Author Archives: Bora Zivkovic

Welcome the Popular Science blog network

 

This morning, the science blogging ecosystem just got bigger and better. More the merrier!

Our friends at Popular Science just launched a brand new blog network.

They are starting with 13 wonderful bloggers, some veterans, some new, and there will be something for everyone:

Zero Moment: Erik Sofge on our robot future
Techtiles: Emma Barker on the science behind the clothes and gadgets we wear
Biohackers: Daniel Grushkin and others on bathtub genomicists and tissue tweakers
Ignition!: Peter Madsen on the world of amateur space exploration
Our Modern Plagues: Brooke Borel on the latest contagions and infestations, and the science of fighting them
LadyBits: Arikia Millikan and others on gender and feminism in science and technology
Boxplot: Maki Naro on science through the medium of graphic narrative
Rotorhead: Chelsea Sexton on the green rebirth of the automobile and other forms of transportation
Vintage Space: Amy Shira Teitel on the history of space exploration
Under the Microscope: Jason Tetro on microbiology and the germs that define us
Unpopular Science: Rebecca Watson on the area just beyond the fringe of science
KinderLab: Kate Gammon on the science of childhood development
Eek Squad: Rebecca Boyle on creepy animals

As you may be aware, Popular Science received some pushback a couple of weeks ago for their decision to shut down comment threads on (most of) their news articles. Bloggers, on the other hand, will open up their comments and will actively moderate their commenting threads to ensure high level of discourse on their blogs. Thus, go ahead and visit them all, subscribe to their feeds, and start posting smart comments!

Best of September at A Blog Around The Clock

I posted five times in September, including:

They eat horses, don’t they?

“My Beloved…” and other dinosaurs.

WCSJ2013 in Helsinki, a photo-tour

Updates, Events and Miscellanea

Previously in the “Best of…” series:

2013

August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2012

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2011

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2010

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2009

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

Quick update: UNESCO Belgrade, and NYTimes

I am in Belgrade, my hometown, participating in the First SEE Regional Science Promotion Conference October 2nd and 3rd, Belgrade, Serbia and the UNESCO South East European (SEE) Science Journalism School. Longer blog post about it later, after it ends.

Also, if you missed it on social media, I was quoted in New York Times yesterday, in Comment Ban Sets Off Debate, about the value of comments on science news articles and blog posts, as this is a hot topic these days after PopSci closed comments (and was also hot topic back in January when I wrote this post about it). Short quote, but does not misrepresent what I said (and yes, we chatted for an hour, that’s how it works), and gave me a new nickname “Weed Wacker” among my bloggers ;-)

WCSJ2013 in Helsinki, a photo-tour

Flying directly from SciFoo in California to WCSJ2013 in Helsinki, Finland is a pretty long trip that requires a pretty big airplane. Those of you who know me well, know I am obsessed with airplanes, am an addict of FlightAlert, choose JetBlue on domestic flights in order to continuously monitor flight statistics, and my first requirement when someone else is booking my flights is “the biggest airplane you can get”. So I was quite pleased to be riding on this big bird, the original Jumbo Jet:

Boeing 747, ready to go from San Francisco to Heathrow, London.

Boeing 747, ready to go from San Francisco to Heathrow, London.

What I really liked, though, was something that is apparently banned on US air carriers, but both of Finnair flights (to and from London to Helsinki) had – a cockpit cam! While the screen shows many more different flight stats than JetBlue does, and one can also watch the view from a camera facing straight down (which is really nice when approaching the Land of 1000 Lakes), during the last few minutes of flight, during landing, everyone’s screen is automatically turned on to the cockpit cam. It feels like playing a video game, piloting the airplane down onto the runway!

Cockpit cam view, just seconds after landing at Heathrow from Helsinki.

Cockpit cam view, just seconds after landing at Heathrow from Helsinki.

Helsinki is gorgeous:

Plenty of water

Easy to relax on the square in front of the University

Cathedral in the middle of the day

Cathedral in the middle of the night, i.e., that two-hour period when it's not as bright as usual in the middle of the summer!

I checked in:

Of course, I added my Twitter handle to the nametag ;-)

And picked up the Program:

It's all there, black on white.

First morning plenary, by Hans Rosling “A fact-based world view – people, money & energy”

Hans Rosling

Hans Rosling, giving the first plenary

A Hans Rosling slide

A Hans Rosling slide

A Hans Rosling animation

Hans Rosling polled us, and we all failed miserably!

The first morning plenary panel was What about ethics?

Deborah Blum at the first morning plenary panel

Deborah Blum on Chemophobia

Deborah Blum on Chemophobia

Deborah Blum on Chemophobia

JAYFK makes an appearance

SA Guest Blog makes an appearance

Chemophobia

More Chemophobia

Even more Chemophobia

I went to many sessions, but did not take photos in each one. And those I took from the back row with my iPhone, as you can see, are not very clear, but OK….

What happens outside USA and UK?:

Nina Kristiansen, Chief Editor of ScienceNordic

Says who? – Challenging the experts on medical knowledge:

Mikael Fogelholm, Professor in Public Health Nutrition, University of Helsinki. (I think)

Wearing many hats? How to preserve independence was already covered in great detail by Kai Kupferschmidt and Anne Sasso.

The day ended with an evening at the National Archives of Finland:

City of Helsinki welcomes science writers

Second day’s morning plenary – Deborah Blum: “The Poisoner’s Guide to Life (And Communicating Chemistry).”

Deborah Blum communicates chemistry

Deborah Blum communicates chemistry

Then, there was a plenary panel, The Rise of the Science Blog Network: Lessons from All Corners of the World, organized by Deborah Blum, moderated by Lynne Smit, with panelists Betsy Mason, Alok Jha, Ed Yong and yours truly:

View of the panel while being on the panel.

Alokh Jha explaining something I agree with a moment later (perhaps we all agreed too much!).

You can watch the whole panel webcast here (You can watch webcasts of all the plenary talks and panels):

Next panel was “The ‘killer’ science journalists of the future.” But if you’ve ever been to my blog, you know I wrote a lot about it already, see: #sci4hels – ‘Killer’ science journalists of the future ready to take over the world!, and #sci4hels – the ‘killer’ science journalists of the future want your feedback, and #sci4hels – What makes one a “killer” (science) journalist of the future?. Of course, preparing for this for almost a year, they did an amazing job and were rightfully stars of the event (but also see this and this).

Last strategy meeting before the panel

It's about to start!

In front of a packed auditorium

Rose Eveleth introduces the panel

Lena Groeger demoes Cicada Tracker

Kathleen Raven tackles the tough questions from the audience.

Erin Podolak and Kathleen Raven, relaxed and happy during a break a little later.

A deserved outing:

On the island...

An old fortress

A church

Reindeer calf for dinner.

An old cannon

Geese and goslings

The third day started with the plenary talk “Mental preparation for a vulnerable world“:

Janne I. Hukkinen's slide

Late breaker session: Big data, big brother:

Dino Trescher (Germany), editor and founder of Constart Correspondent Network.

Making Sense of Uncertainty:

Making sense of uncertainty

Closing Plenary: New Horizons:

Ivan Oransky

Connie St.Louis

Barbecue dinner at Heureka, the Finnish Science Centre, was the last event:

Entrance to Heureka

The rainbow colors of the building

The Fire dance

Plenty to play with

Easy to roll a ball in the water

Phase space in sand. It's beautiful!

In the basement of Heureka, in the replica of a WWII bomb shelter, at the moment the bomb struck and lights went out.

Breakfast with Vesa Niinikangas, outgoing WCSJ President.

A sparrow at the Helsinki airport, at my gate.

Beautiful city, I hope to be back one day.

Updates, Events and Miscellanea

Last week, Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer ran a short Q&A with me about science blogs.

I am also included (as #101) in the last issue of WIRED’s 101 Signals for Science:

"...aggressive..."?

On September 23rd and 24th, I’ll be participating in The Evolving Culture of Science Engagement event at MIT, followed by the Story Collider on the evening of 23rd, and by ScioBeantown tweetup on the evening of 24th. This may be followed by a tweetup in NYCity a day or two later – TBA.

Then I will go to Belgrade, Serbia to participate in the UNESCO South-East European Science Journalism School on October 2-5th, (more background, Facebook event page) where I will be involved in several workshops and panels (and will get to see my Mom).

Later in October, on 23rd and 24th, I will speak to health & medical journalism and science students at University of Georgia in Athens, GA. The rotating Atlanta/Athens science tweetup will be in Athens for that occasion.

Finally, on November 1-5 I’ll be in Gainesville, Florida for the annual NASW/CASW ScienceWriters2013 meeting, where I am organizing two sessions.

If you will be at any of those events, come by and say Hi.

“My Beloved…” and other dinosaurs.

How does one review a book written by a friend? I guess one doesn’t, so this is not an “official” review, but a personal blog recommendation, and you can make up your own mind. Perhaps the best recommendation is the sheer fact that I have finished the book. Lately, with busy life and online addiction (and likely ADHD) I have been starting many books, but finishing none.

But I finished My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs (amazon) by Brian Switek (homepage, blog, Twitter) today and I am glad I did.

Many of us, decades ago, got excited about nature, science and yes, dinosaurs, by reading books like The New Golden Treasury of Natural History. While a few went on to become dinosaur paleontologists, for most of the others life and career took a different turn, and they perhaps think that what they learned as kids still stands today.

I may be somewhere in the middle. Although I did research in biology, dinosaurs were not the focus – I took one graduate-level class on them just for fun. I try to keep abreast with the advances in dinosaur research, but I am not in the field and can’t pay attention to every detail and every new paper. Which is why I read Brian’s blog (and a few other paleo blogs), read an occasional book (like Brian’s), and, if I can, I go to a meeting where I can quickly get up to date (e.g., 2012 SVP in Raleigh as it was next door, so no big travel arrangements or costs).

Brian’s first book, Written in Stone, was written more for people like me, at least somewhat uber-geeks of all things fossil. But the second book is bound to be a gripping read to a much broader audience than just us geeks.

The first book had quite a lot of Latin language, and lots of detailed taxonomy and systematics. I understand why this is important, and I understand why some people get excited about it (and I certainly enjoyed reading it myself, but I am a geek). But I have always seen taxonomy as a nifty, sophisticated, high-tech scaffolding on which the actual building will be built…and I was always more interested in the building itself. Not so much how various species of dinosarus were related to each other, as what we can learn from those patterns about the mechanisms by which evolution works.

The second book is all about the building! Not so much how dinos were related, but why. How they evolved. How their extinction can give us clues as to how they lived. And, to me, the most interesting aspects of paleontology are figuring out the way dinosaurs lived – their physiology, behavior and ecology, from the way they sensed their environment, or communicated with each other, to the way they looked, mated, raised young and grew up. And Brian’s book covers all of this, vividly, and will leave you not just better informed, but excited as if you were five years old all over again.

If your busy life prevents you from digging in and finding all the details for yourself, yet you’d like to know how the understanding of dinosaurs changed since you were a kid, Brian’s book is a perfect solution. There, in one place, and written in a way that makes reading fun, is everything you need to know to get caught up. You will not become an expert, but you won’t be hopelessly out-of-date any more.

And you will be shocked how the world has changed since you were a kid reading Bertha Morris Parker – our understanding of dinos is very, very different and much, much better today than it was just a couple of decades ago. The green, scaly monsters who deservedly died of their own oversized stupidity when the asteroid struck, are now stuff of dusty old books and memories, not the animals we understand them now to be. You will be viscerally struck by realization how fast science can move while you are not watching!

If you have kids of your own, and you are starting to introduce them to dinosaurs through museum visits, books, or blogs, reading this book first will save your face in your kids’ world. You will save yourself from the embarassment of your own kid telling you, loudly in front of everyone at the museum, “Moooooom! That is not true! It didn’t have green scales, it had black feathers!”

If you are a kid yourself, just starting on the journey of love for dinosaurs, nature and science, this is a great primer, putting in one place, in easy, non-technical language, the current knowledge about dinosaurs, how it changed over the past decades (and centuries), how we know what we know about them today, and what are still the outstanding questions – perhaps there for you to solve.

It was also interesting for me to read this book for other reasons. This is the first time I have read a book in which, I feel, it’s my world, I am there in a way, right there in the book. When Brian mentions visiting a dinosaur quarry after a meeting in Flagstaff, I was at that meeting. When he writes how he snuck early into Yale’s Peabody museum to converse with the Apatosaurus before the other conference goers arrived to drink wine from plastic cups, I was one of those with a plastic cup. When he talks about the press-only preview of the AMNH Giant Dino exhibit, I was there, snapping fuzzy iPhone photos (including one of Brian himself). When he mentions artist Glendon Mellow, I know the guy. It is kinda weird to read a book that happens in a world that so tightly overlaps with my own!

