09 August 2010

Weekend Roundup, 6 to 8 August 2010

This Weekend (including Friday): Eric Schmidt on the information explosion; Pentagon wants leaked Afghan documents "returned" (?!); the death of the phone call; how many books are there?; Manjoo reviews Shirky; on the job with a BMI field agent; more on Rozin's critique of scientific psychology (and a link); emotional memories and sensory triggers; genome-wide association study fails to find any simple link between genes and personality; Munch's cure; Heisenberg's uncertainty principle still certainly uncertain; the human Y chromosome (pathetic looking little devil); Diana Deutsch on music and language; Wagner for Children at Bayreuth; Joseph Horowitz on "reinventing the orchestra"; a musical memorial for the Hiroshima anniversary; on the non-existence of music (or: music theory as a figment of the imagination); Thompson and Bordwell on Inception; compensation to hunters for radioactive boars; and a gypsy prediction that comes true.


ReadWriteWeb reports on a speech at the Techonomy conference by Google CEO Eric Schmidt last week on the explosion of data and its use for prediction and identification.  A couple of quotes:
"If I look at enough of your messaging and your location, and use Artificial Intelligence," Schmidt said, "we can predict where you are going to go."

"Show us 14 photos of yourself and we can identify who you are."
Oh great.

I was particularly struck by the following:
"There was [sic] 5 exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003," Schmidt said, "but that much information is now created every 2 days, and the pace is increasing..."
By "information" here I guess he really means "anything stored in a human-created symbolic code" (which encompasses not only texts and numbers, but also digitized photos, and the like; this is not the information theory sense of "information," but rather the information science sense; I mention this as a public service for those of you who didn't know there was a difference). 

So, "data," really.

And he adds this rather Pollyannaish assessment:
The upside? "In our lifetimes," Schmidt says, "we'll go from a small number of people having access to information, to 5 billion people having all the world's knowledge in their native language." That is truly incredible.
Well yes...were it not for those pesky paywalls....and all those venal and greedy people trying to pretend that information is private property.

And this seemed particularly ironic after I spent a couple of hours Sunday night repeatedly stymied by "snippet" views on Google Books of items that are certainly in the public domain.  (I was trying to research the early—i.e. pre-1920—use of the word "jazz.")

So much for having all the world's knowledge at my fingertips.

Speaking of free (or not) information:

The Pentagon has (rather bizarrely) demanded that Wikileaks "return" the documents in the Afghan War diary.  See Mike Masnick's story at Techdirt.

After seeing more than one reference this week to Clive Thomson's article at Wired on the "Death of the Phone Call," I finally decided to read it.

And I think he's on to something.  Some quotes:
We’re moving, in other words, toward a fascinating cultural transition: the death of the telephone call. This shift is particularly stark among the young. Some college students I know go days without talking into their smartphones at all. I was recently hanging out with a twentysomething entrepreneur who fumbled around for 30 seconds trying to find the option that actually let him dial someone.

This generation doesn’t make phone calls, because everyone is in constant, lightweight contact in so many other ways: texting, chatting, and social-network messaging. And we don’t just have more options than we used to. We have better ones: These new forms of communication have exposed the fact that the voice call is badly designed. It deserves to die.

Consider: If I suddenly decide I want to dial you up, I have no way of knowing whether you’re busy, and you have no idea why I’m calling. We have to open Schrödinger’s box  every time, having a conversation to figure out whether it’s OK to have a conversation. Plus, voice calls are emotionally high-bandwidth, which is why it’s so weirdly exhausting to be interrupted by one. (We apparently find voicemail even more excruciating: Studies show that more than a fifth of all voice messages are never listened to.)

The telephone, in other words, doesn’t provide any information about status, so we are constantly interrupting one another. The other tools at our disposal are more polite. Instant messaging lets us detect whether our friends are busy without our bugging them, and texting lets us ping one another asynchronously. (Plus, we can spend more time thinking about what we want to say.) For all the hue and cry about becoming an “always on” society, we’re actually moving away from the demand that everyone be available immediately.
My own use of the telephone has decreased markedly in recent months.  I no longer answer calls from unknown or unidentified numbers, and often leave the answering machine turned off for long periods.  I find even phone calls from people I know often to be intrusive and disruptive (not that they intend them to be....but, for example, why should I answer the phone when I'm in the middle of playing a piece by Mozart? Or in the middle of a rehearsal?  Or a teaching lesson?)

