02 August 2010

Weekend Roundup, 31 July – 1 August 2010

This Weekend: Thelonious Monk on being yourself; Army broadens investigation into leak of Afghan war diary; Wikileaks volunteer Jacob Appelbaum questioned; an interview with Andrew Bacevic on the Afghan war; testing the Wikileaks data with Benford's Law; an interview with Andrew Hacker on his book Higher Education?; Benzon on the state of the human sciences; Heffernan on science blogging, and a response; the mystical path to science understanding; Happy Birthday, Lamarck!; the variation in dog heads; fossil-fuel subsidies; "mike" or "mic"?; motor imagery and object identification; stress; an interview on neurodiversity; Paul Rozin's critique of psychology; bloody noses and high blood pressure at Bayreuth; more Rihm in Salzburg; a survey on German attitudes toward classical music and music education; more on hiring in musicology; Nussbaum on Figaro; review of the Leopold-Mozart-Werkverzeichnis; Tyler Cowen's five (six) best books on information; a review of The Enlightened Economy; a master class from Mark Twain on how to do a put down.

Quote of the Week
"You have to be yourself—if you try to be different, you might miss your cues."

—Thelonious Monk

(Quoted by Paul Bacon, in "The High Priest of Bebop: The Inimitable Mr. Monk," The Record Changer (November 1949); reprinted in Rob van der Bliek, ed., The Thelonious Monk Reader, p. 60)


Elisabeth Bumiller at The New York Times writes that the Army has broadened its investigation of the leak of the Afghan War diary, and has been interviewing friends and acquaintances of Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is suspected of leaking the documents.

Rob Beschizza at BoingBoing reports that Jacob Appelbaum, a volunteer with Wikileaks, whose interview with BoingBoing I linked to a few days ago, was detained and questioned on Thursday when entering the country through Newark International Airport:
According to the source, Appelbaum was stopped by customs officials and spoken to for at least three hours by a team that included a U.S. Army investigator. Army Pvt. Bradley Manning was named last week as a possible Wikileaks source in relation to the classified logs.
Appelbaum's interviewers demanded that he decrypt his laptop and other computer equipment, the source said. After his refusal to do so, they confiscated it, including three cellphones. The laptop was returned, apparently because it contained no storage drive that investigators could examine. He was also asked about his role in Wikileaks and informed that he was under surveillance.

Peter Kadzis at the The Boston Phoenix interviews Andrew Bacevic on the war in Afghanistan, and why staying is a big mistake.

Bacevic is a former Army colonel, and is now a professor at Boston University.  His latest book is Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War, which will be published this coming Tuesday, 3 August.

Some quotes from the interview:
In Barack Obama's worldview, George Bush's war with Iraq was a mistake, but the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan initially made sense. What's your take?

I don't think it makes any sense at all.

Even from the beginning?

I think the war today makes no sense at all. In 2001, it was necessary to show clearly that any regime providing sanctuary to violent radicals intent on attacking the United States would itself pay a very heavy price. And in that sense, back in 2001, it was necessary to punish the Taliban. It doesn't follow that in 2010 we should still be engaged in a large-scale war with the aim of pacifying the Afghan population. The justification for the war is that since the 9/11 conspiracy was hatched in Afghanistan, anything less than the pacification of Afghanistan will invite another terrorist attack. The radical Islamist threat, which is real but limited, is by no means confined to Afghanistan. Even if we can pacify the place, that provides absolutely no guarantee against the recurrence of something like 9/11.
In your book, you quote former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as saying, "we the United States, we are the indispensible nation, we stand tall." That was said 12 years ago, but it seems to me almost any national political figure since the end of the second World War could have made that statement. What do you make of it?

Well, I think it was a vastly exaggerated sense of our capacity to understand where the world is headed and an equally exaggerated capacity to direct the course of events. When you think about the events of the last decade, what we have seen over and over again is the supposedly seasoned and well-informed people who make policy are caught by surprise, respond ineptly to problems, follow a path in which we confront further surprises in the form of unintended consequences while in the meantime spending hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars, for very limited gains. All of this, of course, not even taking into account the enormity of the human toll in American lives and in the lives of others that end up being part of the price that gets paid. We need to grow up. We need to be able to engage realistically. We need to know who we are, and how much wisdom and power we have available. We should not worry about managing the world. We should be worrying about how to cope with the real-life, real-time events we do confront.


