21 August 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.08.20

Friday: Should we be interested in "saving" any industry?; Darnton reviews Lewis Hyde's Common as Air; a slidecast on Open Access; the importance of P vs NP; a new science blogs meta-aggregator; Big Think; the charlatan behind the western approach to acupuncture; radioactive boars are a real problem; how a "dead" gene causes a form of muscular dystrophy; the science of the root beer float; the relative contribution of genes and environment to schizophrenia; why meanings must be fuzzy; Jane Austen's punctuation; Jewish Life in Argentina (an exhibition); "Explaining Religion" (a conference); what did Classical sculptures look like painted?; scams in the art market; the 10 best sci-fi films (a debate); The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies; "I am the Knave, man"; CleanHaven; web site advice for arts organizations.

Creative Rights

Mike Masnick at Techdirt asks: "Should We Be Interested in "Saving" Any Industry?" He writes:
The truth is, whenever anyone seriously (not mockingly) refers to "saving" an industry, invariably, they're really talking about saving a few legacy companies in that industry from whatever disruptive innovation is shaking things up. It's never actually about "saving an industry," because the "industry" almost never actually needs to be saved. The industry may be in the process of being changed (often radically), but that's not the same thing as needing saving.

What's telling is that, through all of this, you almost never hear start-ups talking about asking for help trying to "save the industry" that they're in. That's because they know "the industry" is just fine, and in all of the upheaval there's really tremendous opportunity.

Robert Darnton at the NYT reviews Lewis Hyde's new book, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership. Hyde is the author of the classic The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, originally published in 1983.

Mike Masnick at Techdirt links to another review.

McBlawg 3.0 links to a slide cast of a talk given by Jonathan Eisen, professor at UC Davis and Editor in Chief of PLoS Biology, "A personal perspective on open access publishing."  I'm listening to this as I finish up this post; it's highly recommended for anyone interested in Open Access.

I'm particularly interested in his capsule history of PLoS, as I investigate the idea of starting a similar journal for the humanities.

Computer Science

John Pavius has a good article at Technology Review on the importance of P vs NP.  (Via Maggie Koerth-Baker at BoingBoing)

Earlier this month, Vinay Deolalikar's purported proof that P≠NP got quite a lot of attention, both from journalists and specialists.  The current consensus is (according to Pavius) that the proof is flawed.  But even so, pretty much everyone believes that P≠NP.  Pavius quotes MIT computer scientist Scott Aaronson as saying: "There are good reasons why very few people believe that P equals NP .... If it did, we'd be living in a fundamentally different universe, and we'd probably have noticed by now."

[Since no one seems to mention this in the press reports, I'll mention that P and NP are "complexity classes."  Problems in complexity class P can be solved by a computer using an algorithm that runs in "polynomial time" (hence the "P"), which means, informally, "relatively quickly" (where "relatively quickly" may still mean a very long time, depending on your computing power).  For problems in class NP, on the other hand, it can be shown that the answer can be verified in polynomial time, but there may not be a known way to find that answer "quickly."]


Jason Goldman at The Thoughtful Animal points to the brand-new meta-aggregator scienceblogging, which has just been set up by Anton Zuiker, Bora Zivkovic, and Dave Munger.  The site (as it describes itself on its "About" page):
...will aggregate RSS feeds from all the major (and some minor) science blogging networks, group blogs, aggregators and services. As the site develops further, it will also encompass other online (and offline) science communication efforts, including Twitter feeds, links to major scientific journals and magazines, ScienceOnline annual conference, and the Open Laboratory annual anthology of the best writing on science, nature and medical blogs.
As of today, there are 53 feeds on the main page (including several in languages other than English, I'm happy to report)....which means that one has to do a lot of skimming to find anything.  So I hope they develop some kind of search or categorized browsing.  But there's a lot here I wasn't aware of, and it will be interesting to explore.

