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Archive for June, 2008

Darman’s eyes

Posted by Paul Mason on June 30, 2008

This is Pak Darman:Pak DarmanPak Darman







Although pictured playing the Kecapi (a traditional Sundanese string instrument), Pak Darman can also play the suling (a type of bamboo flute) and the tarompet (a double reed woodwind instrument). At home he works as a masseur but a large part of his income (which is not that large) comes from being hired for local performances. A regular gig for Pak Darman is accompanying Pencak Silat performances with the Tarompet.

In my last blog, I mentioned that Sundanese Pencak Silat musicians probably spend more time closely watching the movement of a performance than the audience or even the movement artists themselves. This puts Pak Darman in an interesting position. He can’t see the performances. Pak Darman is blind.

There is no question though that Pak Darman is a skilled Tarompet player and a respected Pencak Silat accompanist. During Pencak Silat Performances, Pak Darman has to respond immediately to changes in rhythm, speed and excitement. He has to match the intensity of a performance with his choice of melody, the loudness of his playing and the roughness of its delivery. In fact, his skill and knowledge of his craft is so deep that simply by listening to the improvisations played on the Kendang Anak, Pak Darman can quite often tell you who is performing Pencak Silat movements.

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Oseng’s brain

Posted by Paul Mason on June 30, 2008

I want to know what is going on inside this guy’s brain.

I am sure that we have all wanted to sneak peak into the brain of someone we know; a lover, a parent, or a colleague. In my case, I want to study the brain of my Kendang Pencak teacher, Pak Oseng. He has a highly trained skill that demands attention, musical ability and well-developed motion perception. The beauty of his skill to researchers is that it is both culturally unique and experimentally testable. His skill can inform us about mirror neurons, action and perception as well as enculturation, skill acquisition and the neuro-cultural nexus. For me, it could be a key to understanding one aspect of the relationship between music and movement in the human brain.

Oseng plays drums (Kendang Pencak) to accompany Sundanese martial arts (Pencak Silat) and he is one of the best around. He matches the moves of performing martial artists with corresponding rhythm, dynamics and intensity. His mimetic skill at bringing a musical component to punches, kicks, grapples and holds while sustaining an entertaining rhythm would be beyond the skill of most percussionists, but to Pak Oseng it has become second nature. He can sustain performances from 5 minutes long to a couple of hours without breaking a sweat (and that says a lot for someone who lives in the tropical climate of Indonesia). He can even do it while chain-smoking!

There are two sets of drums that are used to accompany Sundanese Pencak Silat performances. The Kendang Ibu (mother drum) sustains a steady tempo while the Kendang Anak (child drum) improvises freely in fitting with the moves of the martial artists performing. This free improvisation requires the close attention of the drummer to pre-empt moves such as punches that require to be accompanied by a loud hit of the drum. But it’s not always a 1:1 relationship between the sound and the movement. Drummers like Pak Oseng have to know how to build tension and how to read the body of the performer so that he can successfully accompany powerful moves while adding beauty to the flower of the movement (known as bunga).

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Chicks dig jerks?: Evolutionary psych on sex #1

Posted by gregdowney on June 29, 2008

In our continuing exploration of facile examples of ‘evolutionary’ explanations for human behavior (usually described instead as ‘human nature’), I have another couple of exhibits: Do Jerks Get Laid More?, a great attack on recent research by Jill Filopovic at Feministe (h/t: Alternet); and Science Daily‘s story, Women Have Not Adapted To Casual Sex, Research Shows (which I’ll discuss in the next posts). Daniel already discussed some of the recent research on homosexuality in The Gay Brain: On Love and Science, but this piece, the first of two, is dedicated to recent ‘evolutionary’ work on male-female relations, especially arguments about what is ‘natural’ in sexuality including that all-important question, ‘What do women want?’

Some of the problems that beset these articles are pretty general objections a person could have to evolutionary psychology, so I feel like I want to go over them a little bit (but I’ll try to keep it short).

Why women like bad boys: ev psych explains

Jill Filopovic discusses a story, Do Jerks Get Laid More? Good news for psycho-narcissists, by Jessica Wakeman, which is commentary on a story in New Scientist, Bad guys really do get the most girls (a similar piece also appeared on ABC News). In other words, this story has been ricocheting around the Internets for a while, getting reposted and commented upon all over the place (such as here, here, here and, my favourite, here, where democracy confirms ev psych stereotypes). With all sorts of people having things to say, some share a bit too much about their own personal lives and some involve cueing up familiar cliches (‘nice guys finish last,’ for example, is a favourite).

