25 August 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.08.24

Tuesday: on anonymity, in comments and in peer review; Harvard no longer requires final exams (and why this is a good thing); a "discussion" of experimental philosophy; a struggle over an unretouched photo of Jennifer Aniston; new Mendelssohn letters; Brian Wilson reimagines Gershwin; songwriter George David Weiss has died; a new survey of proposed causes of Mozart's death; a review of "Close Examination—Fakes, Mistakes & Discoveries" at the National Gallery in London; the ventious craptests pounted raditally.


Last week I linked to Melody Dye's post at Child's Play (inspired by the breaking of the Marc Hauser story) on the politics and potential for corruption in peer review.

She published a new post on Tuesday motivated by the "fairly vicious attacks" to which her earlier post had been subjected, both in the comments to that first post, and on other blogs. (The published comments on the post as of today do not seem particularly vicious, and in fact most are reasoned and supportive. Perhaps Dye has blocked the more vicious ones?)

She writes that "all of the nastiest comments I’ve received have been anonymous."  Some quotes:
In a very important sense, there is an aspect of ‘civility’ that can be lost in anonymity.  Our social and culture mores about what one does and doesn’t say can be all too blithely ignored; writing or commenting, we can forget what is kind, what is respectful, and what is warranted.  We write fearlessly because there is no retribution worth fearing.  But we also write recklessly, for the same reason.


Another place where anonymity is harmful is in peer review.  The review process demands a form of testimony and expert evaluation that should be understood in personal and contextual terms, but usually isn’t.  Instead, the content of reviews is often taken at face value by editors, as if something ‘objective’ has thereby been communicated.


It is my own view that anonymous review has effectively created a publishing environment that runs counter to the goals of science, and that all reviewers should sign their reviews, and that all reviews of accepted articles should be made available online following publication, as was originally done at PLoS ONE.  This would allow for a great deal more transparency in the process and would give the scientific community at large the power to serve as a check on that process.
Dye admits this is an "extreme view" (although I am inclined to agree with it).  But she begins with what she describes as a "milder proposition":
That the priviledge [sic] of being anonymous in the review process should be automatically revoked post-tenure.

Anonymity in review is put in place – at least in theory – to shield young, untenured professors from the vindictiveness of their more senior colleagues.  By design, then, it is meant to correct for the imbalances in a political power structure.  The problem is that when tenured professors are allowed to submit unsigned reviews, the inverse difficulty can arise.  Using their stature as a blank check, senior academics can be as abusive as they like in review, both because their anonymity protects them, and because their seniority entitles them.  If a pet theory is threatened by a younger scientist, they can use their influence to check or block that work coming out, particularly in high status, broad readership journals.
And that is absolutely right....and it applies not only to peer review, but also to letters of recommendation, hiring and tenure decisions, and the evaluation of grant and fellowship proposals. Dye continues:
Of course, the entire process is designed to protect young scientists from the politiking of older scientists.  But in fact, the structure breeds a highly politicized climate, in which – ‘protections’ in place – researchers feel free to be as machiavellian as they dare.  In such a clime, personal charisma and unchecked ruthlessness can serve as ciphers for good science, particularly among the elite.
(Don't miss Dye's footnote 4, which discusses the recent "wars" over the "Marc Hauser" page at Wikipedia, where as of Wednesday morning, the discussion of the "allegations of scientific misconduct" against Hauser take up over 800 words of what is roughly 1100 words in the main text of the article.)

Jonathan Zimmerman has an opinion piece at The Christian Science Monitor on the decision by Harvard earlier this year to stop requiring courses (without an explicitly approved opt out) to conclude with a final exam, a decision that has apparently occasioned a good deal of public controversy (which I had so far missed). Zimmerman supports Harvard's decision:
Final examinations reflect an antiquated and largely discredited theory of learning, which equates knowledge with factual recall. By discouraging exams, then, Harvard is hardly forsaking academic rigor. Instead, it’s clearing the way for a more engaging, challenging, and truly educative college experience.

The Human

The New York Times has just published a "discussion" on experimental philosophy.  Participants include Joshua Knobe, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Tim Maudlin, Timothy Williamson, Brian Leiter, and Ernest SosaI haven't had time to read this yet, but it will obviously be of interest to some of my readers.  As with previous "discussions" at the NYT, this seems actually to be a collection of separate short essays with minimal interaction (but keep in mind that I haven't read them yet).

