01 September 2010

Daily Digest, 2010,08.30

Monday: Crotty on the "burden" of peer review; the 3rd edition of the OED will probably never appear in print; Barnes & Noble at 66th and Broadway to close; is the iPod dying?; phoneme inventory size and demography; Downey on the new linguistic relativity; Liberman on Boroditsky; new research on psychedelic drugs; more on the eusociality paper; days 2 and 3 of ICMPC (conclusion); an interview with the librettist of Weinberg's Die Passagierin; Vivaldi's Ottone in villa in Innsbruck; a complete edition of the works of Gabriel Fauré; Hitchens on Larsson; an interview with E. O. Wilson about his novel (yes, his novel); Sarrazin on the "Jewish gene"; a newly rediscovered video interview with Rod Serling.

Yes, I'm falling a bit behind this week.  Too much good stuff, too little time....


David Crotty at The Scholarly Kitchen responds to some of the recent outpouring on the problems of peer review with "The 'Burden' of Peer Review," in which the scare-quotes of the title accurately depict his skepticism that peer review is the overwhelming burden it is lately often depicted to be.

Crotty does not address the wider range of problems in peer review discussed by recent writers (corruption, for example, on which see Melody Dye's posts, which I've previously discussed here). He writes that he has "always thought of peer-review as a tremendously efficient bargain (review a small number of papers and get back the entire set of literature that’s been filtered and scrutinized at the same level)."

(And it certainly is a bargain for the for-profit publishers, who get both content and reviewing for free, for which they then charge extortionate prices; Crotty does not make discuss this point.)

Crotty (who is a biologist) limits his attention to peer review in the sciences (and more specifically to biology, which is the field he knows). But obviously one cannot make valid generalizations about peer review while limiting the discussion to a single field or even a group of fields.  Peer review is a central facet of scholarly publication across all fields, from musicology to hotel management to psychoanalysis to macroeconomics to law to materials science and on and on.  (That some of these fields will not be seen as "scholarly" by everyone is part of my point; peer review is, among other things, too much the province of ingrown professional cliques.)

Crotty made an informal survey of a dozen biology professors, and writes:
The vast majority told me they review around 1-3 papers each month. Scientists are under enormous work and time pressures these days, but how much of that can be blamed on reviewing a few papers each month?

Some senior researchers review more papers, often because they’re on the editorial boards of journals, and their burden can range as high as 10 to 15 papers per month. That does seem like a sizable workload, but it’s hard to think of it as an unbearable burden when it’s an entirely voluntary one.  Can one really call a voluntary activity a “burden”?
Crotty depicts "1 to 3" papers as a small amount of work, but this seems dubious.  Even if one is reviewing a paper in one's field of greatest expertise, a close review can take many hours of work.  The notion that some senior researchers are "reviewing" 10 to 15 a month (even if they are using their graduate students and post docs as assistants) virtually guarantees superficiality in the reviews.

So I wonder if Crotty's "statistics" may actually suggest that scientists (or biologists, at any rate) are not putting adequate effort and time into the papers that they are reviewing. 

(One possible reason for this might be that they take on too many papers to review; Crotty does not address the fact that many academics feel constrained to take on reviews when asked in order to establish and maintain their professional positions.)

The Marc Hauser case—in which it now appears that at least one article based on partly fraudulent data was published in a high-profile peer-review journal (Cognition)—would seem to provide at least some circumstantial support for the notion that reviewers aren't digging deeply enough.  I'm guessing that the danger signals in that paper were evident, if one had done a close review.

Crotty says nothing about the Hauser case.


According to an article by Alastair Jamieson at Telegraph.co.uk, the next edition (the 3rd) of the Oxford English Dictionary will almost certainly not be printed, and will appear only in electronic form.

