Tagscience

Academic Publishers Are Out of Control

George Monbiot has a must-read article in The Guardian on academic publishers. Monbiot points out that academic publishers receive their content for essentially free (the papers are funded by universities, often with public money, and editing is often done on a volunteer basis) and then sold back to the public at exorbitant prices. Individual articles cost at least $30, and subscriptions cost university libraries thousands of dollars per journal per year. The publishers operate at margins of up to 40%. Monbiot writes:

What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it. Another term for it is economic parasitism. To obtain the knowledge for which we have already paid, we must surrender our feu to the lairds of learning.

Monbiot’s solution:

In the short term, governments should refer the academic publishers to their competition watchdogs, and insist that all papers arising from publicly funded research are placed in a free public database. In the longer term, they should work with researchers to cut out the middleman altogether, creating – along the lines proposed by Björn Brembs of Berlin’s Freie Universität – a single global archive of academic literature and data. Peer-review would be overseen by an independent body. It could be funded by the library budgets which are currently being diverted into the hands of privateers.

The Guardian: Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist

(via Brainsturbator)

Update: Matthew Ingram has a post that expands on the reasons why this system remains in place even as other media industries are being disrupted:

Academics who have tried to open up their research or bypass the journal industry say they often run into resistance from a number of sources. Among other things, appearing in a specific journal or publication is a key criteria for advancement at most universities, which means publishing in open-access formats could be a career-limiting move for an academic. Many publish their papers on their own websites, but most also go through the usual journal process as well, which reinforces the existing system. And since universities pay large sums to subscribe to those journals, they often feel compelled to justify those costs by requiring that all research be published through them.

Ingram also cites this post by sociologist and Microsoft researcher danah boyd, who calls for academics to boycott locked down publishers.

Thinking You’re Too Old to Learn a New Language? Think Again

I’m not sure what the sample size is, or how old the adults in the study are, but:

Ferman and Avi Karni from the University of Haifa, Israel, devised an experiment in which 8-year-olds, 12-year-olds and adults were given the chance to learn a new language rule. In the made-up rule, verbs were spelled and pronounced differently depending on whether they referred to an animate or inanimate object.

Participants were not told this, but were asked to listen to a list of correct noun-verb pairs, and then voice the correct verb given further nouns. The researchers had already established that 5-year-olds performed poorly at the task, and so did not include them in the study. All participants were tested again two months later to see what they remembered.

“The adults were consistently better in everything we measured,” says Ferman. When asked to apply the rule to new words, the 8-year-olds performed no better than chance, while most 12-year-olds and adults scored over 90 per cent. Adults fared best, and have great potential for learning new languages implicitly, says Ferman. Unlike the younger children, most adults and 12-year-olds worked out the way the rule worked – and once they did, their scores soared. This shows that explicit learning is also crucial, says Ferman, who presented the results at the International Congress for the Study of Child Language in Montreal, Canada, this week.

New Scientist: Age no excuse for failing to learn a new language

Scientists Can Now Rewrite DNA

TAG

MIT and Harvard researchers have developed technologies that could be used to rewrite the genetic code of a living cell, allowing them to make large-scale edits to the cell’s genome. Such technology could enable scientists to design cells that build proteins not found in nature, or engineer bacteria that are resistant to any type of viral infection.

The technology, described in the July 15 issue of Science, can overwrite specific DNA sequences throughout the genome, similar to the find-and-replace function in word-processing programs. Using this approach, the researchers can make hundreds of targeted edits to the genome of E. coli, apparently without disrupting the cells’ function.

MIT News: Scientists unveil tools for rewriting the code of life

(via Richard Yonck)

Universe Probably Not a Hologram After All

gamma ray

An astrophysicist’s attempt to measure quantum “fuzziness” — to find out if we’re living in a hologram — has been headed off at the pass by results suggesting that we’re probably not.

In October 2010, Wired.com reported on Craig Hogan’s experiments with two of the world’s most precise clocks, which he was using to try and confirm the existence of Planck units — the smallest possible chunks of space, time, mass and other properties of the universe.

Hogan’s interpretation of results from the GEO600 gravitational wave experiment had shown a quantum fuzziness — a sort of pixelation — at incredibly small scales, suggesting that what was perceive as the universe might be projected from a two-dimensional shell at its edge.

However, a European satellite that should be able to measure these small scales hasn’t found any quantum fuzziness at all, contradicting the interpretation of the GEO600 results and indicating that the pixelation of spacetime, if it exists, is considerably smaller than predicted.

