05 June 2010

Carl Theodor Dreyer

Over the past three years, I have become an avid film buff, watching on the order of 600 films, and making a semi-systematic effort to fill gaps in my knowledge of classic films and directors. At the moment, I subscribe to only two film blogs, but both are essential.  One is Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell's Observations on film art, which seems to me a model of how one can publish original scholarship on the web (of course, they have day jobs, so they don't have to worry so much about being paid for it). The other is the blog of film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who has been regularly publishing on his blog the hundreds of reviews and essays that he has written over his career. I don't read everything Rosenbaum posts, but I read most of his posts on films or directors I've recently watched, and I find what he has to say always enlightening, and informed by a wide knowledge of film and film history.

Today Rosenbaum posted an essay on Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, who directed the silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927), and the sound films Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955), and Gertrud (1964). Dreyer is considered by many (including Rosenbaum) one of the greatest directors (if not the greatest) in the history of film.

I have to confess, though, that I haven't been able to muster enthusiasm for Dreyer so far. This is not because I've given him a fair shake; I haven't. In fact, the only film of his I've watched is Ordet, sometime last year, and I didn't even make it to the end of that (I found it rather tedious). Rosenbaum has almost convinced me, however, to give Dreyer another shot, and I'm somewhat encouraged by his admission that "I initially hated [Ordet] when I first saw it in my teens."  Well, in film terms, I was still in my teens last year, so perhaps now that I've entered my filmic majority (I hope), it's time for another try. But he will have to wait until I finish the stack of Carné on the coffee table, plus the VHS of Renoir's La Chienne, which I have from the storage facility of some remote outpost of the Minuteman System.

David Bordwell also had a brief post on Dreyer this past Thursday, noting that the "comprehensive and authoritative" Dreyer site of the Danish Film Institute is now online (with an English version available).

If I were a real film geek, I'd right now be watching The Magnificent Ambersons at the Brattle in Cambridge.  I've seen this only once before (at a Welles festival at the LA Art Museum in the 1980s), and chances to see it are few and far between. So far as I've been able to determine, it isn't available on DVD, at least not in the US.

But I've grown tired of going to films (and concerts, for that matter) alone.

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Marilynne Robinson: The Absence of Mind

The Guardian online has published an edited extract from Marilynne Robinson's new book, The Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, based on talks she gave at Yale in 2009 as holder of the Dwight H. Terry Lectureship.

Robinson, whose name I had not previously known, is an American novelist and writer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel Gilead and the UK's Orange Prize for Fiction for her novel Home. The Guardian essay is entitled "Can science solve life's mysteries?" I nearly didn't read the essay, based on the extract at 3quarksdaily that led me to it. That extract uses (or seems to use) a version of a popular (to me) red-herring argument, often used by defenders of supernatural religion, namely that materialists (although she doesn't use this word) commit the fallacy of assuming the proof of a negative in claiming that mind is "only" the activity of the brain. Thus the extract led me to believe (falsely, I now think) that Robinson's essay was one of those run-of-the-mill apologetics for God or the soul, which seem to me seldom if ever interesting enough to be worth reading.

But the essay is much much richer than that, and seems to me, at least on a first reading, to say instead, among many other things, that the problem with the materialist position (as she presents it) is not the claim that the mind is a product of the brain, but rather that the mind is only the  product of the brain. And the problem with this "only" is not that the mind has some existence apart from the brain (it does not appear that she is making this claim) but rather that the "only" is imprudently dismissive, for the brain is not a sufficient explanation of the mind.

This is a position with which I have much sympathy. I sometimes call myself, with my habitual tongue-in-cheek seriousness, a "spiritual atheist." I have been an active member of Theodore Parker Unitarian Universalist Church in West Roxbury, Mass since 2005, and I am currently a member of the Music & Worship Committee (which obviously doesn't forbid atheists from being members).  I gave a short talk about my atheism in a service there in 2006, and since that time, I've co-led services on Darwin (in commemoration of his 200th birthday) and on the notion of congregation as "community"; and this past November I led a service (in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species) on the evolution of religion. (I hope to make my talks for these services available online soon.)  If I were forced to give an "elevator speech" explaining "spiritual atheism," I would probably say something to the effect that I am searching for a way to maintain those social, psychological, and cultural functions of religion that may (and I stress the tentativeness) help account for its evolution, and which may (regardless of whether this explanation is true) be crucial to our survival as a species—but absent the supernatural doctrine or belief of any kind.

