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JG : Mysteries of the Earbuds

Professor Joshua Gunn  is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Texas.

His 1998 Master's Thesis, " The Rhetoric of Gothic Subculture "  is a semiotic analysis of the discourse and style of ' Goth ' . This research led to three, peer review publications on gothic subculture, as well as to a theory of genre and form ( ' Talking about the Ineffable ' )  that is central to his current work.

He is presently writing a book on the ways in which the disembodied voice ( e.g., black box recordings, answering machine messages, canned laughter on sitcoms, and so on ) is the ghost of our postmodern times - and is also working on a manuscript looking at the relationship between rhetoric ( or the Symbolic ) and the Invocatory Drive  in respect to dance music.

Really Magazine  interviewed the professor on the subject of :

‘ Non-verbal Communication and Popular Music ‘

* * *


[RM]  Gustav Mahler is quoted as saying " If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music. "  On the other hand, Keith Richards  thinks that Rock and Roll is " Music for the neck downwards " . Would you say music is somehow tapping into high-level mental functions, or is it just a primal beat ?


[JG]  I think the dichotomy is a false one because music does both. We need to think about music--most especially pure music--as a form of disciplined speech. When we do, it's easy to see that, like speech, music appeals to two central components of human experience: the expression of feeling or affect, and the expression of meaning. Affect tends to be associated with " the neck down ", while meaning the signifier, the domain of musical notation that is composition. Music makes you feel and think at the same time. We tend to dislike music that doesn't do both in some way, though one or the other is sometimes called for. Intoxicated at the dance club, for example, we're just into the tyranny of the beat, or as Grace Jones once sang, slaving to the rhythm.

 

 

[RM]  There probably aren't that many university professors who run a mobile disk-jockey business - on your DJ webpage you draw attention to the fact that a DJ can make or break the atmosphere at a gig - is choosing the right music at the right time a matter of careful scientific reasoning or pure instinct ?

[JG]  Again, a little from column A and a little from column B, both of which develop from experience. In general, people dance to what they know--and usually only after the second drink. Unless it's a bar- or bat mitzvah, in which case they dance to anything that's on the radio and that has lyrics that curl the toes of grandmas everywhere. And if you play the clean, ' radio friendly ' versions, they'll scream the f-words at the top of their lungs as they dance.

So you learn what to play from experience. You cannot have an ego as a DJ unless you're spinning at a niche or upscale club. Everywhere else---parties, weddings, special events---people want to hear what they already know. Currently the crowd-pleaser is 80s music, especially updated techno versions of 80s songs. That's mostly because 80s is retro-popular for the younger generations, and nostalgia-on-a-stick for the 30-40-something set. I love the 80s myself, so right now DJ-ing is not as annoying as it was in the electric slide days.

 


[RM]  In your essay ' Stick it In Your Ear: Toward a Psychoanalysis of Music ' you suggest that fondness for music " has something to do with infantile experiences and libidinal energies that reside and emanate from the unconscious ".  Do you think that the astonishing popularity of iPods may in part have something to do with the ' insertion of the earbuds ' ?

[JG]  Unquestionably. Mirko Hall  and I have an essay coming out in the next issue of Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies [ synopsis here ] that explains this suggestion at some length. Here I will only say: go to x***e.com, a free, ' adult ' website where people upload videos of themselves in sexual situations. Type ' iPod '  into the search engine. You'll discover very quickly just what kind of fantasies the iPod has tapped into.

  

 

[RM]  Pop music has always had its critics, and it's often been said that certain genres might tend to erode cultural values in vulnerable young listeners - do you think that's a valid criticism ? If so, are there any current-day genres that youngsters should avoid listening to ?

[JG]  The criticism is certainly valid for those whose values are being challenged by a kind of music. The fact is that people +hear+ music differently depending on their personal tastes and community upbringing. Folks that argue that hip-hop is violent are usually NOT from African American urban communities ( or don't understand black vernacular traditions like signifyin' ). In general, then, I'd say that music is made for a particular audience and that audience best understands how to ' interpret ' it. I don't think, however, we should avoid making arguments about music that is ethically suspect. I agree some hip-hop is misogynistic ( not all ), and I think racist punk music is atrocious. I stop way short of censorship, however. The PMRC warning labels flap taught us something: if you mark something as ' bad ', young people will want to listen even more ( I know I did . . . still do, in fact ).

 


[RM]  Your Master's Thesis concentrated on Goth music. Why Goth ?

[JG]  I was a teenage goth. " Undead, undead undead, "  indeed . . . . I still have a monochromatic wardrobe. I love the music. I love goth grrrls and goth bois. I love goth clubs. I like eyeliner and black fingernail polish. In those tough high school years goth/gay clubs were my refuge ( goth nights tended to be housed in gay clubs ). The subculture is both fascinating and ' home ' for me, in a way. So I wrote on something that I love. And truth be told: the best dissertations and theses are written on something the author is passionate about. Music is my passion, so that's one of the things I write and research about.

 


[RM]  In your recent article for the Quarterly Journal of Speech , you cite ' Islands in the Stream '  sung by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, as having an extraordinarily high kitsch-factor - with kitsch typified as naïve idealism, or even hiding an unpleasant truth. Really Magazine's favourite is ' This Pullover ' performed by Jess Conrad  in 1961, how would you rate it ?

[JG]  Oh snap! That one rates very high, especially because I decided to hear " jockstrap " instead of " pullover ". That brings the truth---not necessarily unpleasant---to the surface.

 

 

[RM]  Many thanks professor !

[JG]   XOXO from Aus-Vegas, DJ Joshie Juice

 

 


02 JUN 08

 


 

The Tinkerbell Solution

An exclusive interview with Stuart Macdonald , Professor of Information and Organisation at the University of Sheffield.