Wired Science: Physicists: Universe Almost Certainly Not a Hologram

Changing Perceptions of Science and Technology in the 19th Century

Jess Nevins shares an excerpt from Hawthorne’s Mad Scientists:

Earlier, “technology” had meant something more accessible to the average man. Elements of Technology, a book published in 1829 by Harvard professor Jacob Bigelow, was essentially a recipe book, more like the “do-it-yourself” manuals of modern counterculture than an MIT textbook. By most accounts, Bigelow, whose job at Harvard was to bridge the gap between Yankee inventors and collegiate research scientists, was the first to use “technology” in its modern sense….

Jess Nevins: Changing perceptions of science and technology in the 19th century

A Treasure Trove for Autodidacts

dissecting a circle

Trevor Blake sent me this:

References & Resources for LessWrong

LessWrong is “community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality.” I’ve occasionally dipped into the blog, but never made much of a habit of it. But this reference page is excellent – the section on mathematics seems particularly useful. There are sections on artificial intelligence, machine learning, game theory, computer science, philosophy and more.

And via that resource page are two other amazing resources:

Khan Academy: A massive collection of free self-paced math and science lessons.

Better Explained: a site that, y’know, explains stuff. Like calculus.

Science Tarot

Science Tarot: 7 of Wands - Expansion

Science Tarot: 2 of Swords - Action

Science Tarot

Unlike so many of the cool tarot decks I’ve seen online, you can actually buy this as a full, printed deck.

(via Boing Boing thanks to Chris)

Britain Brain Drain – Scientists Fleeing to Singapore, Germany, US

Britain Brain Drain

Britain is facing a major brain drain as scientists abandon the country for better-funded jobs abroad, a Guardian investigation reveals today. […]

The Guardian has spoken to researchers in fields ranging from cancer and human fertility to nuclear physics, and found that many are preparing to emigrate. Professor Brian Foster, a particle physicist at Oxford, said he was likely to shift most of his research to Germany, having been offered a professorship at Hamburg University which comes with £4.3m to spend on research.

Dr Carlos Gias, a stem cell researcher at University College London, has decided to move either to Singapore or the US. Gias, whose research is focused on a form of blindness called age-related macular degeneration, said: “I have seen people from this department leaving to Singapore, and they have been trying to find jobs in Britain and they couldn’t. It’s not been just one or two [but] several of them, and [in Singapore] … they don’t have any problems of funding.”

Guardian: Britain faces brain drain as cuts force top scientists to leave country

(via Richard Yonck)

The US has actually been keeping our foreign Phds despite concerns. That could always change, though.

Science without Purpose: Suppressing the Teleological Instinct

total solar eclipse

The teleological drive – the desire to not merely make, but rather to perceive inherent purpose in the world – influences a myriad of adult human behavior. Such behavior may range from conspiracy theories to abstract philosophical works, but even “scientists” may falter. […]

Both Darwin and Freud introduced highly disconcerting models of thought for a world hitherto predicated on the teleological. The theory of evolution and the unconscious seemed to queer many of the most ingrained human conceptions of purpose and control. However, the drive toward Why Must!? is not easily banished, and rather than die out, it burrowed into the very concepts that threatened it. Little wonder then that many of us today conceive of evolution as Nature’s architect and regard the unconscious (our Id) as an insidious competitor-agent. In such a teleological worldview, emotions such as sadness are no longer random behavioral traits. Rather, they become adaptive instinct, forged by Nature to guide humanity and distinguish intuitively between right and wrong.

All good so far, but what’s this about?

Although the following statement risks being unscientific, what all the aforementioned seems to imply is that human beings have a strong teleological instinct, a propensity for asking Why? and Why Must!? Our obsession with perceiving (and thus ascribing) purpose most likely arose as an adaptive trait in an inter-human, social context. With such complex brains, humans are capable of countless emotional affections and a perhaps infinite array of varied behavior. To perceive someone teleologically is to see and comprehend his intent, his consciousness in relation to one’s own. The comprehension of intent offers security from the innumerable and seemingly purposeless actions humans may exhibit. On an anthropological level, teleology would seem to benefit the formation of complex, social structures, wherein the determination of purpose serves to regulate and maintain varied levels of production and class. The agency-attribution error supports the notion that teleology is an instinct “made” for humans, the only beings with an agenda, that is, capable of being purposeful agents. Both scientists and laymen would do well to remember the influence this artificial instinct has on thought and language. After all, if language-cognition arose under a teleological context (that is, a human-social context), all semantics must contain, invoke, and conceal a Why Must!?