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Posted in Evolution, Gender, general, Human variation, Relationships, Sex | Tagged: , , | 9 Comments »

Learning, Arts and the Brain

Posted by dlende on June 28, 2008

The Dana Foundation released Learning, Arts and the Brain: A Dana Consortium Report on Arts and Cognition back in March. Led by Michael Gazzaniga (see Mind Hacks on him recently), the report “advances our understanding of the effects of music, dance, and drama education on other types of learning” as well as addressing the question, “Are smart people drawn to the arts or does arts training make people smarter?”

The overall summary , written by Gazzaniga, discuss motivation and sustained attention, the overlap between skills in arts and math, and even mentions aesthetics, openness, and dopamine. Gazzaniga highlights research on dance as indicative of overall synergies:

Our research indicates that dance training can enable students to become highly successful observers. We found that learning to dance by watching alone can be highly successful and that the success is sustained at the neural level by a strong overlap between brain areas that are used for observing actions and also for making actual movements. These shared neural substrates are critical for organizing complex actions into sequential structure.

The report itself has a range of chapters, including ones on music skills and cognition, dance and the brain, and arts education, the brain and language.

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Anthropology Round Up

Posted by dlende on June 27, 2008

John Jackson, Hustle and Show
Sudhir Venkatesh’s ethnography of Chicago gangs meets Hollywood

Luke Freeman, Anthropology Unites Mankind Rather Than Dividing It
Understanding cultural differences as key to the future

Nicholas Kristof, The Sex Speech
What would the perfect meld of Obama/Hillary have said about sexism in the US?

Shankar Vedantam, What Obama Might Learn from Emily Dickinson
Crime, poverty and vengeance mixed into one

Shankar Vedantam, See No Bias
Implicit bias trumps explicit ideology—or even the best-intentioned can have prejudices

Lisa Margonelli, Tapped Out
Review of Bottlemania, and why Americans spend $11 billion on bottled water

Maureen Flynn-Burhoe, Memory Work: Colonialism, Control, Civilization
Donna Haraway and the politics of nature

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Spore and the Obvious

Posted by dlende on June 26, 2008

Spore is a new game coming out this fall and recently a creature creator was released to show off a bit of the game. Given that this is a game more or less about evolution, with male and female creatures, it did not take long until “Sporn” hit the Internet.

I’ve pasted the “nature video” in all its glory below, so please take that into account before playing it. I found it very funny–ah, the things people put their minds to–but I wouldn’t show it to my kids. The tagline for the game goes, “Starting with single-cell organisms, players work on designing life with ever more complexity.” Or designing it right into the gutters… The hattip goes to Greg Laden.

Our own Greg adds: Warning: Video contains graphic scenes of pink-skinned animated aliens mating, including growling, circling hearts, and funky dance moves. Please don’t click if you are without a sense of humor.

Posted in Fun and Humor, general | 3 Comments »

Grand Central Freeze

Posted by dlende on June 26, 2008

Improv Everywhere pulled off a great social experiment, a couple hundred people freezing all at once for five minutes in the main terminal of New York’s Grand Central Terminal. Here’s the video:

People’s reactions show public culture in action, backed up by the commentary on the making and enactment of the video at Improv Everywhere. I thought this was striking, of how the volunteers both took the mission on and brought their own creativity to it:

It was fun to see all the different choices people made for their frozen moment. I didn’t give any instructions in advance. I just told everyone to be doing something realistic and not jokey. One guy dropped an entire briefcase full of papers the second before he froze, leaving his papers scattered before him for five minutes. Many froze midway through eating or drinking. A few froze while taking off a jacket. One couple froze kissing.

At the Improv post, you can see lots more video on particular scenes, so plenty of great real-live data on a real-life experiment. And there are other “missions” like making a little league game the “best game ever” and The Moebius, where seven agents got stuck in a time loop at a Starbucks.

Posted in Fun and Humor, general | 1 Comment »

Wednesday Round Up #17

Posted by dlende on June 25, 2008


Dan Koeppel, Yes, We Will Have Bananas
Banana republics, banana barons, a global commodity, and a global disease—all that in 1500 words!

Elizabeth Gudrais, Unequal America
Harvard Magazine cover article on the causes and consequences of the widening gap between rich and poor in the US

Dr. X, What Do Sharon Stone and Pastor John Hagee Have in Common?
The “just world hypothesis” and bias against those who suffer

The Economist, Cognitive Disenchantment: From He That Have Not
Being on the bottom blinkers your brain. Much more on this from Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Esther Walker, “I’ve got kids who sleep with knives under their pillows.”
Violence reduction and kids with tough lives: “Social and emotional deprivation is creating a new kind of brain”

Andrew Revkin, White House: Poor Face Health Risks from Global Warming
Even after Katrina it takes a court order to deal with the differential impact of climate change

Developing Intelligence, Impulsivity Due to Distortions in Time: Hyperbolic Discounting and Logarithmic Time Perception
Does hyperbolic discounting exist? Probably not—might just reflect a “systematic ‘skew’ in the way people perceive time.” Any guess where I think that skew comes from? (A hint, humans’ non-linear institutions…)

Science Daily, Having Less Power Impairs the Mind and the Ability to Get Ahead, Study Shows
Can we say unequal playing field?