Along with Dr. Jacqueline Kam from the University of Bristol, he has recently published an article which draws attention to the highly influential ( and some would say damaging ) feedback loops which very strongly encourage academic authors to publish in the so-called Quality Journals.

Pointing out that :

“ Reminiscing about an idyllic time when academics published largely to improve the lot of mankind is as deluding as it is pleasant. “

The authors propose two strategies to puncture the ‘ belief system ’ which currently perpetuates the gamesmanship.

1) A liberal application of humour - even going as far as mockery, and :

2) what they call a ‘ Tinkerbell Solution ‘

( Tinkerbell was J.M. Barrie's fairy character from his play Peter Pan - she survives extinction only by the audience applauding to demonstrate a belief in fairies)

* * *

 

[ RM ] It might come as a surprise to our readers that the ‘ rejection-rate ‘ for papers presented for publication in journals often approaches ( and sometimes exceeds ) 90 %. Why is the rejection-rate so high – are there too many submissions, or is the quality too low?

[SM] Some journals have always had higher rejection rates than others, more authors wanting to publish in the better journals than in the others. However, the astronomic rejection rates of a few journals are new and are largely a product of two factors. The first is that publication in some journals rather than others brings benefits far beyond those associated with anyone reading the paper published. Consequently, the demand to be published in these journals, and thereby reap these benefits, is very great. Secondly, editors of some journals work assiduously to achieve high rejection rates, a high rejection rate being an indicator of a quality journal. With luck, the process can be self-sustaining, the high rejection rate attracting the papers that must be rejected to maintain a high rejection rate. Of course, the refereeing process, rickety at best these days, cannot support such a process, and most papers submitted to quality journals never see a referee.

 

[ RM ] Some of the larger academic journal publishers have in excess of 2000 titles – and subscription rates for a single journal can reach a dizzying £30,000 – but the publishers pay nothing for the authors’ material. Bearing in mind this obvious money-making potential, they’re probably not going to be over-enthusiastic at the prospect of the Tinkerbell Solution ?

[SM] Too true. The industry that publishes academic journals has changed radically over the last decade with large companies acquiring huge stables of journals, exploiting portfolio management in their marketing, and guarding their copyright jealously. The academic supply chain that feeds this industry with its goods and services actually gets nothing from it. Return is only indirect in terms of academic status and performance indicators. The situation is not tenable in the long term, and it is perhaps time that academics stopped facilitating their own exploitation. Open access publication would make much more progress if academics did not oblige the large publishing houses in their desperation to publish in the same few journals. If academics were to start publishing papers to be read rather than to be counted, the large publishing companies would have to revise their strategy. It is very much in their interest to promote Tinkerbell.

 

[ RM ] UCL’s Prof. Steve Jones ( speaking on BBC Radio 4 - March 2007 ) said : “ most of science is actually part of the entertainment industry . . . in the end, the public pays the bills “ – do you think that’s an overstatement ?

[SM] There’s nothing wrong with combining learning with entertainment, as long as the nasty term ‘infotainment’ is avoided. The world is far too glum. But there is nothing much entertaining about the papers that fill the pages of quality journals in Management Studies, the focus of our research. They are formulaic, designed to complement what has already been published in quality journals. We found the same sort of papers (laden with literature reviews, theory and methodology) being published by the same authors in the same journals, year after year. New authors, new ideas, empirical work, anything with any practical relevance were rare. Dull fare indeed. And the public does pay the bill, mainly in terms of the opportunity cost of research in Management Studies. Consider what might be the public benefit of radical, critical thinking in Management Studies. How would management gurus earn a crust? What would airport bookshops sell? How would fat cat managers justify their bonuses? What would become of mad management methods and management speak? Come to think of it, the public probably does consider Management Studies to be part of the entertainment industry.

 

[ RM ] You suggest 'Aardvark' as a useful nom de plume for authors – presumably as it’s nearer the beginning of an alphabetical list it will get noticed more – has anyone done a formal scientific study correlating author’s names or initials with the number of times they get cited in journals ?

[SM] When election candidates are listed alphabetically, voters show a decided preference for those at the top of the list. It’s called the ‘donkey vote’. The academic author with the name of Aardvark is likely to lead any group of co-authors, ousting the others to et al. status if there are many co-authors. With each of these co-authors madly self-citing, the name of Aardvark emblazons the head of reference lists galore, and is the name that scores in author citation counts and impact analyses.

 

 

[ RM ] You point out that university incentive schemes sometimes pay an author’s department as much as €12,000 after obtaining publication in a Quality Journal – but clearly research papers in some subjects must take far longer to write than others. If someone set out solely with the goal of getting the maximum possible return-on-investment for their time, what subject would you suggest as their specialty ?

[SM] We know much more about Management Studies than about other subjects, and there we had expected ‘salami slicing’ (getting as many papers as possible from a research project) to be the preferred technique for achieving easy publication. Instead, we found something much more tedious – the same authors dominating the same journals with the same sort of papers. And we found something more insidious, perhaps borrowed from the Sciences, where whole research teams often author papers. We found junior academics writing papers to which senior academics would add their names. This was welcomed by the junior academic because it increased the chance of the paper’s publication in a quality journal, and by the busy senior academic because it demonstrated that he was still an active researcher. Somewhat mischievously, we suggested that the academic determined to publish in quality journals might give up research altogether to take a managerial route to a senior position in which authorship was an entitlement.

 
[ RM ] Many thanks !
 

 

18 JAN 08

 


 

Detecting lies.   An exclusive interview with Prof. Anders Eriksson

 

Anders Eriksson, MSc, Ph.D. Professor of Phonetics at the Department of Linguistics, Gothenburg University, Sweden, comments on the UK Govt. decision to begin tests of Voice Stress Analysis software as a means of detecting fraudulent benefit applications. ( see story, 5th Apr 07 )


[RM] Are you surprised ?