Paul Raeburn at Knight Science Journalism Tracker writes on Big Think, a site that is not very accurately described by a phrase that has made the rounds, "YouTube for smart people." 

It's a little difficult to peg exactly what it is (perhaps rather like this blog):  it's a little bit online magazine (it has a weekly e-mail newsletter), a little bit science blog network (with science rather generously defined, which is okay by me), a little bit intellectual digest (a feuilleton!).

I've recently cited a couple of items from Big Think (here and here), but hadn't subscribed...until now.  The site has two separate RSS feeds: "Big Think Interviews and Blogs" (it's the video interviews that gave rise to the YouTube comparison), and "Big Think Daily Idea Feed" (which consists of links to interesting stories elsewhere). This last has already turned up some items for today's Digest.

Raeburn's take on Big Think is generally positive, with some mild caveats.

Sascha Karberg at Knight Science Journalism Tracker summarizes an article in the Süddeutsches Zeitung by Hanjo Lehmann, head of the German Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine, on George Soulié de Morant (1878-1955), the French "father" of western-style acupuncture, who was apparently a fraud and a charlatan. Karberg writes:
The article explains Soulié de Morant’s fraud in detail, starting with his name – he himself added the aristocratic “de Morant”. Although he writes, that he spoke Chinese, when he arrived in China in 1901 (only 23 years old!), there is no hint, that he ever studied Chinese or lived with Chinese people. Also his rank as viceconsul and judge seems implausible, because he never visited any university or diplomatic school. Regarding acupuncture, Soulié de Morant describes, that he first saw and practiced the technique himself during a cholera outbreak in Bejing in 1901 – unfortunately, no records of such an outbreak at that time exist. These and dozens of more inconsistencies are interesting, but what consequences do they have for “modern” acupuncture therapies? Well, Soulié de Morant’s fiction and misconceptions not only found their way into but are the basis of current acupuncture protocols, the official course book of acupuncture of the German physician association “Bundesärztekammer”.
Lehmann's article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung is "West-östlicher Scharlatan." It is a shortened version of a longer article by Lehmann, "Akupunktur im Westen: Am Anfang ware ein Scharlatan," in the Deutsches Arzteblatt.

Two weeks ago I mentioned an "intriguing" sentence in Der Spiegel about German government compensation to hunters for lost income due to radioactive boars.

It turns out that radioactive boars are, indeed, a serious problem in Germany. The truffles and mushrooms on which boars in Southern German feed are still contaminated by radioactive fallout from Chernobyl.  Andrew Moseman at 80beats reports (with links to other press coverage). According to Moseman:
...the German government.... pays hunters for the discarded meat when it’s too radioactive to eat, hoping the financial reward will keep people from consuming it. The country’s bill has grown more than tenfold in the last decade, up to more than $550,000 last year.

Gina Kolata at The New York Times has an outstanding story (clear yet not dumbed down) on an important discovery published this week in Science, showing that a common form of muscular dystrophy (FSHD, facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy) is caused by a "dead" gene (in what is often called "junk DNA," of which our genome is full) that comes "back to life" under very particular circumstances.

The article is:
Richard J. L. F. Lemmers, et al. (2010), "A Unifying Genetic Model for Facioscapulohumeral Muscular Dystrophy," Science, published online 19 August 2010.  The article is behind a paywall, and costs $15.00.
Boyce Rensberger surveys this and other press reports on the discovery at Knight Science Journalism Tracker.

Hank Campbell at Science 2.0 writes that 19 August was the birthday of the root beer float ("black cow"), one of my favorite treats when I was a kid. Campbell explains how to make root beer, and writes:
The "black cow", a root beer float, is attributed to Cripple Creek, Colorado on this day in 1893.  Frank J. Wisner, it is said, owner of the Cripple Creek Cow Mountain Gold Mining Company, had also been making sodas for people but wanted something for kids so he mixed ice cream with his favorite root beer and the legend was born.


