Annoying songs take root in your auditory cortex

From Science Editor Alan Boyle’s weblog:

Brain At one time or another, everyone’s had a tune pop into their head and stay there, even though you wish it would just go away. Those meddlesome melodies are known as sticky songs, or “earworms,” and over the past couple of years, hundreds of Cosmic Log readers have sent in contributions to the earworm list. In Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature, researchers report that they have discovered the place in the brain where earworms hide out. It should come as little surprise that the center for earworm activity is the auditory cortex, the same place where sounds are perceived.

Researchers from Dartmouth College and the University of Aberdeen worked with 15 experimental subjects to develop individualized playlists — including songs with lyrics, such as the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” as well as instrumental pieces such as the theme from “The Pink Panther.” (Are those earworms working on you yet?)

Each listener tagged certain tunes as familiar, and others as unfamiliar. Then the tunes were played while the listener was lying in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner. At various points in the soundtrack, the music went silent for 3 to 5 seconds, and researchers watched how the brain responded.

During the gaps in the unfamiliar music, activity in the auditory cortex diminished. But when there was a gap in a familiar tune, the auditory cortex kept working away. “It’s like the brain is still hearing the music,” one of the researchers, Dartmouth’s David Kraemer, told me today. “It’s still activating that part of the brain that’s activated when you’re hearing the music. … And it’s interesting to note that we didn’t instruct them to imagine the silent part. It’s something that they just did spontaneously.”

The researchers also saw a difference between the vocals and the instrumentals: Songs with lyrics activated an area known as the auditory association cortex, or Brodmann’s area 22 — which links sounds with other aspects of experience, such as word recognition. The instrumental tunes sparked a more basic level of processing in the primary auditory cortex. Kraemer speculated that when you hear a song with words, you use the words as a shorthand for the full melody — while a wordless melody forces your brain to go farther back to the notes themselves. “You react only as far back as you need to, to reconstruct the relevant part of the experience,” he said. Perhaps this explains why songs with lyrics tend to be “stickier” than instrumental tunes, and why it’s so hard to stop an earworm in its tracks. Your auditory cortex wants to run through the entire experience of “Who Let the Dogs Out,” even though the rest of your brain is longing to stop the music.

Read more here.

Modigliani: Misunderstood

Doug Stewart writes in Smithsonian Magazine:

ModiglianiLate in 1919, in a squalid Paris studio strewn with wine bottles, Amedeo Modigliani painted a wistful portrait of his 21-year-old lover Jeanne Hébuterne. A few months later, on January 24, 1920, the impoverished artist died of tubercular meningitis at age 35. The following evening, Hébuterne, eight months’ pregnant with their second child, leapt to her death from a fifth-story window.

During Modigliani’s short and difficult life, the going rate for his elegant, oddly distorted paintings was less than $10, and takers were few. A landlord who confiscated some of his work in lieu of rent used the canvases to patch old mattresses. This past November an anonymous bidder at Sotheby’s auction house in New York City paid $31.3 million for the Hébuterne portrait.

One of the many ironies of Modigliani’s career is that so tortured a life could produce so serene a body of work. His art managed to bridge the stylistic chasm between classical Italian painting and avant-garde Modernism.

More here.

Jupiter Acts as Giant Mirror to Sun’s Back-Side Activity

Robert Roy Britt writes in

050307_jupiter_xrays_01Space weather forecasters have it even tougher than regular weather forecasters. In trying to predict long-range solar activity, they have to rely on a picture of just the half of the Sun they can see. Storms brewing on the backside are hidden from view until they rotate to the front.

Jupiter to the rescue. The giant gas planet reflects solar activity, scientists have learned. And when Jupiter is on the other side of the solar system, it can act as a mirror for flare-ups from the back side of the Sun.

Scientists had previously measured X-rays emanating from the Jovian atmosphere. Those coming from the equator were theorized to be related to solar activity.

More here.


This article wouldn’t normally pass muster for inclusion here at 3QD, lacking as it may be in intellectual depth. I don’t care. If I can help a single Pakistani or Indian New Yorker find chaat somewhere, I will no doubt be alloted at least 36 virgin brides in heaven. For some unfathomable reason, chaat is impossible to make well at home. There are millions of recipes floating around, but it just doesn’t come out right. In Pakistan, it is best bought from the filthy cart of a street vendor, and best swallowed along with a prophylactic dose of Cipro. Trust me, it is worth the Delhi-belly. I have been trying to explain to people what chaat is for some time, and trying to describe its incomparable simultaneous explosion of a million flavors and crispy textures on the palate, always without success. Finally, we have a professional to do the job.