But one thing I was thinking as I was closing the back cover of the book was: how awesome it must be to be a kid today! If stupid, fern-munching, pond-wading Brontosaurs of the 1960s could excite me and so many others, how much more exciting it must be for today’s kids to enter straight into the world of flashy, feathered, super-fast, super-smart dinosaurs! Not just weird-looking, long-dead monsters of the past, but incredibly sophisticated and exciting animals that, if they were not so darned unlucky, could have still ruled the Earth today, and deservedly so, without you or me around to study them and discuss them.

They eat horses, don’t they?

“Behave, or I’ll send you to Italy!”.

That’s a strange threat! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go there to visit the wine country, see the art in Florence, learn some history in Rome, and enjoy the Adriatic beaches?

Not if you hear the above and you are a horse! Especially if you were a horse back in the day when I used to ride in my now-extinct homeland of Yugoslavia.

With total number of horses in the country small and dwindling after the cavalry was disbanded in 1948, with fast urbanization of the country reducing the number of horses working the fields, and before equestrian sports started taking off again in the late 1980s, there was no need for a dedicated horse slaughterhouse. Occasionally a really urgent case would be slaughtered in a cattle slaughterhouse. A horse in agony after an injury would be killed on the spot (e.g., on the racetrack) and its meat donated to the perennially strapped-for-cash Belgrade Zoo for lions and other carnivores, But most horses at the end of their lives ended up on trucks headed to the meat market of Italy (and probably a few also to Austria – but I don’t have access to any documents, just what everyone in the horse business at the time knew).

With all the horse meat ending up in Italy, there was not much left for domestic consumption. Thus whole generations grew up without ever tasting it. The culture gradually changed. A horse butcher had a store in Belgrade for about a decade in the 1960s, but had to close due to low demand. Later, in mid-1980s, another entrepreneurial butcher opened a horse-meat store, this time promoting it as a delicacy rather than utilitarian, cheap alternative to beef. That store did not last long, either.

While there is no taboo against eating horse in the Balkans, there are definitely cultural forces that prevent it from being as popular as it is for its neighbors to the West, And those forces are divided by generations.

According to the elders, especially those with clear memories of World War II, horse meat was a poor man’s food, only to be consumed in times of war or famine. If you can afford beef, pork, lamb and chicken, why should you stoop so low as to eat the tough, acidic horse meat?

On the other hand, youngsters saw horses in a much less utilitarian way. They did not remember thousands of cavalry horses, cart horses, and draft horses filling the countryside. They did not remember poverty and hunger. Every horse they met had a name, be it a nice riding school pony, or a stunningly beautiful sports horse.

Obviously, neither of the two age groups could be easily persuaded that horse meat is a delicacy.

I saw that generational divide myself one day, back in the 1980s. We grilled some horse steaks…at the barn, right after we finished riding, grooming and petting our horses. There were horses inside, happily munching their oats in their stalls. There were other horses outside, sliced and roasting on the grill. How conflicted everyone’s feelings were!

But that was an excellent opportunity for all of us to discuss and debate the ethical, utilitarian, economic, nutritional, ecological and other angles of horse consumption. Why older people found it easier to eat the meat than the younger folk? Why was it easier for men than for women? Why some found it delicious, while others hated its texture and taste? Many of the young, pony-obsessed girls wouldn’t touch it, while younger boys gave it a try despite obvious disgust.

In the end, it all came down to names. You cannot eat an animal whose name you knew when it was alive. Name gives it a personality. An animal whose name you know is also an animal you know well – its looks and behavior and personality. It’s a friend. Friends don’t eat friends.

The steaks we had came from a horse we knew nothing about. Not the name, not age, sex, breed, color, anything. Perhaps the previous owner really loved that horse, cried when loading it onto the slaughterhouse truck. Just like one day, certainly, someone in Italy was going to eat the flesh of our horses we loved, and could do it because of not knowing those horses personally.

But by buying and eating that horse’s meat, we helped that previous owner recover some of the financial loss. Perhaps it was a farmer who lost a horse essential for working his farm. Without taking the meat price for the old horse, the farmer would not be able to buy a new horse, and would not be able to work the farm and feed his family. The circle of life would have been broken, both the human one and the equine one.

That was the economy of individual horse ownership by regular people. Of course, if you are rich or live in a rich country, and if you can afford to keep all your horses out on pastures until they die the natural death, by all means do that. But most people cannot afford that. And yet they need to have horses for their livelihoods. Eating horse meat is an essential part of such an economy.

I can attest that this statement is true.

I can attest that this statement is true.

But then it got tricky. The problem became more complex. After all, it is relatively easy for an individual to decide not to eat horse meat because of ethical concerns. But that is the meat of a dead horse who died in order to provide that meat. So, how do you try to use ethical considerations to explain why you refuse to eat meat of the horse who is still alive? I am talking about marinated, delicious testicles of the stallion who is still prancing out in the paddock. In a country where offal is a perfectly normal part of everyday cuisine, and one can order sweetbreads in any decent restaurant. No harm was done to any animal. So, why not eat it? Not an easy question to answer. And it’s pretty obvious that the answer is not rooted in ethics, economics, ecology, nutrition or health concerns. It is psychological and aesthetic, thus it is rooted in culture.

And this is where we switch gears, as we need to start comparing cultures, in this case Balkans with America.

“Behaving or not, you’re going to Mexico!”

The question “shall we eat horse meat?” is coupled with the related question “shall we slaughter horses?”. In both countries, most of the horse slaughter (and consumption) is outsourced to other countries (Italy in the case of the Balkans, Mexico in the case of USA). Yet the attitudes are different. There, if there were more horses and there was more appetite for meat, there would be horse slaughter in place with almost nobody’s objection. Without too much emotional opposition to eating horses, economic forces would be allowed to dictate what happens on the ground.

Here, there is an overabundance of horses, but because there is no appetite for meat at all, slaughtering horses is considered a very bad idea. Hence such outcry when the slaughter of horses was recently made legal again after a long time (and opening a slaughterhouse is fraught with difficulties).

If unicorns were easier to catch, they would be a staple diet in at least some cultures.

If unicorns were easier to catch, they would be a staple diet in at least some cultures.

The shift in culture that I started observing in the 1980s there, already occurred much earlier here in the States. Horses are still used in agriculture there, especially in more mountainous regions where tractors are ineffective and uneconomical. Many small farmers cannot afford tractors, or have too little land to need one. Older people still remember the life on the farm, and even kids have seen horses working in the field. The movement from country to city happened too recently.

Here, agriculture has long ago moved from small farmers to gigantic agribusiness. Very few people have any personal experience with a horse working the land. Most horses are used for pleasure and sport – they have names and are treated as pets, rather than as beasts of burden.

Also, there is an overproduction of horses here. So many horses are bred, often of poor quality, that many never get to be ridden at all – they go straight to Mexico while still young. It is not that just old, sick or lame horses get slaughtered, it’s healthy foals! It’s not just a natural circle of life, it’s production of horses directly for slaughter.

Then, there is the issue of food safety. There is a reason Europe does not allow import of American horsemeat, no matter how much demand there may be there (and demand is dropping there as well). One never knows if the meat came from a racehorse (or if it’s horse meat at all). The rules for drug use (from steroids to painkillers) in racehorses in the USA are so lax compared to other countries, that it is almost certain that the meat of an American racehorse is unfit for human consumption. And how can one know if the steak or sausage came from a draft horse or a racehorse? With eating horse in America being potentially dangerous, it’s not strange that people don’t do it, and the cultural tradition of eating horses quickly dies out. If your parents never ate horse meat, you won’t either. Cultural food habits start at home.

But there are other reasons why American culture is so strongly against eating (and thus slaughtering) horses. I vaguely alluded to some of those already, but now need to be more explicit. And for this, we need to go back to the old master, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins and his 1976 essay La Pensee Bourgeoise: Western Society as Culture, in which he takes a close look as to why Americans eat cows and pigs, but don’t eat horses and dogs.

Manly Men in the Feed Lot.

True, “in most parts of the world, people are grateful to eat whatever is available to them.” Vast areas of the planet have scant vegetation. Plant agriculture is impossible due to poor soil. People need and want to live there anyway, at least as nomads if not settlers, but cannot sustain themselves on an occasional root or berry. They have to carry their food with them, but that also takes up energy. So the best way to survive in such harsh environments is to have the food walk along with them. Cattle, goats, sheep, camels, donkeys, mules, asses and yes, horses, are the sources of daily nourisment, both meat and dairy.

In places of plenty, in times of plenty, one can afford to have culture, rather than necessity, dictate what foods are deemed OK and what foods are not:

Yet the point is not only of consuming interest; the productive relation of American society to its own and the world environment is organized by specific valuations of edibility and inedibility, themselves qualitative and in no way justifiable by biological, ecological, or economic advantage.

There is no nutritional reason not to eat horse. If anything, horse meat may have some advantages over beef. If production of horse meat was a viable, large industry due to high demand, it would have similar environmental impact as beef industry has now, and the economics would be the same as well. Low demand is due to culture, which determines even how food taste is perceived. It is not surprising that food preferences then become deeply ingrained, and offers of locally unusual foods elicit strong negative responses based entirely on emotions, rather than rational calculations. So even during times of crisis and famine, those cultural and emotional obstacles prevent the population from taking advantage of available food sources, regardless of governmental, corporate, scientific or media efforts to help enlighten the population about it. The angry reactions are based entirely on cultural norms and emotional sense of disgust. Sahlins uses this example from the Honolulu Advertiser of 15 April 1973:

“Horses are to be loved and ridden,” Gallagher said. “In other words, horses are shown affection, where cattle that are raised for beef … they’ve never had someone pet them or brush them, or anything like that. To buy someone’s horse up and slaughter it, that, I just don’t see it. “

Sahlins again:

In a crisis, the contradictions of the system reveal themselves. During the meteoric inflation of food prices in the spring of 1973, American capitalism did not fall apart-quite the contrary; but the cleavages in the food system did surface. Responsible government officials suggested that the people might be well-advised to buy the cheaper cuts of meat such as kidneys, heart, or entrails-after all, they are just as nutritious as hamburger. To Americans, this particular suggestion made Marie Antoinette seem like a model of compassion (see fig. 10). The reason for the disgust seems to go to the same logic as greeted certain unsavory attempts to substitute horsemeat for beef during the same period.

When I came to the States, I understood that I would not be eating horse here at all. Which is fine with me – I tried a steak once and a sausage once, and while they were OK, I can totally live without them. But when we castrated a couple of colts at the barn, none of the whites would touch the testicles. But they were expertly prepared by an African American friend and we ate them with great appreciation.

Salome serves roasted unicorn head, which inludes cheecks, lips, tongue and brain.

As I wrote at length a few years ago, one of the specifics of American cuisine, due to culture, lies in its history. When we talk about Balkans food preferences, we are covering pretty much everyone who lives there – the class divisions and cultural divisions were always quite miniscule there. But when we talk about American food preferences, we tend to forget a big chunk of American culture. Whites prefer beef to other species, and will almost universally not eat offal. But there is a whole parallel culture, often unmentioned. The soul food, the Southern food, all the offal and innards and roadkill and strange foods that were cooked, and recipes perfected into delicacies by generations of African Americans, descendant of slaves who fixed steaks for the white masters and learned how to utilize everything else from the slaughtered animals. They have no problem with offal – or horse – as that is an intergral component of that subdivision of the American culture. Sahlins:

The poorer people buy the cheaper cuts, cheaper because they are socially inferior meats. But poverty is in the first place ethnically and racially encoded. Blacks and whites enter differentially into the American labor market, their participation ordered by an invidious distinction of relative “civilization.” Black is in American society as the savage among us, objective nature in culture itself. Yet then, by virtue of the ensuing distribution of income, the “inferiority” of blacks is realized also as a culinary defilement. “Soul food” may be made a virtue. But only as the negation of a general logic in which cultural degradation is confirmed by dietary preferences akin to cannibalism, even as this metaphorical attribute of the food is confirmed by the status of those who prefer it. I would not invoke “the so-called totemism” merely in casual analogy to the pensee sauvage. True that Levi-Strauss writes as if totemism had retreated in our society to a few marginal resorts or occasional practices (I 963a; 1966). And fair enough-in the sense that the “totemic operator,” articulating differences in the cultural series to differences in natural species, is no longer a main architecture of the cultural system. But one must wonder whether it has not been replaced by species and varieties of manufactured objects, which like totemic categories have the power of making even the demarcation of their individual owners a procedure of social classification. (My colleague Milton Singer suggests that what Freud said of national differentiation might well be generalized to capitalism, that it is narcissism in respect of minor differences.)

Marshall Sahlins then delves into the question of words and names. As he reminds us, Red Queen said, “It isn’t etiquette to cut anybody you’ve been introduced to.” Horses (and dogs) have names. Most cows (and pigs) don’t.