Image and Identity

On 19 August, Jezebel published several high-resolution unretouched photos of Jennifer Aniston.  Only one of these photos remains, and only at low resolution: it shows Aniston wearing a bulky white sweater on a beach; her skin is tanned, weathered, and freckled, and she has facial lines consistent with someone of her age. The accompanying text suggests that the photos may be an outtake from a photoshoot for a piece on Aniston in Harpers Bazaar in 2006 when she was 36 or 37 (she was born on 11 February 1969). The photo at Jezebel is accompanied by a cover photo, obviously heavily Photoshopped (obvious even if one hasn't seen the unretouched photo) from Madison magazine (Australia) that would appear to be from the same shoot, although it is not the same photo (although, admittedly, what counts as "the same" in the world of Photoshopped images is debatable).

On 20 August, Jezebel published an e-mail exchange that began with a cease-and-desist notice that Jezebel had received that day from Joan Cargill of Management + Artists + Organization, whose watermark is on the unretouched photo.  Jesscia Coen of Jezebel, in her first response mentions taking down the multiple images that had originally been posted, but explains why Jezebel has retained a single small version of an unretouched photo, accompanied by the heavily retouched Madison cover; Coen writes:
One of Jezebel's most significant areas of interest is the Photoshopping of women who appear in magazines, catalogs, or in any other publication. It's an important factor that shapes the beauty standard, and it affects how women view themselves, for better or worse. As such, the peg of the post is how Jennifer Aniston looks pre-Photoshop, and I think you can agree that a small image falls under fair use since the existence of these images is indeed news. It's the peg of the item.
The rest of the exchange is worth reading.

Coen followed up on Monday with a post explaining in more details Jezebel's position. Her post begins:
There's a reason we're fighting to keep this unretouched image of Aniston on our website. And it's not just because we like her freckles.

Just to make sure we're all on the same page here: We're not picking a fight when we show images that have been crazily Photoshopped, or when we show you before-and-after shots of celebrities. We're not pulling some tabloidian "see celebrities without makeup!" or "look who has cellulite!" shtick. This is about the fucked-up imagery that is consistently and persistently gracing newsstands as the beauty standard to which we should all aspire.
And later in the same post:
And as long as we're on the topic of bullshit: the degree to which the female-targeted media industrial complex wants to keep these images away from you is shameful. To argue, as did the agency demanding that we remove the above image of Aniston, that it's the before images — those showing Jen with actual texture to her skin (god forbid) — that are the ones which are manipulated is an insulting leap of logic, one that assumes that other media professionals still believe that in real life a celebrity looks as fabulous as she does on a magazine cover (and I should note, the original hi-res images that we took down make a good case for the pics being real, even if the lighting is horrid).
Mike Masnick at Techdirt has also written on the story here.


Jan Brachmann at FAZ.NET reports (auf Deutsch) that the library of the Hochschule für Musik und Theater and the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum in Leipzig have bought, through Sotheby's in London, two bundles of drafts of letters by Felix Mendelssohn, amounting to 28 pages in all, from the years 1839 and 1840.  The letters provide new insight into Mendelssohn's dealings with the Leipzig city authorities in his role as Kapellmeister of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, including his negotiations for a rise in the salaries of the orchestra's musicians. Another document now at the Hochschule contains a draft proposal (directed to King Friedrich August II of Saxony) for the establishment of the Leipzig Konservatorium, which became the first such conservatory in Germany.

Ryan Raul Banagale at Amusicology has a review of the recently released CD Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin (a complete stream of the album is currently available here).

He writes:
Although there are some moments I find a bit trying (Was “I Loves You Porgy” really necessary?), on the whole I find album catchy, engaging, and delightfully well arranged.
Based on the clips embedded in the Amusicology post, I find it on a level with the most irritating supermarket music (with occasional touches of "Good Vibrations"-style vocal harmony and instrumentation).

The post ends:
In an NPR interview with On Point host Tom Ashbrook, Wilson declared:  “It was universally accepted that [Gershwin] was the greatest musical originator in the history of music.”  Although I don’t disagree, there are some that would say Wilson oversteps here.  There are others who would say the same about Wilson.  I don’t think I’d disagree with that either.  In either case, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin presents the music of both innovators in a new light and to a new generation.
It's difficult to see how one could not disagree with the statement that Gershwin (or Wilson) was "the greatest musical originator in the history of music."  I have loved much of Gershwin's music for most of my life, and he was certainly a creative original.  But "the greatest musical originator"?  Greater than, say, Beethoven? Or Chopin? Or Ellington?  Or.....well, you get the point.

Songwriter George David Weiss died on Monday at the age of 89; see the obituary by Dave Laing in The Guardian. His best known song (co-written with Bob Thiele) is "What a Wonderful World," recorded in 1968 by Louis Armstrong. Weiss also wrote words to George Shearing's "Lullaby of Birdland," and is (along with Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore) responsible for "Can't Help Falling in Love," sung by Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii, and based on the tune "Plaisir d'Amour" written in 1780 by Jean Paul Égide Martini.