[AE] “ I would have liked to say that I am surprised, but unfortunately it is quite expected. It seems to me that many laymen are still so impressed by anything computerized that they are willing to believe just about anything as long as a computer is used to produce the results. “

 

 

[RM] How difficult is it to pin-down reliability of such systems ?


[AE] “ It’s not very difficult for a qualified researcher, and this is exactly what I suggest that the Government requests before any decisions at all are taken. There are many highly qualified forensic phoneticians in the U.K. that could perform such tests. But it is necessary, not only to test the reliability of the method but perhaps more importantly to investigate its validity, that is to make sure that the principles on which it is based are scientifically sound and proven. There is, as far as I am aware, no so called voice based lie detector on the market which comes even close to meeting these requirements. Two of the most well known brands have been subject to many such tests and have failed miserably. “

 


[RM] Will the UK government be wasting their money investing in such tools ?


[AE] “ Yes and no! Let me explain. If all the government wants is to save money and they are willing to throw ethics out the window, they may not be wasting their money. It’s a well known observation that you can influence or change peoples’ behaviour by threatening them. So if people really believe that what they say is monitored by a lie detector, they may very well be more careful about what they say. The effect is in the psychology rather than the lie detector itself. Let me make this clearer by citing a very similar example from different field.
Here in Sweden state television is financed via a subscription fee that anyone who owns a TV set is obliged to pay. Obviously not everyone does, and the authorities send out spies to detect those who cheat. About 20 years ago someone invented a kind of electronic device meant to detect certain frequencies produced by TV sets. It was not a fraud, but it was far too insensitive and imprecise to be of any real use especially in towns or cities. But it is indeed “used” even today, not physically but psychologically. When the “spies” raid a town or some area of a major city, they always send out warnings on TV saying that next week the following areas will be “scanned”. If you have a TV and have not paid your license fee, now is the time to do it. Does it work? Of course it does. The scanner itself hasn’t been used except for a short testing period during which it was shown to be pretty useless, but people do not know this and they actually believe that it is used and works and that if they cheat during the “scanning” they will be caught and fined, so they run off to the post office and pay their fees. So, does it work? Yes it does. Is it unethical to lie to people? Yes, if you ask me.
But if the government REALLY wants to save money, they shouldn’t buy any lie detector at all, but just say they have. It will work equally well and cost them nothing. “

 

 

[RM] Lying about the validity of lie-detection ?


[AE] “ It would, of course, be even worse, from an ethical point of view, if people are being accused or even punished based on a nonsensical method . . . To use [ such methods] for investigative purposes by the police or by security agencies cannot be defended under any circumstances since that would jeopardize the whole legal system and even involve risking peoples’ lives. “

 

10 APR 07

 


 

 

An exclusive interview with the creators of Philica . . .

Dr. Ian Walker is a cognitive psychology lecturer at the University of Bath's psychology department. Dr. Nigel Holt is a senior lecturer at Bath Spa University's psychology department.

Together they founded the revolutionary online journal Philica ( pron. FILL-ih-kuh ) which was set up in March this year, and is a free-access on-line editable forum for articles by academics in any field.

“ Academics work hard to produce innovative cutting-edge research, often with very little financial support, but submitting a finished article is by no means the end of their difficulties. We all know that the peer-review process is important for maintaining high standards of work, but the reality is that the traditional system of peer-review, where an editor sends the paper off to two or three anonymous reviewers, is full of serious problems “

To sum up :

Academics want to publish.

Academics need to publish.

Philica lets them do it.

* * *

[RM] In your description of the reasons for setting up Philica you indicate that you had grown dissatisfied with traditional academic journal publishing. Could you outline the primary dissatisfactions ?

[IW] As academics, we're paid by our governments to do work which is usually funded by those governments and accomplished through our own (considerable) efforts. Yet in order to publish we are obliged to sign over the rights to our findings to private journal publishers who don't pay us for writing, editing and reviewing their journals. Nor do they contribute to the expense of carrying out the work in the first place.

[NH] Ian’s right. Many academics see reviewing papers as part of their role. We’re also expected to publish. The journals act as a middle man. This means they send the paper to an action editor who delivers it to ‘peers’ for review. This process can go on for months, and with revisions and changes, it may take much longer than that. All of this is done for free by academics. It’s probably worth mentioning that these reviews are not published with the articles when they reach the shelves. The reviews are often very insightful, sometimes a little spiteful, and sometimes just plain wrong. We believe that the readers of the paper might find the reviews both interesting and useful in their interpretation of work, so we publish the reviews for all to see. Transparent and informative.

 

 


[RM] You f.a.q. page explains that Philica articles can only be published by people who are bona-fide academics – how can you verify that they are ?

[IW] Everyone who joins does so as an unconfirmed member; they're welcome to stay this way if they like but there are advantages to becoming confirmed - for example, your reviews carry a lot more weight. People become confirmed by sending us a signed letter on headed paper affirming they are who they say they are.

[NH] If you take a look at Philica, you’ll see that the confirmed members have a red tick next to their name. It’s a bit like the ‘kite mark' we are used to seeing in the UK: a stamp of ‘value’ I suppose. If a paper is reviewed by a confirmed member the authors, and just as importantly the readers, can trust it much more than if the review is from an unconfirmed member.

 

 


[RM] Bearing in mind the mould-breaking and democratising ethos of Philica - made possible by the www - is it ultimately desirable to exclude those who aren’t formally associated, at a high level, with a university dept. ? After all, Einstein published his first paper ' Folgerungen aus den Capillaritätserscheinungen '  before he had a university degree.

[IW] If I had a Euro for everyone who reminded me that Einstein wasn't an academic when he did his best work... Einstein lived at a very different time in a very different world. Anyone with a great idea these days can get on a PhD programme and go from there.

