07 September 2010

Weekend Roundup, 3 to 6 September 2010

Labor Day Weekend: the end of tenure?; let's eliminate the middleman in scholarly publishing; scholarly conferences and scholarly cred; Dobbs in Slate on the Hauser affair; Hauser "erased" from Edge website; university patenting hinders research and loses money; a profile of Francis Collins, head of NIH; two new papers on Y-STRs; the deep evolution of the brain; David Sloan Wilson on evolutionary accounting; the Price Equation made simple; Evolving Culture on NPR; 64,000-year-old arrow heads; "Animal cognition" at SAE; Scruton on Neurotrash; an interview with Ethan Watters; critiquing a study of multitasking; lumpers and splitters in language; Bolles on the evolution of language; Wilkins on similarity; celebrating John Cage's 98th with a 4'33'' playlist; congenital amusia among speakers of tone languages; a profile of composer Nico Muhly; ICMPC days 4 and 5 (and a 5-year-old Polish drumming prodigy); a fraud ring in the art world; an English-language summary of the Sarrazin hubbub; a seriously ranting toddler; Houellebecq accused of plagiarizing...from Wikipedia.

There has been a gush of great stuff over the past few days.  Since this may be the last of these digests for a while, at least in this form (for reasons that I'll make clear on Tuesday), it's fitting that they go into a period of metamorphosis with a bang.

Academia & Scholarly Publishing

Christopher Shea has essay in the Sunday Book Review of The New York Times, "The End of Tenure?," reacting to two new books that have been previously mentioned in this blog:
Andrew Hacker and Claudia C. Dreifus, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do About It.
Mark C. Taylor, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities.
I have not yet gotten my hands on either of these (Taylor's book was just released last week). I linked to an interview with Hacker in my Roundup for 31 July to 1 August, and I've covered essays by Taylor drawn from ideas in his book here and here.

Shea's essay contains a paragraph that gives a particularly trenchant short summary of higher education's problems in the U.S.:
The cost of a college education has risen, in real dollars, by 250 to 300 percent over the past three decades, far above the rate of inflation. Elite private colleges can cost more than $200,000 over four years. Total student-loan debt, at nearly $830 billion, recently surpassed total national credit card debt. Meanwhile, university presidents, who can make upward of $1 million annually, gravely intone that the $50,000 price tag doesn’t even cover the full cost of a year’s education. (Consider the balance a gift!) Then your daughter reports that her history prof is a part-time adjunct, who might be making $1,500 for a semester’s work. There’s something wrong with this picture.
The following paragraph also struck particularly close to home:
The labor system, for one thing, is clearly unjust. Tenured and tenure-track professors earn most of the money and benefits, but they’re a minority at the top of a pyramid. Nearly two-thirds of all college teachers are non-tenure-track adjuncts like Matt Williams, who told Hacker and Dreifus he had taught a dozen courses at two colleges in the Akron area the previous year, earning the equivalent of about $8.50 an hour by his reckoning. It is foolish that graduate programs are pumping new Ph.D.’s into a world without decent jobs for them. If some programs were phased out, teaching loads might be raised for some on the tenure track, to the benefit of undergraduate education.
I taught several classes as an adjunct at the University of Memphis in 2000 and 2001, including a graduate seminar on Mozart's operas and a graduate course on Baroque music.  I was paid $1500 per semester for these.  For spring semester 2002, I designed an especially interesting and novel graduate-level course, "The Romantic Piano" covering the period from Beethoven to 1848.  The course would have covered not only the major composers and repertoire, but also the technological development of the piano, piano pedagogy, performance practices, and the social roles of the piano, among other things. 

Over the winter vacation preceding the class, I did the math (something I had avoided confronting previously), and realized that (counting prep time) I would be making less than $10 an hour for the class—not taking into account that I would have to buy nearly all the necessary CDs for the class out of my own pocket, as the music library had next to no acquisitions budget.  At that time I was making nearly $30 an hour teaching second graders (and others) piano through the Community Music School.  So it made absolutely no financial sense for me to teach the graduate class, and I withdrew so that I could take on more piano students.  Some members of the permanent faculty were pissed off, but they were apparently also utterly unable even to begin to see the lunacy of the conditions under which they were asking adjuncts to work.

It pained me not to teach that class, and I'd still love to do it.

I'm delighted to see one of my blog heroes, John Hawks (a real scientist with a real job) come out against the reigning framework of scholarly publishing, dominated by for-profit publishers who get both content and peer reviewing for free while charging extortionate rates for access; see his post, "Why don't universities cut out the middleman?