How do we balance our challenges abroad with our needs at home? Let's take a dramatic example like Detroit, a once-great city which, if it were a stand-alone political entity, would be a third-world nation.
I think the way you phrased the question puts your finger on it. There needs to be a pretty fundamental reassessment of priorities. I mean, Detroit's a great example, the Gulf is an example, Cleveland is an example. The purpose of America is articulated in the preamble of the Constitution. It is not to police the world, it is to provide for the well-being of Americans and their prosperity. Before too long, that imperative has taken a back seat to our ambitions of being a great world empire. It's time to stop that. And that's one of the reasons it seems to me that the debate over Afghanistan is so entirely unsatisfactory. The debate over Afghanistan tends to focus on what we are going to do about this one particular war. The debate over Afghanistan, I think, really ought to emphasize the extent to which the very existence of a war, now in its 10th year, in central Asia, testifies to how badly out of whack our national priorities have come to be.
And much more.  A must read.

I decided not to place the following under a separate "Statistics" heading:

Drew Conway at Zero Intelligence Agents (via R bloggers) tests the Wikileaks data on the Afghan diaries against Benford's Law.  Benford's Law, of which I was vaguely aware (although not by name) is the rather counterintuitive result described as follows in the Wikipedia article:
Benford's law, also called the first-digit law, states that in lists of numbers from many (but not all) real-life sources of data, the leading digit is distributed in a specific, non-uniform way. According to this law, the first digit is 1 almost one third of the time, and larger digits occur as the leading digit with lower and lower frequency, to the point where 9 as a first digit occurs less than one time in twenty. This distribution of first digits arises whenever a set of values has logarithms that are distributed uniformly, as is approximately the case with many measurements of real-world values.
Conway's analysis is nicely illustrated by graphs that I believe use the popular R graphics package ggplot2, which I really must get to know.

This is actually not difficult to understand (which is why I put it here, with the news, rather than sequestered in a "Statistics" section), and it shows one simple method that analysts use to detect manipulation of data.  Conway's conclusion:  there is evidence of manipulation (here probably selective reporting?) of the data, but especially associated only with certain regions in Afgahanistan.


Jennie Rothenberg Grizt at The Atlantic interviews Andrew Hacker about his new book (with Claudia Dreifus), Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It.  A pointed critique of the current state of American universities, and obviously a must read for me.  (I'm now fourth in the hold line in the Minuteman Library system, where four copies are all still being processed.)

Some quotes:
In the past 10 or 15 years, I've seen a tremendous over-professionalization of the academic world. Professors are identifying with their arcane disciplines, the minutiae, the esoteric research. Schools get status by bringing on professors who are star researchers, star scholars. That's all we really know about Caltech or MIT or Stanford. We don't really know about the quality of undergraduate teaching at any of these places. And it's the students who suffer.


....there are two ways to pick a college. One is to go to a prestigious college, and when you graduate the world will know you went to Princeton or Stanford. It doesn't matter what happened in the classroom as long as you have that brand behind you. Claudia and I were up at Harvard talking to students, and they said they get nothing from their classes, but that doesn't matter. They're smart already—they can breeze through college. The point is that they're going to be Harvard people when they come out. 
Hacker is also highly critical of the state of academic publishing and research, which he says (rightly, to my mind, although he may be making the point rather coarsely here) has transformed into a system driven almost entirely by the process of hiring and tenure, and is detached from any rational evaluation of the purpose of or need for publication:
The problem is that there are just too many publications and too many people publishing. This is true even in the hard sciences. If there's a research project on genetics in a lab, they will take certain findings and break them into eight different articles just so each researcher can get more stuff on his or her resume.

And many of the publications are too long. A book on Virginia Woolf could be a 30-page article. Somebody did a count of how many publications had been written on Virginia Woolf in the past 15 years. The answer is several thousand. Really? Who needs this? But it's awfully difficult to say, "Here's knowledge we don't need!" It sounds like book burning, doesn't it? What we'd say is that on the scale of priorities, we find undergraduate teaching to be more important than all the research being done.
He also suggests (and readers of this blog will know that I am in sympathy with this point) that the tenure system actually inhibits academic freedom:
Here's what happens. Academics typically don't get tenured until the age of 40. This means that from their years as graduate students and then assistant professors, from age 25 through 38 or 39, they have to toe the line. They have to do things in the accepted way that their elders and superiors require. They can't be controversial and all the rest. So tenure is, in fact, the enemy of spontaneity, the enemy of intellectual freedom. We've seen this again and again. And even people who get tenure really don't change. They keep on following the disciplinary mode they've been trained to follow.
I'm pleased to note, too, that Hacker gives a plug to my undergraduate alma mater, The Evergreen State College.