Serendip: Science without Purpose: Suppressing the Teleological Instinct

Sure, it’s possible that there’s an evolutionary function of the teleological impulse (I’ll call it an impulse since we don’t know that it’s actually an instinct) – but we should remember that evolution only selects for “good enough,” not necessarily “optimal.” The teleological impulse may be a side effect of our ability to determine cause and effect (which does seem to serve an evolutionary function) and serve no actual function. We’ve made it this far with it, so it hasn’t been selected out – just like many other harmful human behaviors.

Photo by By Luc Viatour / CC

Social Physics with Kyle Findlay – Technoccult Interview

Kyle Findlay

Regular readers of this site may have noticed a large number of posts on this site credited to “Social Physicist” – the Twitter handle of Kyle Findlay (and yes, you could be forgiven for confusing our names). Kyle works for a group within one of the world’s largest market research companies, which he describes as a “mini-think tank” with the purpose of exposing people to new ways of thinking and doing things. Having enjoyed his Twitter stream for the past year or so, I got in touch with Kyle Findlay to ask him about the practice of “social physics.” He talked to me by instant message from from his home in Cape Town, South Africa.

Klint Finley: What, as a “social physicist,” do you actually do?

Kyle Findlay: Well, at the moment I’m on my own in this “field,” if you can call it that. It just seems like the best description of what I do and what interests me so hopefully it sticks.

Basically, my interest is in understanding how people act as groups. As emergent entities that have their own (hopefully) predictable and describable topological forms. That’s the lofty idea anyway. And the tools of chaos theory, systems theory, network theory, physics, mathematics, etc. help describe this.

Do you have a background in physical sciences?

None at all. I studied “business science” at the University of Cape Town. My first job was for a company with a strong academic background, started by a professor of religion and a statistician. They used a 5-dimensional catastrophe cusp model to describe people’s relationships with ideas.

The moment I was exposed to this thinking, something clicked. A lot of contradictions that I saw in the world around me were resolved. Ever since I have had an insatiable desire to understand these areas. Which led me to interact with experts in many disciplines from neuroscience to economics, math, physics, AI, ecology, biology, etc. Every field has a piece of the puzzle. I am lucky to work in an environment that gives me free rein to indulge my passion.

Fractal Zoom
Sketch: Fractal Zoom by Kyle Findlay

Do you think what you do is different from systems thinking or social cybernetics?

They are definitely components. Systems thinking is a broad umbrella term. Cybernetics definitely helps us to understand and describe the patterns and multi-dimensional shapes that society creates. But I think that you need the hard sciences like math and physics to really get at the heart of it. Which is why I am feverishly trying to catch up on many years of missing education.

Do you think there are any dangers in applying models designed for physical systems to human behavior?

Yes there are – you will always be at least slightly wrong. There are a lot of parallels between the way people act in groups and other types of particles. But you also have the same problems of predictability in complex systems: sensitivity to initial conditions, 3-body problem, etc. It’s kind of the paradox of it all, something I am still trying to come to grips with.

What’s the most surprising insight you’ve discovered since you started studying this?

Everything is the same and everything is just information. The universal nature of nature is astounding. You see the familiar signs everywhere: from the atomic through to the cosmic level. It makes me think that there really is only one true science or line of inquiry and that most specialised fields are just facets of this. The more fields I delve into, the more commonalities I discover. It’s become par for the course for me now I think. But in the beginning, it really blew my mind.

Man's Part in the System
Sketch: Man’s Part in the System by Kyle Findlay

Have you been able to apply this stuff in any interesting ways? For example, I know you’ve prepared presentations on network theory and power laws for work.

Those have gone down really well within the silos I work in. People have really been amazed when I’ve shown them these kinds of things. It gets their minds racing.

I’m also doing some work applying systems theory to sports science, which can really benefit from changing the way they view the human body. Music is another area that makes a lot more sense from this point of view.

One of my favourites is understanding how human attention works and how to synchronise communication so that it becomes internalized, but that is very theoretical and could be seen as slightly Machiavellian so I won’t go there.

Also, I’ve been having some interesting chats with a neuroscientist around decision-making, attention, etc. The applications are really endless, it’s just where you choose to focus you own attention.

How would you suggest someone interested get started studying social physics?

Well, considering I’m not 100% sure what falls into the bounds of the field myself, it’s difficult to say. There’s no university course for it as far as I know. I would say that you need to have an intense desire to understand why people do what they do. And a slightly perverse fascination with the human condition. Looking at life from a systems perspective is a good start. Understand that patterns are formed internally, that change is the only constant. You can then use tools like network theory, noise analysis, entropy, etc. to understand these ebbs and flows.