Neuroskeptic has a good summary of a new paper that examines the relative contribution of genes and environment to schizophrenia.  The study is based on an analysis of all births in Sweden between 1955 and 1984 that led to adoption. In most cases, an adopted child is not genetically related to the adoptive parents; thus if we know the mental health status of the child's biological parents, and the stresses of the adoptive environment in which the child was raised, we should be able to tease apart the relative contributions of genetics and environment to the child's own later mental health.

The study is:
Susanne Wicks, et al. (2010), "Social Risk or Genetic Liability for Psychosis? A Study of Children Bron in Sweden and Reared by Adoptive Parents," American Journal of Psychiatry.  The article is behind a paywall, and costs $15.00 for 24-hour access.

Sean Roberts at a replicated typo continues with parts 3 and 4 of his series on the evolution of color terms: "Perceptual Constraints" and "Learning Constraints."

Mark Changizi at Science 2.0 writes on "Why Meanings Must Be Fuzzy." A quote:
Nearly every word in natural language is vague, from ‘person’ and ‘coercion’ in ethics, ‘object’ and ‘red’ in physical science, ‘dog’ and ‘male’ in biology, to ‘chair’ and ‘plaid’ in interior decorating. Vagueness is the rule, not the exception. Pick any natural language word you like, and you will almost surely be able to concoct a case -- perhaps an imaginary case -- where it is unclear to you whether or not the word applies.
Changizi argues that this vagueness is an inevitable consequence of the computational nature of what the brain in doing when it decides whether or not a word is applicable in a any particular instance.

I'm skeptical of this way of looking at the problem, but don't have time at the moment to go into the reasons in more detail.

Changizi's post is adapted from his "The Brain from 25000 feet" (2003).

The Human

A story from The Times (reproduced at The Australian, where it is not behind a paywall) discusses the lack of punctuation in the surviving manuscript draft of two chapters of Jane Austen's Persuasion. The manuscript will be on display in the exhibition "Evolving English," opening at the British Library in November.

According to the Times story:
The show's curator, Roger Walshe, said that Austen's writing was eccentric even by 19th century standards.

"Austen hardly punctuates at all, so what you get is a much more urgent form of language, which becomes more restrained when it is edited," he said.

"There tends to be an awful lot of clauses and sub-clauses. There is the odd comma, but they aren't always in the most rational places. There are no paragraphs."
Most of Austen's manuscripts seem not to have survived, so we may never know the extent to which the punctuation in the first editions of her novels was added by editors working for her publisher, John Murray.

This may seem like a minor matter to some of you but punctuation serves a crucial cognitive function for readers who use it to help chunk significant units of text in a hierarchical way and its obvious that without punctuation long sentences become more difficult even impossible to understand quickly and efficiently.

The Jewish Museum Berlin is currently hosting the exhibition "Jewish Life in Argentina" (Jüdisches Leben in Argentinien) in honor of that nation's bicentennial. There is brief description of the exhibition (auf Deutsch) at the museum's website. The exhibition runs through 10 October.

The University of Bristol is hosting the conference "Explaining Religion" on 2-3 September 2010. The blurb at the conference site reads:
Religious culture has been difficult and contentious to explain - yet real progress is being made in a number of areas. 'Explaining Religion 2010' is an interdisciplinary conference run by the University of Bristol's Department of Philosophy and the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre which aims to integrate approaches. Contributions are welcome from evolutionary theory, philosophy, cognitive science, anthropology, psychology, and related disciplines.
Notable by their absence from the roster of speakers are the (to my mind) most prominent scientific writers on the evolution of religion.  It also seems odd that there is, so far as I can see, no list of paper titles.  You'd think that there would be by this point.


We all know that Classical sculpture was painted, but how can we learn what it looked like?

Esther Inglis-Arkell at io9 summarizes the research, in "Ultraviolet light reveals how ancient Greek statues really looked."

The answer is, apparently, "tacky."