Susan Faludi, Think the Gender War Is Over? Think Again
Politics and two hundred years of gender mythology

Adam Cohen, After 75 Years, the Working Poor Still Struggle for a Fair Wage
Minimum wage, earned income tax credit and not getting a fair shake


Virginia Heffernan, Narrow Minded
Thinspiration videos on-line and culture, beauty, and anorexia

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The Gay Brain: On Love and Science

Posted by dlende on June 25, 2008

A lot of controversy and blogging about the gay brain of late. Here’s the Savic and Lindstrom paper that got the fray started, with Mind Hacks’ accompanying coverage on the Return of the Gay Brain.

Shortly afterwards, Vaughan proposed “hard wired” as one of the worst psychobabble terms. For me, the fixation on biological determinism is the larger, and worse, cultural concept behind that. So I propose leaving behind biological claims for identity. It just gives us claptrap like the opening lines from the New Scientist news report, “Brain scans have provided the most compelling evidence yet that being gay or straight is a biologically fixed trait.”

Compelling evidence? While there is interesting work on biology and sexuality (the LA Times covers some of it), there is plenty to doubt about the present work, as the Neurocritic points out quite well here and here. This sort of work represents bad brain science: reported claims overreaching the evidence, an often notable lack of comparative work and appropriate controls, little longitudinal analysis, and on and on.

The worst thing about it? The science, whatever it turns out to be, cannot take us from is to ought.

To add my two anthropological cents, human sexuality is varied. Trying to shoehorn sexuality into one socially and politically charged box just does not work well from an anthropological point of view. As one example, men in some cultures go through different life stages, and in some of those stages homosexuality is the normal way of being, whereas at other times heterosexual relations are the norm. To speak personally, I’ve known people who have had an array of partners in their lives, individually recreating what cultures like the Etoro have shown us ethnographically.

On the neuroplasticity and experience/behavior side, this type of approach generally leaves out something every consenting adult knows. Sex matters! The experience of a sexual encounter helps shape our desires, our pleasures, our associations.

But there is something that matters more to me, and most of the people I know, than sex. LOVE. All this debate about cerebral asymmetries and biological determinism misses the human point. Love matters.

Who cares whether sex between whatever combination of men and women is or is not natural? Love makes a much bigger difference in people’s lives. Love between two committed partners, love of a parent for a child, love of family and friend and groups finding common bond.

Love holds us together, whereas the debates over how gay our brains may or may not be aims to divide us, to heighten identity politics at the expense of those experiences and behaviors whose impact lasts longer. We sacrifice the strength of intimacy to proclaim the supposed facts of science.

There are those who will say that knowing the nature of the problem (how easy to slide from one sense of the problem to another) will help us make better determinations about what to do, that more information will lead to better decisions. Or that being able to claim the mantle of biologically innate will help in the fight against the other side.

I would counter that these sorts of assertions cut entirely against the grain of the society we have built, whether that is a liberal vision of equality before the law or a conservative vision that government should not dictate people’s private choices. But that vision gets sacrificed at the altar of proclamations of moral superiority and the exercise of vindictive power.

Science, with its claims of facts and evidence, steps so easily into that arena, declaring this and that truth. In doing that, the scientists are forgetting what matters, both about science and about human experience.

Posted in Gender, general, Human variation, Philosophy, Politics, Relationships, Sex | 3 Comments »

Photos at the Morning News in Black and White

Posted by dlende on June 24, 2008

The Morning News, “Black and White and Read All Over,” has an on-going art gallery series, demonstrating the work of a particular artist along one theme, complete with an accompanying interview. Most of the series consists of photography, but there are paintings and drawings as well. Really striking work.

The latest is Topologies by the photographer Edgar Martins, interview by Rosencrans Baldwin.

But the one that really struck me was on Phone Sex Operators by Phillip Toledano. Toledano captures these individuals so well, revealing the lives behind the fantasy. There is also an accompanying quote from the person which adds that much more depth. Here is the one from that series.

I’m 60 years old, have a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from Columbia University, and married for 25 years. I have a son in his last years of college who lives at home. He’s a 4.0 with a double major in English Literature and Religion. Men call me for an infinity of reasons. Of course, they call to masturbate. I call it “Executive Stress Relief.” It’s not sex; it’s a cocktail of testosterone, fueled by addiction to pornography, loneliness, and the need to hear a woman’s voice. I make twice the money I made in the corporate world. I work from home, the money transfers into my bank account daily. I’m Scheherezade: If I don’t tell stories that fascinate the Pasha, he will kill me in the morning.

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