Are you familiar with Stephen Wolfram? He wrote a book called a New Kind of Science.

Yes, I know of Stephen Wolfram from his software and Wolfram Alpha. I’ve been intimidated by the size of his book, though. I struggle justifying devoting so much time to one book, which probably says more about me…

Yeah, I haven’t picked it up yet either.

He sounds like a really bright guy. I think I watched a talk of his at the Singularity Summit or somewhere similar, but to be honest, can’t remember much of it.

Most of my reading is in the scientific literature, interspersed with a good book or graphic novel.

Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott

Speaking of which, do you know of any works of fiction that demonstrate the principles you’re interested in?

Good question. Not too many spring to mind. A classic is Flatland by Edwin Abbot – the quintessential metaphor for perceiving multiple dimensions. The guy wrote a book about perceiving multiple dimensions in the 1800s! Impressive.

A recent book that blew my mind was Accelerando by Charles Stross. He has a great worldview but his insights were more in terms of extrapolating the directions technology is going in.

Yourself? Any suggestions?

Snow Crash seems like it might be relevant. Or the film Run Lola Run.

I am ashamed to admit that I haven’t read Snow Crash. Why do you say Run Lola Run? Time? Sensitivity to initial conditions?

Yep. It shows how tiny changes in a system can have far-ranging results. A starting delay of only a couple of seconds radically changes things for several characters in the different timelines.

True. I’m not going to mention Back to the Future 2 or The Butterfly Effect (although I just did).

Have you heard of the 1990 film, Mindwalk?

No.

It was co-written by Fritjof Capra and consists of several characters discussing the nature of the world from a systems perspective. I have to admit that i fell asleep during it… but I was very tired.

That sounds pretty amazing though.

Yeah – good credentials right there.

My personal favourites are any films or books that push society’s limits. Subversive materials rule in my book (no pun intended). Anything that helps me push back my pre-conceptions and shatter my expectations. They were great at that in the 70s, in music, film and literature. Probably a side-effect of the 60s experimentations. I’m a big fan of exploitation flicks.

Let’s see, what else… I haven’t read Alan Moore’s Big Numbers. But Moore seems to have a pretty good grasp on complexity, judging by Watchmen and From Hell.

I haven’t read Big Numbers either. What elements do you think he draws on in those books?
Watchmen

Watchmen itself seems to be very mathematical – the use of symmetry and so on. In terms of themes, maybe it doesn’t touch on this stuff much, apart from some of Dr. Manhattan’s comments.

Yeah, he definitely weaves a non-linear richness into his tales that is admirable. The way he weaves the various threads of a story together.

I forget why I thought From Hell was relevant. Maybe it’s not.

Also, he calls himself a chaos magician. Watching an interview with him a while back, I could actually identify with a lot of what he was saying.

I wasn’t going to go there, but… have you studying chaos magic or the occult at all?

No I haven’t. That Moore interview is probably as far as I have gone. It’s just not a direction I feel I can go in and remain “grounded” if I want other researchers to take me seriously. But I can definitely see how he got there.

Well, I have and I think you’re better off studying natural sciences, systems, and complexity IMHO.

[Laughs] Cool, thanks for the advice.

But the book Techgnosis by Erik Davis examines a lot of parallels between information theory and cybernetics and mysticism and the occult. I think it stands up pretty well, even if you’re not interested in magic.

I think you have to have a certain detachment to take a step back and observe the world. And when you start seeing everything as inter-related and part of the same thread it becomes easier to start imagining that you can define the tapestry with your perceptions. I guess I don’t want to open that Pandora’s Box. In my view it untethers you. Again, talking from an inexperienced point of view in this area.

Davis’ book sounds interesting though.

From an interview with Manuel DeLanda (who you might be interested in) -conducted by Davis, incidentally:

As Deleuze says, “Always keep a piece of fresh land with you at all times.” Always keep a little spot where you can go back to sleep after a day of destratification. Always keep a small piece of territory, otherwise you’ll go nuts.

Yeah exactly. I find that the concepts I deal with in my day job challenge me enough, and that’s all based on empirically grounded ‘fact’ in the scientific literature.

Most people work very hard to maintain their reality, but I do think that you have to have an affinity towards detachment. A certain world view that is open to having your illusions shattered and actually enjoying that experience. And the cutting edge of science delivers those experiences in spades.

Kyle Findlay

More Info

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