paper: artificial cultural market

A new paper in Science [link]: Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market by Salganik et al.

In a web experiment, the researchers created an artificial database of music (from unknown bands) and allowed people to download songs after rating them. In some conditions, people could see which songs had been downloaded more often, creating a social influence environment. Interestingly, how songs fared in each of eight different runs vaired widely, and mostly independently of how people rated “quality”.

The message seems to be that in music tastes at least, we are all sheep, and the first sheep to baaa makes a great difference to who gets on Top of the Pops.


I dug out my PDA (a Visor Neo, in up-to-the-minute monochrome) this weekend and have just synched it all up with the Oyster1. My mac is probably having hissy fits about being attached to such an antique piece of technology, but it’s plenty good enough for the diary and contacts function, which is what I am re-trialling it for.

I’m not having much success with the paper diary method this time around; it worked when I was working in design and had it open on my desk constantly for appointments etc. I never remember to take the diary with me though, and the PDA is a bit more bus-friendly. My scheduling is more a case of one or two “appointments” a day (if that) and then a series of tasks to complete. I’d like to track the time spent on those, so we’ll see how this goes.

I’m not really enamoured of digital diary software either; iCal is okay, the Palm Desktop is a bit mouse-intensive. My main problem is that I seem to spend more time entering things than actually doing them. Anyhow, this is the start of a new experiment.

1. My laptop is called Pearl, so it makes sense that my desktop is the Oyster. Right?

lost notes of royal society

Wow. The 1661-1682 minutes of The Royal Society were found in a Hampshire home and are up for auction at Bonhams on the 28th of March. They’re expected to fetch a million pounds, which the Royal Society doesn’t have.

The unnamed family in whose home they were found didn’t know what they had, and claim the notes have been been in the family for as long as they can remember.

I find it a bit distasteful that these important records are going up for auction without giving the RS time to raise funds and/or to study them thoroughly. I hope someone comes through with the dosh and bequeaths them back to the source.

peer reviewing

Two articles about peer reviewing from The Scientist:

  • Is Peer Review Broken: a state-of-the-system report. The table with odds for publication is especially interesting, for a given value of interesting = argh.
  • Truth or Myth: 3 common complaints about the peer review process examined.

The discussion regarding signing reviews is thought-provoking:

Nature journals let reviewers sign reviews, says Bernd Pulverer, editor of Nature Cell Biology, but less than one percent does. “In principle” signed reviews should work, he says, but the competitive nature of biology interferes. “I would find it unlikely that a junior person would write a terse, critical review for a Nobel prize-winning author,” he says.

Less than one percent is mind-boggling. I understand the principles behind anonymity, the candour it provides one to have–and the ability to maintain working relationships and friendships without “you rejected my paper” being an issue–but. My ideal world has an academic environment where the expression of a considered and supported argument does not hinder one’s career, and where rigor is provoked into quality, and I only see that happening when one can be proud to sign one’s name to a review.

paper: blondes have more… fear?

That’ll be the newspaper taglines, at least.

Behavioural inhibition in young children appears to be more frequent in blue-irised American children, and now in blond(er) German children. The putative link is made between melanocyte-stimulating hormones and cortisol (stress-related) stimulators as the underlying mechanism.

Interesting stuff, and will no doubt be picked up on for its quirk value, but it is the kind of research that is a little “so what?” in terms of what one does with that information. Cuddle fair-headed kids more? I bet they already get a little more attention 😉

I do get a bit antsy at the use of cross-cultural to describe findings such as these. I suppose it depends on where your draw your cultural boundaries (and for what purposes), but the danger is that “cross-cultural” is so very easily conflated with “human universal”. If we’re speaking of worldwide cultural variation, Caucasian Americans and Germans are pretty close to sister-taxa.

via Dienekes

paper: echolocation in bats

Once upon a time I considered becoming an evolutionary bat biologist1. Bats are cool. They’re close to primates on the mammal phylogeny, they have interesting social systems, and some of them have astoundingly sophisticated echolocation systems.

Gareth Jones and Emma Teeling have a paper in TREE: The evolution of echolocation in bats, discussing the phylogenetic history of this trait. It may be quite flexible in the face of ecological constraints and challenges, as there seems to be convergent evolution when different types of calls are mapped onto the molecular phylogenies.

1. Now I just read comics.

follow-up on Lawrence

Re yesterday’s post:

It’s an interesting essay. I think Science were right to reject it on the basis that it presented no positive suggestions for action. One could be left with only the message that the status quo is acceptable in some situations, if we accept that men and women bring different plates to the table.

The way I see it, there are a number of issues here.

1. The degree to which men and women are different at different things. I have no problem with this. Men and women ARE different. Different bits, different brains, different developmental experiences.
2. Where those differences come from and how they develop. I’m unable to discern what sort of take the author has here and to what degree he thinks in terms of nature/nurture and biology = unchangeable.
3. The culture of academia and how it favours certain traits–something which has a history in itself. With respect to the question of why all the women disappear as one moves into more senior positions, I think this is actually vastly more relevant than any on-average “suitability”.
4. “Is” and “Ought”. Just because women may be on-average more (for example) nurturing, doesn’t mean we ought to be happy with a predominance of women psychologists. The whole concept of “on-average abilities” should surely fly out the window when we are talking about highly skilled/intelligent/trained individuals, because we’re dealing with those people in the upper tail end of their respective curve, not the average 68%. What we should be happy with is an absence of the commercial model in academic culture, one that allows a diversity of people to be thoroughly considered on a number of qualities for any given position.

I was more interested in the mention of creativity and originality in science. It’s a tired old truism that it’s hard to be creative and viable in many areas of science, but I’d like to know what creativity actually means. How could I foster “creative” approaches to my own work? Answers, plz.