Hawks is responding in part to four recent articles on the future of science (and social science) publishing.  I've previously read and linked to two of these, by Matt Nisbet and David Crotty.  The other two are new to me, and I'm looking forward to reading them:
Bill Davis, "Free Journal Access as a Pubic Issue"

Alex Golub, "Gourmet vs. All Things Considered: The anthropological edition"
From Hawks' post:
How long will it take universities to realize that they're also paying for the research, so why should they pay to read it? They could save an awful lot of money by cutting out the middleman.

The University of California boycotted Nature publications to get lower prices. Rising journal prices are a problem, but not the main problem.

The main problem is that authors must surrender their copyright to a cartel of publishers in order to see their scientific work reviewed by peers.

The reviewers are unpaid volunteers. The authors, by surrendering copyright, become unpaid volunteers. And yet, both authors and reviewers are mostly paid employees of universities.

Wouldn't it be fairly simple to redirect these resources from journal subscriptions to online production?

Pimpgnosis has trenchant, funny, and all-too-true post on the role of scholarly conferences in the accumulation of scholarly cred: "Move along, sonny. Your credit's no good here."

David Dobbs of Neuron Culture, whose coverage of the Marc Hauser affair I have cited several times, now has an article on the affair at Slate: "A Rush to Moral Judgment: What went wrong with Marc Hauser's search for moral foundations."

Joshua Hartshorne at games without words opines that "Slate's Report on Hauser Borders on Fraud," because it suggests that Hauser's work on the cognitive and evolutionary foundation of morality is under question, even though Hauser's retracted paper had nothing to do with his work on morality.

Well, maybe.  The retracted paper is on rule learning, and two other papers under scrutiny deal with the recognition by cotton-top tamarins of intentional behavior in others.  Both are surely crucial building blocks of morality.  So Slate's report isn't really fraud in the same sense as, say, the reporting of fictional data.

Meanwhile, Dobbs points out at Neuron Culture that Hauser's participation at the recent Edge conference on morality has been almost completely erased from the Edge website.  All that remains is a footnote added to the introduction: "[EDITOR'S NOTE: Marc Hauser, one of the nine participants at the conference, has withdrawn his contribution.]"  There is no further explanation, and no reference to the investigation of Hauser. 

As has been pointed out in the comments to Dobbs's post, there's something rather Soviet about this.

Creative Rights

The patenting of university research, incentivized by the Bayh-Dole Act, has been a "dismal failure," writes Mike Masnick at TechDirt. Nearly all universities lose money through the process, and it has actually decreased researchers' output—the opposite of the effect the Act was intended to have.


Peter J. Boyer at The New Yorker has an excellent profile (freely accessible online) of Francis Collins, outstanding scientist (he and his collaborators discovered the genes that caused cystic fibrosis and neurofibromatosis), former director of the Human Genome Project, current director of the National Institutes of Health....and committed Christian. 

The article is framed in the context of the recent (23 August) decision from Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the Federal District Court for D.C., halting federal spending for embryonic-stem-cell research, work that Collins supports.


The rapid advances in human genomics have made it possible to trace the histories of human populations and migrations with a level of detail that would have seemed impossible even 30 years ago. Razib Khan at Gene Expression follows this ever expanding literature more closely and writes about it more clearly and in more detail than any blogger I know.

In a recent post, he gives an admirable summary of one strand of that work, having to do with the haplogroup R1b, "the most common Y chromosomal lineage in western Europe."  The post provides the necessary background for his discussion of a new article on the topic:
N. M. Myres et al. (2010), "A major Y-chromosome haplogroup R1b Holocene era founder effect in Central and Western Europe," European Journal of Human Genetics.  The article is behind a paywall at Nature Publishing, and costs $32.00.

Meanwhile, Dienekes points to yet another important new paper on the genetics of the Y-chromosome:
Kaye N. Ballantyne, et al. (2010), "Mutability of Y-Chromosomal Microsatellites: Rates, Characteristics, Molecular Bases, and Forensic Implications," The American Journal of Human Genetics (in press). The article is behind a paywall at Science Direct, and costs $31.50.


Carl Zimmer has an outstanding piece on the deep evolution of the brain: new research shows that the cerebral cortex in vertebrates and the "mushroom bodies" in insects and other invertebrates stem from a common ancestor. Some of the same genes involved in building the cerebral cortex are used to build mushroom bodies. 

Zimmer is my candidate for best current science writer....and this in a field that contains several other first-rate ones.  You may think that you aren't interested in mushroom bodies or that you won't be able to understand the science, but Zimmer will change your mind.

David Sloan Wilson, not surprisingly, comes out in (slightly qualified) favor of the recent "eusociality" article by Nowak, Tarnita, & Wilson, and he wonders why the Dawkinses of the world keep resisting.

See Wilson's "What Does It Mean for a Theory to Function as an Accounting Method?" at Evolution for Everyone.