(The Wikipedia article on "Plaisir d'Amour" points out an odd bit of trivia: Montgomery Clift plays and sings this song in William Wyler's The Heiress (1949), which I watched a couple of years ago.)

Weiss also co-wrote the music and lyrics for First Impressions, a 1959 musical based on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, which thankfully ran for only 84 performances. The Wikipedia article provides a list of the principal songs:
  • "Five Daughters" (Mrs. Bennet)
  • "I'm Me" (Elizabeth and her sisters)
  • "Rumor" (Mrs. Bennet and company)
  • "A Perfect Evening" (Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy)
  • "As Long As There's A Mother" (Mrs. Bennet and her daughters)
  • "Love Will Find Out the Way" (Elizabeth)
  • "Gentlemen Don't Fall Wildly In Love" (Mr. Darcy)
  • "Fragrant Flower" (Rev. Collins and Elizabeth)
  • "What a Day to Fall in Love" (Jane Bennet, Mr. Bingley, and company)
  • "Agreeable" (Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy)
  • "This Really Isn't Me" (Elizabeth)
  • "A Simply Lovely Wedding" (Charlotte Lucas, Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth, and company)
  • "A House In Town" (Mrs. Bennet)
  • "The Heart Has Won the Game" (Mr. Darcy)
  • "Let's Fetch the Carriage" (Mrs. Bennet and Elizabeth)
It is difficult to imagine why anyone ever thought this was a good idea.

Daniel J. Wakin at The New York Times summarizes a new article by retired orthopedic surgeon William J. Dawson that surveying 136 publications on the cause of Mozart's death. Wakin quotes Dawson:
Reviewing the publications on this topic finds many of them to be confusing, complicated, conjectural and contentious...
Which is an understatement, it seems to me.

Dawson divides theories of Mozart's death into five groups: poisoning, infection, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and miscellaneous (he that bloodletting may also have played a role).

The article is:
William J. Dawson, "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—Controversies Regarding His Illnesses and Death: A Biobliographic Review," Medical Problems of Performing Artists.  The article is behind a paywall, and costs $15.00 for 7 days access.
Here is the abstract:
More has been written about Mozart's illnesses and death than for any other composer. An exploration of PAMA's Bibliography of Performing Arts Medicine provides the data for this review. The bibliography contained 136 entries that pertained to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Of these, 81 were available to the author, either in printed or electronic copy. In order to provide a clearer historical perspective on this topic, this review assembles information pertaining to illnesses and other medical problems that occurred during Mozart¿s life as well as those purportedly contributing to his death.


Marion Löhndorf at NZZ Online reviews (auf Deutsch) the exhibition "Close Examination—Fakes, Mistakes & Discoveries," at the National Gallery in London (through 12 September 2010). The exhibition examines techniques used to authenticate paintings, such as infrared reflectography, microscopic examination of pigments, and dendrochronology. According to Löhndorf, the exhibition presents an uncritically positive view of such techniques; there is no mention, for example (as Löhndorf points out), of Paul Biro, whose authentication of paintings through fingerprint analysis is now under heavy suspicion of being generally fraudulent. (On Biro, see my Digest for 5 July 2010.)

None of the approximately 40 paintings in the exhibition is highlighted for itself, but each serves rather as the center of a "detective story." Löhndorf cites as an example the "Madonna of the Pinks" (Madonna mit den Nelken) by Raphael, a painting thought to have survived only in copies until National Gallery director Nicholas Penny had an examination made of a painting in a castle in Northumberland that showed evidence consistent with Raphael's "authorship."

Löhndorf also offers a pointed criticism of the exhibition's failure to examine the central role played by money in driving the enterprise of authentication and forgery.

"Madonna of the Pinks," attrib. Raphael (National Gallery)


Ben Zimmer at Language Log has an entertaining post on sentences made up of nonsense words that include ordinary inflectional morphemes, allowing the sentences to be parsed gramatically. 

A classic example, first discussed in a 1957 book by Colin Cherry is:  The ventious craptests pounted raditally.

Any competent speaker of English can effortlessly parse this as (Det) Adjective Noun Verb Adverb.

Cherry also gave a potential "translation" into French:  Les crapêts ventieux pontaient raditallement.

The sentence has continued to have a life in the literature on language.  In 1968, Helmut Seiffert offered a German version: Die wenten Krapetten ponteten radital.

Commenters to Zimmer's post offer additional "translations":

Italian:  I crapesti ventiosi pontarono raditalmente
Spanish: Los crapestos ventiosos pontaron raditamente

Zimmer's post also discusses translations of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky," and he ends with a Hulu link (apparently watchable only in the U.S.) to a classic Simpsons clip: a school documentary film on the origin of Jebediah Springfield's "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man." (After the film concludes, Mrs. Hoover tells a skeptical Mrs. Krabappel that "embiggens" is a "perfectly cromulent word.")
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