And Bill Benzon at New Savanna asks (in a meditation on the state of the "human sciences"): "Are we bull-shitting ourselves about our intellectual productivity?"

Or, somewhat more politely: "Perhaps institutional pressures are bringing about needless over-production of useless ideas."


Virginia Heffernan has published a post, "Unnatural Science," on The Medium at the NYT.  It's a snarky take on science blogging, inspired by the recent "PepsiGate" at Science Blogs (which I briefly followed here; see my Digest for 9 July for an entryway into the affair).  Heffernan's post has itself stirred up a minor ruckus in the science blogging blogosphere, although it's a little difficult to see why. To me, her post uses the "science wars" as a rather inapt framing within,  and she makes the basic logical error of taking part for the whole:
And science blogging, apparently, is a form of redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric that draws bad-faith moral authority from the word “science” and from occasional invocations of “peer-reviewed” thises and thats.
Well, no.  That's true only of the particular science blogs (most of them at Science Blogs) that Heffernan looked at.  It's true of none of the 60- or 70-odd that I follow (only one or two of which are at Science Blogs).

For a measured response to Heffernan, with some additional comments on science blogging that are rather more to the point, see the post by dlende at Neuroanthropology

Neuroskeptic has an entertaining post on "The Mystical Path of Scientific Understanding" (illustrated using the Kabbalah "tree of life"), which, I think, gets at an important truth about the stages of competence in coming to grips with research literature.  A sample:
Stage 1 : Oooh!
You understand the paper's conclusions, but that's it: you don't get how the authors arrived at them, or how they relate to anything else. My understanding of chemistry is at this level: if someone claims to have found a new way of synthesizing some molecule, I know what that means, but I have to take the result or leave it: I can't criticize it, and in order to know how important the result is and what the implications are, I only have the author's word.

How to tell if you're here:
you struggle with the Methods and the Results; you rely on the author's summary of their findings in the Abstract or the Discussion. The Introduction is all new to you.
How to get here: read a textbook until you grasp the basics of the field.
This is dangerous, because a paper could be completely wrong, and you wouldn't know - yet you know enough to be mislead by it, and to think you understand it. Incidentally, this is the stage inhabited by most journalists and politicians
Neuroskeptic's Stage 1 is actually the second stage in the path toward enlightenment.  At Stage 0, "Huh?," you're completely clueless, and don't even understand the title of the article.

Happy 266th Birthday, Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de la Marck (aka, Lamarck).


Nick Matzke at Panda's Thumb summarizes a study of variation of cranial shape in dog breeds.  Dogs show what is probably the widest range of phenotypic variability of any species of mammal.  This study shows that, amazingly, there is greater morphological variation in the skull of the domestic dog than there is across the entire order of Carnivora.  And if you doubt this, look at the graphs.  And, informally, just consider the head shapes and sizes of a chihuahua, Great Dane, and a bulldog (just for starters).

The study is:
Abby Grace Drake and Christian Peter Klingenberg (2010), "Large-Scale Diversification of Skull Shape in Domestic Dogs: Disparity and Modularity," The American Naturalist. The article is behind a paywall at Chicago Journals, and costs $15.00.
Matzke notes that most of this variation has arisen within an evolutionarily quite short period, through artificial selection:
But this is strong evidence that (a) there is no problem on the genetic variability end of the equation for the kinds of variability that we see in a mammalian order like Carnivores; rather the constraint is natural selection for a particular niche. If the selective pressure is there, the morphological change can happen very quickly; and (b) lack of time isn’t the issue; if the conditions are right, hundreds or thousands of years can be plenty of time.
The take-home point: evolution can take place very quickly if the selective pressures are there.


Kevin Bullis at Technology Review reports on a new study from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (apparently not openly available) showing that subsidies worldwide for fossil fuel dwarf those for renewable sources of energy. Direct subsidies for fossil fuels were $557 billion, in contrast to between $43 and 46 billion in subsidies for renewable energy and biofuels.

Does that mean that renewable energy and biofuels could already out-compete fossil fuels if the subsidies for the latter were removed? Not yet, according to Bullis. The problem is mainly one of scale; renewable sources are probably decades away from being able to meet the level of demand currently met by fossil fuels.


Ben Zimmer's "On Language" in the Sunday Magazine of the NYT considers the question of "mic" vs. "mike" as an abbreviation for "microphone."  As a sometime co-organizer of an open mike (or mic), this is a matter of some import.

