15 August 2010

Weekend Roundup, 13 to 15 August 2010

This Weekend: More on Marc Hauser; artificial swarm intelligence; the decline of friendship in America; Ruse remembers Hull; disgust as the root of moral sentiment; doubts on the "Ansel Adams" negatives; art as war booty; more candidates for Worst Recording Ever Made (and a scientifically created "Most Unwanted Song"); Watteau saved from oblivion by engravers; a painting prodigy; a documentary on Nazi "documentary" footage of the Warsaw ghetto; Talese on Sinatra; home experiments in cat cognition.



Academia

An article by Nicholas Wade in Friday's New York Times has additional details about the investigation of Harvard's Marc Hauser for research misconduct (for background, see my posts here and here). 

The investigation apparently began three years ago, when hard drives and videos were seized from Hauser's lab.  Wade writes:
Whatever the problems in Dr. Hauser’s lab, they eventually led to an insurrection among his staff, said Michael Tomasello, a psychologist who is co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and shares Dr. Hauser’s interest in cognition and language.
“Three years ago,” Dr. Tomasello said, “when Marc was in Australia, the university came in and seized his hard drives and videos because some students in his lab said, ‘Enough is enough.’ They said this was a pattern and they had specific evidence.”
A faculty committee at Harvard completed a report on the investigation this past January, but the investigation had been secret until the story was broken by The Boston Globe this past week.

Much of Hauser's work in recent years has been based on experiments using a laboratory population of 40 cotton-topped tamarins, a species of New World monkey.  Wade writes:
The captive animals, a colony of some 40 cotton-topped tamarins, may have contributed to the difficulties in Dr. Hauser’s laboratory. It is difficult to get the tamarins to pay attention, especially after the monkeys get used to experimenters.

“With some of these methods it was never clear to me how one could obtain meaningful results,” said a person with experience in Dr. Hauser’s lab, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. “The monkeys were often either jumping around, or not moving at all, and you rarely got the sense of an unambiguous response.”

Other experimental problems have come to light with three articles investigated by the Harvard committee. In two, the supporting data did not exist. Dr. Hauser and a colleague repeated the experiments, and say they got the same results as published. In a third case, Dr. Hauser retracted an article published in the journal Cognition in 2002 but gave the editor no explanation of his reason for doing so.
Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science gives special mention to the coverage of this affair by David Dobbs at Neuron Culture, a blog that I had not previously been following (I've now subscribed). This post at Neuron Culture is a good place to start, but Dobbs has added several posts since.

Mark Liberman at Language Log discusses Wade's new article, with additional comments on the problem of "blind coding" (or, apparently in Hauser's case, the lack of blind coding) in research of the type that Hauser's lab has been doing. Liberman closes that section of his post with the harsh (but perhaps justified) assessment:
My own feeling, for what it's worth, is that spectacular over-interpretation in the service of ambition ought to be as much a cause for concern as tendentious subjective data coding and poor record-keeping.  Putting it cynically, if you invent exciting explanations that are unsupported by relatively pedestrian data, and you still get your papers published in Science and Nature, then maybe it doesn't matter so much whether your results are reproducible or even whether the data ever actually existed.
Perhaps ironically, one of Hauser's principal recent areas of research has been the evolution of morality, an irony highlighted in the title of the post at the Nature blog The Great Beyond:
"Harvard morality researcher investigated for scientific misconduct"



AI

The Economist has a good article on swarm intelligence, and the efforts (many of them successful) of researchers in artificial intelligence to create software modeled on the behavior of ants, birds, and bees.



The Human

Daniel Akst has a thought-provoking essay at The Wilson Quarterly, "America: Land of Loners?"  The essay is about friendship, and its decline in America.  Recommended.



John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts has posted Michael Ruse's memoir of his longtime friend philosopher David Hull, who died this past week.  It includes this lovely paragraph:
We never ever quarreled but rarely if ever agreed philosophically. I am reminded of Charles Darwin’s comment about his close friendship with his fellow magistrate and constant dining companion, Brodie Innes, the vicar of Downe. Darwin said that on one memorable occasion they found themselves in agreement and spent the rest of the meal in astonished silence, convinced that the other was very ill!


The Ideas section of The Boston Globe on Sunday has an excellent article by Drake Bennett on the theory that disgust may be a foundation for human moral sentiments. 

