ever applied in retrospect, and if we always ignored it when applied to already-existing works it would cease to exist, and would therefore no longer serve its incentivizing function prospectively.
Via Mike Masnick at Techdirt, who makes the additional point that "sound recordings are locked away for much longer than other copyrighted works due to some quirks in copyright law" (see his post on that topic here).

Masnick also points to an article (available at the Social Science Research Network) by Sean Flynn, "Using Competition Law to Promote Access to Knowledge." The basic idea is that (in Masnick's words) "antitrust laws cold be useful in stopping abuses of intellectual property law." Masnick is not convinced this will work, but it looks like an interesting idea.

Of course, it would be a lot simpler if we just changed copyright law so that it didn't promote seemingly endless monopolies, monopolies that often belong to people or institutions that had nothing to do with the creative work.


John Timmer has an interesting article at ars technica on 10 top technology companies, how they got to be top, and what their current state promises for the future.  The companies are Microsoft, Apple, IBM, Google, Cisco Systems, Oracle, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Samsung, and Qualcomm. This paragraph particularly caught my eye in the section on Apple (emphasis added):
Apple tends to focus on unit sales of each of its major products—desktops, portables, iPods, iPads, and iPhones—but its 10-Q form contains a section with dollar figures on these (for its most recent quarter, it was on page 35). Desktops brought in $1.3 billion, laptops $3.1 billion, and iPods $1.5 billion. Two mind-blowing numbers: iPhones and related services were $5.3 billion, over a third of the company's revenue; and the iPad is already worth over $2 billion. Music products and services kicked in another $1.2 billion, and peripherals and software a few hundred million.


So just how do we get those pretty fMRI pictures of the brain anyway?

Back on 24 May, Neuroskeptic had a great post, "fMRI in 1000 Words," which explained in plain and (relatively) simple language how fMRI scanners work, and what it is that they detect.

Neuroskeptic now follows up with an equally great post, "fMRI Analysis in 1000 Words," which explains in plain and simple language how the data from an fMRI is turned into a pretty picture.

A must-read, especially for those of you who thought that an fMRI was somehow just taking a kind of "snapshot" of the brain.  It's much much complicated than that, and there are many assumptions and a great deal of data massage that happen along the way.

Jason Goldman at Child's Play continues his series on developmental dyscalculia with a post on the "The Neurobiology of Mathematics."  This series is recommended if you're interested at all in the topic (and any teacher should be).  This is one of the things that science blogging can potentially do much better than ordinary science journalism:  Goldman's series is, in effect, a review article in installments, and an excellent introduction to the subject.

Goldman adds yet another companion piece at his other blog, The Thoughtful Animal, this one on small number representation in humans and other species.  Again, a good introduction to recent work in the field.  (Some of the work done in this field, and two of the articles surveyed by Goldman, are from Marc Hauser's lab; one wonders if this work will hold up under the renewed scrutiny that it is likely to receive. And one suspects that the level of trust for Hauser's work is likely to plummet across the board in any case.)

Mark Changizi at Changizi Blog writes on what he calls "idea mongers" (those who are unusually productive of new ideas), and how they get to be that way.

It isn't genius.  He writes:
“Genius” is a fiction. It is a throw-back to antiquity, where scientists of the day had the bad habit of “explaining” some phenomenon by labeling it as having some special essence. The idea of “the genius” is imbued with a special, almost magical quality. Great ideas just pop into the heads of geniuses in sudden eureka moments; geniuses make leaps that are unfathomable to us, and sometimes even to them; geniuses are qualitatively different; geniuses are special.

While most people labeled as a genius are probably somewhat smart, most smart people don’t get labeled as geniuses.

I believe that it is because there are no geniuses, not, at least, in the qualitatively-special sense. Instead, what makes some people better at idea-mongering is their style, their philosophy, their manner of hunting ideas.
So what is the key to being a successful idea-monger?
Being aloof – from people, from money, from tools, and from oneself – endows one’s brain with amplified creativity. Being aloof turns an obsessive, conservative, social, scheming status-seeking brain into a bubbly, dynamic brain that resembles in many respects a creative community of individuals.