One of my 20-something students will, while driving to his lessons, sometimes send me an e-mail from his smartphone (while driving) about his progress toward my house ("I'm running 10 minutes late").  I don't approve of this (calling while driving is a lot less dangerous than texting while driving).  But it's indicative of the trend; I don't think it even occurs to him to call me.  I mentioned the "death of the phone" issue to another one of my students (also in his early 20s) when I was asking him for his number, and he says that he uses the phone for voice calls only rarely.

See also Mike Masnick's commentary at Techdirt.

A reader sends a link to this interesting essay by Leonid Taycher at Inside Google Books on how Google Books goes about figuring out just how many books there are, anyway.  The title is "Books of the world, stand up and be counted. All 129,864,880 of you"; this isn't very accurate, as Taycher's actual bottom line is "about 146 million."  (H/T to DB)

At the NYT Book Review, Farhad Manjoo reviews Clay Shirky's new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.


John Bowe's has long piece, "The Music-Copyright Enforcers," in the Magazine of the Sunday NYT, article, framed by his "embedded" stint with a field agent from BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated), one of the two (along with ASCAP) major performing rights organizations in the United States.  Mike Masnick at Techdirt ("A Day In The Life of Legalized Extortion: How The BMI Shakedown Works") is perhaps a bit unfairly harsh in calling it a "puff piece," but it does not dig as deeply into the issues as one would like. 

Even so, it is a compelling read, as long as one approaches it with appropriate skepticism, and investigates other viewpoints (Masnick's post, which includes several links out, is perhaps a good place to start).

Being an BMI field agent is not without risk:
There was, for example, the gentleman at a Kentucky RV resort who told her on the phone that he was going to come into her office and “spray her down” with a machine gun. Then there was the female punk-rock-club owner in Colorado who ripped up Baker’s licensing agreement, ordered her out of the club, followed her out the door, spit a huge goober on the paperwork and stuck it to Baker’s windshield.
Bowe also gives a good quick history of ASCAP and BMI, which taught me several things I didn't know. (Victor Herbert was one of the founders of ASCAP, and a key early case involved a suit filed by Herbert that went to the Supreme Court, where Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the opinion in Herbert's favor....and is quoted by Bowe as making a statement that is certainly false:  "If music did not pay, it would be given up.")

Particularly worrisome is the "Big Brother" technology currently used by BMI. Bowe writes:
BMI has developed a system called Blue Arrow that deploys the same technology as iPhone’s Shazam to identify music. (ASCAP uses a similar system called Mediaguide.) These systems can listen to Internet sites, as well as radio and TV stations around the world and identify, in two seconds, virtually any piece of music being played — not just American, but Turkish, Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Latin, Japanese and so on. The Blue Arrow database has a capacity of 500 terabytes (one thousand gigabytes each) of music, and can recognize eight million songs. About 3,000 new songs are added each day.

David DeBusk, who was vice president of business development when I met him this spring but has since left BMI, offered to show me how Blue Arrow works. An employee punched a few keys to find out which radio stations in Germany were playing “schlager music,” a bizarrely kitschy form of country pop. One tap of the keyboard, and we were listening live: Oom pah pah, oom pah pah. We went on to display all stations, worldwide, playing Swedish death metal. Did I want to see which ones were playing compositions by the composer Milton Babbitt? How about radio stations in Laos?


Last weekend I linked to the discussion at Cognition and Culture of Paul Rozin's critique of scientific psychology.

Mind Hacks now also has a good short piece on Rozin's critique, and a link (which I failed to provide last time) to a free pdf of Rozin's recent article, "What Kind of Empirical Research Should We Publish, Fund, and Reward," Perspectives on Pscychological Science.

Andrew Moseman at 80beats reports a new study in Science on the link between emotional memories and sensory triggers. The article is:
Tiziana Sacco and Benedetto Sacchetti (2010), "Role of Secondary Sensory Cortices in Emotional Memory Storage and Retrieval in Rats," Science.  The article is behind a paywall, and costs $15.00
Here is the abstract:
Visual, acoustic, and olfactory stimuli associated with a highly charged emotional situation take on the affective qualities of that situation. Where the emotional meaning of a given sensory experience is stored is a matter of debate. We found that excitotoxic lesions of auditory, visual, or olfactory secondary sensory cortices impaired remote, but not recent, fear memories in rats. Amnesia was modality-specific and not due to an interference with sensory or emotional processes. In these sites, memory persistence was dependent on ongoing protein kinase M{zeta} activity and was associated with an increased activity of layers II–IV, thus suggesting a synaptic strengthening of corticocortical connections. Lesions of the same areas left intact the memory of sensory stimuli not associated with any emotional charge. We propose that secondary sensory cortices support memory storage and retrieval of sensory stimuli that have acquired a behavioral salience with the experience.
80beats also links out to a story on this study by Gwyneth Dickey at ScienceNews.