I am not a proselytizing atheist in the mold of the so-called "New Atheists." I am an atheist because this is simply the way the world seems to me to be. The notion of "God" seems to me not to be coherent: the word itself seems to be a nearly infinitely malleable marker for—well, it's not at all clear what it is a marker for, because of it's very malleability, and that's the problem: it's not clear that it has a denotation.  Perhaps it serves a function as a word (are there others?) that has only connotation. The word "supernatural" likewise seems incoherent in a rather similar way: for what can we possibly imagine to exist that is not natural? If any kind of God exists, then surely that God is a being, and as such, is part of what exists (that is, "the universe"), and thus "natural."

On a first reading, Robinson's essay seems to me to approach many of these same issues in an intellectually dense and profound, yet elegant way. As I finished my first reading, it struck me as a wonderful sermon for the spiritual non-believer, a sermon I would deliver to the Theodore Parker congregation, if I were able to write great sermons.  It is erudite in the best possible way, engaging with the ideas not only of Wilson and Pinker, but also Descartes, Comte, and Freud, among others, and showing (for a humanist) an impressively wide grasp of modern science.

However, I won't know whether I actually think that the essay is "great," in the sense of being a work to which it will be worth repeatedly returning, until I read it again and begin to argue with it. But it seems to me today to be something that all of my Unitarian friends (many of whom are subscribed to this blog) and perhaps many of my other readers will want to read.

It is not an essay that lends itself to easy summary, which is perhaps a defining characteristic of great essays. Rather than attempting to summarize the unsummarizable, here are a few quotes that I hope will give some hint of of the richness of thought in the essay. The essay begins:
It will be a great day in the history of science if we sometime discover a damp shadow elsewhere in the universe where a fungus has sprouted. The mere fossil trace of life in its simplest form would be the crowning achievement of generations of brilliant and diligent labour. And here we are, a gaudy efflorescence of consciousness, staggeringly improbable in light of everything we know about the reality that contains us. There are physicists and philosophers who would correct me. They would say, if there are an infinite number of universes, as in theory there could be, then creatures like us would be very likely to emerge at some time in one of them. But to say this is only to state the fact of our improbability in other terms.

Then there is the odd privilege of existence as a coherent self, the ability to speak the word "I" and to mean by it a richly individual history of experience, perception and thought.
Other extracts:
If complex life is the marvel we all say it is, quite possibly unique to this planet, then meat is, so to speak, that marvel in its incarnate form...

If the mind is the activity of the brain, this means only that the brain is capable of such lofty and astonishing things that their expression has been given the names mind, and soul, and spirit...

Those who claim to dismiss the mind/body dichotomy actually perpetuate it when they exclude the mind's self-awareness from among the data of human nature...

The strangeness of reality consistently exceeds the expectations of science, and the assumptions of science, however tried and rational, are very inclined to encourage false expectations. As a notable example, no one expected to find that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, and that the rate of its acceleration is accelerating. It is a tribute to the brilliance of science that we can know such things. And it is also an illustration of the fact that science does not foreclose possibility, including discoveries that overturn very fundamental assumptions, and that it is not a final statement about reality but a highly fruitful mode of inquiry into it....

We may never know why gravity is so much weaker than, in theory, it should be, or know if we are only one among any number of actual and potential universes. But every real question is fruitful, as the history of human thought so clearly demonstrates.
 And "fruitful" is by no means a synonym for "soluble". What is man? One answer on offer is, An  organism whose haunting questions perhaps ought not to be meaningful to the organ that generates them, lacking as it is in any means of "solving" them. Another answer might be, It is still too soon to tell. We might be the creature who brings life on this planet to an end, and we might be the creature who awakens to the privileges that inhere in our nature – selfhood, consciousness, even our biologically anomalous craving for "the truth" – and enjoys and enhances them. Mysteriously, neither possibility precludes the other. Our nature will describe itself as we respond to new circumstances in a world that changes continuously. So long as the human mind exists to impose itself on reality, as it has already done so profoundly, what it is and what we are must remain an open question.
I wish I'd written that—and I think there's no more profound compliment one writer can give another.