A quote:
“The print dictionary market is just disappearing, it is falling away by tens of per cent a year,” Nigel Portwood, the chief executive of OUP, told the Sunday Times. Asked if he thought the third edition would be printed, he said: “I don’t think so.”
This isn't all that surprising.  Perhaps even more interesting are the statements of Simon Winchester, author of The Meaning of Everything: The Story of The Oxford English Dictionary, and many other top-selling non-fiction books.  Jamieson quotes Winchester:
“Until six months ago I was clinging to the idea that printed books would likely last for ever. Since the arrival of the iPad I am now wholly convinced otherwise.
“The printed book is about to vanish at extraordinary speed. I have two complete OEDs, but never consult them – I use the online OED five or six times daily. The same with many of my reference books – and soon with most.
“Books are about to vanish; reading is about to expand as a pastime; these are inescapable realities.”
This from a man who has made his living writing books.

So what are the new "long forms" that will take the place of the traditional book?

As if to underscore Winchester's point, Julie Bosman at The New York Times reports that the Barnes & Noble at 66th and Broadway in Manhattan (the huge one across from Lincoln Center) is closing at the end of January because of an increase in rent.


In the run up to Apple's "music" event in San Francisco on Wednesday, Charles Arthur at The Guardian writes on the plummeting sales of the iPod. Arthur writes:
The latest sales figures for the quarter to June showed 9m sold – the lowest quarterly number since 2006. In short, the iPod, launched in October 2001, looks to be in terminal decline. While Apple is unworried – sales of its iPhone and iPad are booming – the drooping figures for the digital music player market are a concern for another sector: the music companies.

The music industry had looked to the iPod to drive people to buy music in download form, whether from Apple's iTunes music store, eMusic, Napster or from newer competitors such as Amazon. The problem for them is that digital music sales are only growing as fast as those of Apple's devices – and as the stand-alone digital music player starts to die off, people may lose interest in buying songs from digital stores.
The article considers whether the industry may be moving to an "app"-based economy, rather than one based on "tracks."  Some musicians (Peter Gabriel and Nine Inch Nails) have already jumped on that bandwagon.  The industry sees some hope in that:  apps are difficult (it is said) to pirate.

Whether this is a good thing for artists and their audiences is another matter entirely.


James Winters at a replicated typo has a fascinating post drawing in part on his own research, "Phoneme Inventory Size and Demography."  Examines the question: Do lingusitic communities with a small number of speakers tend to have a smaller inventory of phonemes in their language? (I'm still in the process of reading this.)

Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology has a good post on Guy Deutscher's article on linguistic relativity, which I discussed in this past weekend's Roundup. Downey takes Deutscher to task for being too hard on Whorf, and says that linguistic relativism never really went entirely away in anthropology.  In addition to providing a good and thoughtful summary of Deutscher's article, Downey's post also provides an outstanding bibliography—something entirely (and unjustifiably) lacking in Deutscher's article.

Meanwhile, Mark Liberman is just catching up by writing on Lera Boroditsky's essay in The Wall Street Journal in July. His post digs into the experimental design and the data from one of the studies cited by Boroditsky (Fausey & Boroditsky (2008), "English and Spanish speakers remember causal agents differently," Cognitive Science, available from Boroditsky's site here).  As Liberman says (and his post demonstrates), it's always a good idea to make sure you understand the facts in a scientific paper before you read the conclusions. 

Advice very seldom heeded by science journalists (or WSJ subhead writers), unfortunately.  All too often, what in the body of a paper is merely a statistically significant difference (which may be very small, as in some of the experiments in Fausey & Boroditsky) turns into simply "a difference" by the time it reaches the conclusions and the headlines.


Nature has organized a "Blog Focus" hallucinogenic drugs in medicine and mental health.  The focus is inspired by a recent paper:
Franz X. Vollenweider & Michael Kometer (2010), "The neurobiology of psychedelic drugs: implications for the treatment of mood disorders," Nature Reviews Neuroscience.  The review is freely available for download (after a needlessly complicated and overdetermined registration process) until 23 September.  If you'd like the article without going through the registration process, feel free to ask me.
Here is the abstract:
After a pause of nearly 40 years in research into the effects of psychedelic drugs, recent advances in our understanding of the neurobiology of psychedelics, such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), psilocybin and ketamine have led to renewed interest in the clinical potential of psychedelics in the treatment of various psychiatric disorders. Recent behavioural and neuroimaging data show that psychedelics modulate neural circuits that have been implicated in mood and affective disorders, and can reduce the clinical symptoms of these disorders. These findings raise the possibility that research into psychedelics might identify novel therapeutic mechanisms and approaches that are based on glutamate-driven neuroplasticity.
The items in the mini blog-carnival on this topic are:

Neuroskeptic, "Seretonin, Psychedelics and Depression" (the only one of the posts I've read so far, and the one that alerted me to the set; a must-read for seretonin freaks).
Neurophilosophy, "The secret history of psychedelic psychiatry"
Mind Hacks, "Visions of a psychedelic future" (on the drug DMT)
The Neurocritic, "Ketamine for Depression: Yay or Neigh?" ("neigh"??)


More on the "eusociality" paper (Novak, Tarnita & Wilson 2010):

Carl Zimmer has an excellent story at The New York Times, "Scientists Square Off on Evolutionary Value of Helping Relatives," which is perhaps most valuable in giving a sense of the battle lines that are forming over this paper within the community of evolutionary biology. A sample of the range of reactions:
•“I have never felt that inclusive fitness has contributed to an understanding of what’s going on,” said [Dr. James Hunt, biologist at North Carolina State University]. The Harvard team, Dr. Hunt said, is “basically on target.”

•“This paper, far from showing shortcomings in inclusive fitness theory, shows the shortcomings of the authors,” said Frances Ratnieks of the University of Sussex.

•Andy Gardner, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford, said bluntly, “This is a really terrible article.” One problem Dr. Gardner points to is the Harvard team’s claim that the past 40 years of research on inclusive fitness has yielded nothing but “hypothetical explanations.”
“This claim is just patently wrong,” Dr. Gardner said.
Hunt is organizing a meeting in October at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, N.C., to debate the paper.

Dienekes has also begun to investigate the paper, and promises more comment later.  He points to another recent critique of inclusive fitness:
Matthijs van Veelen (2009) "Group selection, kin selection, altruism and cooperation: When inclusive fitness is right and when it can be wrong," Journal of Theoretical Biology.  The article is behind a paywall at Science Direct, and costs $31.50.  (See the link above or Dieneke's post for the abstract.)

Music Cognition and Perception

Victoria Williamson continues her blogging of days 2 and 3 of the International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition. There are four posts:
•Day 2: A session on musical memory, with a talk by Carol Krumhansl on the "power" of musical memory (meaning here, apparently, musical recognition memory); and one by Kat Agres with an EEG study on expectation and prediction in music perception.
•Day 2: A session on amusia, with a talk by Fang Liu on intonation perception and production in amusia; and one by Williamson herself, on short-term tone memory in amusia (amusics, unsurprisingly, are able to hold only a smaller number of tones in memory than normal subjects).
•Day 3: A session on computational modeling, with a talk by Martin Rohrmeier on computer models of musical learning and expectancy, investigating how well various theories match empirical results in humans. (I was surprised to see Narmour's musical grammar used at the de facto here; is this empirically established?)
•Day 3: a talk on musicality measures by Tan Chyuan Chin, who has developed a questionnaire on music training, instrumental use (I guess singers aren't musicians?), and "musical engagement."
Williamson's index of her ICMPC blog reports is here.  She reported only on the talks she attended, and the conference included multiple concurrent sessions, so there is a lot more to investigate.


Der Standard interviews (auf Deustch) Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz, librettist of Mieczysław Weinberg's opera Die Passagierin, just performed in Bregenz. (On Weinberg, see my Digest for 27 July and the links there.) Among other things, Posmysz describes being impressed by the set for the opera, in which the upper level is the deck of a luxury liner, and the lower level is the concentration camp at Auschwitz.

Posmysz ended up in Auschwitz because of her activities with the student resistance movement in Poland (she was 18 when sent to Auschwitz).