Being a successful idea-hunter requires understanding the field (whether science, art or technology), but acquiring the skill of idea-hunting itself requires taking active measures to “break out” from the ape brains evolution gave us, by being aloof.
As someone with perhaps more than my share of ideas (some of then even successful), this does seem to me to get at an important truth about my own experience.

(Of course, this aloofness—or let's say "detachment"—from the institutional structures with which I was supposed to be engaging is one of the principal reasons I find myself in my current situation, unemployed and broke.)

Not coincidentally, Aloof is the title of the book Changizi is currently working on.


ScienceNow reports on a new study in Nature that tests the theory that cooperative breeding (when members of a group help others to raise young) can arise most readily, evolutionarily speaking, when there is strong monogamy in the breeding pairs.

The article is:
Charlie K. Cornwallis, et al. (2010), "Promiscuity and the evolutionary transition to complex societies," Nature. The article is behind a paywall, and costs $32.00.
Here is the abstract:
Theory predicts that the evolution of cooperative behaviour is favoured by low levels of promiscuity leading to high within-group relatedness. However, in vertebrates, cooperation often occurs between non-relatives and promiscuity rates are among the highest recorded. Here we resolve this apparent inconsistency with a phylogenetic analysis of 267 bird species, demonstrating that cooperative breeding is associated with low promiscuity; that in cooperative species, helping is more common when promiscuity is low; and that intermediate levels of promiscuity favour kin discrimination. Overall, these results suggest that promiscuity is a unifying feature across taxa in explaining transitions to and from cooperative societies.

James Winters at a replicated typo points to a new (or at least newly refurbished) blog, culture evolves!, by Fiona Jordan, an evolutionary anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics.  I've subscribed.


Understanding Society has an interesting post on the importance for historians of understanding economics. The post discusses the book Economics and the Historian (1996), edited by Thomas Rawksi.  The post makes a good case that this is still a relevant read.


Stephanie Bunbury at The Age writes on a retrospective at the Locarno Film Festival of the comedies of Ernst Lubitsch, director of Ninotchka and To Be or Not to Be, among many others.  A quote:
Ernst Lubitsch was a German Jew who had his start as an actor, joining the great Max Reinhardt's company in 1911. By the end of the First World War he was at the forefront of the burgeoning German film industry; by 1922 he was in Hollywood at the invitation of Mary Pickford.

"Lubitsch came from Berlin," says Joseph McBride, an American academic who curated the Locarno program, "at a time when it was full of gay clubs and lesbian bars; it was a time of sexual experimentation. Then he comes to Hollywood, which was and is a puritanical world, and showed a way of dealing with more mature adult sexuality on screen without being judgmental."

How he did this, especially after the Hays Code of censorship introduced in 1930, was the thing that intrigued and awed colleagues such as Wilder. "One of the censors said, 'Lubitsch is frustrating because you know what he's saying but you can't figure out how he's saying it, so you can't cut anything out,'" laughs McBride. "It's all very oblique and suggestive." Through flourishes collectively known as "the Lubitsch touch", he could make a shut door, or the widening eyes of a couple of canoodling servants watching their mistress through a window, speak volumes. "He was a master at getting away with things.
I've watched several Lubitsch films over the past two or three years, including The Love Parade (one of the earliest film musicals), Monte Carlo, The Smiling Lieutenant, That Uncertain Feeling, To Be or Not to Be, and Heaven Can Wait. Even those that are lightweight confections are well-crafted and witty entertainment.  To Be or Not to Be is a minor masterpiece, and the last film of the wonderful Carole Lombard.

Arts Education

James Bradshaw at The Globe and Mail writes on a Canadian volunteer initiative called Artbound, which is "committed to putting arts back into global curricula." Their first project is to build a dedicated arts school in Kenya's Maasai Mara region.  Countries on the list for future schools include Haiti, India, and China.  (China?)

The rationale for starting with Kenya:
In 2003, arts education suffered a major setback in Kenya even as the Kenyan government took a major step forward for education. The government made primary education mandatory and free – but cut arts programs as non-priorities. And while Free the Children has built some 650 schools worldwide, 70 of them in Kenya, none provide targeted arts education.
Two questions:
—What are going to count as "arts" in these schools?  Is there going to be an emphasis on "Western"/European art?

—When are they going to put the U.S. on their list of disadvantaged countries where art education has been slashed?
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