Muscles of accepted food animals have cute monikers that hide what parts of the animal and which animal they came from. There is beef and pork and mutton. There are steaks and t-bones and round and chuck. But un-acceptable species don’t have such cutesy names for their muscles. Horse meat is called horsemeat. Dog’s would be dog-meat. Nothing to hide. Likewise, names for innards are not cutesy, hiding the obvious source: liver is liver, tongue is tongue, kidneys are kidney (though intestines become tripe, and testicles, probably due to puritanism, become whitebreads). Sahlins again:

Edibility is inversely related to humanity. The same holds in the preferences and common designations applied to edible portions of the animal. Americans frame a categorical distinction between the “inner” and “outer” parts which represents to them the same principle of relation to humanity, metaphorically extended. The organic nature of the flesh (muscle and fat) is at once disguised and its preferability indicated by the general term “meat,” and again by particular conventions such as “roast,” “steak,” “chops,” or “chuck”; whereas the internal organs are frankly known as such (or as “innards”), and more specifically as “heart,” “tongue,” “kidney,” and so on-except as they are euphemistically transformed by the process of preparation into such products as “sweetbreads.”The internal and external parts, in other words, are respectively assimilated to and distinguished from parts of the human body-on the same model as we conceive our “innermost selves” as our “true selves”-and the two categories are accordingly ranked as more or less fit for human consumption. The distinction between “inner” and “outer” thus duplicates within the animal the differentiation drawn between edible and tabu species, the whole making up a single logic on two planes with the consistent implication of a prohibition on cannibalism. It is this symbolic logic which organizes demand. The social value of steak or roast, as compared with tripe or tongue, is what underlies the difference in economic value. From the nutritional point of view, such a notion of “better” and “inferior” cuts would be difficult to defend. Moreover, steak remains the most expensive meat even though its absolute supply is much greater than that of tongue; there is much more steak to the cow than there is tongue. But more, the symbolic scheme of edibility joins with that organizing the relations of production to precipitate, through income distribution and demand, an entire totemic order, uniting in a parallel series of differences the status of persons and what they eat.

Of course, there are cultural (and language) differences between nations as to how they name the animals and how they name edible body parts. French is quite different from English in that regard, for instance. In Serbian, the words for muscle-meats from various animals are not cutesy but directly derived from the names of those species: govedo=govedina (cattle=beef), tele=teletina (calf=veal), ovca=ovcetina (sheep=mutton). Where eating animals is both an economic and a cultural necessity, where there is no taboo or even mild unease about eating meat, there is no need to come up with linguistic camouflage.

But what I find most interesting in Marshall Sahlins’ article is this passage:

The exploitation of the American environment, the mode of relation to the landscape, depends on the model of a meal that includes a central meat element with the peripheral support of carbohydrates and vegetables-while the centrality of the meat, which is also a notion of its “strength,” evokes the masculine pole of a sexual code of food which must go back to the Indo-European identification of cattle or increasable wealth with virility. The indispensabilitty of meat as “strength,” and of steak as the epitome of virile meats, remains a basic condition of American diet (note the training table of athletic teams, in football especially). Hence also a corresponding structure of agricultural production of feed grains, and in turn a specific articulation to world markets-all of which would change overnight if we ate dogs. By comparison with this meaningful calculus of food preferences, supply, demand, and price offer the interest of institutional means of a system that does not include production costs in its own principles of hierarchy. The “opportunity costs” of our economic rationality are a secondary formation, an expression of relationships already given. by another kind of thought, figured a posteriori within the constraints of a logic of meaningful order. The tabu on horses and dogs thus renders unthinkable the consumption of a set of animals whose production is practically feasible and which are nutritionally not to be despised.

The American meal – a big juicy beef steak surrounded by a little bit of vegetables mainly as decoration – as a manly man’s meal. The meal of the pioneer, the cowboy, the self-sustained, survivalist, rugged individualist. The beef steak as a descendant of the steak a hunter hunted in the past. Beef steak as a product of the hard work in the harsh environment in the vast expanses of the American West. Only the toughest need apply. The cultural mythology that led to placing beef at the pinnacle, that led to distaste for eating any other species (not for macho men!), that led to taboo against eating horses (companions and co-workers in the difficult production of beef), and that eventually led to hyperproduction of beef for the growing population by consolidating it from small farms into huge feed lots owned by large agribusiness. So, both the illogical, uneconomical, and environmentally damaging food instructure in the States AND the taboo against eating horse may stem from the same cultural source – the early self-sufficient pioneer man.

But that was centuries ago. Surely we have progressed since then. Remember when Michael Pollan made the full circle, from feed lot (symbolic hunt) through a series of organic and local small operations back to the non-symbolic, real hunt, he had difficulty pulling the trigger. We are more civilized now.

In his book A Primate’s Memoir, Robert Sapolsky relates how he adjusts his own diet depending on where he is. Earlier in his career he used to split his year in half. During the half spent teaching neuroscience at Sanford, he was a vegetarian. In America, one has that choice. But in the other half of the year, studying baboons in the field in Africa, he ate what the locals fixed. Yes, a zebra leg. Not just that he would have insulted the hosts by refusing, but if he refused it would incur additional expense and effort of the hosts – they would have to find nutritious plant food every day for him, something that is not as easy to do in that region. There are good reasons why local diet is mainly based on hunted animals.

Thus, the deep roots of the American culture may prevent us from ever eating horse. Although it makes no economical, health, nutritional or environmental sense, that is OK as it makes cultural sense and we can afford this taboo.

