10 July 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.07.09

Friday:  Soros on the Euro crisis; Berlusconi's latest censorship initiative; Doctorow on Landmark "vs" van Rijn; verdict slashed in SONY v Tenenbaum; follow the money (higher education edition); USC disqualified from football coaches polls; thin gruel from Brooks on Internet v books; judge rules federal policy of not recognizing gay marriages is unconstitutional; the neuroscience of gender orientaton; a genetic switch for homosexual behavior in mice; scientists screw up on old-age genes?; all the links you could want on the ScienceBlogs fiasco; more on tiny protons; grapheme-color synesthesia; Eureka moments; Joya Sherrill dies; Pletnev gets bail; Boulez composing Godot opera?; Nagano quits Munich; Wieseltier dismembers Badiou; Brown interviews (or at least listens to) Žižek; I propose new mottoes for MIT and Harvard; fun with prisoners and R code; a wiki for lost films; live enactments of classic Trek episodes; headline edit fail (homosexual allusion division); grades, then and now; Dr. Mike and I see Predators.

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09 July 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.07.08

Thursday: filtering the flood of scholarly publication; update on the ScienceBlogs fiasco; why software patents are a bad idea; Nicholas Wade on the "Hazebura" flints; a neutral model of language evolution?; protons smaller than everyone thought? (physics in a tizzy); Anne Midgette's Siepi obit; Pletnev says it was all a misundertanding (oh sure); Berg and Schönberg at Klimt's funeral; game theory and opera; a new Velázquez?; German lawsuit against Facebook; cats eat man's foot.
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08 July 2010


While walking down to Staples to photocopy Beethoven op. 109 (because it is high time to relearn it, because it is, after all, the best sonata), I was torn between listening on the iPod to Horowitz playing the Schumann Fantasy in Carnegie Hall in 1946 (from "The Private Collection") or the rest of Mingus's Town Hall Concert from October 1962.  Went with the latter (an extraordinary recording).

The Mingus concert finished just as I reached the last page of op. 109 on the photocopier, so I switched over to The Best of the Gipsy Kings while strolling over to Droubi Brothers (where, alas, they had none of the perfect apricots that they had earlier in the week, but I consoled myself with plums and a watermelon).  Was still listening to the Gipsy Kings as I turned toward home, when suddenly I found a brass quintet from the Boston Pops playing Renaissance music in the park. So I sat and listened to that for a while.

When I got up to go, the Gipsy Kings didn't seem quite the right thing to follow Renaissance brass.  So I went with Sam Cooke.

Eclecticism is a wonderful thing.

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Daily Digest, 2010.07.07

Wednesday: the management of ScienceBlogs suffers potentially fatal fit of insanity; smart squirrels; the Dunning-Kruger effect and its discontents; more on language universals; 800,000-year-old flint tools in Happisburgh; the science of networking; weird and beautiful critters of the deep; tarballs tarballs everywhere; a stupid "science" headline at ArtsJournal; more on Pletnev's pedophilia arrest; happy 150th birthday Gustav; happy 70th Ringo; Gershwin plays "I Got Rhythm"; brain-dead liner notes (Haydn division); why parents are unhappy; Sharron Angle uses copyright to hide extremist views.

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07 July 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.07.06

Today: I'm melting, melting...oh what a world.  In other news: U. S. tax breaks for donations to illegal West Bank settlements; the end of tenure?; two articles pointing toward the future of publishing; the problem with studying WEIRD people; do language universals exist?; early literature on neuroplasticity; one hell of a bad earworm; maybe the 2.1 Gya Gabon fossils are bacterial mats after all; Cesare Siepi dies; Pletnev arrested for pedophilia.

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06 July 2010

Famous Writers in Forest Hills Cemetery

On 16 June 2010, as part of a series of articles about unusual and interesting things to do during the summer, the Boston Phoenix published an article by Nina Maclaughlin entitled "Grave Spotting," in which she writes on the many famous writers buried in Massachusetts cemeteries. For example (according to Maclaughlin), Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge is the final resting place of Longfellow, Amy Lowell, Robert Creeley, Thom Gunn, Fannie Farmer, and Bernard Malamud, while Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Thoreau are buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord. And so on.