Julia Moskin writes in the New York Times:

09chaatAsking Indians in America about chaat, India’s national snacks, is like asking Americans in India about burgers: the word unleashes unbearable cravings, nostalgia and homesickness. “I remember going to Kwality Snacks for papri chaat when I was a boy,” said Gandar Nasri, 74, a retired New York City taxi driver, who moved from Delhi in 1955. “Nothing will ever taste like that again.”

Taste a good chaat, and you understand why it is not soon forgotten.

Chaats are jumbles of flavor and texture: sweet, sour, salty, spicy, crunchy, soft, nutty, fried and flaky tidbits, doused with cool yogurt, fresh cilantro and tangy tamarind and sprinkled with chaat masala, a spice mixture that is itself wildly eventful. The contrasts are, as one fan said, “a steeplechase for your mouth,” with different sensations galloping by faster than you can track them.

All Indians in America are homesick for the same thing, said Mitra Choudhuri, a software engineer from Gujarat, who lives in Fort Collins, Colo. “There is no chaat here, only curries,” he said.

But in the New York region that has finally changed.

Thank God! Get the lowdown here.

Literary Novelists Address 9/11, Finally

Edward Wyatt writes in the New York Times:

In time, inevitably, cold truth is recast and reshaped into literature.

After three years of near silence about the attacks of Sept. 11, the literary world has begun to grapple with the meanings and consequences of the worst terrorist attack ever to happen on American soil.

A half-dozen novels that use 9/11 and its aftermath as central elements of their plot or setting, from some of the most acclaimed literary novelists and the most respected publishing houses, are being released later this year. A similar number have already made their way into bookstores in the last few months.

More here.

Anthropology for Mathematicians

Brian Hayes reviews Symmetry Comes of Age: The Role of Pattern in Culture, edited by Dorothy K. Washburn and Donald W. Crowe, and Embedded Symmetries, Natural and Cultural, edited by Dorothy K. Washburn, at American Scientist:

On a visit to the Alhambra some years ago, I toted along a copy of Symmetry in Science and Art, a weighty text by A. V. Shubnikov and V. A. Koptsik, as a field guide to the carvings and tilings that decorate that extravagant palace overlooking Granada. The two books under review here would probably serve as better field guides—Symmetry Comes of Age even includes a useful flowchart for classifying the symmetry groups of patterns—but I suspect that the authors and editors would not entirely approve of this use of their work. The tourist who stalks the halls of the Alhambra trying to complete a checklist of the 17 two-dimensional symmetry groups is not their ideal student of “the role of pattern in culture.” When one is looking at an artifact such as a tiled floor or a woven fabric or a beadwork ornament, identifying crystallographic groups is at best the beginning of understanding the object. The classification might tell you something about the meaning of the work in the context of Western mathematics, but it is unlikely to reveal much about the object’s meaning within the culture that created it.

This point is made emphatically by Branko Grünbaum—a mathematician who certainly knows his symmetry groups—in a previously published article on ancient Peruvian textiles that is reprinted in Symmetry Comes of Age.

More here.

Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

John Updike reviews Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel in The New Yorker:

Jonathan Safran Foer, born in 1977, came out swinging in 2002, with the publication of his astounding, clownish, tender, intricately and extravagantly plotted novel “Everything Is Illuminated.” From the hilarious overreacher’s English of the Ukrainian tour guide Alexander Perchov to the passionately fanciful evocations of a Polish-Jewish shtetl from 1791 to 1942, the prose kept jolting the reader into the heightened awareness that comes with writing whose exact like hasn’t been seen before. Foer’s second novel, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (Houghton Mifflin; $24.95), continues on a high plane of inventiveness and emotional urgency, while taking place on the solid turf of New York City in the aftermath of that most familiar of recent catastrophes, the 2001 World Trade Center blitz.

More here.

A code to rival Da Vinci’s

In 1912, a bookseller rummages through trunks full of illuminated medieval manuscripts in a remote Italian castle converted to a Jesuit school. A small volume, not much bigger than a paperback, catches his eye. The bookseller—a Lithuanian immigrant whose past is shaded by run-ins with revolutionaries, anarchists and spies—realizes that the book is clearly older than the rest. It is also full of unusual drawings and is written in cipher.