[NH] I’m sure there are a few people out there who are having ground-breaking ideas right at this minute. The problem is there are significantly more people out there who are having ideas that they think are ground-breaking, when really the ideas (a) have been thought of and published already or (b) are just plain, shall we say generously, not ground-breaking in the slightest. My advice would be for people to get in touch with academics in their field if they have ideas, work with them, let them direct and guide, and publish with them on Philica. It’s worth noting that Philica is completely free for all to read, academics or not. No expensive subscriptions or electronic access agreements here.

 

 


[RM] Like any journal, Philica insists that submissions are original. Nevertheless, there have been some recent high-profile cases of plagiarised and ‘cut’n’pasted’ papers appearing in some highly respected scientific journals – do you run any plagiarism checks – i.e. software - over submissions ?

[IW] No. The truth will find people out if they try this sort of thing on sooner or later. In fact, Philica protects its authors by making it easier to spot when people plagarize their work, as all the articles end up referenced on major search engines like Google and so are easy to trace back to their original sources.

[NH] I agree, placing work on Philica means that it is searchable using webcrawlers and tools such as Google. The truth will out. Submissions to Philica are time stamped to the second. If the authors plagiarise it is easier to spot on Philica than it is with traditional journals. If they plagiarise they will be deleted.

 

 


[RM] Philica is free – there are no publication or pay-to-read fees of any kind ( though donations are accepted ) . Do you think that any of the established journals are perhaps – behind the scenes at least – rather too focused on their money-making abilities, maybe at the expense of maintaining quality content ?

[IW] I definitely don't think the quality of work in traditional journals is affected by publishers' pursuit of money, as the publishers have nothing to do with the content: the journals are entirely produced by academics (who don't see the money).

[NH] I think the publishers are certainly in it for the money. The thing is, they know that academics are certainly NOT in it for the money. They make money on the back of others' work, and their natural desire to have their work and ideas spread to the world. I don’t think the fact that journal subscriptions are so expensive makes the work any better or worse than if they were free.

 

 


[RM] You have some of your own work on Philica , ( e.g. Time of day effects in drivers’ overtaking of bicycles ) how’s the peer-review process going in practice ?

[IW] Fine, thanks. I published a paper last week and already I've had some really useful and interesting comments on its statistical analysis. It's really working as we hoped.

[NH] There are excellent examples of it working extremely well. A review is often followed by a comment from an author expressing thanks, and indicating that the comments have been taken on board.

 

 


[RM] Ian: your online resumé says that you’re ‘highly callipygian‘ . ( definition here ) That being the case, is this perhaps attributable to your extensive cycling endeavours ? Could this be a possible new area for a future research paper ?

[IW] I think we all know that cyclists have amazing buttocks. Sadly I've no photos available for your readers, but can be booked for private viewings (for an appropriate fee, plus expenses).

[NH] Ian takes every opportunity to talk about his buttocks. Frankly I am surprised he has decided to lower the tone once again.

 

 

[RM] Many thanks, and best wishes for the ongoing development of the Journal.

 


 


An exclusive interview with Don Wise . . .

Professor Emeritus of Structural Geology, Dept. of Geosciences, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

His long and varied career spans the study of themes as diverse as the rift structures of New England to establishing techniques for crater-dating of the surface of Mars.

He has recently hit the news-sphere with his campaign against anti-evolutionists : attempting to get the letters ' ID ' to stand for Incompetent Design in the public mind.

Pointing out, for example, the highly problematic human sinus system, and the fact that we have too many teeth.

As part of his campaign, he’s also penned new lyrics for the ‘ the Battle Hymn of the Republic ‘ – now re-titled ' The Marching Song of the Incompetents ' – which you can see him performing here :

We caught up with professor Wise via a computer-controlled 7 bit data feed . . .

 

[RM] You’ve mentioned some of the defects which our bodies suffer from – e.g. a pelvis which slopes too far forward and causes backache for millions – but why hasn’t evolutionary pressure already ‘ ironed out ’ these design anomalies ?

[DW] Remember? I'm a geologist not a biologist. However there are genes that confer advantages that are closely linked with others that are a disadvantage (Sickle-cell anemia and malaria for instance.) Also many of the problems appear in older individuals. Once past the main breeding age, evolution is not very selective (but can enter in as transfers of culture and knowledge from older individuals). Then again, there may not have been enough time for all the defects to be ironed out.

 

[RM] If, as the Creationists claim, an Intelligent Designer came up with the humanoid form – then He/She/It would presumably also be responsible for, say, the malaria parasite, the onchocerciasis nematode, and ingrowing toenails. Could such a designer also be termed maleficent ?

[DW] Pass on this one. As I have argued, science should stay out of religion (and vice versa). Once we enter this realm, it's ' I said - you said ' and a never-ending series of arguments. We need to stick to what we can test - and "intelligence" in some of the designs of nature as well as her many mistakes is testable.

 


[RM] Does your theory of Incompetent Design encompass humanoid mental attributes too ? For example, wouldn’t it be better if we could easily remember long lists of PIN numbers ?

[DW] Good question but I forgot the answer.

 


[RM] If you could give suggestions to a notional ‘ designer ’ of human beings, are their any new features you’d request - how about resurrecting the third eye ?

[DW] Great idea. But why put it in the forehead? Wouldn't it be better for rear vision. (Reminds me of the guy who swallowed his glass eye and sometime later went to the proctologist. Proctologist thought the patient didn't really trust him). Again, I'm a geologist and not a biologist. Ask them.

 

 

[RM] Lastly, and it’s slightly off- topic we know, but your website mentions your theoretical model for formation of the moon by rotational fission - driven by the earth’s core formation – what’s rotational fission ? and where can we find out more ?

[DW] Two papers:
Wise, 1963, An origin of the Moon by rotational fission during formation of the Earth's core, Journal of Geophysical Research, v. 68, n. 5, 1547.