But Maclaughlin admits that she struck out on a trip to Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain in 2009 to look for the grave of e. e. cummings.
Last summer, I made a mission to the Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, almost as lovely as Mount Auburn, to find the grave of E.E. Cummings. I'd long dismissed him for his grammatical gimmickry, but realized, late, that mixed in with the lower-casing and tricksy punctuation, are provocative, passionate, sensual poems [...]

Unfortunately, I couldn't find the grave. Forest Hills was out of maps, and the paths mazed all over.
Now, cummings's grave is admittedly difficult to find, even with a map: he is buried in the plot of his mother's family, the Clarkes, and he himself has only a small stone set flat in the ground. And the Clarke family plot is not directly beside one of the paved paths; it's about halfway up a grassy slope. It's not a grave that you are likely to find by accident.

I was surprised, though, that Maclaughlin neglected to mention two other prominent writers buried in Forest Hills: Eugene O'Neill and poet Anne Sexton.

So as a small corrective, and because Forest Hills, which is about a five-minute drive from my house, is one of my favorite places to walk (second perhaps only to Arnold Arboretum), and because Joy (who has a camera) agreed to help, I decided to publish photos of these three graves here. Note that all three graves have stones placed on (or around) them as in the Jewish tradition. It is not uncommon also to find pens or other writing implements placed on these gravestones.

e. e. cummings

Eugene O'Neill

Anne Sexton

Although I've lived in the Boston area since 2002, I didn't get around to taking a walk in Mount Auburn Cemetery until this past spring.  Given Mount Auburn's formidable reputation for beauty, I was surprised to find it a bit dull.  Oh sure, it's pretty.  But (to me) it hasn't got the environmental variety of Forest Hills.  And while Mount Auburn is full of the great and the good (very often from families who have local streets named after them), usually buried with austere (perhaps "Puritanical"?) markers, Forest Hills is full of the oddball, the self-made, and the slightly disreputable, often buried with endearing and ostentatious flair.

And Forest Hills is not just home to suicidal or oversexed poets and alcoholic playwrights, but also to such interesting characters as:  Richard Lufkin, a self-made man who made his fortune with the Vamp Folding Machine for making shoes, and is buried in a mausoleum (not far from Anne Sexton) decorated with a stained-glass window of Lufkin with the Vamp Folding Machine; Lewis Edson Waterman, the inventor of the fountain pen; and Karl Heinzen (see also the German Wikipedia article here), a German "Forty-Eighter" (a participant in the revolution of 1848 who fled to the United States when the revolution failed), whose radical progressivism made such contemporaries as Theodore Parker and Margaret Fuller look like downright conservative—and whose marker may be the only one in Forest Hills with a German inscription.

Richard Lufkin and the Vamp Folding Machine

Lewis Edson Waterman

And my personal favorite, Karl Heinzen. The bust is by sculptor A. Robert Kraus, whose work appears on two other graves at Forest Hills, and who also created the large sculpture of Theodore Parker at Theodore Parker Church in West Roxbury.


(Photos by Joy; tweaking by Dex)
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05 July 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.07.05

Today: art attribution as a confidence game; Taleb tells it like it is; activist judges; open source law; Carvaggio's bones (or perhaps not); Dutch says IPCC report actually pretty good; so much for free will; what Doctorow does; the beautiful remnants of the Big Bang.

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04 July 2010

Weekend Roundup, Holiday Edition, 3-4 July 2010

This Weekend: skeptical liberals; theism and science reconciled (maybe), the conclusion; phone apps for arguing atheists (and Christians); Jefferson changes a word in the Declaration of Independence; Pogue reviews a Facebook book (and I go off on a tangent on the future of publishers); part 2 of the psychiatric history of homosexuality; standardization causes poor reproducibility (who knew?); Zimmer explains "one-off"; Pullum pummels Parker and Payack; Venn coffee tables.

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Godfrey-Smith on Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini

Briefly hot news a few a months ago, in that long-ago era before this blog began (and no news stays hot for very long in this world) was the publication of What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini.

