Friday, February 29, 2008

A new take on what Bach looked like

Dr. Caroline Wilkinson, head of Scotland’s first forensic art unit, set up at Dundee University in 2005, has used state-of-the-art technology to recreate the head of the musical master himself, Johann Sebastian Bach.

Here’s the result, with details of the process below:

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The PLoS antidepressants study, the ‘looseness’ of medical research statistics and ‘faith’ in meta-analysis

Way too loose of p-values for false positives in studies, in medicine (and social sciences) compared to natural sciences, is one reason to not read too much into any individual study that claims antidepressants are ineffective, like the Public Library of Science meta-analysis of individual studies did.

P-values of the same looseness as in medicine/social sciences have been used to claim intercessory prayer actually works on sick people (halfway down the linked page), for example, or here (two-third down the linked page):
Targ's paper is not the only questionable study on the efficacy of prayer that has been published by medical journals. The editors and referees of these journals have done a great disservice to both science and society by allowing such highly flawed papers to be published. I have previously commented about the low statistical significance threshold of these journals (p-value of 0.05) and how it is inappropriate for extraordinary claims (Skeptical Briefs, March 2001). This policy has given a false scientific credibility to the assertion that prayer or other spiritual techniques work miracles, and several best selling books have appeared that exploit that theme. Telling people what they want to hear, these authors have made millions.

Also, per a blogger, I came across a good statement on how many people misunderstand p-values in general:
First, the p value is often misinterpreted to mean the “probability for the result being due to chance”. In reality, the p-value makes no statement that a reported observation is real. “It only makes a statement about the expected frequency that the effect would result from chance when the effect is not real”.

In short, as I’ve tried to explain to people over at Kevin Drum’s blog, p values in medicine are simply too loose.

But, as the study’s authors claim, doesn’t meta-analysis take care of all those p-value problems? No.

Meta-analysis, no matter how much it’s defended, can’t totally cover that up.

I’m not saying that the results of a meta-analysis are no stronger than the weakest study in its umbrella. I am saying that, with p values as loose as they are in health/medicine (and social sciences), is that no massive amount of individual research studies being included under one meta-analysis will make the meta-analysis’ results anything more than a little bit stronger than the best individual study.

In other words, in medicine, and in social sciences, meta-analysis adds a very modest bump, nothing more. The problem is, most people believe it does much more than that when it doesn’t.

Or, to put it another way, meta-analysis is no better than the material it’s analyzing.

So, what’s needed is medical studies to continue with the p of 0.05, because we don’t want to risk screening out potentially life-saving study, but, to re-crunch research studies at the same time. I’m not saying we need to do that with a p of 0.0001, or 1/100 of 1 percent, like the natural sciences, especially physics, normally do. But to re-crunch with a p of 0.01, or 1 percent instead of 5 percent? Absolutely.

Research that made the 5 percent cutoff but not the 1 percent cutoff would be categorized as “worthy of further study but without any immediate conclusions from it being acceptable.”

A sidebar benefit would be that a lot of alt-medicine research would get a less than full imprimatur.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The world’s oldest computer

“Computer” might be a bit of a stretch, but this 2,100-year-old astronomical calculator is a mechanical marvel:
A 2,000-year-old mechanical computer salvaged from a Roman shipwreck has astounded scientists who have finally unravelled the secrets of how the sophisticated device works. …

Since its discovery, scientists have been trying to reconstruct the device, which is now known to be an astronomical calendar capable of tracking with remarkable precision the position of the sun, several heavenly bodies and the phases of the moon. Experts believe it to be the earliest-known device to use gear wheels and by far the most sophisticated object to be found from the ancient and medieval periods. ...

Using modern computer x-ray tomography and high resolution surface scanning, a team led by Mike Edmunds and Tony Freeth at Cardiff University peered inside fragments of the crust-encased mechanism and read the faintest inscriptions that once covered the outer casing of the machine. Detailed imaging of the mechanism suggests it dates back to 150-100 BC and had 37 gear wheels enabling it to follow the movements of the moon and the sun through the zodiac, predict eclipses and even recreate the irregular orbit of the moon. The motion, known as the first lunar anomaly, was developed by the astronomer Hipparcus of Rhodes in the 2nd century BC, and he may have been consulted in the machine's construction, the scientists speculate.

Remarkably, scans showed the device uses a differential gear, which was previously believed to have been invented in the 16th century. The level of miniaturisation and complexity of its parts is comparable to that of 18th century clocks.

One of the remaining mysteries is why the Greek technology invented for the machine seemed to disappear. No other civilisation is believed to have created anything as complex for another 1,000 years.

So, per people attacking Susan Jacoby and claiming how we moderns are so intelligent, let’s just stop and think that one over.
The world’s oldest computer

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Dallas Symphony: 2008-09 looks like another banner year for the blue-haired ladies

The 2008-09 Dallas Symphony Orchestra season synopsis is here and the detailed schedule (PDF) is here.

Stuff I’ve heard in the last six years includes Brahms’ First Symphony and Double Concerto, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, Mussorgsky’s Pictures (multiple times, and I’m sure it’s the Ravel orchestration again), Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, Schumann’s Fourth, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella and more.

Oh, and in a semi-repeat, why is the DSO performing a concert version of Madame Butterfly, when it’s been performed recently by the Dallas Opera?

Other stuff is “filler.” Why Prokofiev’s Seventh? He’s nowhere near the greatest symphonist of mid-20th century. When the DSO hasn’t programmed Hindemith in who knows how long, Honegger in who knows how much longer, ditto for Myaskovsky, and possibly never for Krenek, we get Prokofiev’s Seventh instead? Hell, if it’s Prokofiev, give me one of his ballet-derived orchestral suites instead. (Not that the Seventh doesn’t reflect themes from some of his ballets, anyway.)