A quote:
This is the argument that some behavioral scientists have begun to make: That a significant slice of morality can be explained by our innate feelings of disgust. A growing number of provocative and clever studies appear to show that disgust has the power to shape our moral judgments. Research has shown that people who are more easily disgusted by bugs are more likely to see gay marriage and abortion as wrong. Putting people in a foul-smelling room makes them stricter judges of a controversial film or of a person who doesn’t return a lost wallet. Washing their hands makes people feel less guilty about their own moral transgressions, and hypnotically priming them to feel disgust reliably induces them to see wrongdoing in utterly innocuous stories.
Highly recommended....with the caveat that The Globe—probably because it still thinks of itself as a print newspaper that offers its print content online—provides no links or references to the many fascinating-sounding studies that Bennett cites, by Jonathan Haidt, Paul Bloom, Daniel Kelly, Paul Rozin, and others. Thus anyone (like me) interested in following up will have to hunt down the research on our own.

There's really no excuse for this anymore.



Attribution

The case seems to be unraveling for the alleged Ansel Adams negatives found by school painter Rick Norsigian at a garage sale in Fresno in 2000; see the story by Reyhan Harmanci in Friday's NYT.  (See also my previous post on the story here.)

There are two problems:

—Marian Walton of Oakland has said that one of Norsigian's negatives is identical to a photo taken by her uncle Earl Brooks:
Ms. Walton, 87, said, “I about fell off my sofa” when she saw Mr. Norsigian’s announcement on television. The image on the screen looked exactly like a photo by her uncle that she had hung on her bathroom wall: a picture of the leaning Jeffrey pine in Yosemite that she had inherited from her father in 1981.

Two former Adams assistants, John Sexton and Alan Ross, have since agreed with her, saying tell-tale shadows and dust spots indicated that the two Yosemite pictures, Mr. Norsigian’s and Ms. Walton’s, were taken at the same time with the same camera.
—The owner of the Beverly Hills gallery with whom Norsigian has been dealing, David W. Streets, who appraised the value of the photos at $200 million, turns out to be a convicted felon with a record for petty theft and fraud in Louisiana.



Repatriation

Colin Woodward has an excellent article at HistoryNet (reprinted from MHQ), "The War Over Plunder: Who Owns Art Stolen in War?"

The right and wrong of particular cases is not always straightforward. Woodward frames his article with a discussion of the Codex argentus, the "Silver Bible," the most important single source for the extinct Gothic language. The Codex argentus was created at the behest of Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths, in the 6th century. By the late 16th century, it had been "acquired" (no one seems to know quite how) by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, who kept it in his castle in Prague, where it was among the loot taken away by the Swedish army in 1648, just before the Peace of Westphalia brought an end to the Thirty Years War.

The Codex argentus is still in Sweden, at the University of Uppsala, and the Czechs want it back.  But it's not at all clear, under international law, that the current Czech government has any legitimate claim to it.  (In fact, although Woodward doesn't say this, it would make more sense for Austria to claim it.)

Among the other cases discussed in the article are a "ghost shirt," now in a museum in Glasgow, taken from one of the Ghost Dancers killed at the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890; and the Balangiga bells, taken by American forces from the Philippine island of Samar during the Philippine-American War under circumstances that are too complicated to describe here, but (suffice it to say) are not the American military's finest hour.

Highly recommended.



Allied troops in 1945 found art looted by the Nazis in a salt mine near the German village of Merkers, including Manet's "In the Winter Garden," shown here.


Music

Alex Ross at The Rest Is Noise follows up his post on his candidate for Worst Recording Ever Made (a recording of Furtwängler's Piano Quartet) with other candidates suggested by readers. Most of these are predictably obscure, but I'm interested to see that Lisa Hirsch has suggested Lorin Maazel's Tosca, about which she writes:
....the worst recording in my personal collection is very likely Lorin Maazel's Tosca. I had to take it off somewhere in Act I. Honestly, is there another recording with two artists so badly miscast as Birgit Nilsson (Tosca) and Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau (Scarpia) are on this??
I'm not surprised; see my thoughts on Maazel here.

But Ross also links to a "scientifically informed attempt to create maximally undesirable music" by Vitaly Komar, Alex Melamid, and Dave Soldier. (See their webpage on the project here; in addition to "The Most Unwanted Song", they also created "The Most Wanted Song," "a musical work that will be unavoidably and uncontrollably “liked” by 72 ± 12% of listeners").