The book purports to find fundamental errors of thought at the heart of "Darwinism."  The summaries and reviews of the book that appeared at the time of its release seemed to suggest that the principal error—one that in the estimation of the authors undermined the entire intellectual edifice of evolutionary theory based on Darwin—was that evolutionary biologists treated natural selection as an "agent." But this agent couldn't, in fact (or even in principle), "see" the characteristics upon which it was said to be operating. Alternatively, there is no way that a particular characteristic could be an "object" of selection.

Now, when put in these simple (or, as the authors would probably claim, simplistic) terms, it looked to me as if it was Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini who had made a fundamental and (to me, embarrassingly) elementary error, not Darwin. For in spite of the admittedly less than ideal traditional rhetoric of evolutionary theory, which does indeed tend sometimes, in syntactic terms, to cast natural selection as an agent, no reputable evolutionary biologist actually thinks natural selection is an "agent."  "Natural selection" is (nowadays) simply a widely accepted trope to simplify talking about the statistics of gene pools and the ecological systems in which the proportions of alleles in those gene pools change over time.

But I considered myself still a novice when it comes to the philosophical and technical foundations of evolutionary theory, and in any case, in those days, I still had no soap box.  So I kept my mouth shut.

There were, however, a number of substantive reviews at the time, none of them (at least among the ones I read) complimentary, and several scathing:

The earliest and perhaps most scathing was Ned Block and Philip Kitcher, "Misunderstanding Darwin: Natural selection's secular critics get it wrong," in the March/April 2010 issue of the Boston Review (but published online in February). They certainly cannot be accused of failing to take seriously the arguments in What Darwin Got Wrong: I remember having trouble at the time following some of the more philosophically abstruse aspects of their critique. (I haven't reread the review for this post.)

Then on 7 March 2010, Michael Ruse (not everyone's first choice to rally the troops to the defense of Darwin) published a piece in The Chronicle Review at the Chronicle of Higher Education looking at Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini in the context of some other prominent critics of Darwin, including Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Nagel.  I had not been aware that Nagel had gone off that particular deep end.

More recently, in the 27 May 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books Richard C. Lewontin published a well mannered and usefully contextualized review.
Now, the 8 July 2010 issue of the London Review of Books has what is perhaps the definitive review of What Darwin Got Wrong, by Peter Godfrey-Smith: the marvelously and wittily titled "It Got Eaten." (I was first alerted to the review by Evolving Thoughts, but I've since seen references in a variety of locations.)

Godfrey-Smith's review is beautifully written and exemplary in its lucidity . It could serve as a model for any reviewer of scholarly material.  Among other things, he has finally brought me to understand Fodor and P-P's argument on "intensionality," and also why it is wrong.

Some quotes: 

(As background:  Godfrey-Smith is using the extended example of two co-extensive traits, T and T*, of which T is the only one that is relevant to an argument for selection.)
So, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini say, whenever there is this kind of correlation between traits (it is ubiquitous, in various degrees), an explanation of the form ‘the population is now the way it is because trait T was favoured by natural selection’ is undermined.
Perhaps there is something strange in this way of putting things, whereby a trait like T* can be made more common by natural selection, without being selected for. One may wonder whether an implication of agency isn’t lurking in the term ‘selection’. That is in fact what Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini claim. In which case, the thing to do is to set the suspicious terms aside and see whether it is possible to describe the same sequence of events without using them.
However we choose to talk about it, the theory does distinguish between two different cases, one where a trait affects survival and reproduction and another where it doesn’t. In practice, confusion arising from the unwanted connotations of the term ‘selection’ is rare in biology, but it is always possible to shift to a more careful description if they intrude.
And Godfrey-Smith's bottom line:
Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini criticise the tendency to talk of selection as if it were an agent. They are right that this is often misleading, but they seem to be making a similar mistake when they treat it as something over and above the ordinary facts of life, death and reproduction. For Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, it makes sense to ask: ‘Even if trait T causes organisms to reproduce more while T* has no effect, how can selection see that fact?’ But there is no question to ask here, nothing extra that selection might achieve or fail to do.
So it seems that I was right in the first place. That makes me feel better....