DavidB at Gene Expression (classic) has an excellent post explaining the first Price Equation in the terms used by George Price himself.  I'm still making my way through this, but the post does an admirable job of making the math understandable. 

The timing of the post is good, as I currently have out of the library the new biography of Price by Oren Harman, The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness.

I'd been aware that NPR has been broadcasting a series called The Human Edge, examining various aspects of human evolution, but I hadn't been keeping up with it. 

This morning, however, the alarm of my clock radio alarm coincided with the beginning of the broadcast of the final segment of the series on Morning Edition: "Evolving Culture: Where Do We Go from Here?" Well worth a listen and/or a read, especially if you're new to the notion that culture culture "evolves" in something like the same sense that species evolve.

I could use The Human Edge as the title of my autobiography.


Victoria Gill at BBC News reports on the discovery of what are claimed to be the oldest known arrow heads:  64,000 year-old stone points from Sibudu Cave in South Africa, showing evidence that suggests they were used on arrows rather than merely as spear points.

Gill's article fails to provide a link to the article that it reports.  The article is:
Marlize Lombard and Laurel Phillipson, "Indications of bow and stone-tipped arrow use 64 000 years ago in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa," Antiquity.  The article is behind a paywall, and costs £15.00 (~$23.00)
Here is the abstract:
The invention of the bow and arrow was a pivotal moment in the human story and its earliest use is a primary quarry of the modern researcher. Since the organic parts of the weapon–wood, bone, cord and feathers–very rarely survive, the deduction that a bow and arrow was in use depends heavily on the examination of certain classes of stone artefacts and their context. Here the authors apply rigorous analytical reasoning to the task, and demonstrate that, conforming to their exacting checklist, is an early assemblage from Sibudu Cave, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, which therefore suggests bow and arrow technology in use there 64 millennia ago.


I first ran across the article "Animal cognition" by Kristin Andrews in the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy in the spring of 2008, shortly after it was first published, while I was taking Irene Pepperberg's course on animal cognition at Harvard Extension.  I remember it as a good introduction to the big issues in the field: whether or not animals can be said to have minds, issues of experimental methodology in studies of animal cognition, and the like.

A revision of that article has just been published (3 September 2010), and I'm looking forward to rereading it.  The bibliography and list of external links alone make the article worth looking at.

Roger Scruton has a sad and predictable essay at Big Questions Online, "Against Neurotrash," providing a critique of the supposed excesses of those who would use the results of neuroscience to undermine the notion of "human uniqueness." 

It is astonishing that someone like Scruton can be taken seriously as a thinker and given a platform from which to embarrass himself when it is painfully evident that he is almost entirely ignorant of the science that he is claiming to criticize.

Vaughan at Mind Hacks points to Natasha Mitchell's interview at ABC Radio National (Australia) with Ethan Watters, author of Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche. (You can listen to or download the interview here, and there is also a complete transcript.)

Vaughan promises that he is writing a review of Watters' book for The Psychologist. I'm looking forward to it.

Mark Liberman at Language Log has another excellent cautionary tale investigating (and critiquing) the science behind a headline: in this case a study that purports to show that heavy users of multimedia have more trouble focusing mentally than do light users. The post (and Liberman's recent post on a paper by Fausey and Boroditsky) serve as an excellent introduction to the skill of critiquing research articles in psychology and related fields.


Michael Pleyer at a replicated typo has an interesting post, "Language, Thought and Space (I): Lumpers and Splitters," motivated by the recent article in the NYT magazine by Guy Deutscher on linguistic relativism.

Edmund Blair Boles at Babel's Dawn has a fine summary of his current thinking on the evolution of language, "Riding A Two-Horse Shay."  His notion that "words pilot attention" seems quite plausible to me, and it does do a good job of explaining reflexives in English.


John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts has an excellent post on "Similarity."

I'm slightly troubled, though, by the statement: "As we know, there are an infinitely large number of properties in common or potentially in common between any two objects." I'm wondering what the proof of this is (assuming we're to take "infinitely large" literally, and not merely as meaning "really a lot").


Sunday, 5 September would have been John Cage's 98th birthday.  Alex Ross writes at The Rest is Noise that in celebration he will be listening to all the items in his iTunes library that are 4'33''.

I should probably be embarrassed about this, but I think I can probably still sing all the words to "Sunshine Superman."