William D. Cohan at the Opinionator Blog at the NYT writes on scams in the art market, abetted by Wall Streeters with way too much money on their hands.  (And please remind me why these people have any money after what they have done to us?)

Cohan refers to the recent story of the "Ansel Adams" negatives (which I have referred to several times in this blog), and also to a story I hadn't known about, "a group of 74 plasters allegedly made from wax and clay sculptures crafted by Edgar Degas" (see Cohan's article on these in ARTnews). These plasters (the authenticity of which is strongly doubted) are being used as the basis for casting new statues that are being sold for high prices.

Cohan points out that these problems can arise because the art market is unregulated, and he writes:
And if that means that the art market needs to fall under the purview of the Federal Reserve at the newly created Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection — which of course no one in the art market will like — then so be it.


Matthew C. Nisbet at Big Think links to a segment of public radio's On Point asking a group of experts to rank the top 10 science fiction films of all time. The experts are A. O. Scott, film critic at the NYT, Analee Newitz of io9, and "physics professor/blogger/novelist" Mike Brotherton.  I haven't listened to the segment, but the top tens of the respective experts are listed on Nisbet's post.

Newitz's list is one I can certainly endorse (even though I haven't seen all of the films on it):
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Star Wars: A New Hope AND Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (tie)
Blade Runner
Terminator 2
Ghost in the Shell (Japanese version)
Teknolust (Lynn Hershman-Leeson)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Honorable Mention: Primer (Shane Carruth)
Astonishingly, the other two lists do not include The Day the Earth Stood Still (she surely means the classic 1951 version) or Blade Runner. To my mind, it isn't possible to take seriously a 10-best list of sci-fi films that doesn't include these.  (Leaving aside the question whether one should take 10-best lists seriously at all.)

2001 seems to be the only film on all three lists.

The most peculiar entry is Godard's Alphaville on Scott's list.  I think this is a film only a professional film critic could love.  And it seems perverse to include Alphaville while excluding The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Fans of The Big Lebowski (and those who have memorized the script) will want to check out The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies, edited by Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe, from Indiana University Press.  Only $24.95 in paperback.  Here is the Table of Contents:
Introduction / Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe
Part 1. Ins (Intrinsic Models and Influences)
1. The Really Big Sleep: Jeffrey Lebowski as the Second Coming of Rip Van Winkle / Fred Ashe
2. A Once and Future Dude: The Big Lebowski as Medieval Grail-Quest / Andrew Rabin
3. Dudespeak: Or, How to Bowl like a Pornstar / Justus Nieland
4. Metonymic Hats and Metaphoric Tumbleweeds: Noir Literary Aesthetics in Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski / Christopher Raczkowski
5. The Dude and the New Left / Stacy Thompson
6. The Big Lebowski and Paul de Man: Historicizing Irony and Ironizing Historicism / Joshua Kates
7. Lebowski and the Ends of Postmodern American Comedy / Matthew Biberman
8. Found Document: The Stranger’s Commentary and a Note on His Method / Thomas B. Byers
9. No Literal Connection: Mass Commodification, U.S. Militarism, and the Oil Industry in The Big Lebowski / David Martin-Jones
10. "I’ll Keep Rolling Along": Some Notes on Singing Cowboys and Bowling Alleys in The Big Lebowski / Edward P. Comentale
Part 2. Outs (Eccentric Activities and Behaviors)
11. What Condition the Postmodern Condition Is In: Collecting Culture in The Big Lebowski / Allan Smithee
12. Holding Out Hope for the Creedence: Music and the Search for the Real Thing in The Big Lebowski / Diane Pecknold
13. "Fuck It, Let's Go Bowling": The Cultural Connotations of Bowling in The Big Lebowski / Bradley D. Clissold
14. LebowskIcons: The Rug, The Irong Lung, The Tiki Bar, and Busby Berkeley / Dennis Hall and Susan Grove Hall
15. On the White Russian / Craig N. Owens
16. Professor Dude: An Inquiry into the Appeal of His Dudeness for Contemporary College Students / Richard Gaughran
17. Abiding (as) Animal: Marmot, Pomeranian, Whale, Dude / David Pagano
18. Logjammin’ and Gutterballs: Masculinities in The Big Lebowski / Dennis Allen
19. Size Matters / Judith Roof
20. Brunswick = Fluxus / Aaron Jaffe
21. Enduring and Abiding / Jonathan Elmer
Endnote: The Goofy and the Profound: A Non-Academic's Perspective on the Lebowski Achievement / William Preston Robertson
Works Cited
List of Contributors

