Wednesday, 6 November 2013

week 8 follow-up

Sorry for the late post... what would we do without reading week to get caught up?

Since we considered experimental and quasi-experimental research in class, I thought we'd start the day with some experimental music. Nothing too weird, just the Dave Brubeck Quartet's classic "Take Five," from the experimental 1959 album Time Out. What makes it an experiment? They weren't recording in lab coats or anything like that, but as with the experiments we discussed in class, they manipulated variables -- and kept others constant -- to see what would happen. In this case, Brubeck and his bandmates composed songs in unusual time signatures, departing from the traditional one-TWO-three-FOUR count of most western popular music. (Try counting along to "Take Five"; you'll get the title right away...) However, Brubeck and company retained the traditional harmonic and melodic structures of jazz, as well as the traditional instrumentation of a quartet. They were asking, in musical form, the basic question that drives all experimentation: what happens if we change X?

Here are the week's lecture slides, also posted in the usual place on BB:

The painting we discussed was Joseph Wright's An Experiment on a Bird in an Air-Pump (1768). Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer offer an important reading of this painting in their foundational book on the history of science, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life (Princeton University Press, 1985). I also mentioned the painting's fleeting but significant cameo in the latest James Bond film, Skyfall. An impressively thorough analysis of paintings in this and other Bond films may be found here:

The video for the invisible gorilla experiment -- actually it should be called the "unnoticed gorilla' or something like that; that the gorilla is visible is precisely the point -- may be found here: . See also this NPR story on a recent study involving radiologists shown human tissue slides with gorilla images added to them:

We also discussed a couple of social experiments that went sideways in illuminating ways. Our primary topic was Stanley Milgram's infamous experiment on obedience to authority figures. This New York Times story revisits the experiments decades later, and links to some interesting pictures taken during the original experiments: I also brought up the yet more infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. When all of you become well-funded social science researchers, please don't do stuff like this. We'll talk about it more in our class on research ethics.

Finally, I trust you'll all be spending your reading break doing actual reading, but if you want to take a video gaming break that doubles as infotainment, you could do worse than the game Portal and its excellent sequel, which I mentioned in a previous post. Taken together, they offer one of the most intelligent and subversive critiques of instrumental research methods I've encountered; it just happens to be in the form of a video game. (One written, I'm sure, by someone well-versed in Milgram and the associated history of 20th-century research cultures.) Just don't read a synopsis ahead of time -- you want to play these games with no foreknowledge. There are no invisible gorillas, but there may or may not be cake.

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