When I went to the Minuteman Library site today to request Absence of Mind, I was informed that there were "16 holds on first copy returned of 3 copies." This in itself is perhaps indicative of a deep need among many to engage with these profound but crucial questions. 

Now there are 17 holds, and the book is also on my Amazon Wishlist. In the meantime, today I checked out of the Newton Library Robinson's 1998 collection The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought.  If I find any of the essays in it at all as engaging as Robinson's essay in the Guardian, I will write about them here.

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04 June 2010

Daily Digest, 04.06.2010

An evolutionary psychology Agony Aunt at the Guardian; more on dolphin iPads; more on fMRI lie-detection; using neural networks to classify music; Broca's area and syntax (or not); American "sickcare"; why does time flow in only one direction?; the 100 best science blog posts; and be very very careful what you do in the lab.

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How the Human Genome Mixed with the Neanderthal

In light of last month's big news, the publishing in Science of "A Draft Sequence of the Neanderthal Genome," and the discovery of the apparent presence of Neanderthal genes in the human genome, here is one magazine's reconstruction of how that might have happened:

Didn't I know him in high school?

(Thanks to Michael Lorenz for this find.)
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A wonderful quote (by way of The Browser) from a review in the current NYRB by Robert Bartlett of Thomas N. Bisson, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century:
"Historians like bureaucracy, because it feeds their hunger for written
sources, the raw material with which they work..."
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The Coffee Illusion

According to a press release on Science Daily, "Coffee Consumption Unrelated to Alertness: Stimulating Effects May Be Illusion, Study Finds."

The important finding is that the sense of alertness that habitual coffee drinkers feel is just coffee bringing them back to "normal."  According to the press release, "post-caffeine levels of alertness were no higher than the non/low consumers who received a placebo."

The study, from a group at the University of Bristol, is published online in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.  (Not quite enough syllables for a "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" take off, but almost.) The article is behind a paywall and costs $32.00, or approximately five bags of Equal-Exchange French Roast Beans.

And with that, I think I'll go make my third cup of the morning....
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03 June 2010

Daily Digest, 03.06.2010

Today: Arizona tries to "reassign" teachers with accents; the EFF fights predatory copyright suits; Brewster Kahle on the futures of book distribution; "lazy" carrion crows sometimes help out; Moran helps save the world from Lamarckism; a 58,000-year-old ochre production site in South Africa; the perils of the "doll test"; Jewish genes; California's prospective ban of plastic shopping bags; the case for peer review in baseball; a concert for dogs; and, finally, it's Sir Jean-Luc (and about time, too).

Yet more apparent anti-immigrant nuttiness in Arizona: Mark Liberman at Language Log comments (with appropriate skepticism, given the source) on a story at Fox News, "Arizona Seeks to Reassign Heavily Accented Teachers," apparently aimed at teachers with Spanish accents. As one of the comments to Liberman's post points out, speakers of Arizonan English would be considered "heavily accented" in many parts of the world (Oxford, for example).

The Electronic Frontier Foundation continues to fight the good fight against predatory copyright lawsuits that attempt to circumvent the rights of the accused.

Kent Anderson at The Scholarly Kitchen summarizes Brewster Kahle's address at the meeting of the Society for Scholarly Publishing on the possible futures of book distribution.

NatureNews reports on a study just published in PRSB, showing that "lazy" carrion crows (Corvus corone)— non-breeding individuals who do not ordinarily participate in shared responsibilities of caring for young in the social group—will increase their help disproportionately in times of special need (for example, when one member of a breeding pair is injured). These observations may, the authors suggest, help explain why the groups would tolerate free-riders in the first place. The article, Baglione, V. et al. Proc. R. Soc. B, is behind a paywall, and I would have to register just to see the price. But not right now.