And that gives me an excuse to plug my favorite parody of the past year, by Adam Bertocci, "Two Gentlemen of Lebowski," which (as you might guess) is The Big L rewritten in the style of Shakespeare.  (It may only make sense if you've seen the movie.  But if you haven't, why not?)

When I first saw this in January, it was freely available, but it looks as if Bertocci is having it published (and more power, wealth, and glory to him). 

Here is the beginning of Act I Scene i from the copy I downloaded in January:

[THE KNAVE's house. Enter THE KNAVE, carrying parcels, and two THUGS. They fight]

Whither the money, Lebowski? Faith, we are servants of Bonnie; promised by the lady
good that thou in turn were good for’t.

Bound in honour, we must have our bond; cursed be our tribe if we forgive thee.

Let us soak him in the commode, so as to turn his head.

Aye, and see what vapourises; then he will see what is foul.
[They insert his head into the commode]

What dreadful noise of waters in thine ears! Thou hast cooled thine head; think now upon drier matters.

Speak now on ducats else again we’ll thee duckest; whither the money, Lebowski?

Faith, it awaits down there someplace; prithee let me glimpse again.

What, thou rash egg! Thus will we drown thine exclamations.
[They again insert his head into the commode]

Trifle not with the fury of two desperate men. Long has thy wife sealed a bond with
Jaques Treehorn; as blood is to blood, surely thou owest to Jaques Treehorn in

Rise, and speak wisely, man—but hark;
I see thy rug, as woven i’the Orient,
A treasure from abroad. I like it not.
I’ll stain it thus; ever thus to deadbeats.

[He stains the rug]

Sir, prithee nay!

Now thou seest what happens, Lebowski, when the agreements of honourable business
stand compromised. If thou wouldst treat money as water, flowing as the gentle rain from
heaven, why, then thou knowest water begets water; it will be a watery grave your rug,
drowned in the weeping brook. Pray remember, Lebowski.

Thou err’st; no man calls me Lebowski. Yet thou art man; neither spirit damned nor
wandering shadow, thou art solid flesh, man of woman born. Hear rightly, man!—for thou
hast got the wrong man. I am the Knave, man; Knave in nature as in name.
If thou askest kindly, thou may'st have the balance from me.


One of the minor technical problems in preparing these blog posts is the need to clean excess returns from chunks of text quoted from other web pages. I had been using Text Wrangler for this, which worked fine, but didn't seem to be a particularly efficient solution.

On Friday, by way of FreeMacWare, I found CleanHaven, which is devoted entirely to this kind of clean up.  It seems to eliminate a couple of clicks and window switches in my process of cleaning quoted material, so it has immediately become a standard part of my work flow.


Lisa Hirsch at Iron Tongue of Midnight has a great post on "Web Site Basics" for arts organizations (there have been several short follow-ups after the main post, as she continues to think of new things).

The post is motivated by the recognition (certainly true) that the websites of many arts organizations (symphonies, art museums, etc.) are so poorly designed from the standpoint of the user that they tend to drive away potential ticket buyers.
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  1. Solaris from Andrew Tarkovsky would be in my view a must for the list of 10 best science fiction films

  2. Tarkovsky's "Solaris" has been on my list of films to watch for a while now, but I haven't gotten to it yet.