Wise, 1969, Origin of the Moon from the earth: some new mechanisms and comparisons, Journal of Geophysical Research, v. 76, n 25

My argument is that an early rapidly spinning earth that underwent core formation would change its moment of inertia and hence speed up its rotation rate, driving it to rotational instability. A series of shapes were worked out long ago by Poincare going through elongated ellipsoids to bowling pin like figures and finally a separation of the "top of the pin" as the moon. Consequently a moon formed by this model should have almost the same density, chemical, and isotopic characteristics as the earth's mantle --- and it does !.

The arguments against this model boil down to one: there is not enough rotational energy or angular momentum in the earth moon system to make this rate of rotation possible (If the moon and earth were again joined the length of day would be about 10 hours, not 3 hours required for fission.) In the 1969 paper I argue that an early earth with a closely orbiting, fissioned moon would be boiling off a silicate atmosphere. If it lost 3% of its mass in this way, the whole angular momentum and rotational energy problem would go with it.

Some years ago John Wood of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Group listed all the pieces of evidence, chemical, isotopic, etc., etc., for the origin of the earth-moon system and gave a grade for each model in explaining each piece of evidence. The present leading model of a Mars type collision got grades of B, C, C, F, B, C, D and D. Earth fission got a D (lunar mass) F (angular momentum) B, A, A, A, and F (Physical plausibility) and hence was ruled out. In addition the Mars impact model is a "Goldilocks" version that requires everything to be "just right:" The mass of the impacting body, velocity, and trajectory have to be just right for the model to work. More than that, the source of this planet-sized body is unstated and somehow from somewhere unknown it managed to impact us in a massive but precisely defined way without leaving any geochemical trace of its existence on either the earth or the moon. The fact that Wood didn't include my early silicate atmosphere loss and hence ruled out the fission model on grounds of angular momentum and energy may not have been the last word. I still believe the fission model with mostly A's and B's is more probable than the present leading one with its "gentleman's BC"* grades for most of the evidence. Time and new models and new samples will tell.

 


[RM] Professor, many thanks for your responses and good luck with your campaigning !

 

* note :

A "gentleman's C or BC" is academic talk defining the student who only does enough work to get a passing grade and no more

 


 


An exclusive interview with Laurie Taylor . . .

. . . who is visiting professor in politics and sociology at Birkbeck College, University of London. He also holds visiting professorships at the London Institute and Westminster University.

As well as his ongoing academic work, professor Taylor also presents a weekly radio programme ( via BBC Radio 4 ) , entitled ‘ Thinking Allowed ’, which reviews topical issues within academic institutions and research bodies.

( extensive audio archives available via the internet )

Really Magazine caught up with him via a trans-global informatic interchange linkup – skating around the subject :

‘ Is Science compatible with humour ? Discuss. ‘

( bearing in mind, as Albert Einstein once remarked “ If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it ? “ )

 

[RM] Professor, would you say that a robust sense of humour is alive and well in most university science research departments – or is it sometimes stifled by an over-precious demand for academic respect, and / or frantic competitiveness ?

[LT] I can only speak for social science departments but on the basis of over thirty years working in such institutions I would say that it would be easier to have a good robust laugh in the black hole of Calcutta than in the average university research department. But what can you expect when such departments are invariably staffed by two totally disparate groups of people: senior researchers with safe jobs, fat contracts and high prestige, and seriously underpaid largely disregarded postgraduate assistant researchers who are likely to be out of their present job in the next six months? Neither can the latter group take much consolation from the knowledge that their hard research work has contributed to the advancement of science. Many will find that their endeavours are not even acknowledged in the eventual publication which will be credited entirely to the senior research professor.




[RM] We’ve recently seen estimates that senior researchers often spend more than 50% of their working hours chasing funding - at the expense of time spent on the studies themselves - so, is it possible that the subject matter of the research might sometimes be forced to take a second-row seat - the important ‘work’ being the securing and maintaining of the funding ?

[LT] There was a time when research was conceived and conducted at a relatively leisurely pace. People sat around and discussed the research that was needed to advance their discipline and then applied to a research council for appropriate funding. Nowadays senior researchers don't discuss the imperatives of their discipline, they are far too busy trying to second guess the wishes of the funding bodies : ' There's a rumour going round that Tony Blair wants some research which will shut up all those ex-soldiers who're claiming compensation for Gulf War Syndrome' . 'Great, let's knock up something along those line this afternoon and get if off to the research council first thing tomorrow'.




[RM] If we were looking to chip away at rich veins of irony, ( unintentional or otherwise ) would we be better off scouring press-releases from the ‘ red-brick ’ universities or the ‘ ivory towers ’ of Oxbridge ?

[LT] There is nothing quite so comic as the new universities (many of them former polytechnics or colleges of higher education) attempting to ape some of the rites and rituals traditionally associated with Oxbridge. Everyone nowadays has to boast a heritage and ideally a Latin motto. Here is an example from a prospectus which arrived on my desk a week ago, 'Heritage. Our foundation in 1839 predates all but nine British universities. Our motto is "Qui Docet in Doctrina' or 'Let the teacher teach". And the new university in question? None other than the University of Chester.




[RM] If media coverage of scientific issues were to concentrate more on the lighthearted and humorous aspects ( where appropriate ) – could that help to cultivate a wider appreciation of the subject ?

[LT] We have just learned that nearly all the money spent by this government on promoting wider access to universities has been wasted. The percentage of people going to university from non-middle class families has hardly altered in the last decade. This means that tens of thousands of people still think of universities as institutions that are 'not for the likes of me'. A little more humour and openness about the nature of academic life might do much to overcome this attitude




[RM] One of your ‘motivational speeches’ is entitled ‘ Countering Cynicism ’. How delineated is the boundary between ‘ being cynical about ’ and ‘ poking fun at ’ a subject ?