Apparently "mike" came first, but "mic" has "grown in popularity among those who work with recording equipment" (rappers, for example).  However, "mic" has problems that are absent with "mike":  "mic" looks as if it should be pronounced "mick"; and how does one make a verb out of "mic" anyway?  "I mic'ed him" looks bizarre.  (And "I miced him" is obviously impossible.)

And, as Zimmer points out:  after all, we use "bike" (not "bic") as an abbreviation for "bicycle"....


Mo at Neurophilosophy describes a new study showing that "Motor imagery enhances object recognition" (the title of the blog post). Mo writes:
Thoughts and actions are intimately linked, and the mere thought of an action is much like actually performing it. The brain prepares for an action by generating a motor simulation of it, praticising its execution of the movements by going through the motions invisibly.
Which explains why I'm interested in the topic: motor imagery in this sense is a central component in the process of singing or playing a musical instrument, and effective teaching must take this into account.

The study is:
Jessica K. Witt, et al. (2010), "A Functional Role for Motor Simulation in Identifying Tools," Psychological Science.  The link on the abstract page claims that the pdf is going to be "Free to You" (which I would naturally take as referring to me), but clicking on the link takes me to a paywall at Sage Journals, where the article costs $35.00.
Here is the abstract:
Embodied cognition promotes the involvement of the motor system in cognitive processing, such as tool identification. Although neuropsychological studies suggest that the motor system is not necessary for identifying tools, it may still have a functional role in tool recognition. To test this possibility, we used a motor interference task: Participants squeezed a rubber ball in one hand while naming pictures of tools and animals. Participants were faster and more accurate in naming the tools that were oriented with the handle facing away from the squeezing hand than in naming the tools that were oriented with the handle facing toward the squeezing hand. There was no effect of orientation for animals. Given that participants simulate grasping a tool with the hand closest to the handle, this result demonstrates that interfering with the ability to simulate grasping impairs tool naming and suggests that motor simulation has a functional role in tool identification.
Not important to me so much for the particular topic of the article, but as an point of entry into the literature on motor imagery.

Jonah Lehrer has an outstanding article at Wired on stress.  The article is framed by a profile of Robert Sapolsky's work on the topic, including his current search for a stress "vaccine" (where it sounds as if he may well succeed). But it is also an excellent summary of important recent work on stress. Highly recommended.

Sandy Gautam at the Mouse Trap interviews Thomas Armstrong, author of Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Brain Differences, which has gone onto my "to read" list.

The interview is well worth reading, but a warning: Mouse Trap does not display correctly (or at all, in my case) in Firefox 3.6 on a Mac.  I had to use Safari (not my everyday browser) to read the post.  I'm not sure of the problem, but there do seem to be quite a lot of Flash objects on the page.

Hugo Mercier at Cognition and Culture has a fascinating post on psychologist Paul Rozin, whose work I don't know.  Rozin has written on a variety of topics, notably including disgust (an interest of mine), but Mercier focuses on Rozin's series of articles critiquing the state of modern psychology.  Among Rozin's principal criticisms:  a failure in psychological research to take adequate account of cultural variability and class. Mercier goes on:
Rozin’s second important contention is that psychology has become too much hypothesis-driven and that it pays too little attention to the simple study and reporting of phenomena.
(On this point, compare the item above from Bill Benzon.)

Mercier includes a helpful bibliography.  I haven't checked the access status of thee article, but I fear that several are behind paywall or perhaps not available at all in digital format.


And speaking of stress: Codex flores reports ("Nasenbluten und Kreislaufprobleme in Bayreuth") that half sisters Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier have been suffering the health consequences of their first year as joint directors of the Bayreuth Festival.  Eva Wagner-Pasquier entered a Bayreuth clinic on Monday because, apparently, of blood pressure problems brought on by stress; and Katharina Wagner missed a meeting of the Gesellschaft der Freunde von Bayreuth because she was suffering from a bloody nose.

On Friday I linked to a review of the premiere at the Salzburg Festspiele of German composer Wolfgang Rihm's new opera Dionysos. Rihm's music has been highlighted elsewhere at the Festival. Anthony Tommasini in the NYT reviews a performance of Rihm's Tutuguri: Poème Dansé, "a two-hour ballet in two parts, scored for a large orchestra, percussionists, taped chorus and a speaker," based on a text by Antonin Artaud (which gives a fair idea of what the music is going to be like, I think); as Tommasini describes:
The music unfolds in charged, fitful stretches: clashing chords, orchestra blasts, riffs that start up and get stuck in place. Some passages are mystical and harmonically hazy. One long episode was like a Germanic, heavy-footed evocation of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” The taped choral elements are mostly wordy, quasi-shouted iterations of the Artaud text. The orchestral writing is brilliant, and the sheer, raw immensity of the music can grab you. But the barbaric blasts become ponderous.
I'm glad I missed it.