Larry Moran at Sandwalk, um (pardon me), eviscerates the study I linked to yesterday about our catfish- turtle-, and crocodile-eating distant ancestors. He makes much clearer than I could the rather Lamarckian hypothesis that the study seems to be putting forward (ancestors ate omega-fatty-acid-rich foods, their brains grew, and thus bigger brains evolved).  I'm sure that's not what they meant to imply, but it sure seems to be the impression given by their own conclusion (which Moran quotes) and the press reports. Guess it's a good thing I didn't shell out that $10....

Jennifer Viegas at Discovery News writes on a newly discovered 58,000-year-old ochre powder production site at Sibudu, South Africa. Ochre is clay tinted in various hues by the presence of mineral oxides. The use of ochre for decoration of bodies, clothing, and artifacts is considered a crucial indicator of the presence of symbolic thought and behavior in humans. The abstract is here; a pdf of the corrected proofs of the article is available from ScienceDirect for $31.50. I wonder how much ochre I can buy for that ....

Peter Frost at Evo and Proud contributes a fascinating post on "The use and abuse of doll tests," a topic on which Frost himself has done research. In doll tests, children of various ages are given a choice between one of two dolls, one typically with a darker skin color than the other. Many studies show children after about the age of 4 typically pick the lighter doll, irrespective of their own skin color, and it is often assumed that these results reflect culturally learned attitudes. Frost makes a persuasive case that this isn't so; he points out that cross-cultural research shows this pattern of choice to be more or less universal, and he suggests the reason more likely has to do with selection for the ready perception of sexual dimorphism in complexion (women, in general and across cultures, are "fairer" than men). Includes a great bibliography.

Nature News describes a newly published study in the American Journal of Human Genetics on the genetic commonalities among various Jewish populations. The researchers conducted a genome-wide analysis, based on single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), longer segments of DNA, and copy-number variant, of 237 individuals from Jewish communities in iran, Iraq, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, and eastern Europe. The study found "strong genetic commonalities" among the communities, although also varying degrees of similarity to surrounding populations:  Italians (for the Europeans) and Druze, Bedouin, and Palestinian for the Middle Easterners. The abstract is here. The pdf is behind a paywall at ScienceDirect, where it costs $31.50.

80beats reports on the prospective ban of plastic shopping bags in California, which has now passed the State Assembly and which Governor Schwarzenegger has promised to sign if it is passed by the state Senate.

Kent Anderson wonders whether baseball ought to have peer review, in light of yesterday's umpirical theft of Armando Galarraga's perfect game.

Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson are giving a concert at the Sydney Opera House on Saturday that includes a 20-minute piece designed to be heard only by dogs.  Dogs will be allowed into the concert free.

And now it's Sir Jean-Luc....er, I mean, Sir Patrick.
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Adoption among red squirrels

A press release at Science Daily describes cases of adoption in red squirrels.

The study of adoption across a range of animal species is a crucial aspect of the study of the evolution of altruism. Most (but not all) cases of adoption take place among closely related members of highly social species, like lions or chimps. The evolutionary explanation of this behavior ultimately derives from the work of W. D. Hamilton, who showed that altruistic behavior, such as adoption, could increase the altruistic individual's "fitness" (in an evolutionary sense) if the beneficiary of the altruistic behavior was sufficiently closely related to the altruist—that is, if they shared a sufficient number of genes.  This relationship is described by "Hamilton's rule," the simple but profoundly influential inequality

c < rb

where c is the fitness (reproductive) cost to the altruist (here the adoptive parent), r is the degree of genetic relatedness between the altruist and the beneficiary (for example, for full siblings, r = 0.5, for half siblings r = 0.25), and b is the fitness benefit to the beneficiary.

Red squirrels, unlike lions and chimps, are highly solitary. Adoption of related orphan pups among red squirrels is rare, but what's notable is that is exists at all.

The article is:

Jamieson C. Gorrell, Andrew G. McAdam, David W. Coltman, Murray M. Humphries, Stan Boutin. "Adopting kin enhances inclusive fitness in asocial red squirrels." Nature Communications, 2010. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ncomms1022

At least a the moment, the article can be downloaded for free.
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Daily Digest, 02.06.2010

This started off looking like a slow day, but...