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Musical Miscellany, 2010.07.04

A collection of recent items related to music:

A quote:
[As Al-Khayed and Ben-Ami ponder physically resurrecting the late musical duo Winter and Calder:]

Al-Khayed looked cynical. 'Doesn't surprise me at all. Fans will be split into rivalrous little cliques and clubs, and in any case, the last thing people who like old music want is for their heroes to turn up and make new music.'

(From: Ken MacLeod, Newton's Wake: A Space Opera)

Two articles from the Los Angeles Times marking the end of the L. A. Opera's complete staging of Wagner's "Ring," in a controversial staging by Achim Freyer. The production ran from 29 May to 26 June.

First, Mark Swed's retrospective review of the production, the tenor (sorry) of which is summed up in the subhead: "Achim Freyer's audacious vision for the four-opera cycle, met with boos and spotty tickets sales early on, is ultimately vindicated with a triumphant finale from L.A. Opera."

Swed writes:
The third and final cycle ended Saturday night with an almost full moon and an outright triumph for L.A. Opera. Throughout the third cycle the entire mood had changed on stage and in the audience. A festival atmosphere began to pervade the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and its plaza. Audiences came vividly dressed and clearly excited. The orchestra and singers rose to unexpected new levels. Everything seemed to work. Domingo, in the third "Walküre," was terrific, sounding strong and scampering up the steep rake of the set for his curtain call like a kid.
And he further notes that Freyer's curtain call at the final performance was "greeted by deafening cheers."

Well, perhaps.

But even so, Mike Boehm's article in Friday's LA Times makes the production sound close to a financial disaster. Ticket sales were 73% of capacity, but many of these were cut-rate tickets that the opera began to market when initial sales were very low.  And the L.A. Opera is still in a very deep financial hole.

For those of you have forgotten or haven't been paying attention, Freyer's "Ring" was the one with the light sabres.

And unusual costumes...

Deric Bownds points toward a new article on enhanced brain processes in musicians. The open-access article is:
Karen Johanne Pallesen, et al. (2010), "Cognitive Control in Auditory Working Memory Is Enhanced in Musicians," PLoS One.
The conclusion expressed in the title isn't exactly a surprise. But I'll read the article and (if time permits) report back.

For some reason (now lost in the mists of yesterday's browsing), I ended up following a link yesterday to an "old" article at the BBC site, from 21 February 2010, "Singing 'rewires' damaged brain: Teaching stroke patients to sing "rewires" their brains, helping them recover their speech, say scientists." 

The report covers research led by Gottfried Schlaug at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School. The key point is (according to the BBC report):
"If a person's 'speech centre' is damaged by a stroke, they can learn to use their 'singing centre' instead"
The technique is called "Melodic Intonation Therapy."  The research was presented at the meeting of the AAAS in San Diego. A quick search turns up several other blog reports on this research, for example this post from 80beats (at a time when I was not yet following that blog, which is probably why I missed the report on this research up to now).

Wendy Zukerman at New Scientist reports on research by Francesco Riganello showing that patients in a vegetative state exposed to various pieces of classical music show the same change in heart rate as do healthy subjects:
Francesco Riganello at the Santa Anna Institute in Crotone, Italy, and colleagues played four pieces of classical music to 16 healthy volunteers while measuring their heartbeats. The team then repeated the experiment with nine people who were in a vegetative state. In addition, they asked the healthy volunteers to describe the emotions they had felt while listening.
The pieces, each 3 minutes long and by different composers, were chosen because they have different tempos and rhythms – factors previously shown to elicit positive and negative emotions.

Riganello found that the music affected the heart rates of both groups in the same way. Pieces rated as"positive" by healthy volunteers, such as the minuet from Boccherini's string quintet in E, slowed heart rate, while "negative" pieces like Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony increased heart rate.
The article is:
F. Riganello, et al. (2010), "Heart rate variability: An index of brain processing in vegetative state? An artificial intelligence, data mining study," Clinical Neurophysiology.  The corrected proofs of the article (which is in press) are behind a paywall at ScienceDirect, and cost $31.50.
Odd that the report in New Scientist mentions nothing about the "data mining" angle.
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