The Friar and the Cipher: Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World is the story of that code and the effort to decipher it. It is also the story of Roger Bacon, known as “Doctor Mirabilis”—the miraculous doctor—by his contemporaries, and of his bitterest rival, Thomas Aquinas.

More here.


George Dyson in

Machines that behave unpredictably tend to be viewed as malfunctioning, unless we are playing games of chance. Alan Turing, namesake of the infallible, deterministic, Universal machine, recognized (in agreement with Richard Foreman) that true intelligence depends on being able to make mistakes. “If a machine is expected to be infallible, it cannot also be intelligent,” he argued in 1947, drawing this conclusion as a direct consequence of Kurt Gödel’s 1931 results.

“The argument from Gödel’s [theorem] rests essentially on the condition that the machine must not make mistakes,” he explained in 1948. “But this is not a requirement for intelligence.” In 1949, while developing the Manchester Mark I for Ferranti Ltd., Turing included a random number generator based on a source of electronic noise, so that the machine could not only compute answers, but occasionally take a wild guess.

More here.  And as usual, Marvin Minsky brutally cuts through the seemingly (at first) profound nonsense:

Mr. Foreman complains that he is being replaced (by “the pressure of information overload”) with “a new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance” because he is connected to “that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

I think that this is ridiculous because I don’t see any basic change; there always was too much information. Fifty years ago, if you went into any big library, you would have been overwhelmed by the amounts contained in the books therein. Furthermore, that “touch of a button” has improves things in two ways: (1) it has change the time it takes to find a book from perhaps several minutes into several seconds, and (2) in the past date usually took many minutes, or even hours, to find what you want to find inside that book—but now, a Computer can help you can search through the text, and I see this as nothing but good.

Indeed, it seems to me that only one thing has gone badly wrong. I do not go to libraries any more, because I can find most of what I want by using that wonderful touch of a button! However the copyright laws have gotten worse—and I think that the best thoughts still are in books because, frequently, in those ancient times, the authors developed their ideas for years well for they started to publicly babble. Unfortunately, not much of that stuff from the past fifty years is in the public domain, because of copyrights.

New physics tool 27 kilometres long

Sean Carrol over at Preposterous Universe writes:

Cernmagnet_1The good news is: the first superconducting magnet has been lowered into the tunnel for the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. It was a big one, coming in at 15 meters long and 35 metric tons. Now there are only 1,231 identical magnets left to install. The magnets will be used to accelerate protons and antiprotons zipping in opposite directions around a 27-kilometer tunnel, before they collide with an energy of about 14 trillion electron volts. (For comparison purposes, using E=mc2, the energy of a proton at rest is about one billion electron volts.)

The bad news comes in the form of the cringe-worthy sound bites that accompany the articles. One tech-blog posting is entitled CERN’s Black Hole Maker LHC on Track, which is a tad misleading. There is a chance, if various optimistic speculations all come out just right, that we might be able to make black holes at the LHC; but it’s an awfully small chance, and you don’t want that to be your standard of success. The BBC refers to the Higgs boson as the God particle, a horrible quip for which we can all blame Leon Lederman. Unlikely as black holes may be, I’m quite certain we won’t be making God at the LHC. Yet another article is entitled New physics tool 27 kilometres long, accompanied by an unmistakably phallic picture. Those crazy Canadians.

One way to think about the Large Hadron Collider is as the largest microscope ever built.

Can Reading Make Civil Servants Better?

Joseph Brodsky thought that art, especially literature, was a form of “moral insurance”, and had suggested that public policy advocate its wider dissemination.  In his open letter to Havel (reprinted in On Grief and Reason), he called for a democracy of (before?) culture. 

Via Anna Hall, the BBC reports on a new experiment along these lines in Mexico City.  Can reading books help alleviate corruption and indolence in the police force?

Police in Mexico City, one of the most crime-ridden capitals in the world, have been told they must read at least one book a month or forfeit promotion.

The mayor of the district where the scheme is being implemented believes that it will improve their work.

There is a popular conception that Mexican police are corrupt, incompetent and lazy.

Mayor Luis Sanchez believes he can fight low standards in the force by encouraging higher levels of literacy.

Along with guns, bullet-proof vests and handcuffs, police in the district of Nezahualcoyotl will now have to take a book with them.