[LT] Someone once defined a cynic as a person who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin. I'm interested in cynicism because it seems to be so contagious. Put a really good hardened cynic into a department and within six months you'll have everyone else wandering around moaning about their lot. In some departments you can almost hear the whingeing and moaning when you walk into the building. A Jewish friend of mine once described a department in which he worked as not unlike the Jewish Mothers' Annual Dinner where the waiter goes over to the table and asks 'Is anything all right?'




[RM] In one of your recent ‘ Thinking Allowed ’ radio programmes you offered a definition of ‘an intellectual ’ as – ‘ Someone who can listen to Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger.’ Our editor tried the test and failed. How about you ?

[LT] I did all right on the William Tell because I used to play it on a euphonium at my secondary school. This wasn't, though, my favourite definition of an intellectual. My favourite declares that an intellectual is 'someone who can go into a room where there is a tea-cosy on the table and not put it on their head'.





[RM] Finally ; your most recent book, co-written with your son Matthew, was entitled “ What are children for ? “ , any more on the way ? ( books, that is ).

[LT] No. I mean, did you read the reviews?




[RM] Very many thanks professor !

 



An exclusive interview with Douglas Self.

Douglas Self is a UK-based audio electronics engineer with several decades of experience designing professional audio systems. The author of several books and numerous papers and articles on the subject. He also holds several patents.

You can see examples of Douglas’ work and interests, with numerous tech-tips, projects, and no-nonsense explanations at

http://www.dself.dsl.pipex.com

His book, The Audio Power Amplifier Design Handbook, has just been re-printed, and is available here.

We hooked up with Doug via a bi-directional asynchronous data exchange network.



[RM] We’ve been wondering about a kind of ‘Turing Test’ for audio systems. A person is seated in a completely darkened anechoic room. In front of them is either A) a cello player, or B) a recording / playback system using the best available tech – featuring a recording of the very same player. Presumably, at some stage, the technology will be so perfect that the listener won’t be able to tell the real thing from the recording. Is this a reality yet ? or if not, when do you think it might be ?

[DS] No, I don't think it's a reality now. I get regular fixes of "the real thing" at the Royal Opera House ; the cheap seats I favour are almost on top of the orchestra, and I don't think anyone could mistake the experience for that given by a couple of speakers. Loudspeakers aren't good enough, and there is no height information in the stereo format. I know there is a lot of loose talk about "three-dimensional sound stages" in the audio press, but talk is all it is. You can only do so much with two channels, and the current multi-channel systems are aimed at reproducing explosions and other film effects rather than enhancing music reproduction. There's a way to go.



[RM] Most of the music which finds its way around the www today is in mp3 or similar format. Highly compressed and bandwidth limited, yet most customers seem perfectly happy with it. Perhaps that’s ‘as good as it needs to be’ ?


[DS] I suppose it must be, given the popularity of the format. I've never had anyone say to me "this sounds a bit.. funny.." when the subject has come up. Interestingly, people who accept MP3 without question are nonetheless avid purchasers of expensive audio cables that claim to cure all sorts of imaginary acoustic disorders.

The compression algorithms are supposedly very good at removing only information that you couldn't hear anyway, because it is masked by other parts of the content. This may well be true - I'm not an expert on compression algorithms- but I have to admit that I'm not happy with the mere idea of having my music filleted so I can cram ten times as much into an I-pod. Call that an aesthetic or philosophical objection if you like, but that's my feeling. I don't own any MP3 gear and that situation isn't going to change any time soon.



[RM] The ‘electronics’ part of audio systems in general is impressively accurate, but what about the input and output devices – microphones and speakers – is it just us, or are they severely lagging behind perfection-wise ?

[DS] They are miles behind in terms of fidelity. Thank God we got rid of the vinyl record and its associated cartridges. (except for a steadily dwindling band of Luddites).

The reason is that these transducers convert one sort of energy into another, and that is always hard to do faithfully. Any electro-mechanical-acoustic interface is a nightmare of ill-defined losses and resonances that are hard to control.
In contrast, within the electronics part of the equation, you are as near as dammit voyaging in the realms of pure thought, in the sense that you can do almost anything if you can think out a way to do it. There are physical limitations, of course, but they tend to be things like "a million-volt supply rail is not a good idea" or "we can't afford that big a transformer"



[RM] Have there ever been any attempts to minimize noise in audio systems by dramatically cooling them ?

[DS] Not that I know of. Jokes about the next liquid helium delivery are commonplace in electronic labs, but in audio there's just no point. Yes, you could reduce the Johnson noise from the resistors, but that is proportional to the square root of Absolute temperature, so you'd need to go three-quarters of the way to Absolute Zero just to halve it; and anyway Johnson noise is only one component of amplifier noise. The other problem is that semiconductors stop working when they get too cold. You can't win.



[RM] A couple of years back, we heard complaints from some large electronics manufacturers that “no one knows about analogue anymore ” , their gripe was that almost all of the new recruits coming from the universities had specialised during their studies almost entirely in digital systems . . . a valid complaint or not ?

[DS] It certainly is. In my opinion, digital is easier to teach and to learn than analogue, by a long way, and that is naturally reflected in what people end up knowing. The tricky parts of analogue are traditionally learnt on the job, at your employer's expense. In some ways, it has to be so, because the techniques and tricks of analogue depend on what part of the huge analogue field you're in, and with the best will in the world you couldn't teach all that in three years, or maybe even three hundred.



[RM] We’ve often come out of a movie screening thinking that the special effects designers were the real geniuses behind the production. Do you think the designers of OpAmps ( the ubiquitous building blocks of most audio equipment ) deserve a bit more praise and recognition ?

