five things to update

The not-blogging-because-I’ve-not-anything-meaningful-to-say phenomena has really got to stop. Email’s become like that, too. I put it off and then it’s three months later and I feel like I have to write a mini autobiography, when really, two lines at the time would’ve been sufficient. So, in points, some interesting things of late:

1. Modern Approaches to Investigating Cultural Evolution, a LERN/CECD postgrad/postdoc workshop organised by my friend Tom Currie here at UCL. We had 13 speakers and over 40 participants discussing the latest cool research in cultural evolution. Lots of empirical stuff on linguistics (yay for data!) but also a good coverage of archaeology, psychology, economics and anthropology as well. More details including photos are at the link.

2. Rediscovering Darwin: The real story of Darwin’s finches. John van Wyhe gave the CEE Grant Lecture this year. van Wyhe has been the man behind Darwin Online, (the project to put the complete works of Darwin on the internet), and he’s an historian of science who gives an entertaining talk. This one traced the evolution of a “meme”: the persistent myth that Darwin “discovered” evolution on the Galapagos while observing the beaks of the finches. The talk did a cracking job of pulling together all the strands of the myth, how and where they originated–nice example of scientific detective work.

3. Gave a lecture for our Bio Anth Masters on Comparative Methods in Anthropology. This was my first “methods only” seminar, so it had some interactive bits, and hopefully seeded the idea that anthropologists can use phylogenetic/comparative methods for a whole range of interesting questions–not just how primates are related to each other!

4. Reviewed some papers, and cracked on with writing my own. (Interesting for me!)

5. Speaking of papers, have become more and more enamoured of Papers, a great little bit of Mac software that does what I couldn’t manage if left to my own devices: organise my PDF library. It’s a bit like iTunes for papers. The latest update has allowed for automatic matching of PDFs with their bibliographic information in the Web of Science and Google Scholar, filling the gap neatly for social sciences. Previously the automatic matching facility had only been in PubMed. You can also do full searches of databases from within the program, and set it all up so your choice of directory structure is created on your drive and each new paper filed into it. The user interface is pretty as well. Check it out.

On a more recreational note, I saw Barry Adamson and Matana Roberts at the London Jazz Festival this week. The drummer for Matana Roberts, Frank Rosaly, was phenomenal to hear and watch. Highly recommended.

“in rainbows” in anthropological context

Unless you spend your Mondays in seclusion, you’ll most likely have heard that yesterday Radiohead announced their new album, “In Rainbows” would be released in just over a week, October 10th. (If you don’t know who Radiohead are then … there really is no hope for you).

The most interesting thing about this–besides the sneak-speed announcement and timeframe for such a long-awaited album–is the method of distribution. Radiohead are currently without a record deal, and so they’ve chosen to release the album themselves via download. A variable-contribution download, which means that you choose how much you are willing to pay for it–including nothing at all.

Cue much discussion on the future of the music industry and record companies; the inherent value of music; consequences for music charts; what people are actually buying when they purchase an album, etc, etc. It is true to say that it was going to take a superstar band to do this and get the industry and public to really take notice, and it’s also true to say that what the band have done is taken control of the inevitable “leak” and subsequent “illegal” file-sharing, and done it on their own terms.

What is intriguing to me, and why I’m writing about this on my ostensibly-academic blog, is that they have set up a really fascinating social experiment, one that is not too far off the sort of thing that psychologists, economists, and anthropologists are increasingly using to understand human social behaviour: an economic game. Economic or public-goods games take some aspect of behaviour that is context-specific and examine how the interplay of private versus social factors affect the decisions we make. Famous examples include the Prisoners Dilemma and the Ultimatum game. These sorts of artificial situations are set up to try and understand why and how prosocial behaviours such as altruism, punishment, co-operation and group co-ordination can evolve. Evolutionarily-minded social scientists are intrigued by these things as often they appear to run counter to our long-term (genetic) or short-term (economic) self-interests.

Which begs the question: why would anyone in their right mind enter anything apart from £0.00 in that little box? Why, furthermore, are there people complaining about the free download, who would rather pay a tenner for a CD? Something to hold in your hands, perhaps? Hardly: CD covers, liner notes, artwork … all these things are available (free) on fansites and music sites 0.0007 seconds after an album release.

Yet people did pay money, according to their self-reports on websites and forums[1]. And people felt guilty about not paying anything … even those who by their own admission regularly download music from file-sharing or peer-to-peer networks without paying for it, or without a twinge of conscience.

What is going on here? Continue reading →