The pulp poetry of Charles Bukowski

Adam Kirsch writes in The New Yorker:

Charlesbukowski Fittingly, for a poet whose reputation was made in ephemeral underground journals, it is on the Internet that the Bukowski cult finds its most florid expression. There are hundreds of Web sites devoted to him, not just in America but in Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Sweden, where one fan writes that, after reading him for the first time, “I felt there was a soul-mate in Mr. Bukowski.” Such claims to intimacy are standard among Bukowski’s admirers. On, the reader reviews of his books sound like a cross between love letters and revival-meeting testimonials: “This is the one that speaks to me to the point where each time I read certain pages, I cry”; “This book is one of the most influential books of poetry in my life”; or, most revealing of all, “I hate poetry, but I love Buk’s poems.”

More here.

Misconceptions about the Big Bang

Charles H. Lineweaver and Tamara M. Davis in Scientific American:

Forty years ago this July, scientists announced the discovery of definitive evidence for the expansion of the universe from a hotter, denser, primordial state. They had found the cool afterglow of the big bang: the cosmic microwave background radiation. Since this discovery, the expansion and cooling of the universe has been the unifying theme of cosmology, much as Darwinian evolution is the unifying theme of biology. Like Darwinian evolution, cosmic expansion provides the context within which simple structures form and develop over time into complex structures. Without evolution and expansion, modern biology and cosmology make little sense.

More here.

The MacGuffin that is Happiness

Robert McHenry writes in Tech Central Station:

Consider, instead, the possibility that Jefferson was on to something. Although he died more than a century before Alfred Hitchcock would invent the notion, perhaps he would have agreed that happiness is not truly the goal but rather the MacGuffin, the thing that seems important as it gets the story moving and keeps it accelerating but that, in the end, is itself not of much consequence. Maybe the promise, or just the chance, of happiness is what helps get us started on doing other things, things like thinking and learning and building and dreaming. And maybe those things that we do, under the impression that we are on the way to happiness, are of some account in themselves, especially if they open up new possibilities for those who come next. And maybe that’s good enough.

More here.


A reasonably engaging radio show on the sometimes annoying Radio Lab at WNYC about stress and current scientific thinking on the matter.

Friday, February 11, 2005

The body has a system for getting out of trouble. Back when trouble meant being chased by a tiger, that system gave us a real survival edge. But these days, “trouble” is more likely to mean waiting in traffic… and “the system” is more likely to make us sick. Stanford University neurologist (and part-time “baboonologist”) Dr. Robert Sapolsky takes us through what happens on our insides when we stand in the wrong line at the supermarket and offers a few coping strategies: gnawing on wood, beating the crap out of somebody, and having friends.


It features the generally delightful Dr. Robert Sapolsky.

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

Clouds Over Iran

Stephen Kinzer writes in the current issue of the New York Review of Books:

Consumed by the conflict in Iraq, the Bush administration has been unable to find either the political or military resources to deal with Iran, which poses both greater dangers and greater opportunities. That is fortunate. During the surge of messianic zeal that drove the Bush administration in its early days, there was heady talk about the prospect of “liberating” Iran as soon as the United States Army was able to break away from the waves of gratitude that were expected to engulf it in Baghdad. That fantasy collapsed when the Iraqi insurgency broke out.

If the Iraq invasion had gone as its planners expected, with the occupied nation embracing its conqueror and quickly transforming itself into a Jeffersonian paradise, American troops might well have been sent across the border into Iran. There they would have had to fight a huge army filled with people who detest the theocracy that tyrannizes them, but who also have a profound sense of patriotism, an ancient tradition of resistance, and a religiously driven thirst for martyrdom. Iraqis who rose up against the American occupation may have done the world, and especially the United States, a good turn by making an invasion of Iran all but impossible.

More here.

A Changing Mood in Indo-Pakistani relations, on the ground level

The BBC reports on an India-Pakistan cricket match:

Most parts of the stadium were packed to capacity and flowing beards and sherwanis – jackets beloved by men on both sides of the India-Pakistan border – could be seen at every corner of the ground.

Ticketless residents enjoyed the match from the roof-tops.

‘Cricket has definitely built bridges. This electrifying atmosphere is what I was looking for. Our Punjabi brothers have been gracious hosts,’ says Kaman, a student in Lahore.

Mexican waves around the stadium, chants, banners and trumpet-blowing – all was done with unflagging enthusiasm by fans of both countries.

It was like a festival of love.