[DS] I think that power amplifier designers are the ones who really deserve the adulation of the general public and footballing salaries, but then I would. Back in reality, the only opamp auteur who really became a celebrity was Bob Widlar, the designer of the 709, the 741, and the LM10, some very famous opamps. Bob Pease is not an opamp designer, he styles himself "the czar of the band-gap references" but he is pretty famous across most electronic fields. In audio the 5532 opamp is the standard choice- it may be 25 years old but it's still the best- quite fantastically good. But such is the industry, I have no idea who designed it.



[RM] Your site mentions some ‘imaginative’ audio accoutrements, such as ' one way cables’ and ‘silver-soldered connections’ – what in your opinion is the most amusingly superfluous hi-fi ‘product’ you’ve ever come across ?

[DS] That's a very hard one to answer. Transformers wound with silver are pretty silly, but then so are directly heated triodes, not least because the cost is fearsome. But you can get really off the wall with a little effort. I quote: "This white springy plastic spiral was attached to the hot and cold water pipes in the bathroom. Result: Improved sound in living room." This is on a level with running cars for a 1000 miles on a pint of water. If you want to get deeper into this sort of [deleted Ed.], a chap called Peter Belt is your man. Start at http://www.belt.demon.co.uk/index.html



[RM] Why are other people’s personal-audio headphones so annoying ?

[DS] Special acoustic design. 99% of the power is directed outwards as a statement of territorial rights.



[RM] Many thanks !



 

An exclusive interview with Clive X.

Clive X is a polymath renaissance man who is a Master of Wine, has a hang-gliding licence, a coastal skipper's ticket, and great skills on the lute and bagpipes. He is also drummer in a rock band, and a keen cyclist over huge distances. His day job is Educational Psychologist.

We remotely interfaced with Clive via an international electronically-assisted human-engineering network. ( Thanks Doug )


[RM] Are you happy with your bananaguard ?

[CX] Yes, in general. Have only had to nip the stalk off one unusually straight banana.



[RM] Can you think of any possible improvements?

[CX] Not really, though slight doubts about the durability of the plastic hinges. A great opportunity was lost in not calling it "Banana-Armour"



[RM] Are you interested in any other fruit-protection products?

[CX] Err... no. The world has no need for "Pineapple-Guard" that I can see.


(Clive uses bananas as a near-ideal source of complex carbo on long bike rides)



 

An exclusive interview with Dr. Aubrey de Grey :

Dr. Aubrey de Grey is a biogerontologist and bioinformaticist working at the UK's University of Cambridge. The main goal of his biogerontology work is to expedite the development of a true cure for human aging.

He is a central figure behind the 'SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence)' project. His website gives very detailed descriptions of the components of the SENS strategy, all of which, he believes, are likely to be feasible in mice within a decade (presuming adequate funding).

We interviewed Dr. de Grey via a transatlantic electronic information exchange facility.

 

[RM] Bearing in mind that the brain is the most complex organ, would it be correct to assume that it may also be the most difficult in which to prevent aging ? And, if that were so, could we see a period when the planet is populated by people with grade-A1 bodies - but who are essentially senile ?

[AG] If the brain were the most difficult organ to rejuvenate then yes, there would be a risk of a period of the sort you describe. In fact, though, the brain is not the most difficult organ, because there is no single most difficult organ. This is because all of the molecular and cellular therapies that we need to develop in order to repair the effects of aging apply to many tissues, with only small differences in the detail of how they would be implemented from one tissue to the next. For example, neurodegeneration is characterised by the accumulation of indigestible junk inside neurons, but atherosclerosis and macular degeneration are also characterised by the accumulation of junk (in macrophages and retinal epithelial cells, respectively) and the same treatment should work on all of them.

 

 

[RM] Perhaps we missed it, but your website doesn't seem to give much space to the financial implications of any new 'treatments'. If any of the large pharmaceutical companies were able to perfect a treatment, they would surely be the holders of one of the most lucrative patents of all time. Would any new treatment be 'too important' to allow one company to entirely control?

[AG] Far too important. The holders of such patents will be enormously rewarded financially, but not by normal market forces: rather, there will be compulsory purchase of such patents by governments so as to expedite the availability of these treatments to everyone. This may seem implausible now, but not when you think about how badly people will want these therapies. The state will have no other option for avoiding major civil unrest.

 

 

[RM] 'Diffusion' of the treatment, or therapy, downwards through the world population would obviously take a very long time. Many millions of people still don't have resources to buy even an Aspirin™, how will they, or their descendants, ever be able to afford to buy into anti-aging therapy ?

[AG] Because it'll be free at the point of delivery. It'll be free because it'll have to be free in order to avoid the civil unrest I just mentioned -- which applies at the global level as well as at the national level. The only way to think about this is to realise that we will be in a genuine "War or Aging" at that time, much more genuine than the so-called "War on Cancer". With the possibility of indefinite youth before them, humanity will choose to make sacrifices normally seen only in wartime. The expenditure needed to provide these new treatments to everyone who needs them (i.e., everyone who may die of age-related causes within the next decade if they don't get them) will be staggering, no question (though of course it'll fall rapidly as the technologies are refined), but there will be no hesitation in allocating that expenditure. There is a big problem of the need for forward planning, though, especially to train enough medical personnel. That's one reason why I'm so vocal about this problem now, even though we're still a decade away from proof of concept in mice.

 

 

[RM] Assuming that immortality tech is, oneday, firmly established worldwide, it will become essential that humans no longer breed (except, as you've pointed out, to replace adults killed in accidents or suicides) - won't a world without children be a much sadder world?

[AG] Who knows? It's not for us to predict what people will think of such a world: it's for us to give them the choice. If they decide to reject rejuvenation therapy in favour of continuing to have children at the present rate, that's fine -- we'll have given them the option and they'll have made their choice. If we hesitate, today, in our development of rejuvenation therapies, then we're denying those people that choice -- the choice of life. We have no right to do that, any more than someone has the right to kill someone else (by action or by inaction) in any other way.