Dirk Schümer at FAZ.NET reviews (auf Deutsch) the Innsbruck production of Vivaldi's operatic comedy Ottone in villa (RV 729), his first opera, which premiered in 1713.  The Innsbruck production was directed by Deda Cristina Colonna, in what Schümer describes as a "psychedelic" scenario.

The review provides our German Vocabulary Builder word for today: Rauhfaserkulisse.

Codex flores reports that Bärenreiter-Verlag is initiating a Gesamtausgabe (an edition of the complete works) of Gabriel Fauré. The edition will consist of 26 volumes of music, a catalogue of Fauré's works, and a volume of images.  The report does not mention names of any of the scholars involved in the project.

And one wonders whether there is any justification at this point for producing a traditional printed Gesamtausgabe for any composer.  What we need are well though-out digital editions, using the capabilities of the Internet to link to source material, critical reports, and secondary literature, with the capability of "print on demand" for those who want to use the music for performance.  Is there such an thing yet?  (I pointedly don't include the Digital Mozart, which doesn't even attempt in a serious way to incorporate the potential advantages of the digital format, and which, last I checked, was rather incompetently set up for printing.)


Sometimes 3quarksdaily will link to an article or item that isn't current, without making it clear (at least to me) that this is the case. I don't know why they do this; perhaps it is just to remind us that there are, indeed, things written earlier than this week that are still worth reading.

I'm not sure this is one of those times, however.

Early Tuesday morning, 3quarksdaily posted a link to an article by Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair on the immensely popular trilogy of the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.  Larsson died in November 2004 of a heart attack; all of the books were published posthumously: the first novel was published in Sweden in 2005, and in English translation in 2008.  The third book in the trilogy appeared in hardcover in English translation just this past May. 

Hitchens's piece caught my eye because I just read the first two books in the trilogy over the past couple of weeks (in case you thought I didn't read anything just for fun).  I got off to a slow start with the first book, but was hooked somewhere around page 150.  The Larsson books were a relief from the previous entry in my fiction pile, the most boring science-fiction novel ever written, which I quit reading around page 220 of 240 (something I've never done) because I just didn't care how it came out, and it was taking an apparent eternity to read because it wasn't sufficiently engaging to keep me awake for more than a page or two at a time. 

The Larsson books are by no means great literature (and their many tech references are already so out date as to seem quaint), but they beat the heck out of Dan Brown.

I was halfway through Hitchens's piece before I realized that it was published in December 2009.  I can't really recommend it, although it has some interesting background on Larsson.  Hitchens is a writer who seems to traffic largely in generalities that generally don't bear even modest scrutiny—something many readers seem not to notice, however, perhaps because they are dazzled by the superficial glitz of his prose and his enormously self-confident snarkiness.

Hitchens manages to incorporate spoilers in his piece without saying anything useful about the books (or even anything accurate), so read at your own risk.  I'm sorry that he's seriously ill, but his illness doesn't improve what he has previously written.

Sam Kean at 3quarksdaily carries out what is billed as a "Paris Review-style" interview with E. O. Wilson on his new novel, Anthill. The link given here leads to what is billed as "Part 2" of the interview, but the link to "Part 1" is broken, and no reference to Part 1 shows up at the 3quarksdaily site.


For the past few days, the German press has (unsurprisingly) been preoccupied with Thilo Sarrazin's new book, about which I blogged about last Thursday. I'm not going to summarize the reaction, for I feel that to call attention to such repellent rubbish is self-defeating (and hence, no links). 

However, I note that Sarrazin referred in the Welt am Sonntag (in an interview?) to a "Jewish gene," a statement from which he is now apparently furiously backpedaling.

Charlie Jane Anders points to a newly rediscovered video interview with Rod Serling from 1970. The interviewer is University of Kansas professor James Gunn, and the topic is mainly The Twilight Zone. The interview was never broadcast because of problems over permissions for clips from the show that were to be included in the interview (hooray for copywrong).

The interview is very much worth watching for any fan of the show (I'm a big one).

The original footage of the interview is currently available in two parts at YouTube.

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