Neurocritic summarizes a new genome-wide association study of 1,252,387 genetic markers that failed to find any significant correlation with "personality" scores on a modified version of the Cloninger Temperament and Character Inventory.  (The TCI characterizes personality along the four axes of Novelty Seeking, Harm Avoidance, Reward Dependence, and Persistence.)  From the conclusion of the study: "No genetic variants that significantly contribute to personality variation were identified..."

This is not, of course, to say that there is not a very strong genetic component to personality; in fact, studies of twins and the like have shown repeatedly that about half of the variation in personality can be attributed to genetic inheritance.  It's just that the relationship between genes and personality seems to be anything but simple.

The article is:
Karin J. H. Verweij, et al. (2010), "A genome-wide association study of Cloninger's Temperament scales: Implications for the evolutionary genetics of personality," Biological Psychology (in press). The article is behind a paywall at ScienceDirect, and costs $31.50.
Here is the abstract:
Variation in personality traits is 30% to 60% attributed to genetic influences. Attempts to unravel these genetic influences at the molecular level have, so far, been inconclusive. We performed the first genome-wide association study of Cloninger's temperament scales in a sample of 5117 individuals, in order to identify common genetic variants underlying variation in personality. Participants’ scores on Harm Avoidance, Novelty Seeking, Reward Dependence, and Persistence were tested for association with 1,252,387 genetic markers. We also performed gene-based association tests and biological pathway analyses. No genetic variants that significantly contribute to personality variation were identified, while our sample provides over 90% power to detect variants that explain only 1% of the trait variance. This indicates that individual common genetic variants of this size or greater do not contribute to personality trait variation, which has important implications regarding the genetic architecture of personality and the evolutionary mechanisms by which heritable variation is maintained.
For further commentary on Neurocritic's post and Verweij, et al., see Jonah Lehrer at The Frontal Cortex (who discusses Walter Mischel's critique of the very notion of "personality" and its assessment) and Razib Khan at Gene Expression.

Romeo Vitelli at Providentia tells the story of the madness and cure of Edvard Munch, Norwegian painter of the iconic "The Scream."

Some quotes:
[Munch] was frequently given to public brawls and drunken binges that alarmed his friends and family.  Although he was getting frequent commissions and public honours, Munch hit rock bottom by 1907.  Actively delusion[al], he initially checked into a clinic in Copenhagen but fled during the admission interview.  Due to Munch's worsening condition and failure to seek help on his own, his friend, Emmanuel Goldstein, forced him into the private clinic of Dr. Daniel Jacobsen in Copenhagen.

Although his medical reputation wasn't the best, Daniel Jacobsen ran a successful clinic that catered to well-to-do patients.  On admission, Jacobsen diagnosed Munch as suffering from "dementia paralytica" linked to his alcoholism (which nowadays would probably be diagnosed as either delirium tremens or Wernicke's encephalopathy).  As it was, he was lucky not to get a diagnosis such as General Paresis (neurosyphilis) which might have led to him being locked up for life (which is why Munch had been afraid to seek help).  In many respects, the rest cure that Jacobsen prescribed for Munch was (if you'll pardon the expression) just what the doctor ordered.  On admission, Jacobsen had Munch placed in a locked room for eight days until his hallucinations and other symptoms came under control.  Jacobsen took Munch off the cocktail of drugs and alcohol that he had been taking for years and gave him no other medication except for "sleeping drops" (probably chloral hydrate).  During his stay at the clinic, Munch was given ample bedrest, good food, fresh air, and regular sun baths that helped him immensely.

Some of the other treatments that Jacobsen prescribed were a little more bizarre however.  In addition to "electrification" (which basically amounted to running mild electrical currents through the patient's body using a special generator), the Jacobsen clinic also specialized in special treatment baths.  These baths involved diluted carbonic acid with extra ingredients including (among other things) iron filings, salt, soda, potash, sulfur, fir needles, oat bark, malt and bran.  For patients suffering from hallucinations, the baths could also include milk or bouillon, and even blood from freshly slaughtered animals (and I'll bet you thought that "bloodbath" was a figure of speech").  Munch was fortunately spared the blood baths but otherwise had the full course of treatment that Jacobsen's clinic had to offer.
And, in fact, Munch was much better when he got out of the clinic in 1909, and he lived until 1944.