But we should re-analyze why outdated machismo is still guiding the way our food instructure works in damaging ways and perhaps do something constructive about it to bring it along into the 21st century, somewhat away from beef and gigantic feed lots and toward a more sustainable, environmentally friendly, public-health reasonable, nutritionally balanced food system.

~~~~~

References:

Marshall Sahlins, La Pensee Bourgeoise: Western Society as Culture, in Culture and Practical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976) (pp. 166 – 179)

Images:

Photo of me: original photo by Russ Creech, photoshop by Mindy Weisberger.

Unicorn on the grill and on the platter, original art from Taymouth Hours, 14th century, at British Library, additional photoshop by Sarah J Biggs. Originally posted on April Fool’s Day by Julian Harrison at Medieval manuscripts blog of the British Library.

Best of August at A Blog Around The Clock

I posted 3 times in August, including:

Sharks have rhythm, too

ScienceWriters2013 – great program in Gainsville in November.

Previously in the “Best of…” series:

2013

July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2012

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2011

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2010

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2009

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

Sharks have rhythm, too

Sharks are not known for being good at running in running wheels. Or hopping from one perch to the other in a birdcage. Which is why, unlike hamsters or sparrows, sharks were never a very popular laboratory model for circadian research.

The study of fish came late into the field of chronobiology due to technical difficulties of monitoring rhythms, at the time when comparative tradition was starting to make way to the more focused approach on choice model organisms – in this case, the zebrafish.

But the comparative tradition was always very strong in the field. Reading the old papers (especially review papers and loooong theoretical papers) by the pioneers like Jurgen Asschoff and Colin Pittendrigh, it seems like researchers at the time were just going around and saying “let me try this species…and this one…and this one…”. And there were good reasons for this early approach. At the time, it was not yet known how widespread circadian rhythms were – it is this early research that showed they are ubiqutous in all organisms that live at or close to the surface of the earth or ocean.

Another reason for such broad approach to testing many species was to find generalities – the empirical generalizations (e.g,. the Aschoff’s Rules) that allowed the field to get established, and that provided a template for the entire research program, including refining the proper experimental designs.

Finally, this was also a fishing expedition (no pun intended…oh, well, OK, intended) for the best model organisms on which to focus more energies – organisms that can be studied in great detail in both field and lab, that are easy to find, breed, care for, house and handle, and organisms in which circadian rhythms are clear, robust, and are easy to monitor with relatively cheap and simple equipment. Thus hamsters, cockroaches, and sparrows, green anoles and Japanese quail. Later, with molecular discoveries, organisms with better tools for genetic manipulation, even though perhaps not as good as circadian models, took precedence – the fruit fly, mouse, zebrafish and the like.

But it’s not that sharks were never looked at before. They may not run in wheels, but researchers can be creative and monitor the rhythms nonetheless.

Horn Shark and Swell Shark

The Nelson and Johnson 1970 paper appears to be the very first systematic study of daily rhythms in sharks. They cite a number of previous non-systematic observations in the field, all suggesting that many shark species are nocturnal (night-active). They combined field and lab studies in two species (horn shark Heterodontus francisci and the swell shark Cephaloscyllium ventriosum).

Pattern of activity of bottom-dwelling sharks in the field. From Nelson and Johnson 1970.

In the field, they dove at different times of day and night, counted and observed the sharks, and rated their activity levels. Both species were exclusively nocturnal, barely making any movements at all throughout the day, while actively swimming at night.

In the lab, they placed sharks in small pools, each pool in a light-tight enclosure. They controlled lighting regimes (e.g., constant dark, constant light, or various light-dark cycles) and they monitored the activity with a nifty sensor – a set of six steel rods in each pool, each rod hanging from above all the way to the bottom of the water. Whenever a fish pushed one of the rods (and they did not observe any avoidance), the rod would move and momentarily close an electrical circuit. This would be recorded as a dash line on long paper rolls by an Esterline-Angus recorder.

Afterward, they would take those paper rolls out, cut them (by hand) into strips, glue the strips (by hand) onto large pieces of cardboard, do the measurements and calculations (by hand, using rulers and compasses), and photograph the best records for publication. Yes, very manual work! In this day of computers, it’s pretty easy to just click. Our PI used to sometimes take us grad students to a back room to show us the old equipment and to describe the process, just so we would appreciate how easy we have it now.

Actograph of the Swell shark in different light conditions. From Nelson and Johnson 1970.

What they found is that the two species are quite different. The Horn shark readily entrained to the light-dark cycles (both 24-hour and 25-hour cycles), starting activity as soon as the lights go off, and ceasing activity the moment the light come back on. They kept swimming all the time both in constant darkness and in constant light. This suggests that their behavior is triggered directly by environmental light and not driven by an internal clock.

On the other hand, the Swell sharks showed circadian rhythms – they alternated between active and inactive periods in constant light and in constant darkness. In light-dark cycles of both durations, they showed a little bit of anticipation, starting their activity a few minutes before lights-off. This suggests that the daily alteration of behavior is driven by an internal circadian clock.

In a later study (Finstad and Nelson 1975), they changed the intensity of light of the experiment, and this time Horn sharks also exhibited internally generated circadian rhythms.

Dogfish Shark

Daily rhythm in the dogfish shark. From Casterlin and Reynolds 1979.

In 1979, Casterlin and Reynolds tried a different experimental setup and a different species – smooth dogfish shark, Mustelus canis. In their setup, as sharks swim through a series of chambers they break photocell-monitored light beams. Instead of simple light-dark cycles, they used light-dusk-dark-dawn cycles in which dawn and dusk light was dim, while daytime light was bright. Again, most of the activity was observed during the night:

Lemon Shark

In 1988, Nixon and Gruber took a bunch of Lemon sharks (Negaprion brevirostris) and placed them in a complex setup in order to simultaneously monitor both locomotor activity (that is: swimming around and around in circles) and the metabolic rate (oxygen consumption):

The lemon shark setup. From Nixon and Gruber 1988.

Daily rhythms of activity (top) and metabolic rate (bottom) in the Lemon shark. From Nixon and Gruber 1988.

The sharks were only tested in light-dark cycles, which is not a proper test for the existence of the circadian clock, but the data were strikingly “clean”. While behavior can be strongly affected by direct influence from the environment (e.g., sudden lights-on), it is harder to explain changes in metabolic rate purely behaviorally, suggesting that an internal clock is likely driving the day-night differences in metabolism.

Megamouth Shark

Megamouth shark daily dives. From Nelson et al. 1997.

This big guy is hard to find. The subject of this paper was only the sixth individual known to science. It was caught, they scrambled for about a day to get all the gear in place, attached satellite telemetry radiotransmitters, and let the animal lose to swim. What they saw was a distinct pattern of diving deeper before the sunrise, and rising up closer to the surface before sundown. While nothing can be said about circadian regulation, as the pattern could just be the animal following light clues or vertical migration of its plankton food, it is nonetheless a very cool study.

Hammerhead Shark

It is interesting that a number of senior researchers, as they come close to retirement and are not in the rat-race for grant funding any more, abandon the standard lab models and go back to the old comparative tradition, picking unlikely species (from chipmunks to Monarch butterflies) and moving out of the lab back into the field. It’s definitely more fun to do!

One of them decided to shift his focus to juvenile hammerhead sharks. Unfortunately, Milton H. Stetson suddenly died in 2002, and I could only find one publication from that work (Okimoto and Stetson 1995), which I cannot read as it was published in a conference proceedings (if anyone can scan a copy and send me, I’ll be grateful):

Nonetheless, this paper was cited in several other places, and if they cited it correctly, what Okimoto and Stetson found was that the pineal glands of these sharks (and later the same also found in dogfish shark Squalus acanthias) does not show cycles of melatonin synthesis and release in constant light conditions (it does in light-dark cycles). This does not necessarily mean that there is no clock in the pineal, or that there is not rhythmic production of melatonin, as later work in our lab showed that culture medium can have a dramatic effect.

Whale Shark

Combined 206 daily records of a whale shark dives. Graham, Roberts and Smith 2006

Combined 206 daily records of a whale shark dives. From Graham, Roberts and Smith 2006

In Graham, Roberts and Smith 2006, nine whale sharks were tagged with archival satellite tags which provided data on water temperature, illumination and depth. What they found are three distinct types of rhythms: ultradian (short), circadian (about a day) and infradian (long) cycles.

The short cycle was about 45 minutes long, essentially the sharks swimming up an down underneath the surface, not really diving very deep.

One day record of a whale shark diving activity. From Graham, Roberts and Smith 2006

One day record of a whale shark diving activity. From Graham, Roberts and Smith 2006

The long cycle was a 29-day cycle, likely not generated from within the nervous system of the shark, but rather the animals following the snapper spawning events which are modulated by the moon phases.

The daily cycle was that of deep dives. The sharks made very deep dives – sometimes over a kilometer down – only during the day. Again, nothing in this experimental protocol can distinguish between internally generated rhythms and behaviors directly induced by the environment, e.g., light intensity, vertical migrations of prey, etc.

And yes, this is it, that’s all. Not much work on sharks done, for obvious reasons – they don’t do well in running wheels.

References:

Casterlin, Martha E., and William W. Reynolds. Diel activity patterns of the smooth dogfish shark, Mustelus canis. Bulletin of Marine Science 29.3 (1979): 440-442.

Finstad WO, Nelson DR. Circadian activity rhythm in the horn shark, Heterodontus francisci: effect of light intensity. Bull. S. Calif. Acad. Sci, 1975

Graham, Rachel T., Callum M. Roberts, and James CR Smart. Diving behaviour of whale sharks in relation to a predictable food pulse. Journal of the Royal Society Interface 3.6 (2006): 109-116.

Nelson, Donald R., and Richard H. Johnson. Diel activity rhythms in the nocturnal, bottom-dwelling sharks, Heterodontus francisci and Cephaloscyllium ventriosum. Copeia (1970): 732-739.

Nelson, Donald R., et al. An acoustic tracking of a megamouth shark, Megachasma pelagios: a crepuscular vertical migrator. Environmental Biology of Fishes 49.4 (1997): 389-399.

Nixon, Asa J., and Samuel H. Gruber. Diel metabolic and activity patterns of the lemon shark (Negaprion brevirostris). Journal of experimental Zoology 248.1 (1988): 1-6.

Okimoto, D. K., and M. H. Stetson. Effect of light on melatonin secretion in vitro from the pineal of the hammerhead shark, Sphyrna lewini. Proceedings of the Fifth International Symposium on Reproductive Physiology of Fish, The University of Texas at Austin. 1995.

Images: Shark in the running wheel: shark from ClipArt Supply, wheel from Shaping Youth, photoshop by Tobias Gilk. Shark clock – ToadAndLily on Etsy (where you can actually buy the clock). Other images are figures from papers, according to the Fair Use principle.

ScienceWriters2013 – great program in Gainsville in November.

ScienceWriters 2013 conference, organized jointly by National Association of Science Writers (NASW) and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW), will be held this year on November 1-5, 2013, on the campus of The University of Florida in Gainesville.

You can follow the event on Twitter by following @sciencewriters and the hashtag #sciwri13.

The official Schedule was just released, and it is, as usual, a fantastic lineup of lectures, workshops and panels. Just check out the list of speakers!

As I have been over the past few years, I will be involved this year as well. I am a co-organizer of two sessions during the NASW professional development day:

On Saturday, November 2nd, 11:00 am to 12:15 pm:

A view from the future

In our new, rapidly changing media ecosystem, it is easier than ever to write about science — but harder than ever to be heard above the din, to build a reputation, and to make a living. How are science writers and journalists adapting to these shifting rules? Links, documents, data and transcripts, in addition to quotes, are expected by readers. How do today’s science writers use these ingredients to establish trust with online-only readers? How important is the brand name of the media organization vs. the byline of the writer? With researchers now able to directly communicate with the public, how has the role of the writer changed? These panelists, who occupy different niches within the Web-based media ecosystem, have successfully adapted to the new “rules,” and are helping shape the future of science communication. Twitter hashtag for this session is #vftf13.

Organizers:

Bora Zivkovic, Blogs editor, Scientific American.
Deborah Blum, Author; professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Moderator:

Nadia Drake, Reporter, Wired

Speakers:

Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato, Editor, EverydayHealth
Kelly Poe, Reporter, Greensboro News & Record
Cassie Rodenberg, Freelance, blogger at Scientific American
Julianne Wyrick, Student, UGA Program for Health and Medical Reporting

==========

On Saturday, November 2nd, 3:45 pm to 5:00 pm:

Rising above the noise: Using statistics-based reporting

Science writers must produce written, audio or visual stories that capture and hold the attention of a reader/listener/viewer. With so much information just one “swipe” away, editors and consumers are demanding stories that stay fresh and relevant long after the initial post. The one-word solution to such predicaments? Statistics. In this session, science writers with deep backgrounds in mathematics will provide key takeaways attendees can use immediately to help their stories rise above the noise. The takeaways will include: necessary vocabulary for talking about statistics, a framework for understanding how numbers can be manipulated, a checklist to ensure quality data, and, not least, examples of stories built solidly with statistics. Statistics is not a “catch-phrase” for serious journalism. It is key for better reporting and better story-telling.

Organizers:

Kathleen Raven, Freelance journalist,
Bora Zivkovic, Blogs editor, Scientific American.

Moderators:

Kathleen Raven, Freelance journalist

Speakers:

Hilda Bastian, Blogger & editor, National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) at the National Institutes of Health
Evelyn Lamb, Mathematician & writer, Scientific American
Regina Nuzzo, Freelance journalist & associate professor of statistics, Gallaudet University
John Allen Paulos, Author & mathematics professor, Temple University

===========

Best of July at A Blog Around The Clock

I posted 4 times in July, including:

Good Night, Moon! Now go away so I can sleep.

#SciFoo in pictures

FtBCON: Science Communication

Previously in the “Best of…” series:

2013

July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2012

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2011

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2010

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2009

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

Good Night, Moon! Now go away so I can sleep.

Mars has two moons - Phobos and Deimos. Here we see Phobos passing in front of the sun, as seen from the surface of Mars. How would having two moons with different phases affect behavior of Martians?

Mars has two moons - Phobos and Deimos. Here we see Phobos passing in front of the sun, as seen from the surface of Mars. How would having two moons with different phases affect behavior of Martians?

Scientific papers usually don’t faithfully convey exactly how the researchers came up with the idea, or the chronological order in which the investigation proceeded. And there is a good reason for that – papers need to be standardized so other scientists can easily read them, understand them, replicate them and use them to perform further research.

But sometimes, a paper is honest about the process. It is wonderful – and shows that scientists are human, with a great sense of humor – when #OverlyHonestMethods sneak into the text of a scientific paper, surprising and rewarding the careful reader with an ‘easter egg’.

One such paper – on the effects of moon phase of sleep quality – just came out in Current Biology.

The first thing I noticed was that the data were collected in 2000-2003. Why did it take a decade to publish? Was it just sitting on a back burner of a PI for years after the student left the lab? Did it have to go through many rounds of peer review in several journals until it finally managed to get published? None of those reasons, actually! See for yourself:

We just thought of it after a drink in a local bar one evening at full moon, years after the study was completed.

And that is where we encounter yet another effect of the full moon (in synergy with ethanol) on human behavior, at least on WEIRD populations, such as scientists!

But jokes aside, this is also a great example of a paper that usefully re-visits and re-analyzes old data sets. Of course, the authors emphasize the positives of this post hoc approach – nobody at the time of the study could possibly know that the data would be analyzed in this way, so there were no possible subconscious psychological effects – it was a truly triple-blind study:

Thus, the aim of exploring the influence of different lunar phases on sleep regulation was never a priori hypothesized, nor was it mentioned to the participants, technicians, and other people involved in the study.

On the other hand, a study specifically designed to test for moon-phase effects on sleep quality would have been designed differently to ensure it has just the right controls and that maximum information can be derived from the data.

Research in chronobiology is frustratingly slow. In circadian research, each day is just one data point, so each study has to keep subjects in isolation for many days. In the study of lunar rhythms, each month is a data point and the subjects need to be kept in isolation for many months.

To determine if a rhythm is generated by an internal timer (daily or monthly) as opposed to being a direct behavioral response to environmental cycles requires a whole battery of tests, which are hard and time-consuming enough in circadian research, and twenty eight times more so in circalunar rhythm research

Back in the 1960s, it was possible to keep (well compensated) human subjects in isolation rooms for long periods of time (see pioneering research by Wever and Aschoff in the underground bunker in Andechs, Germany). Likewise, animal subjects can be kept and monitored in isolation chambers for long periods of time.

As lunar rhythms are more “messy” than daily rhythms, more data over more time are necessary for the robust statistical analysis. And, due to ethics creep, it is not certain that either animal or human studies of such scope can be approved and performed any more. So, one has to be creative and get quality information out of imperfect experimental protocols (just like we cannot wait to observe multiple cycles of 17-year cicadas, but have to invent creative, short-term approaches instead).

But this time, the researchers were just lucky! Their data-set came from an old experiment which was designed well enough for this new purpose. The key is they had LOTS of data. Their subjects came in to the sleep lab many times and a number of different parameters were measured. Ideally, each subject would stay in the lab for a few months instead of just four days at a time. But having such a huge data set allowed them to weave together a patchwork of fragmented data into a large, trustworthy whole. Each first night of the test was eliminated from the data due to potential influence of the previous day (and the so-called “weekend effect”, as people tend to change sleep times on their days off). Each phase of the moon was covered by multiple subjects multiple times. So they could employ powerful statistics to tease out the effects of the moon phase on various parameters of sleep quality.

And they found some interesting stuff! My colleague Dina Fine Maron has covered the paper in greater detail here. In short, human subjects with no access to information about moon phase, or any ability to perceive the moon itself or its light intensity, nonetheless slept about 20 minutes shorter on the nights of full moon, mostly due to taking roughly 5 minutes longer to fall asleep in the evening than on a night of the new moon. Levels of melatonin, hormone released by the pineal gland during the night, were lower during full moon nights as well. Some of the age and sex differences cannot be explained at this time due to imperfect experimental design – and that is OK. I’d rather see new interesting information coming out of an old data set, than never seeing it at all just because it cannot be “just perfect”.

There are many claims around about lunar periodicities in all sorts of human behavior. For some of those, there is no evidence the claims are true. For others, there is strong evidence the claims are not true. But a few subtle effects have been documented. This paper adds another set with persuasive statistics.

Is this a demonstration that there is a working circalunar clock in humans, operating endogenously, and independently from the actual moon? It’s not possible to tell yet. Those kinds of demonstrations (just like for circadian clocks) require a battery of tests, starting with documenting multiple cycles (I’d say at least three complete monthly cycles) in complete isolation, ability of artificial moonlight to phase-shift the phase of the rhythm in a predictable manner (consistent with a Phase-Response Curve), and hopefully identification of body structures or cellular components which are devoted to generation of the rhythms, with at least some hint of the mechanism how they do it.

We are far from it yet even in animals we can manipulate in lab and field studies. Much work has been done over the decades in the study of lunar and circalunar rhythms in various animals, mostly aquatic and intertidal ones. There are documented lunar cycles (but not necessarily internal lunar clocks) in a variety of organisms, including sponges, cnidaria, polychaetes, aquatic insects, and many different crustaceans including crayfish.

In the terrestrial realm, antlions possess internal lunar clocks, but many other species show modifications of behavior during different phases of the moon, including honeybees, rattlesnakes, ratsnakes, some rodents, some lizards, and lions.

The gravitational force of the moon is so weak that it can affect only very large bodies of water on the Earth’s surface. It cannot even affect smaller lakes and rivers. There is no theoretical mechanism by which any molecule or cellular structure in a human body can be so sensitive as to detect the gravity of the moon. So that hypothesis is out.

In field studies, animals can see and synchronize to the changing night-time intensity as the moon goes through its phases. But in the lab, as in the case of this study, there are no visual clues to the moon phase for the subjects, and, since they had no idea the data would be analyzed for moon phases, they probably did not pay attention to that before they entered the light-isolation lab.

With both gravity and light eliminated as potential clues, the internal clock remains the strongest hypothesis. But it’s still a hypothesis that needs to be tested before one can state with any certainty that it is the case.

As for evolutionary explanations for the existence of a putative lunar rhythm of humans? I would be very careful about this. Demonstrating that any trait is actually an adaptation (and not an exaptation or side-effect of development, or something else) is an incredibly difficult task. Just because something seems “obviously useful” does not make it an adaptation. It is an error of hyperadaptationism to pronounce a trait an adaptation just because it exists, and then to tack on a semi-plausible scenario as to how it may have been selected for. Evolutionary biology is much more rigorous than that kind of lazy armchair speculation.

Sure, if our ancestors actually had lunar clocks as adaptations, it is possible that the mechanism for it may still remain, even if in a weak state, in at least some of today’s humans. But maybe not. And like a rudimentary organ, it does not seem to have any obviously useful function for humans living in the modern society. Twenty minutes of less sleep, that’s all. But it’s good to know. So we can find good use to those extra twenty minutes, perhaps come up with new scientific hypotheses over a pint with colleagues at a local pub.

Reference: Cajochen et al., Evidence that the Lunar Cycle Influences Human Sleep, Current Biology 23, 1–4, August 5, 2013, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2013.06.029

Images: top: by NASA, bottom: from the paper.

FtBCON: Science Communication

Earlier today I was on Google Hangouts, with the host P.Z. Myers, discussing science communication, the changing media ecosystem, how to push back against anti- and pseudo-science, and more. Take a look:

Bring science and health journalism to #ONA13

The Online News Association Conference is one of the most popular events in the field these days, where prestigious ONA awards are also given to innovators in online journalism. The ONA13 will be held in Atlanta this year, on October 17-19th.

Unfortunately, there is rarely anything on the program that specifically touches on science or health journalism, despite it being a somewhat different – and difficult – area of journalism with some very specific challenges.

Luckily you, the community of science and health readers, can help out. The Program is, at least partially, built through community vote. You can see all the session proposals here. You can ‘vote’ for any of them by clicking on the little heart icon (the “Like” on Tumblr) and/or by reblogging it on your own Tumblr.

If you scroll down again and again and again, you will finally reach the only science-related proposal: Science and Health Go Social: What Journalists Need to Know. You can help this session become a part of the official program by liking and reblogging it, perhaps adding your own commentary.

The session was proposed by Patricia Thomas who runs the excellent Grady Health and Medicine Journalism program at the University of Georgia in Athens.

The proposed panelists are:

- Maryn McKenna, blogger at Wired, frequent contributor to Scientific American, and the author of Superbug and Beating Back the Devil.

- Barbara Glickstein, Health journalist, public health nurse and the Co-Director of The Center for Health, Media & Policy at Hunter College City of New York.

- and me.

So, just click here and ‘heart’ the proposal and help us get there and start a discussion on challenges specific to science and health reporting in the rapidly evolving new media ecosystem.

#SciFoo in pictures

Yes, I was at Science Foo Camp ten days ago, returning to the event after six years (you can see my posts from the 2007 event here). As before, this was an energy-filled event, and a great opportunity to meet creative people who do interesting stuff, and not just to schmooze with old friends. As the sessions’ topics are decided at the last minute and the conversations in sessions are very informal, it is hard to ‘report’ from them in a straight-forward, journalistic manner. From a very constructive session on women in STEM, and another one on dealing with denialist online commenters, through insightful discussion on use of animals in research, to several sessions on citizen science, there was definitely plenty of stuff to learn and to make one think.

Instead, I’ll just post pictures and add some of the story in the captions. New iPhones have decent cameras, I take lots of pictures, so why not use them to tell the story about the trip and convey some of the atmosphere there.

On the way there I was stuck at Denver airport for a couple of hours. Southwest's computer system went down so they grounded the entire fleet. Half of my plane was already boarded, but my bad boarding number left me at the comfortable, air-conditioned gate instead where Southwest served us our pretzels, peanuts and drinks.

Thus, I arrived in California very late. This is why the hotel is called "Wild Palms".

The same hotel where we all stayed back in 2007...

Unfortunately, no time this year for a dip in the pool....

....or to enjoy the scenery...

...because the buses were already waiting...

...yes, Google buses....

...and this is how one knows this...

...they brought us to Google campus...

...where many arrive by bike....

....yes, Google bike.

Googleplex has waterfalls....

...and wildlife...

...and a statue of Sylvia Earle....

...and more wildlife...

...and a smart car....

...and a statue of the fish-eat-fish world...

...and some more wildlife.

I registered...

...got a cool t-shirt...

...had some famous Google food for breakfast...

...and tried to make tough decisions which of many proposed sessions to attend.

....after which we had some more of the famous Google food...

...but if that wasn't enough, there's lots of food around at all times...

...that one can sample....

...before the next meal comes...

Of course, it's not all about food. It's also about explaining science with cats!

Like this...

...and this (there's much more, this is just a tiny sample).

One can find interesting things even in the bathroom!

...and on the display tables.

One could use the DNA Lego code...

...to put together sentences...

....including this one that reads "I met Bora".

But Scifoo is really about the people....

...and more people...

...and more people...

...and even more people.

That is, until one spots the Farewell Chocolate Table...

And, of course, chocolate is essential as the Fifth Food Group.

Until it's time to say goodbyes and go off to the airport and a long flight to Helsinki - about which, next time!

Best of June at A Blog Around The Clock

I posted three times in June. That is, on A Blog Around The Clock only (not counting the posts on The Network Central, The SA Incubator, Video of the Week, Image of the Week, or editing Guest Blog, MIND Guest Blog and Expeditions). Almost no travel coming up, so there should be more next month!

Quick programming note – #SciFoo and #WCSJ2013/#sci4hels

ScienceOnline Events Update

Previously in the “Best of…” series:

2013

May
April
March
February
January

2012

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2011

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2010

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2009

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

ScienceOnline Events Update

As we reminded you a couple of weeks ago, ScienceOnline community and the organization are busy preparing a number of upcoming events. Today, we need to give you some important updates on the planning, program and registration for the three major events coming up soon, so you can start planning today: ScienceOnlineClimate, ScienceOnlineOceans and ScienceOnlineTogether 2014. Head on to the official SciO blog to see the details.

Quick Programming Note–#SciFoo and #WCSJ2013/#sci4hels

Just a quick note. If you will be at Science Foo Camp (a.k.a. SciFoo) on June 21-23, find me and say Hello. I last went to this meeting in 2007 and I am happy to go back after a long break. Not sure what the event rules are, but I expect to livetweet quite a lot (at @BoraZ).

Likewise, if you will be at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Helsinki, Finland, on June 24-29th, find me and say Hello as well. On the 26th, I’ll be on a plenary panel – The Rise of the Science Blog Network: Lessons from All Corners of the World at 09:00-10:30am, and then immediately after that enjoying the other panel I organized – The ‘killer’ science journalists of the future at 11:15am-12:45pm. But you already know all about it, as I have blogged about that panel several times.

During those 10 days or so, I will be online pretty sporadically (except to livetweet from my phone), so be nice to the other bloggers on the network!

Best of May at A Blog Around The Clock

I posted 4 times in May. That is, on A Blog Around The Clock only (not counting the posts on The Network Central, The SA Incubator, Video of the Week, Image of the Week, or editing Guest Blog and Expeditions). I promise there will be more next month!

#sci4hels – What makes one a “killer” (science) journalist of the future?

Quick updates: Science Studio, travel and quotes.

What’s new at ScienceOnline?

Previously in the “Best of…” series:

2013

April
March
February
January

2012

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2011

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2010

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2009

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

#sci4hels – What makes one a “killer” (science) journalist of the future?

It is only four weeks till the World Conference of Science Journalists commences in Helsinki, and our #sci4hels panel has been hard at work, for months now, at preparing for the event. We had discussions on Twitter (account, list, hashtag), set up the Google + and Facebook pages, and put together a website/blog.

Over the past few months, we also engaged the community with our questions. The first question was about the need for specialization (also see), which also feeds into the question of a need for specialized skills, like coding (see this and this).

The second question was “What does a new science journalist do to get noticed? How do you get people to read your work, give you assignments, follow you on Twitter, and generally just know who you are?” This provoked a lively discussion on Twitter.

The third question, upon noticing that all the panelists are female (and many of the upcoming science writers are, too), was a discussion about breaking the glass ceiling in the media organizations.

We all pitched in together for the Question #4: How Should Science Journalists Deal with Breaking News?.

The final, fifth question was: “What is the obligation of a science journalist when it comes to education?

Obviously, we covered a very broad range of topics. But now we need to focus. We’ll only have 90 minutes in Helsinki, and the attendees will come to hear and learn from “killer” science journalists of the future, hoping to get some advice on how to join their ranks and become one of those “killers”, successful in the fast-shifting world of modern media.

On Thursday we will publish our final post and open it up for discussion. Here, I want to make some quick, broad, Big Picture thoughts of my own.

What are the characteristics of a “killer science journalist of the future”?

Understanding that being in print, on radio, or on TV is sweet, still pays better, and still carries a cache with some audiences, but that this picture is changing fast. These 20th century types of one-way broadcast media are rapidly losing audiences, while new generations are essentially using only the Web for information, education and entertainment. Thus, it is smart to focus primarily on the online world, while still occasionally getting some money from the old media when possible.