Sarah Stanley at Curious! writes on a new study of the prevalence of congenital amusia among speakers of tone languages (such as Mandarin). The study is:
Yun Nan, Yanan Sun, and Isabelle Peretz, "Congenital amusia in speakers of a tone language: association with lexical tone agnosia," Brain.  The article is behind a paywall, and costs $32.00.
Here is the abstract:
Congenital amusia is a neurogenetic disorder that affects the processing of musical pitch in speakers of non-tonal languages like English and French. We assessed whether this musical disorder exists among speakers of Mandarin Chinese who use pitch to alter the meaning of words. Using the Montreal Battery of Evaluation of Amusia, we tested 117 healthy young Mandarin speakers with no self-declared musical problems and 22 individuals who reported musical difficulties and scored two standard deviations below the mean obtained by the Mandarin speakers without amusia. These 22 amusic individuals showed a similar pattern of musical impairment as did amusic speakers of non-tonal languages, by exhibiting a more pronounced deficit in melody than in rhythm processing. Furthermore, nearly half the tested amusics had impairments in the discrimination and identification of Mandarin lexical tones. Six showed marked impairments, displaying what could be called lexical tone agnosia, but had normal tone production. Our results show that speakers of tone languages such as Mandarin may experience musical pitch disorder despite early exposure to speech-relevant pitch contrasts. The observed association between the musical disorder and lexical tone difficulty indicates that the pitch disorder as defining congenital amusia is not specific to music or culture but is rather general in nature.

Paul Sullivan at The National has an interesting short profile of the young American composer Nico Muhly.  A quote:
Effortlessly straddling the academic and the popular, the 29-year-old Muhly’s sprawling oeuvre spans pieces premiered by the Chicago Symphony and American Symphony orchestras, film scores for Choking Man and The Reader, special commissions for the American Ballet Theatre, not to mention a long-term working relationship with Philip Glass (as editor, keyboardist, and conductor for numerous film and stage projects), and a multitude of creative exchanges within the upper echelons of the alt.pop world: think Antony and the Johnsons, Björk, Bonnie Prince Billy and Grizzly Bear.

Victoria Williamson continues her (now after the fact) blogging of the International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (ICMPC, 23-27 August 2010) with a reports on Days 4 and 5.

At as session on rhythm on Day 4, Simone Dalla Bella gave a talk on the 5-year-old Polish drumming prodigy Igor Falecki.  Here is a YouTube video of Igor playing at age 4.


The second paper in the session, by Rick Ashley, was on the grammar of drum patterns.

Day 5 included a session on the neuroscience of music.


Lisa Zeitz has a fascinating article (auf Deutsch) at FAZ.NET on a major forgery scandal in the art world: "Das Titanweiß verrät den Fälscher."

In 2006, a painting that was thought to be irretrievably lost was "rediscovered": "Rotes Bild mit Pferden" (Red Painting with Horses) by Heinrich Campendonck, painted in 1914. Campendonck was known to have painted such a picture, for it was listed in a catalogue of the Galerie Flechtheim from 1920, although without an illustration.

The "rediscovered" painting was auctioned by Lempertz in Cologne for €2.4 million (by today's exchange rate over $3 million).

Soon, however, technical problems were uncovered regarding the attribution. The painting showed patches of titanium white, which was not in use in 1914, and the Flechtheim sticker on the back of the painting was shown to be a forgery. The purchaser, the firm Trasteco, based in Malta, soon brought suit against Lempertz.

The painting had been brought to Lempertz by two sisters who claimed that it stemmed from the collection of their grandfather Werner Jäger. In 1995, Christie's in London had auctioned another Campendonck (likewise now considered doubtful) from the "Jäger Collection," and works said to be from that collection by Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, and André Derain have turned up elsewhere.

It now appears, though, that there was never any such collection, and that the paintings said to come from it are forgeries.

Politics & Society

I had promised myself not to give any more exposure to the repellent ideas of Thilo Sarrazin.  However, for my non-German-speaking readers who haven't quite figured out what all the fuss is about, sign and sight has a good summary in English, with links to the outpouring of writing in the German-language press about Sarrazin's new book...which will probably have helped its sales enormously.


Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log has posted a link and a comment on a Facebook video of a ranting toddler in the babbling phase.  Pullum writes:
When the stresses and strains of university department administration get me down, when I need a break and I really want to giggle till I'm helpless, I simply close my office door, bring a box of Kleenex over to near the computer so I can wipe off the tears running down my cheeks, and watch, once again, the Facebook ranting toddler video. Victor Mair first brought it to our attention here at One Language Log Plaza, and we have been watching it occasionally ever since. The extraordinary intensity of this little girl's concentration on the nonsense she is babbling, together with the strange fantasy of the wandering themes in the subtitles, yields an experience the like of which I have never seen anywhere.
And here she is.  (I'd embed the video if I could figure out how.)

French writer Michel Houellebecq has been accused of plagiarism in his new book La carte et le territoire.  He is alleged, in an article at Slate.fr, to have copied at least three passages from French Wikipedia.  See the story at Yahoo! News.
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