Perhaps I shouldn't trust a tech site, even a very good one (in this case ars technica) as a source for reliable interpretation of new papers in physics.

Last Monday, I passed on ars technica's report on a new study in Nature Physics that (ars technica claimed) might "topple" (or at least do an end-run around) Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.

Laura Sanders at Science News now disabuses us of this interpretation in her post: "Heisenberg's uncertainty principle still certain."  In order to help clarify the point she (gasp) actually checked with one of the coauthors of the study, Roger Colbeck.  Quotes:
“It is not the case that Heisenberg has been overturned,” Colbeck says.


An entangled quantum memory could hold information about a particle that could be measured to reveal the particle’s position perfectly, and information that could be measured to reveal the momentum perfectly. “So we can have a memory which stores both the position and the momentum,” Colbeck says.


But there’s a caveat, and it’s a big one: “Although the memory stores both the position and the momentum, we can only read out one of the two,” Colbeck says.

Via a cross-posting at Gene Expression (classic), I've run across a good series (which I'm still in the process of reading) summarizing the current state of knowledge about the human Y Chromosome. The posts are by Kele Cable ("only" an undergraduate, but a very well-informed one who writes clearly and well) at Kele's Science Blog. The second post in the series, which I've just read, is a lucid but detailed explanation (approachable even if you don't know a lot about genetics) of a key research article on the Y Chromosome:
H. Skaletsky, et al. (2003), "The male-specific region of the human Y chromosome is a mosaic of discrete sequence classes," Nature.  The article is freely available for download.
I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the posts in Kele's series (currently up to number 5).

Kele writes:
As you can see in Figure 1, the Y chromosome (on the right) is puny and diminutive. It really is kind of pathetic once you look at it. The numbers also reflect the physical discrepancy between the two chromosomes (Table 1) – the Y chromosome is roughly 29% the size of the X in sheer base length, an even smaller 15% in euchromatin length, and has less than 10% of the gene number! Keep in mind that the Y used to be the same size as the X (just like any other homologous pair of chromosomes)!


Scientific American Mind has an article by Diana Deutsch on music cognition that I would very much like to read, but can't, because it is behind a paywall: "Speaking in Tones: Music and Language Partner in the Brain."  The entire issue costs only $5.99, which is at least reasonable for a change.  But with my currently ridiculously low income (I can't even pay my bills), I can't justify the expense.

Anthony Tommasini at the ArtBeat blog at the NYT writes on the "Wagner for Children" program at Bayreuth, which just gave it's last performance of this year's production, a 70-minute Tannhäuser.  Tommasini's description of the scenario is worth reading. A quote:
When, after a break during which we see the Young Shepherd in the opera pass by (here the soprano Christiane Kohl, dressed as a newspaper delivery boy on a bike), Tannhäuser encounters Venus. She is not a sexpot, but an urban party girl, played by the mezzo-soprano Alexandra Petersamer. Her hair is a riot of various colored braids, and she gets around on a skate board. She starts calling Tannhäuser “Tanny,” and he cannot resist her sassy vitality. Her gal-pal friends play with what look like the tails of exotic serpents and keep huge spiders as pets. I was not exactly sure what this all meant. Still, the kids squealed with delight.
I could think of various snarky things to say, but I'll let you use your own imagination on this one.

Joseph Horowitz at his ArtsJournal blog The Unanswered Question, responds to the story on the woes of the Philadelphia Orchestra (see Thursday's Digest) with "Reinventing the Orchestra: The Role of Education."  Horowitz writes:
It has long seemed to me that orchestras need to re-envision themselves as educational institutions. This would mean re-envisioning the content and purpose of subscription concerts: more thematic programs, more cross-disciplinary content embracing dance, film, theater, and the visual arts. One result would be a means of escape from the rigid confines of classical music. Another would be new links to museums, to high schools, colleges, and universities. An expanded mandate; an enlarged mission.
He goes on to describe the three-week NEH teacher-training institute on "Dvorak and America" that he just directed.  Some of his description, frankly, makes me deeply uncomfortable, for reasons that I don't have time right now to analyze in depth.  A sample:
And so Steve Kramer, who teaches Advanced Placement American History at an elite Dallas private school, created "Longfellow, Dvorak, and the American West," an exquisitely detailed lesson plan that ingeniously applies letters, paintings, sculpture, newspaper clips, passages from The Song of Hiawatha, and excerpts from the New World  Symphony. "The objective of this lesson," Steve writes, "is to combine arts, music, and literature to show how the fine arts and popular culture . . . became an 'American culture' during the Gilded Age. A complementary but no less important objective is to incorporate in an Advanced Placement United States History course some music other than the jazz of the 1920s and the rock 'n' roll of the 1950s and 1960s. Dvorak and Longfellow can have a place in the AP curriculum."
It isn't the content per se that makes me uncomfortable, but rather the kind of thinking that imprisons all of this in "lesson plans," "objectives," and AP test content.  That seems to me to be the death of both art and critical thinking.