Understanding that the currency of reputation in the new ecosystem is trust. As the readers rely less and less on the banners on top of the page and more and more on the names in the bylines, it is essential to build one’s own personal reputation and not to rely entirely on the institutional reputation of the media outlet for which one writes.

Understanding that, for one to gain the currency of trust in an online world, one has to constantly use the currency of trust – the hyperlink. A killer science journalist of the future profusely peppers one’s articles with links. Every place in the article that makes a statement should contain a link. Every such spot that does not have a link automatically is a red flag for the modern reader. What is the author trying to hide? Is the originator of information not credited properly?

If information is gained from a document, the document should be linked. If it comes from an article or a blog post, it should be linked. If it comes from a scientific paper, that paper should be linked. If there is a two-sentence quote, presumably taken out of an hour-long interview, it is important to link to the complete interview – transcript or audio or video recording. Every link is a gain of trust. Every lacking link is a loss of trust. Digital natives understand this almost instinctively. Modern online journalism is in many way just like science, including the importance of proper citation and credit for the past ideas on top of which one builds one’s new edifice.

There is no expectation that most readers will actually click on the links. The links are there as a proxy, a sign to the readers that the author has done the due diligence of actually doing the necessary research and finding the relevant sources (what quotes used to do in the old media, but now have the opposite effect online), and generally understands the way the Web requires proper credit of all sources of information. In cases of controversial statements, a small proportion of readers may click on links (even if they are behind paywalls – some readers will have access) and tell the other readers in the comments if the links actually support the statements in the text.

Understanding that the new media ecosystem is an open system. An open system is much stricter and faster in enforcing both the traditional journalistic ethics and the additional online ethics, and much harsher and faster at meting punishment on transgressors of such ethics than the old-style, closed ecosystem. Feedback is instantaneous, and often devastating. The best way to deal with criticism is complete transparency, humble admission of errors, and civil countering of incorrect information if such is presented in the feedback.

A digital native does not take harsh feedback personally, is used to harshness of online comments, shrugs it off but does not ignore the feedback – understanding that it is always a learning experience that helps one get better at the job. It is also understood that responding to feedback and involving the readers in the learning process is one way of getting better, earning trust, and gaining good reputation.

Understanding that self-promotion is not a dirty word the way it was in the 20th century. With a glut of information, and glut of overall online communication, it is necessary for the author to be seen and heard above the din. The only way to do this is to have the link circulate widely online, especially on social media. For the link to appear on social media in the first place, the author has to place it there first. If the piece is accurate, well documented, and well written, it will be spread around. For the link posted by the author to be seen, the author has to have sufficient number of people to send it to, particularly people who already trust and respect the author. Thus, building and nurturing one’s own community of friends, colleagues and readers, and being a part of other people’s similar circles, reciprocating the goodwill, is essential. This is the essence of the principle of horizontal loyalty (or “Friends In Low Places”).

Understanding that all of the above is still not enough. Doing it all correctly, diligently discovering information, linking to all the sources, not stealing ideas from bloggers and then linking only to traditional sources, being humble, respectful and transparent, and generally making a coherent article day after day, week after week, is still not enough. One day soon, everyone will be doing it technically correctly. How does one get noticed in such an environment then?

Yes, sometimes you’ll have to write a dull article for money. Perhaps too often. But the pieces that will really take off – and the pieces that will bring the reputation and trust, not just traffic – are pieces that are written with passion. So, follow your own curiosity and find your passion. Find your own obsession and turn it into your beat. Become a Go-To expert on the topic of your obsession. Ditch the boring old inverted pyramid (it was invented due to space limits of paper, something that vanished online) and start writing in an exciting way.

Or, if your passion is not any narrow topic, then your expertise – or your signature stuff, something for which people will keep coming back over and over again to check your work – may be something else: absolutely beautiful writing, or amazing visuals, or stunning art or photography, or video, or animation, or hand-coded interactive infographics, or whatever makes you excited. If you are excited, your readers will be excited, too. They will support you, tell their friends about you, and make you successful in the process. As long as the basic journalistic ethics and the additional online ethics are met, it is this added passion that will make the difference between successful writers and those who are…not so much…

What’s new at ScienceOnline?

Heat of summer is coming, but we are not falling asleep. ScienceOnline community, and the organization under the able leadership of executive director Karyn Traphagen, is busy planning future events and projects.

Our flagship conference, now renamed ScienceOnline Together, is in full swing of preparation. The eighth annual event will be held on February 26 – March 1, 2014. in Raleigh, NC, and the planning wiki will be open for submissions in a couple of days – keep an eye on the #sciox hashtag on Twitter, or follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus.

The local satellite events are springing up everywhere! ScienceOnlineVancouver, ScienceOnlineSeattle, ScienceOnline Bay Area, ScienceOnline San Diego, ScienceOnlineDenver, ScienceOnlineDC, ScienceOnlineLeiden and ScienceOnlineAdelaide are up and running, and more will be joining soon. Is your local community interested in hosting one of those? Let us know.

Often these events grow out of more informal gatherings and tweetups (or Watch Parties of the main event), as our community realizes that they have sufficient numbers locally, and suffient energy and interest to invest into organization of a more formalized and more regular event. A number of such tweetups are ongoing, usually every month. Check out our local community tweetups: New York City (#NYCscitweetup), Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill (#TriSciTweetup), Washington DC (#DCscitweetup), Philadelphia (#PhillySciTweetup), Boston (#sciobeantown), Los Angeles (#LAscitweetup) and Chicago (#ChiSciTweetup) meetings have been going on for quite some time. Recently, Georgians started alternating their tweetup by having one in Athens (#ATHSciTweetup) on even months and one in Atlanta (#ATLSciTweetUp) on odd months. And the latest addition is Toronto (#TorSciTweetup). If you think there is a local community that should start such informal events, let us know so we can help you out in getting started.

Our topical events are attracting quite a lot of excitement, it seems. The first one, ScienceOnlineTEEN held in New York City last month, focused on education, and was a great success.

The next thematic event will be ScienceOnline Climate (Twitter, Facebook) in Washington, DC from August 15-17, 2013. The planning wiki is now open for your submissions for sessions. The wiki opened on May 20 and will close on June 7, 2013.

After that, on October 11th – 13th, 2013., in Miami, FL, we’ll have ScienceOnline: Oceans (planning wiki, Twitter, Facebook). There may still be a couple of open slots left fot registration if you hurry up!

As for our projects, ScienceSeeker portal keeps getting developed, and recently announced the winners of its first annual ScienceSeeker Awards. Many are asking about the next edition of Open Laboratory, the annual anthology of best science writing online – there will be announcements soon about the new publisher, new judging methods, etc, soon.

Check out ScienceOnline forums, watch the videos of past events if you missed them before, and follow our official blog.

Please, share your story with us – how has ScienceOnline made a difference for you? And then help us continue to make the difference, by supporting us and the community. Thank you!

Quick updates: Science Studio, travel and quotes.

Science Studio has a brand new website (what is it? Remember these: Introducing: Science Studio — The year’s best science multimedia and Science Studio update – and a new challenge). So, start nominating your favorite (or your own) podcasts and videos!

Last week I spent in Canada. First I went to Ottawa where I was one of the keynote speakers at the annual OCIB Symposium, organized jointly by biology graduate students from Carleton University and University of Ottawa. On the second day, I enjoyed some wonderful oral and poster presentations by students, and managed to see a little bit of the beautiful downtown of Ottawa.

Then I took a train to Toronto, where I gave another talk at York University (see announcements by John Dupuis, Glendon Mellow, Larry Moran, Jesse Rogerson and Edward Fenner). Both talks were (very losely) based on an old post of mine – The line between science and journalism is getting blurry….again – but updated for the 2013 environment.

After the York talk, we had the first inaugural Toronto Science Tweetup (search Twitter for #TORsciTweetup), big and rowdy and loud, which will hopefully become a monthly fixture. During the inter-weening weekend, I spent a day at Niagara Falls with an old friend of mine – a place my father visited in 1966 and always talked about, so this was, in a sense, my homage to my Dad.

I was quoted recently in Raleigh News & Obeserver (which does not quote me from an interview, but from this blog post) and in The Herald (Everett, WA), on two completely diffent topics.

Next – New York City again May 23-24 or so. Then SciFoo (June 21-23 in Mountain View, California) and WCSJ2013 (June 24-29 in Helsinki, Finland).

Best of April at A Blog Around The Clock

What happened? I did not post anything on A Blog Around The Clock in April!!! Yikes! I promise there will be something next month! But I did post some interesting stuff elsewhere – take a look:

How to break into science writing using your blog and social media (#sci4hels)

Morning at Triton

Morning at Triton

War was brewing in Yugoslavia back in early 1991. I hopped on one of the last trains from Belgrade to London, then a plane to JFK in New York City, then next day down to Asheville, NC. A week later, the war broke out. They were knocking on doors, looking for men of military age, putting them in uniform, giving them rifles and sending them to the front. I was 25, I had a little backpack, and there was no going back.

I worked for two months in a summer camp outside of Hendersonville, NC as a camp counselor, teaching kids to ride horses and taking care of the animals. When the camp ended, together with several other counselors, I got into an old Toyota station wagon and drove all the way up to upstate New York. There we stayed a couple of days, cleaning and degreasing the kitchen of another camp owned by the same organization. That was a nice way to earn a little extra money. I needed it. My travelers checks were OK, but running thin. My regular bank checks were useless – with the war on, the bank transfers were blocked.

One of the camp counselors was a student at Brandeis University, just north of Boston. He took me there and gave me food and shelter in his room. He was one of several guys living in a huge fraternity house which in its past life used to be a funeral home. Apparently, the crematorium equipment in the basement was still operational.

I stayed there for a couple of weeks, then went up north to New Hampshire to visit an old childhood friend of mine. We used to ride horses together and now she was a professional horse trainer up there. We have not seen each other for ten years, so she put me on one of her horses to see how my riding improved since the last time she saw me on a horse. I spent about two weeks there, with her trying hard to switch me from European, deep-seat, controlling style of riding to the more free-flowing, fluid American style – something I needed if I was going to stay in the country and work at a horse farm somewhere – probably the only solution for a person whose visa was about to expire and render him an illegal alien.

She opened the latest issue of the Chronicle of the Horse, the professional weekly magazine, and turned to the job ads. She called up about a dozen numbers. She narrowed them to three: “Now you call!”. I did. One job was in Virginia, paid almost nothing, and the owner did not care about my riding – he needed someone to muck stalls. The second one was with Ian Millar up in Canada, but he was just getting ready to go down to the Florida circuit and had no time to deal with my paperwork, passports, visas, etc.

The third one was Shep Welles, down in North Carolina which was familiar place already. He interviewed me for two hours over the phone, asking everything about my riding history, physique, current administrative and financial situation, and more. He was interested, but he had two girls coming to interview next day, so he told me to call again after a couple of days, in case he did not like their riding. I was nervous. My still very stiff European riding could not possibly compare to locally produced riders.

I went back to Boston, waited a couple of days, and called Shep again. He did not like the way the two girls rode (ooops, he has high standards, nervous, nervous!), so he was interested in seeing me. Again, he interviewed me over the phone for two hours, touching on many of the same topics. I had 20 years of experience with horses by then, riding, training, grooming, teaching riding to kids, and working as finish-line judge and assistant handicapper at the Belgrade racecourse. But I was still not confident that my Balkans-style riding would be something he’d like.

Shep was going to give me a chance. If he did not like my riding, I could stay at his place and clean the stalls and he’d find me a job in the area. If he did like me, he would help me with the visa, documents, finances etc. I borrowed some money from my Boston friend and bought Greyhound tickets to Raleigh.

Actually, it was not that easy. This was 1991, no Google Maps, Facebook, iPhones or Twitter. I wrote down the name of the town the way I heard Shep say it. Then I opened an old print map of USA, found North Carolina, and started looking for “Rowley”. Ooops! No such place. But also no town whatsoever that starts with R except Raleigh. So I risked it – I bought a ticket to Raleigh. If that was a wrong spot, at least I’d be in the right state and they could come and get me.

Ellen Mordecai Welles, 1925-2013.

Ellen Mordecai Welles, 1923-2013.

My bus pulled into the Raleigh Greyhound station. An old, dirty, beat-up truck pulled up right next to the bus. Yup, right there, on the platform. Out came a wiry old lady, Shep’s mother, the owner of the barn. But why not? After all, Mrs.Welles was a Mordecai – she was Raleigh before there was Raleigh, she owned the place, she could park wherever she wanted!

I was standing there with my backpack and she looked straight at me: “You must be Bow-rah!”. Yup, it was me. How did she guess?

She threw my backpack on some bales of straw in the back of the truck and motioned me to get in the cabin. I did. Within a microsecond, three Jack Russell terriers were in my face, barking their heads off. “This is Winston, this is Russell, and this one is Jester and aren’t they such good boys!” They kept barking in my face for another ten miles of the ride, until we got to the barn.

Ten miles does not seem such a long drive, but it did for me then. There was never a moment Mrs.Welles ever looked at the road! Why should she? The old truck knew the way by itself! By the time we got to the house, I heard the history of the family, the history of Camp Triton and Triton Stables. We were greeted at the house by two more dogs – huge, ancient Mildred, and tiny, blind Henry. I was shown my room, deposited my backpack there, and looked at all the cobwebs in the rafters – the life is at the barn, after all, so why clean the house when it’s just for sleeping!

Off we went to the barn across the road from the house. Shep was teaching his class – the group of best riders at the stables – so I had to wait until he had time to put me on a horse for an interview. I sat on a bench and watched. I was deeply impressed. Lots of horses in a relatively small ring, yet horses seemed calm and relaxed and happy, jumping with ease and appetite. This was obviously a top-notch establishment.

When the class was over, and the riders untacked, washed and turned out their horses, one of the riders from that class approached me at the bench: “Hi, I am Catharine, you must be the new guy, may I sit here with you?” Of course, of course, why not…. A year or so later, she became my wife. Triton magic!

Shep put me on a wonderful horse, named Time (I think the show name was ‘Time Maker’), a tall, handsome chestnut who was so easy to ride I managed to remember my New Hampshire lessons and ride him pretty smoothly and fluidly, pretending I was an American rider.