The Bertelsmann Stiftung reports on the result of a survey it commissioned from the German polling company TNS Emnid on current attitudes toward classical music in Germany.

According to the report:

—Nearly 90 percent of Germans feel that the heritage of classical music must be preserved for coming generations.
—96 percent say that music education in the schools is important or very important.
—91 percent say that music education is needed for a comprehensive education, and 91 percent also say that it is important for the development of the emotional and intellectual capabilities of children.
—Nearly half the respondents have studied an instrument.
—Mozart is the best known composer, named by one in every two respondents, followed by Beethoven (36 percent), and J. S. Bach (23 percent)

Some results among 14- to 29-year-olds:

—Nearly one in four consider music education unimportant
—Around one in four hear classical music at least once a week, whether on radio, TV, CD, or in concert.  (The corresponding figure for those 60 and older is 48 percent.)

The survey was based on 1001 respondents 14 and older.  So far as I can see, there is no link to a source for the survey questions, or any more detailed analysis apart from that given in the press report.  One certainly wonders about the wording for the question on composers (and who cares which composer is "best known").

I also wonder about the subject pool and how representative it may or may not have been of the German population as a whole.

Any guesses about the results of such a survey in the U.S.? 

Amusicology has some further thoughts on the 2010 "roundup" of hiring in musicology in North America.  I don't feel that great light has been shed.  But I plan to write more about this soon, so will refrain from further comment here.

Mozart Corner

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum has a new article, "Equality and Love at the End of The Marriage of Figaro: Forging Democratic Emotions," Journal of Human Development and Capabilities

The article is behind a paywall at Informa World, and costs $30.00.  There is no abstract, so I guess it will remain a mystery ....


Walter Schönenberger at Codex flores reviews the new "Leopold-Mozart-Werkverzeichnis" by Cliff Eisen (whom Schönberger misidentifies as "English'), "unter Mitarbeit von Christian Broy." Leopold Mozart is said to have composed a great deal, but the greater proportion of the works do not survive.

One might reasonably ask whether this is an example of a scholarly publication that isn't strictly necessary.  But I won't.

The catalogue (which I am unlikely to see any time soon) is said to include appendices on music copyists (with samples of their handwriting), and watermarks (with facsimiles).  These, at any rate, might be useful, depending on how the information is presented.


Economist Tyler Cowen, co-blogger at Marginal Revolution (which I follow), is interviewed by Five Books on his five top recommendations of books on information.  His choices:
Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody
F. A. Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order
David Weinberger, Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder
Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (I believe I am the only person of my generation not to have read this)
Yes, that's six.  (Don't ask me. Perhaps this is economist math.)

Five Books has links for purchasing all six.

All are going onto my "to read" list (Cowen makes a compelling case for all of them). Yes, even the Hayek.

In fact, I'm going to look for some of them at the library today.

Trevor Butterworth at The Wall Street Journal reviews Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700–1850, which investigates why Britain had an industrial revolution before other technologically and intellectually advanced countries like France or the Netherlands.


Letters of Note publishes a transcription (and provides a facsimile) of Mark Twain's response to a letter from patent-medicine salesman J. H. Todd:
Nov. 20. 1905

J. H. Todd 

1212 Webster St.

San Francisco, Cal.

Dear Sir,

Your letter is an insoluble puzzle to me. The handwriting is good and
exhibits considerable character, and there are even traces of
intelligence in what you say, yet the letter and the accompanying
advertisements profess to be the work of the same hand. The person who
wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant person now
alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the
33rd degree, and scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching
back to the Missing Link. It puzzles me to make out how the same hand
could have constructed your letter and your advertisements. Puzzles fret
me, puzzles annoy me, puzzles exasperate me; and always, for a moment,
they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the person who has
puzzled me. A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and
passed and I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is
yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by
mistake, and enter swiftly into the damnation which you and all other
patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned and do so richly

Adieu, adieu, adieu!

Mark Twain
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  1. Hermann "Hess"? Any relation to Rudolf?

  2. Thanks for the correction. I'll make sure that my copy-editing staff is appropriately chastised.

  3. the name is correct Hermann Hesse (double n)

  4. I've fired all my copyeditors. Not only did they doubly misspell Hesse's name, but they did an exceptionally bad job with the links today, forgetting to insert five and getting another one wrong. Hope I've caught all their errors.

  5. Mark Twain's letter ist great!

  6. yes indeed, Twain's letter is great!