Neanderthal flakes on the M25; our remote ancestors fail to clean up catfish bones after eating; PNAS offers *free* articles on human evolution; bonobo mother shakes head "no"; judge says "no" to fMRI lie detection; false memories; the BP oil spill covers Scotland (or could); dolphins use iPads; ein Blick auf die Lokomotionsform rezenter Menschenaffen; Charlie Parker; and swimming giraffes.

A press release on Science Daily reports new evidence (flint waste flakes from the M25/A2 junction in Dartford) that Neanderthals were in Britain 40,000 years earlier than previously thought.

And speaking of early, Science summarizes a study (just published online at PNAS) describing a newly found 1.95-million-year-old site near Koobi Fora in Kenya that contains "several thousand" stone tools and "hundreds" of bones of terrestrial and aquatic animals that those tools were used to butcher. Species represented include (and this is the take-home point) catfish—a source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, useful for the burgeoning brains of our remote ancestors—as well as crocodiles, turtles, antelopes, hippos, and rhinoceros.

The article itself is (you knew this was coming) behind a paywall, but at least the conditions are marginally less insulting than some I've been reporting lately: this one can be had for 2 entire days from a single computer for a mere $10.

However, PNAS has also made freely available a series of 15 papers from the Colloquium "In the light of evolution IV: The human condition." Contributors include Steven Pinker, Terrence Deacon, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Peter Richerson, Robert Boyd, Nina Jablonski, and many others. Go download them now, before they change their minds. I'm going to do it right now.  They look fascinating, and I hope to report on them here.

Do bonobo mothers shake their heads "no"?  It sure looks like it on this video at BBC Earth News, and researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig think they just might mean it. No parent will be surprised, though, that the baby bonobo isn't paying any attention. 

The article describing the research has just been published online in the journal Primates.  Unfortunately....oh hell, you know what's coming, don't you?  It's behind a paywall: $34, at Springer Link.

The indispensable 80beats at Discover reports that a federal judge in a Tennessee case has rejected the use of fMRI brain scans as evidence of a witness's veracity.  What's especially impressive is that the judge made his decision partly on the basis of a good understanding of the science: namely, that the science is not (to put it mildly) there yet to support fMRIs as "lie detectors."

Vaughan at Mind Hacks points toward an 8-part series in Slate on memory and the ease with which it can be manipulated, focusing especially on the work of Elizabeth Loftus, one of the prime debunkers of the notion of "recovered memory." I haven't had time to look at this series yet, but it sounds well worth reading.

"BP oil plume is big enough to cover most of Scotland," as this graphic (via io9) vividly demonstrates.

Even dolphins are using the iPad (from Orange Crate Art, by way of Boing Boing).

Eric at Affe provides yet another opportunity for me to learn German vocabulary for the fields of physical anthropology and paleoanthropology, in "Nur so ein Gedanke: Die mögliche Rolle der oberen Extremität bei der Evolution des aufrechten Gangs." I particularly like "arborikol," which I hadn't seen before.

A rediscovered film of Charlie Parker playing with Coleman Hawkins, Hank Jones (who just died two weeks ago), Ray Brown, and the ever frenetic Buddy Rich. According to the poster at YouTube, the musicians were filmed playing against pre-recorded tracks. But it's still well worth watching, as it is one of only two known sound films of Parker playing. (Hat tip to Michael Lorenz for pointing me to this clip.)

Today's best blog-post title: "Testing the flotation dynamics and swimming abilities of giraffes by way of computational analysis," over at Tetrapod Zoology.  And that's really what it's about.
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01 June 2010

Daily Digest, 01.06.2010

Today, more on mouse acupuncture, plus articles on SSRIs and suicide, the history of the "nervous breakdown," a really expensive article on the evolution of chins, free articles on the origin of life, "peak wood," and one monster sinkhole.

At the wonderfully named Respectful Insolence (over at ScienceBlogs), a strongly critical but well and clearly argued post on the recent media hubbub over the mouse acupuncture article in Nature Neuroscience, to which I linked the other day. (This article, by the way, unlike some I've linked lately, is freely available, at least as of the time I'm writing this.)