The late afternoon is a hectic time at a barn. Horses need to be brought in and fed. I did not know the horses yet, or even where the grain was. But there was something I could do to help – teach a new kid her first ever riding lesson on a pony. Mrs. Welles handed me an old dappled-grey pony (Rosie), and a tiny little child (Heidi) and told me to teach her to post in trot. Which I did. After all, I used to teach riding before and felt comfortable doing it. By the end of the hour, Heidi was posting like a pro.

Apparently, Shep liked my riding. Also apparently, Mrs. Welles liked my teaching. Some years later I heard that the two of them had a somewhat tense discussion over dinner that night – who will get me! In the end, they decided on a Solomon’s solution: to split me up in half. I spent next eighteen months riding young horses in the mornings and teaching beginner riders in the afternoons and on Saturdays.

The very next weekend, there was a horse show at Triton Stables. Everyone came up to me to introduce themselves. “Where are you from?” “Rowley”, I said, in my best imitation of Southern drawl.

And in a sense, that was true. That was my home now.

On occasion, I’d go with Shep to a horse show as a groom. Not to small local shows where he took bunches of ponies – kids and parents went along for those – but to the big shows where he’d take a few young hunters he hoped to show well – and sell – and his old Grand Prix show-jumper Amadeus. We had great times together at such shows, and I did my best to be a good groom, take good care of horses, and make sure that Penny Lane, Tiki Toy, French Horn, Crusader and others were well warmed up for him. And this was serious stuff – I learned so much just watching Shep warm up!

But afternoons were different. Shep was the boss. Yes, we were friends, we had fun, and my riding improved more during those eighteen months than the entire twenty years before it, but he was still The Boss. On the other hand, Mrs.Welles became a new mother to me. I was a stranger in a strange land. Not sure what tomorrow brings, except that there is no going home to the country that soon became seven countries over a decade of bloody wars.

She was a tough lady. Whenever I hear the phrase “tough as nails” I think of Mrs. Welles – she is the epitome of that saying.

But she also had endless love, for all of her family, all of her students, her horses, her dogs and her cats. With six grown kids, what’s a big deal about adding another one? One more or less, doesn’t matter, there was plenty of heart for all of us.

I got away with some things others could not. As a night owl, it was hard for me to get up in the morning. So I’d wake up at the last moment, run down to the barn to help bring in the horses from the paddocks, feed them, clean the stalls if Alvin and Albert had a day off, put the hay out in the fields. But then I’d run back up to the house for…breakfast break! Instead of working! But I needed my calories! I had my big bowl of cocoa puffs, cocoa crispies and coco pebbles (yes, all mixed in) with chocolate milk, perhaps also some toast and jam, I gulped that all fast and ran back down to the barn to ride. I needed the energy to work all day, walking miles taking horses in and out of the fields, riding several young spirited horses every morning and teaching (which means “running after the ponies non-stop”) two or three classes every afternoon. I actually gained weight! Mrs. Welles liked that – she wanted to see me put on some muscle on this skinny body!

I must have been doing something right. I started by teaching one afternoon class with five ponies: Peppy, Flopsie, Blue Eyes, Bella and Rosie. Within months, I was teaching two or even three classes every day, with a dozen horses in each, pulling the summer-camp ponies out of the fields and putting them to work every single day. Apparently, the kids liked it and kept coming back for more and more lessons. Soon we had to split the pre-short-stirrup show class into two, then three, then four divisions – A, B, C and D. Soon after, my students and Mrs.Welles’ students started battling for ribbons in the D class. Sometimes we fought over students – I wanted to keep my best for “just one more horse show” while she wanted to promote them to her more advanced classes. She even let me take one of my students to short-stirrup division before letting her move up to her classes.

And we talked. We talked so much. About horses. And dogs. And kids we taught. And my old life in former Yugoslavia. And the history of her family. And her pride in successes of her other son Jeffrey on the international circuit. And why I was so good with crazy fillies like Penny Lane, Dream Girl, Pharlap and especially the super-sensitive Con Tiki – the last ever horse she herself broke in, and probably my most favorite horse I rode there. And about my new love for Catharine. And so much more. And we laughed. We laughed a lot. And I felt at home.

I can’t believe it all lasted just eighteen months! Catharine and I got married. I was given a green card. Catharine sold her horse (Double Helix, but she called him Watson) so we could buy a car – a stick-shift Volvo station wagon in which I got my drivers license. The first winter, Catharine moved into my room at the Welles house, and we spent a couple of months battling an outbreak of strangles for many hours every day, from dawn late into the dark, trying to help all the poor horses feel better and get well. The second winter, we moved out to Catharine’s place across the street from NCSU. In the end, I quit and had a couple of boring manual jobs for a few months until I started graduate school at NCSU.

But I kept coming back for many years, judging the pre-short-stirrup classes at Triton shows, thus getting to see Mrs.Welles at least a few times a year. My own Jack Russell terrier, Gru (short for Grushenka – the lady of the night from Dostoyevsky novels), ended up living at Triton so I had to visit her every now and then. Our friend Betty Trustman bought a big thoroughbred, Quartermane, so I went to Triton to ride him on Sundays, to get his energy out so he does not buck her off on Mondays. That was about fifteen years ago – the last time I was on a horse.

As we moved farther away and my life got busier, and as Mrs.Welles gradually stopped teaching and got older and began to feel her age, we lost touch. Thanks to Facebook, I reconnected with several other people from Triton, so I could be informed about comings and goings there. So I knew when the barn moved out to Durham county. And I knew when various other things happened.

Several years ago, Mrs. Welles needed a hip replacement. Catharine and I went to visit her at the hospital right after the surgery. Barely out of anesthesia, Mrs.Welles pulled herself up with her own arms, lifted and moved herself from the trolley to the bed. The nurse kept coming and looking at the monitors, apparently not very happy. Catharine, a nurse herself, asked what was the worry. This is where we had to explain that the pulse will never go up as high as expected – Mrs.Welles, after all, was a top athlete in top form, even when she was in her 70s. She had an athlete’s heart.

A couple of months ago, we heard that Mrs.Welles had another stroke and was again in a hospital and not in a nursing home. We went to visit her. She could not speak. It took her a long time and lots of talking to recognize Catharine, and even longer to recognize me. She was squeezing a plush toy piebald pony – looking just like Marco Polo, or Oreo – with her right hand. Suddenly, she pulled herself up, and grabbed my hand. She pinched my hand so hard I thought she’d break my fingers. Decades of working with horses made her so strong that even this close to the end of her life she could still grip harder than I could. Tough as nails to the end…

Best of March at A Blog Around The Clock

I posted only 5 times in March!!! That is, on A Blog Around The Clock only (not counting the posts on The Network Central, The SA Incubator, Video of the Week, Image of the Week, or editing Guest Blog and Expeditions). I promise there will be more next month!

New stuff:

Let’s Not Spring Forward.

Debating The Future Of Daylight Saving Time

Updates, News and Announcements:

Best of the Blogs Video

Upcoming events and travel…

Previously in the “Best of…” series:

2013

February
January

2012

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2011

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2010

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2009

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

Upcoming events and travel…

My Mom reads my blog, so this is for her, so she knows my plans. Hi, Mom! ;-)

A tentative schedule – things can always change….

This is ongoing – March 22-24th – “Reporting Across the Culture Wars: Engaging Media on Evolution“, NESCent, Durham, NC (Facebook page, follow hashtag #evocomm on Twitter)

On March 25th I will have shoulder surgery and will be off (and offline) through March 31st.

April 13th – ScienceOnlineTEEN in NYC. I’ll probably stay in New York a few more days, so we can perhaps have a #NYCSciTweetup at the time.

April 16-19 – TEDMED 2013, in Washington DC.

I will be in New York City again on April 28 – May 2nd, after which I will fly up to Canada, to give a talk at the 10th Annual OCIB Symposium, Carleton University, Ottawa (May 2-4th) and at York University, Toronto (May 4th-6th, location/time TBA).

June 21-23 – SciFoo (Science Foo Camp) at Googleplex in Mountain View, CA

June 24-29th – The World Conference of Science Journalists (follow #WCSJ2013 on Twitter), in Helsinki, Finland. I will be a panelist on one of the plenary panels, and also organizer of the famous #sci4hels panel

July 26-27th – I will do a blogging workshop at the Computational Science Graduate Fellowship annual conference in Washington DC.

September 23-24 – “Evolving Culture of Science Engagement” at MIT, Cambridge, MA.

October 11-13th – ScienceOnlineOCEANS, in Miami, FL

November 1-5th – ScienceWriters2013, in Gainsville, FL.

If you are at any of these events, please approach me, say Hello.

 

Debating The Future Of Daylight Saving Time

I was on CBS San Francisco affiliate the other day, discussing the contents of my Thursday post about the need to abolish Daylight Saving Time. You can watch the clip here.

Best of the Blogs Video

‘Best of the Blogs’ is a monthly video series that highlights some of the most fascinating stories from the Scientific American blog network. Every month, Carin Bondar chooses a few of the blog posts that were published over the course of the month, has the bloggers record a brief narration, and meshes it all up into a fascinating mix of stories, images and video. I hope you take a look each month.

The second installment, highlighting February blog posts, is now up on the Scientific American YouTube Channel – just click here to see if the video below does not show up on your screen:

And if you missed the January video, here it is:

Let’s Not Spring Forward.

Cross-posted from Zocalo Public Square.

Even cows don’t like Daylight Saving Time. Come Sunday morning, when the milking machines get attached to their udders a whole hour too early, the otherwise placid bovines on dairy farms around the United States will snort in surprise and dismay. They may give less milk than usual. They could take days or weeks to get used to the new milking schedules.

We are no different. While most of us won’t be hooking ourselves up to udder pumps, our bodies next week will experience a disturbance very much like the cows’ – one that can affect our mental and physical health. The reason lies in the clash between sensitive, eons-old biology deep within our cells, and human-imposed time-keeping traditions that are barely a century old. Twice every year, when we “spring forward” and “fall back,” our bodies must do battle between “sun time” and “social time.”

Before the mid-19th century, time was more flexible. Each town and village maintained the local church clock more-or-less in sync with the natural light-dark cycles of the sun. The spread of railroads changed all that. The need to keep trains moving in and out of stations at predictable times forced the adoption of a standardized time. That, in turn, led to the formation of time zones.

Daylight Saving Time (DST)—the resetting of all clocks twice a year—was first proposed by New Zealand entomologist George Vernon Hudson in 1895, for quite selfish purposes. He was studying daily cycles in insects and wanted to be able to do more of it during daylight hours. But his idea of maximizing daylight soon spread. The first country to adopt DST was Germany in 1912. Most other countries soon followed, including the United States, which instituted DST in 1918.

The leading argument in favor of DST has always been that it saves energy. Back in the early 20th century, most energy was used for lighting. So, the argument went, placing work and school schedules within daylight hours would save electricity. People wouldn’t need to use light bulbs to navigate around their homes, offices, factories, and fields in the dark, and they would have more time in the evening to indulge in commerce and entertainment.

Today, the situation is very different. The proportion of total energy that is used for lighting is miniscule compared to other, time-independent uses like factories, computers, nuclear plants, airport radars, and other facilities that run 24/7. Energy companies themselves have measured the effect, and have concluded that DST does not save energy.

With this knowledge, some nations have started re-thinking the concept. Russia, for example, abandoned the clock change in 2011, keeping one time all year round. Iceland and Belarus did the same. On the other hand, in 2007, U.S. Congress, clinging to the notion that DST saves energy, moved the onset of DST three weeks earlier than before. That change, I think, makes a difficult transition even more stressful.

Although Congress can impose these changes, it’s a bit unclear who exactly has the right to determine whether DST is implemented. Until very recently, a large number of individual counties in the state of Indiana refused to go through the clock-changing ritual. Arizona doesn’t change its clocks at all—the only state in the union (apart from Hawaii) to defy DST altogether. This lack of clarity about who is in charge may be one of the reasons why a more sustained effort to abolish DST has been unsuccessful nationwide.

Whether or not DST saves energy is the least of the reasons why it’s a bad idea. Much more important are the health effects of sudden, hour-long shifts on our bodies and minds. Chronobiologists who study circadian rhythms know that for several days after the spring-forward clock resetting – and especially that first Monday – traffic accidents increase, workplace injuries go up and, perhaps most telling, incidences of heart attacks rise sharply. Cases of depression also go up. As the faint light of dawn starts preparing our bodies for waking up (mainly through the rise of cortisol secretion), our various organs, including the heart, also start preparing for increased function. If the alarm clock suddenly rings an hour earlier than usual, a weak heart can suffer an infarct.

The reason for negative health effects of DST is that, in essence, the entire world is jet-lagged for a few days. Unlike some animals, like honeybees and reindeer, humans have a very robust circadian clock system that resists abrupt shifts.

Every cell in our bodies contains a biological clock which coordinates the events in those cells—for example, when gene transcription turns on and off, or when specific proteins are made. When we are exposed to a light-dark cycle that is different from what we experienced the previous days, some types of cells synchronize to the new environmental cycle faster than the others. Cells in our eyes, for example, may adjust in about a day, while cells in our brains take a couple of days. Cells in the digestive system and liver may take weeks. So, for weeks after the DST clock change, our bodies are like a clock shop in which each timepiece cuckoos at a different time of day—a cacophony of confusing signals.

Our bodies are constantly being pulled apart by conflicting demands of the natural ‘sun time‘ and culturally imposed ‘social time‘. People living in urban areas may be better shielded from the sun time than their rural counterparts, because of artificial lighting and the skyglow it produces, but nobody is completely isolated from its influence. Twelve noon according to the clock is not twelve noon according to the planet. Citizens of Barcelona and Bucarest are almost two hours apart in their perception of sun time, yet live in the same social time—the same time zone that encompasses most of Europe.

Even those of us who are lucky enough to work from home and can generally set our own work schedules are not completely immune to the effects of DST. I still have to drive my daughter to school at the time prescribed by the local clock, not by local sunlight. My colleagues have expectations about when I will pick up the phone for a teleconference or respond to their emails. I am supposed to show up for my dental appointment at 7am, not “two hours after dawn”.

But if I ever buy a cow—and that is not as crazy as it sounds since I live next door to a dairy farm—I have a plan. Of course I’ll ignore the bi-annual clock changes, which I hear many smart dairy farmers already do. But I’ll go a step further and ignore social time altogether, milking her at the sun time her nervous system can understand, probably the crack of dawn. Whatever I do, I will never make her suffer through the sudden shift of DST. And none of us human animals should suffer it, either.

Image: Dirk Hanson

Best of February at A Blog Around The Clock

I posted only 4 times in February!!! That is, on A Blog Around The Clock only (not counting the posts on The Network Central, The SA Incubator, Video of the Week, Image of the Week, or editing Guest Blog and Expeditions). I promise there will be more next month!

ScienceOnline2013 – interview with Karyn Traphagen

Science Studio update – and a new challenge

Quick updates: #scio13, #wjchat, Science Studio, @scifri

 

Previously in the “Best of…” series:

2013

January

2012

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2011

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2010

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2009

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

ScienceOnline2013 – interview with Karyn Traphagen