When Bela Bartok, Aram Khachaturian, Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss Jr. are among the newbies to the playlist since I’ve been a season-ticket holder, it’s pretty thin gruel as well as a sad commentary on the narrowness of the repertoire of years past. Apart from the Stuckey piece about LBJ in 1964, and a couple of other new pieces, the only items that really interest me on the schedule are Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto (with Cho Liang Lin), his Chamber Symphony for Strings, Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, and Mahler’s Fifth, to hear van Zweeden’s take on Mahler. Webern may be “new,” but “Im Sommerwind” is an early, Romantic work of his. Ehh.

And, some things I’m pretty sure I don’t want to hear? Andrew Litton doing Rachmaninoff’s Third. A relative conducting unknown doing Brahms’ First.

Then, there’s the choice of soloists. Midori for Brahms’ Violin Concerto? I don’t think so. She doesn’t strike me as having the depth and poignancy for the best interpretation. And I’ll pass on anything by Emanuel Ax.

Why science still needs philosophy

Tonight’s NOVA episode on PBS was about intelligence in great apes and what specifically, whether just by degree or by kind, separates their intelligence from ours.

That said, one of the research experiments, described in detail by the lead researcher, seems to have been highly overinterpreted.

The scientist said he had tested chimps’ counting ability by displaying blocks with varying numbers of dots on them, similar to dominoes or dice, then gotten them to match up what they saw on different dots, up to a count of 9, with a set of blocks from 1-9 on a string.

After working with individual dots, he got them to look at several dot-blocks in a row, and the chimps pointed out numbers in correct order. (As proper, the numbers, on blocks similar to child’s play blocks, were strung randomly rather than in numeric order.)

He then said he repeated the experiment, number blocks in the same order, while hiding part of the number blocks. He claims this is proof of how chimps can count.

I see it as proof of nothing of the kind.

Rather, it seems to be quite possibly nothing more than proof of chimp acuity in short-term visual memory. That itself might be worth more study, but it’s nowhere near earth-shaking.

I’d like to think that a philosopher, especially a cognitive philosopher, or a cognitive scientist well grounded in cognitive philosophy, would readily have picked that up as well. Perhaps many evolutionary biologists also would. But, are we sure?

And that is one evidentiary sample why, in my opinion, science still needs philosophy.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Tacitus: Accurate guide to early Roman Christianity, or not?

My short answer? Not.

Tacitus is a “go-to source” for many scholars of early Christianity, whether classicists, New Testament exegetes seeking a background for “Pauline” Rome, or early Christian period historians.

But, there’s some problems with Tacitus’ assertion that Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome over disturbances about “a certain Christ,” as he is normally translated.

First, Tacitus does NOT use Χριστος, the Greek word for Christ, but Χρήστος, a Greek epithet often translated as “noble” or similar, and used for Apollo. It is arguable that the Latin-first Tacitus confused two Greek words, but, perhaps he did not. In either case, it shows someone who, although familiar with classical Greek vocabulary was likely unfamiliar with Greek religious terms being used to represent yet other religious ideas coming from a non-Greek culture and language.

In other, shorter words, Tacitus had little familiarity with Judaism in general, let alone the idea of Messianism. Perhaps he meant to use Χρήστος about some esteemed rabbinic leader in Rome for all we know.

In any case, there’s nothing to indicate that, by “a certain Christ,” Tacitus actually meant ”this particular Christ,.” In other words, if Tacitus is talking about a historical incident, this could have been a Messianic disturbance with no connection to Yeshua bar-Iusuf of the village of Nazareth. As even the book of Acts makes clear, Messianic claimants were running all around Judea. And, as events in Alexandria show, Judea itself wasn’t the only locus of Jewish religious ferment.

Next, per evangelical Christian sociologist Rodney Stark, there were probably less than 1,500 Christians in the entire world at the time Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome, allegedly for a Christian disturbance.

Of those 1,500 Christians, reasonably, no more than 300, at best, would have been in Rome, out of a population of 1 million. It’s ridiculous to think that “Christians,” rather than “Jewish Messianism,” could have been the cause of either Claudius’ expulsion or Nero’s persecution.

And, if all the Jews were expelled, when did any of them come back? And, how many?

In short, leaning on Tacitus as an authority for either the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, or the existence, let alone the strength, of pre-Pauline Christianity in Rome, is leaning on a mighty slim reed indeed.

Monday, February 04, 2008

‘Ol’ Blue Eyes,’ you’ve got a short ancestry

Sinatra’s oldest granddaddy is only 10,000 years old at most, scientists say. That’s when some University of Copenhagen researchers say a mutation produced the first blue eyes.
“Originally, we all had brown eyes,” said one of the researchers, Hans Eiberg. But a mutation affecting a gene called OCA2 “resulted in the creation of a ‘switch’ which literally turned off the ability to produce brown eyes.”

Interesting, the switch is actually in an adjoining gene, but it influences OCA2.

This also shows, that aside from their clear biases, the Charles Murrays of the word who continue to be hard core “naturists” don’t know jack about what we’re learning about how genetics really works.

Move over, Zeus

The site of an Arcadian shrine to Zeus was apparently recycled from previous worship of a pre-Zeus divinity — complete with female consort. The first use of the site dates back to circa 3000 B.C.E.

We still don’t know a tremendous amount about the pre-Minoan/Mycenaean history of what is today Greece. A find like this is fascinating.