Eliot Van Buskirk published a brief article on this project in 2008 at Wired. Buskirk writes:
An online poll conducted in the ’90s set Vitaly Komar, Alex Melamid and David Soldier on a quest to create the most annoying song ever. After gathering data about people’s least favorite music and lyrical subjects, they did the unthinkable: they combined them into a single monstrosity, specifically engineered to sound unpleasant to the maximum percentage of listeners.

[...]

[Their] list of undesirable elements included holiday music, bagpipes, pipe organ, a children’s chorus and the concept of children in general (really?), Wal-Mart, cowboys, political jingoism, George Stephanopoulos, Coca Cola, bossanova synths, banjo ferocity, harp glissandos, oompah-ing tubas and much, much more. It’s actually a fascinating listen, worthwhile for the opera rapping alone. (We didn’t think that was possible either.)
Here it is.  Listen at your own risk (but do listen at least as far at the opera rap).





Art

Andreas Platthaus at FAZ.net reviews the current exhibition in the Louvre, "Antoine Watteau et l'art de l'estampe" (until 11 October): "In die Geschichte zurückradiert."

The French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau died in 1721 at the age of 36.  Around two-thirds of his work is lost; the lost work is known only from a 4-volume set of 621 etchings, the so-called "Recueil Jullienne" (1726-1735). The collection is named after Watteau's friend Jean de Jullienne, who had the work prepared and published at his own considerable expense. The volumes are quite rare: only 100 were printed, and many were later disassembled for the individual prints. The first two volumes contain images of 350 drawings of Watteau, nearly all now lost; it was prepared by 13 engravers, including a very young François Boucher. Jullienne's concept was to make the etchings the same size as originals, so the volumes were printed on large "Grand Jésus" size paper.

But Watteau's star declined rapidly in France immediately after his death, and the first two volumes were a financial failure.  The decline in Watteau's reputation drove Jullienne to work all the more intensely against Watteau's neglect. He had the the final two volumes printed on even larger paper ("Grand Aigle"), with 16 engravers. These volumes include prints of paintings, most of which are now lost.




Watteau's "Les deux Cousines" (Louvre)

[NB: "Grand Jésus" seems to be incorrect; at least I can find no listing for such a paper size in any of the references I've checked so far (see here and here). These lists give the sizes "Jésus" and "Double Jésus"; the relative sizes of these seem to differ on the two tables, but one shows "Grand Aigle" as smaller than "Double Jésus."  I am too lazy to figure this out right now....]



Der Spiegel has an article on 8-year-old Kieron Williamson of Holt in Great Britain, who is said to be a painting prodigy; according to the article, his paintings on exhibition sold out within an half an hour for £150,000.

There are undoubtedly stories in the British press, but I'll let you look for them.



I suppose it's catty to say so (he is, after all, only eight), but this painting and the other one at Der Spiegel look like the kind of "art" one sees in hotel rooms or the waiting rooms of cheap dentists.



Film

Lewis Beale at Miller-McCune Online reviews the documentary A Film Unfinished, concerning "60 minutes of unedited propaganda footage shot by the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942."  Clips from this footage have been widely used for many years as authentic depictions of life in the ghetto, but the research of filmmaker Yoel Hersonki shows that "many of these sequences were not only staged, but involved multiple takes, as if they were being made for a commercial project."





Prose

A few weeks ago I pointed to Kevin Kelly's list of the 100 best long-form magazine articles ever.  I finally had a little extra time this weekend to read one, so I started with the top of the list (the article most often recommended): Gay Talese, "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold," Esquire, April 1966.  A classic early example of "New Journalism" (in fact, it may have been mostly downhill from there).  Perhaps just a teeny bit overwritten from time to time, but still a great read.

I've never been a fan of Sinatra the man, and as a singer, he belongs to my personal Pantheon of Very Famous Musicians Who Don't Do A Thing For Me, a group that includes (in addition to Sinatra) Elvis and Bruckner.

Even so, he's perhaps gone up slightly in my estimation based on this quote from Talese's article:
But he did [leave the Harry James band] as he would leave other warm places, too, in search of something more, never wasting time, trying to do it all in one generation, fighting under his own name, defending underdogs, terrorizing top dogs. He threw a punch at a musician who said something anti-Semitic, espoused the Negro cause two decades before it became fashionable. He also threw a tray of glasses at Buddy Rich when he played the drums too loud.
Buddy Rich always played the drums too loud.



&c.


Because it is the weekend, and because there must be cats:

A Home Experiment in Cat Cognition.

Two cats try to understand a treadmill.

The solution seems to be to whack it really hard with your paw, over and over.
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