An enlightening short review at Neuroskeptic of research on the possible link between SSRIs (Paxil, Prozac, et al.) and suicide (or more accurately, as Neuroskeptic explains, suicidiality). As a sometime user of SSRIs, I try to follow relevant research as much as possible.  Admit it, some of you are users, too.

An interesting article by Benedict Carey in Monday's NYT on the history of the vague but still popular term "nervous breakdown."

Dienekes reports on a new paper in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology on the evolution of the human chin. Having a chin is one of the distinguishing characteristics of modern humans, when compared to, say, our cousins the chimpanzees or most of our hominid ancestors. So why did the chin evolve?  According to one theory, it provided an anchor for mastication (chewing), but this doesn't seem likely on several grounds. Alternatively, it may be that the chin evolved as an anchor for the unusual movements we came to make while talking (and I wonder, naturally, whether anyone has considered the implications of this theory for singing; think Joan Sutherland). The authors of the study, however, examine the evidence for the development of sexual dimorphism in chins as a result of sexual selection. In other words, do men tend to have relatively "broader" chins (think Doug McClure, if you're old enough to remember) in order to attract women? But what does this theory imply about Joan Sutherland?

Perhaps that's my problem: not enough chin.

The article costs $29.95 for 24-hour access to a pdf in advance of publication from Wiley Interscience. If you think it gets tedious for you to read these price quotes, imagine how I feel when I run up against them several times a day.

In welcome contrast, Cold Springs Harbor Perspectives in Biology offers 11 free articles on the origin of life (thanks to Evolving Thoughts for pointing me toward this).

John Perlin at Miller-McCune writes an eye-opening article on "Peak Wood," outlining the rapid and continuing history of human deforestation, from Gilgamesh to Indiana to the Amazon. I grew up in a lumber town in the Pacific Northwest, and witnessed first hand the environmental damage due to clear-cutting and poor forest management.

And if by some bizarre chance (for instance, if you've been living in a cave without an iPhone, or you've been at work) you haven't yet seen the photo of the >200-ft-deep sinkhole that just appeared in Guatemala, here it is.  By all accounts, it's for real.

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31 May 2010

Daily Digest, 31.05.2010

ABC News (that's the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for you parochial Americans) reports on the discovery of what may be the oldest known rock painting in Australia, which appears to represent Genyornis, a giant (2–2.5 m tall) emu-like bird that that has been extinct for more than 40,000 years.

Wiring the Brain reviews recent studies on the genetic component of homosexuality.
"The broad conclusions are that sexual orientation is an
innate disposition – no different from whether you are left or
right-handed – that it is affected by genetic influences and that it
reflects differences in brain structure and function."
No surprise there, but quite a lot of people seem to need constant reminding.

And lest you think there aren't people who need reminding, The Economist, following the brutal sentence imposed on the gay couple Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga in Malawi last week, reports on the generally sorry state of gay rights in developing countries:
"Some 80 countries criminalise consensual homosexual sex. Over half rely
on “sodomy” laws left over from British colonialism. But many are trying
to make their laws even more repressive."

A lovely and profound essay by Angus McCullough at 3quarksdaily on the connection between Tetris and Confucianism, touching along the way on Tetris as ritual, the scientific research on Tetris, and Csikszentmihalyi's notion of "flow." I went through an extended Tetris phase (or perhaps two) a few years ago, and have often experienced the "Tetris Effect" (a similar effect appeared, more mundanely and recently, after bouts of Bejeweled Blitz). My current gaming ritual is, after breakfast, to play my favorite solitaire game, La Belle Lucie, until I win.

A spectacular, beautiful, and downloadable image from the Chandra X-ray Observatory of the remnants of N49, a supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud (by way of io9).

Spiegel Online International reports (in English) on the Foxconn manufacturing complexes in China, which are the source of our iPhones, iPads, and many other consumer tech gewgaws (and I lust after an iPhone just as much or more than the next person).  At least 13 workers have attempted suicide (and 10 were successful) at the Foxconn complexes since the beginning of the year.  Spiegel investigates the conditions that may drive them to it.