Personally, however, I am pretty sure we'll get used to a progressively diminishing proportion of children very easily. The number of women in developed nations who are choosing not to have kids is exploding. I feel that the bombardment of young girls with dolls and other trappings of motherhood is a form of indoctrination every bit as insidious as the bombardment of young boys with toy guns and other trappings of violence, and the sooner both are discontinued the happier the world will be.

 

 

[RM] Because a future world inhabited by ultra-long-life humans couldn't allow breeding, that would mean our 'evolution' would have to come to an end. However, many geneticists and bioinformaticists say that there's absolutely no evidence that we are evolving anyway - what's your view on this ?

[AG] Oh, we're definitely evolving -- quite rapidly, in fact. The most conspicuous example is in our immune system, which is being selected really strongly now for lower efficacy because of our successes in the control of infection by medical means: this causes selection because it seems that women with a weaker immune system are more fertile. It is also incorrect to say that our evolution will end if we stop having kids, because we can engineer our own evolution by gene therapy, adding or removing genes to/from our existing, adult bodies. The immune system is going to be a very important example of that, too -- improving our defences against new infectious diseases will be even more important then than it is now, because those diseases will be the main cause of death.

 

 

[RM] Arthur Clarke has pointed out that, with regard to deep-space travel, any very-long-voyage exploratory craft which set out from Earth in, say, 50 years time, will surely find themselves overtaken by another - faster - craft, launched some years later ! In that sense, is there any rush to develop anti-aging tech ?

[AG] Nice parallel, but obviously invalid. Once you're dead, you stay dead (unless and until we develop technology to revive cryopreserved people). Hence, there is indeed a rush to develop this technology -- namely, we will save 100,000 lives for every single day that we bring its development forward. Or conversely, for every day that our hesitation today delays that development, we're condemning 100,000 people to an unnecessarily early death. That's THIRTY WORLD TRADE CENTERS EVERY SINGLE DAY. I think that's a pretty good reason to rush.

 

 

[RM] Lastly, Dr. de Grey, do you think that you, or someone of your age, will stand to benefit personally from anti-aging tech - or is it much further in the future ?

[AG] On my current estimates, I think people of my age (41) have about a 50-50 chance of surviving to reach "escape velocity" -- the point when rejuvenation therapies are around and being improved fast enough to stop aging in its tracks, to repair damage as fast as it's accumulating. I probably have a much better chance than that because I have good genes and I look after myself carefully. People as old as 60 or more should be thinking this way too -- every extra year you add to your life by living and eating the way your mother told you to will greatly increase your chance of still being around when these therapies arrive. And if you're in your 80s, well, there's not much chance, but there sure is for your children and grandchildren, so you have personal (as well as simple humanitarian) reasons to do your bit too.

 

 

[RM] Dr. de Grey, many thanks for the interview - and best of luck with the project !




An exclusive interview with Mark Lissitsky :

Mark Lissitsky, the driving force behind Clubbo Record’s ‘The Lazarus Project’.

See: http://clubbo.com/LazarusBio.html

Mark developed the ‘Intelligent Artificiality ’ algorithm which underpins the ambitious project. Really Magazine caught up with him in via a video-conferencing link to his lab near Salem.

 

 

[RM] Hi Mark, thanks for taking the time out to talk to us !

 

[ML] Hey, no problem.

 

[RM] Could you tell us where you think technologically generated music is headed ?

 

[ML] Look, all music is techno generated OK? A flute is like a technological thing right ? It has to be made to exact tolerances - out of the right alloys – people pay thousands just for a good mouthpiece you know ? But . .

 

[RM] [ interrupting ] Yes, but you can make one out of a piece of bamboo and it still sounds pretty good. !

 

[ML] Oh yeah – like a piece of bamboo is going to sound like a Miyazawa – Sure !

 

[RM] But making music is more than just a science ?

 

[ML] Well it is and it isn’t. You see, our algorithms can analyse and mimic the – the ‘spirit’ I guess you’d call it – that a composer has in their frontal cortex . I mean, like, where else is it going to be right ? In there. I mean in here. The brain is the most complex machine in the universe. You’ve got to understand that first right ? And our algorithm – actually my algorithm - can break down the alpha waves using an FFT set which . . .

 

[RM] an FFT set ?

 

[ML] Yes FFT set, you know what that is don’t you ? Duh !

 

[RM] Yes we do Mark . . . but if you could explain for our readers . . .

 

[ML] Fast Fourier Transforms. Look it up on the web man.

 

[RM] Would you say that ‘art’ and ‘science’ are just two sides of the same coin then?

 

[ML] You mean - like a double edged coin right ?

 

[RM] No, that’s a double edged sword. It’s a double sided coin.

 

[ML] Whatever.

 

[RM] Well ?

 

[ML] Yeah , it’s like kinda obvious isn’t it ? But no-one has been able to pin it down. Not till we came up with – I came up with - the goods. The algorithm. That’s the key. Hey that’s funny ! Like a musical key right ? Heh ! Yeah, anyway , everything can be analysed – music , paintings, brainwaves – it’s just math. OK ?

 

[RM] Could you tell us a bit about the equipment you use ?

 

[ML] Look, it’s all mine right ? I paid for this stuff, there’s not one module here from Stanford. That was just a piece they put out because they couldn’t deal with my splitting. With me actually.

 

[RM] If a student wanted to try to replicate some of your work, would they be able to make a start without all that high tech gear ?

 

[ML] Oh sure ! As in - No Way !

 

[RM] In the future, do you think it will be possible to . . .

 

[ML] [interrupts] Look guys, sorry time’s up. Got to see what the machines are cooking up for me ! See ya !

 

[RM] Thanks Mark.

 

[ML] Yeah.

 



 

 

 


 

 

 

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