Friday, 6 August was the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  To mark the occasion, Alex Ross posted a recording of Oppenheimer's Act I aria from John Adams's opera Doctor Atomic, sung by Gerald Finley in rehearsal with the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera conducted by Alan Gilbert (originally posted by Ross in October 2008).  The aria is a setting of John Donne's "Batter my heart, three-person'd God," from the Holy Sonnets:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Losts in the mists of two or three days ago are the origins of this link to the pdf of a paper from a "Discussion Forum" in Musicæ Scientiæ:
Geraint A. Wiggins, Daniel Müllensiefen, and Marcus T. Pearce, "On the non-existence of music: Why music theory is a figment of the imagination."
All three authors are associated with the Centre for Cognition, Computation and Culture, Goldsmiths, University of London. Here is the abstract:
We argue for an approach to the theory of music which starts from the position that music is primarily a construct of human minds (and secondarily a social construct) and contrast it with the approach implicit in the work of some music theorists, which treats music as though it were an externally defined quasi-Platonic absolute. We argue that a natural conclusion of this approach is that music theory, while already being a kind of folk psychology, can benefit from being more explicitly informed by music cognition studies. We give examples from work in the computational modelling of music cognition, following our approach, which attempts to place each musical phenomenon in an ecological context motivated by evolutionary considerations, and which aims to explain musical phenomena independently of the explicit intervention of the theorist. We argue that only thus can a theory be said veridically to explicate the phenomenology of music. We place our argument in context of the Generative Theory of Tonal Music (Lerdahl & Jackendoff, 1983), Generative Linguistics, and other papers in the current volume, and compare them all with results of modelling studies based on our espoused approach.
I haven't had time to read this yet, but I naturally wonder what else is in the volume.


Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell Observations on film art have posted complementary analytical discussions of Christopher Nolan's Inception (which I have not yet seen).  Thompson focuses on characterization and Bordwell on the narrative structure, which includes multiple levels of embedded stories.

I was especially pleased to see Bordwell's reference to the cognitive limitations on levels of embedding (or recursion); he writes:
It turns out that our minds can’t build these nested structures indefinitely. We hit a limit.
Peter believes that Jane thinks that Sally wants Peter to suppose that Jane intends Sally to believe that her ball is under the cushion.
Robin Dunbar, whose example this is, suggests that most adults can’t handle so much recursion. His experiments indicate that the normal limit is at most five levels—just what we have in Inception (four dream layers plus the reality frame). Add more, and most of us would get muddled.
Bordwell's coda to their joint post includes many useful links on Inception and on narrative in cinema. The book of Dunbar's to which he is referring is:
Robin Dunbar, The Human Story: A New History of Mankind’s Evolution (London: Faber, 2004)
Dr. Mike already saw Inception on Nantucket during it's opening weekend, but swears he needs to see it again.  So perhaps there is hope for me yet.


Tyler Cowen notes the following intriguing sentence from an article in Der Spiegel:
Government payments compensating hunters for lost income due to radioactive boar have quadrupled since 2007.
Cowen also points to the following news story:
A man was jailed by a Kemerovo region court on Thursday for assaulting a Gypsy fortune teller who predicted that he would be jailed, the Investigative Committee said.

Gennady Osipovich tried to kill the unidentified female fortune teller, who told him she saw a “state-owned house” — a Russian euphemism for jail — in his future, the committee said in a statement on its web site.

The woman managed to escape, but Osipovich stabbed to death two unidentified witnesses of the assault, which took place in October. He was sentenced to 22 years in a maximum-security prison.
I'm not the first to point out that this sounds a lot like an episode of The Twilight Zone.
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1 comment:

  1. Anyone who stabs a "psychic" con-artist (and they're all con-artists) should be commended for reducing the population of fraudsters who prey on the gullible and weak-minded and uncertain. The other stabbings are unconscionable, unless they were her co-conspirators, in which case, well stabbed, Stabby Joe.