Vaughan at Mind Hacks writes on unusual objects that have penetrated human brains.

Vaughan also summarizes a discussion (at the forensic psychology blog In the news) of psychologist Robert Hare's threatened suit against the journal Psychological Assessment and researchers Jennifer Skeem and David Cooke. Hare developed the "Hare Psychopathy Checklist" (PCL-R), a standard diagnostic took often used in court cases, and (as Vaughan writes) a "big business." Hare threatened to sue Psychological Assessment if it published Skeem and Cooke's critical analysis of the methodology of the checklist, after the article had been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication.  The article has not appeared.  Can you say "bad precedent"?

Blair Bolles at Babel's Dawn discusses Elliott D. Ross's notion of cognitive functions as emergent properties, the "efficient brain," and the possible implications of that idea for brain evolution. 

Ross's paper, "Cerebral Localization of Functions and the Neurology of Language: Fact versus Fiction or Is It Something Else?," in The Neuroscientist, sounds well worth reading. Unfortunately it is behind a pay-wall at Sage Journals, and costs $32.00 for 24-hour access from a single computer to 21-page pdf. My friends look astonished when I give examples of the pricing of scientific articles, and the insulting conditions under which they are offered. They assume that cases like this must be flukes. But this has become the norm.

You'd think people would be marching in the streets over this by now, but we've all become terribly complacent.

"Mozart effect-Schmozart effect: A meta-analysis," in the journal Intelligence, by way of Dienekes (you can read the abstract at either link). The article is behind a pay-wall at ScienceDirect, and costs a laughable $31.50 for a 9-page pdf. But hey, you didn't believe in the Mozart effect, anyway, right?  Right?

On the topic of open access, Stephen Ramsay has posted a must-read response to Dan Cohen's must-read "Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values," which I linked to a few days ago. Ramsay points out that scholars rarely if ever read the published work of their colleagues when considering tenure and promotion (and, one might add, when conducting job searches). Thus elite journals and academic publishers become places to outsource judgments of academic value: we don't have to read your work because it has the imprimatur of a prestigious journal name and its anonymous peer reviewers. Exactly.

Most eye-catching blog-post title of the day: "Did fornicating Farm Girls boost the rise of atheism in Britain" over at Epiphenom.

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30 May 2010

Weekend Roundup, 29-30 May 2010

A brief commentary by Fred von Lohmann at the EFF site on Adrian Johns, Piracy: the Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates. I've just requested this book through the Minuteman library system (it's also on my Amazon Wishlist, hint, hint); it sounds like a must read for anyone interested in copyright and the history of the concept of "intellectual property." I'll likely comment on the book here. Stay tuned.

Acupuncture for mice. No, really. Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science covers a new study in Nature Neuroscience, and tells us about the contextual background the study left out (and why it needed better controls).

From the Sunday book reviews:
  • Josh Rosenau in the Washington Post reviews Elaine Howard Ecklund, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. So far as I can tell from the (very brief) review, Ecklund does not define what counts as "religion," and I'm inclined to be skeptical of the depth of the analysis. Surely the relevant question is what scientists think of religions that are based on beliefs in supernatural beings and forces, not what scientists think about religion more loosely defined to include, say, a sense of awe and mystery about the universe.  The review implies that Ecklund actually addresses the second question.
  • Ted Conover, in the NYT Sunday Book Review, reviews three books on noise and silence.
  • Geoff Nicholson's essay, also in the NYT Sunday Book Review, on "The Joy of (Outdated) Facts," such as those found in, for example, the first edition of the Guinness Book of Records (1955) or the 1969 World Book (our set when I was growing up was even older than that).
Also in the NYT (from a few days ago) a reference to a study from last year suggesting that throat exercises may help relieve sleep apnea. I note this because a friend who had seen this suggested to me on Friday that perhaps that I could make my fortune teaching throat exercises to sleep apnea sufferers (of whom she is one).  The NYT also reports an earlier study showing that playing instruments like the didgeridoo may help ease sleep apnea. This option sounds like more fun, although I don't know how my neighbors will feel about it.

And last but least, xkcd's totally scientific "Color Survey."  Hooray for Science.  It helps us learn stuff.
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