Every year I ask some of the attendees of the ScienceOnline conferences to tell me (and my readers) more about themselves, their careers, current projects and their views on the use of the Web in science, science education or science communication. So now we continue with the participants of ScienceOnline2013. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today my guest is Karyn Traphagen, the Executive Director of ScienceOnline (blog, Twitter).

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific and other) background?

I was born in New Jersey (please don’t hold that against me).

I suppose, in retrospect, I was one of the Apollo generation kids and that has affected me more than I realized. I clearly remember being a very young child and standing by some adults who were debating whether or not we would really get to the moon and back. I grew up with the Gemini missions and Apollo missions. My entire elementary school would gather in the gymnasium around one television to watch launches and splashdowns.

After I started kindergarten we stayed in the same house until I graduated from high school (remarkable when you learn that I have moved 26 times since then). I was the oldest of four girls. My father was part of my life until I was in middle school (and then he entered my life again after I had my own children), but it was my mother who really instilled in me the interest and discipline and confidence that make me so curious and adventurous.

One of my favorite memories is constructing furniture with my mom. In those days there were no IKEA designers with clear instructions. We had all those foreign diagrams and crazy languages to guide us. I learned at an early age how to persevere, tinker, and make it work. I guess you could say we had a Maker culture and DIY house before the terms were popularized.

I also had an amazing chemistry set (which no doubt is illegal these days).  Of course, all the illustrations were of boys, but that didn’t bother me one bit. I had a picture of my mom before she was married and she was working in a lab with all manner of science glassware. I thought that was the best picture ever of my mom. Even though she stopped working in the lab to get married and have us kids, I thought it was perfectly normal to want to do science. It didn’t even occur to me that I couldn’t figure these things out. I also had a small mirror microscope that was nearly impossible to get to work. But I still had slides and slides of samples I collected. Even today my office is full of geologic and botanical specimens I’ve collected.

It wasn’t until later in life that I realized we were really poor growing up because I always thought we had the most amazing house. It was a tiny rental duplex. But we had file cabinets full of paper, pens, glue, tape, crayons, cardboard, glitter, and all sorts of creative stuff. What I didn’t realize was that it was all cast-offs from mailing rooms and offices (the paper was discarded stationary and onion skin paper for carbon copies). So, again, my mom was ahead of the times with re-purposing and recycling even before the first Earth Day had been organized.

Speaking of Earth Day, I can remember as a young girl how much I loved that first festival. My best friend and I were so impressed that we started our own Anti-Pollution Club. I doubt we really did very much to affect the trash and pollution in our town, but I know it did change us.

Another thing that changed me was the monthly arrival of the National Geographic magazine. Someone must have given us a subscription, because I’m sure we couldn’t have afforded it. But I (absolutely) loved reading about Jane Goodall. I wanted to go sit in the jungle and be like her. I would lose myself in the photos of space and dive in the ocean with Jacques Cousteau. I would crawl down into the earth with the stories about insects and their habits. And volcanoes! Who knew, at that time, that I would live in Hawai’i for a while and get to walk on newly cooled lava and then watch red hot lava flow into the ocean? My love of science owes a debt of gratitude to NatGeo for the visual imagery and stories they brought to me.

In high school, I was part of the “advanced track.” This meant that I had double periods of math and double periods of science every year. Double periods of math! I was invited to be part of the school’s Math League team. I hardly noticed that there were only two girls on the team. Double periods of science meant lots and lots of labs. Let’s just say that having a lab partner who sutured our fetal pig back together each night should give you a glimpse of the kind of classmates I had. But I also played violin, taught myself guitar, and sang in the choir. I became a thespian and loved drama (apparently, both on stage and off). You see, it was just the beginning of my interest in everything. I owe it to my mom that I always thought that if I was interested in something I could just go out and learn it and do it. So, I just kept doing that.

I graduated from high school early. In part, because of a dare/challenge. There were three of us who thought it would be great to graduate early (no idea why we thought that at first). The school told us “No, you can’t do that. It isn’t allowed, it’s never been done.” Hmmpff. That’s one of the surest ways to get me to try to make something happen. So, we looked at the specific policies and rules in place, and found a loophole that would allow us to graduate in three years (by doubling up on some coursework). We appealed to the school board, and they agreed. We were the first to do that. It also meant that I was in the graduating class of female students who were first invited to apply to West Point. I didn’t go to West Point, or any of the other amazing opportunities I was offered. Instead, my education and career “trajectory” began to look more like I was tacking in a sailboat.

The short story is Life and Family (capital L and F) became priorities for various reasons. The result is that along the way I got married, had 2 daughters (both awesome), had my 2 youngest sisters come into our house under our guardianship, had my other sister live with us for a time while she finished her undergrad degree, ran several entrepreneurial endeavors, learned a lot of new things, and moved a lot.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present? And future?

Trajectory assumes a smooth path that obeys the law of gravity and as I’ve already noted, my journey has taken a rather torturous, meandering route. But (and please forgive me for this), as Tolkien’s oft-quoted poem says: “Not all those who wander are lost.”

While meandering, I hiked and backpacked all 46 of the Adirondack High Peaks (becoming an ADK46er along with my husband and our 2 daughters). I have taught physics to high school students, undergrads, & grad students. I did research with cadavers to help develop a tibia index to make more biofidelic crash test dummies. I coded. I studied (and taught) ancient languages and their writing systems, like Ugaritic, Aramaic, Biblical Hebrew, and Babylonian. I studied Tolkien linguistics (and created a Tengwar Primer). I created miniature medieval calligraphy pieces (with period techniques for pigments and gilding). Less academic, I taught myself how to make molds of my own ears so I could design elf ear prosthetics. Yes, really.

I coached a cross country team. I bicycled a few century rides. I went to South Sudan to help train teachers whose lives had been disrupted by decades of war. I studied in Stellenbosch, South Africa. I taught English during some summers in Hungary. I took students on week-long sailing trips in the Bahamas. I worked at the Museum of Life and Science (Durham, NC) with the Animal Department—lemurs and snakes and bears, oh my!

And, then my life also took a turn back to Space. I’ve been to several NASATweetups (now called NASAsocials) where I was able to meet people like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson (& amazing NASA people) while we watched rockets launch missions to the moon and Mars. My name is on a chip on the Mars Curiosity rover! I absolutely love how NASA has re-invented itself in the public eye.

Eventually, all the experiences and education came together in a kind of perfect storm that led me to Bora and Anton and ScienceOnline.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

ScienceOnline! It’s an amazing privilege to represent the ScienceOnline community and work to build the projects, tools, and resources that create the opportunities for conversation, community, and collaborations. I’m so grateful for my friendship with Bora and Anton and for their trust in me and their encouragement to take the momentum from the last 7 years of conferences and move forward, as an organization, in new and exciting directions.

We have topical events (ScienceOnline: Oceans; ScienceOnline: Climate and more) being developed. Regional events around the world are springing up. Tools and resources (such as ScienceSeeker are being developed. And then, of course there are the logistics of a new organization to work on.

I think the distinctives that characterize our events are our focus on conversation and relationships. There are many valuable science conferences and associations that are more presentation focused, but we prioritize face-to-face meetings between people who have met or work together online so that they can build relationships which will lead to new collaborations and better science communication.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most? You are obviously a veteran blogger. And you’ve been using Twitter for at least two years longer than I have. What platforms and what types of online activity you found most useful, or most gratifying to use? How does blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, Google Plus and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do? What new platforms or method of online communication, if any, are you excited about?

I don’t blog as much as used to, or as much as I would like. My current personal blog is stay-curious.com and I still have all these ideas, but a lack of time. I’ve been writing for ScienceOnline (organization documents, grants, policy, copy for projects, etc) but it’s not the same! I miss having time to introduce people to aspects of the world they live in that they may not have noticed.

Twitter has been a wonderful way to stay involved online with content creation when I don’t have the time to do long blog posts. I think the various social media platforms are invaluable for data acquisition, data sharing, data analysis, science outreach, professional development, community, and communication. I like to explore ways to exploit the tools in ways their creators never imagined. A good example of this is how Fraser Cain (of Universe Today) took the Google+ hangouts to a completely new level with virtual star parties. I don’t think the Google developers ever dreamed that telescopes would stream live images of distant worlds into our homes via G+ hangouts. This excites me for the future because there are tools we haven’t even created yet and new ways of sharing information and community still to discover.

I’m most excited about the platforms we have yet to create.

I can’t imagine not being online. But I do sometimes need to unplug (albeit briefly). I love to get out in nature to hike, explore, collect small things. I like to be alone. I like to think. I’m training for the Rocketman Triathlon which will have the bicycle portion go through the launchpads at Kennedy Space Center! Oh, and I’ll be doing the triathlon with Camilla Corona, the NASA mascot for the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). She’s a rubber chicken. After that, I’m looking forward to exploring Alaska in May.

What is the best aspect of ScienceOnline for you, now that you are the Executive Director? How is it different from when you were just an attending participant?

Well, I’m an introvert (amazing how many of the attendees seem to claim this trait). It has become much easier to talk to people because they all know who I am now. It is harder for me to remember all the new people though! I have some ideas for next year to help with this (but I’m not telling yet!)

I love the creative details that I’ve been able to bring to life at the conferences, but I’m so excited to be thinking big picture, to draw in all my previous experiences/skills and work to enable others to bring out their own potential and skill.

I’ve been most surprised by the opportunities to mentor. I guess I keep thinking “Who am I to give counsel or advice? I’m still growing up!” But apparently, I guess I have lived a fair bit and done a few things and it may be helpful to a handful. So, yes, I do enjoy encouraging and listening to some of the members of our community who have come to me in that way.

I know you always have surprises for all of us – including some that even Anton and I don’t know about until the conference starts! Is there one of those little surprises that you are willing to reveal in advance, right now?

I do love to surprise and delight people. At tweetups I often bring toys (as you know!) to give people something fun to try out and play with. For the conference(s), I try to think of ideas to keep it fresh, to make it fun, to make people more likely to think creatively. I work hard at cultivating an atmosphere that allows conversation. Sometimes breaking down the “professional” barriers by playing with some origami or LEGO blocks at a table helps people to interact in a more casual and engaging way.

What does the future hold?

If I knew that, do you think I would tell you? All I can say is that I’m always ready for an adventure.

Thank you so much! It is exciting to see ScienceOnline move into the new future under your leadership.

 


Science Studio update – and a new challenge

The other day I gave you a quick update on various projects and events, including the update on Science Studio – the multimedia version of Open Laboratory project. With eight days to go, our Kickstarter project is only $500 shy of the $5000 we need to get the podcasting project funded. As the response from the community was so strong, Rose, Ben and I thought we could do more – include video if we can crack $8000. Do you think we can do it? I bet we can, but we rely on you, and your ability and willingness to spread the word. Here is what Rose says:

Oh man, people, you are awesome. We’re so close to our goal I can taste all the amazing audio we’ll be bringing you. It kind of tastes like electricity.

But you know what, we’ve still got eight days left. And Ben, Bora and I want to make this the best thing we possibly can, so we’ve decided to up the ante a little bit. Right now, we’re focusing on audio. And, like we said, there’s a ton of that. But there’s all sorts of other stuff out there too, video, animations, graphics, interactives, maps, the list goes on. We didn’t think we’d be able to do it all, but if we get a little more of your help, we can chip away at that giant pile of amazing content.

So here’s the challenge. If we can crack $8,000, we’ll add video to the mix. That’s right, from Minute Physics to TED Ed to Vsauce to Instant Egghead to Creature Cast to Vi Hart. We know you love video, and we love it too. Let’s make this happen together, everybody.

What do you say? Are you up for the challenge? Let’s play.

Quick updates: #scio13, #wjchat, Science Studio, @scifri

As you probably know, last week was ScienceOnline2013 – I still need to wind down, and catch up, before the regular blogging will resume. For those of you who missed it, you can catch up on coverage on the Scio13 Information Central page, see the media and blog coverage to date, or watch the recordings of morning Converge talks (a number of other recorded sessions will be available at the same link later). Or join us in the still very active conversation on Twitter using #scio13 hashtag.

During the event, last week, I was also a guest on the NPR Science Friday show with Ira Flatow, mostly discussing the paper (and my post about it) on the effect of blog/article comment threads on the audience understanding of the articles. You can listen to that radio segment here.

One of my projects, the Science Studio (the podcast/multimedia version of Open Laboratory) has only 9 more days to go on Kickstarter and still needs $1214 to reach the goal. Take a look….

Finally, today at 8pm EST, go on Twitter, set up a search for the #wjchat hashtag, and participate in the discussion on science journalism, science blogging and more, with myself acting as the host.

Photo: Dirk Hanson

Best of January at A Blog Around The Clock

I posted 13 times in January. That is, on A Blog Around The Clock only (not counting the posts on The Network Central, The SA Incubator, Video of the Week, Image of the Week, or editing Guest Blog and Expeditions).

New stuff:

Commenting threads: good, bad, or not at all.
Why the NYTimes “Green Blog” Is Now Essential
Why horses and slivovitz are essential for writing science online
‘Echo-chamber’ is just a derogatory term for ‘community’
What I learned about science blogging/writing this year

ScienceOnline2012 interviews:

ScienceOnline – crossing a river with Anton Zuiker
ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Cathy Clabby
ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Allie Wilkinson
ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Chris Gunter
ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Sean Ekins
ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Anthony Salvagno
ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Sarah Webb
ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Simon Frantz

Updates, News and Announcements:

Virtually Speaking Science

Previously in the “Best of…” series:

2012

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2011

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2010

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2009

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Simon Frantz

Every year I ask some of the attendees of the ScienceOnline conferences to tell me (and my readers) more about themselves, their careers, current projects and their views on the use of the Web in science, science education or science communication. So now we continue with the participants of ScienceOnline2012. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today my guest is Simon Frantz.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your background? Any scientific education?

I was born and grew up in a part of NW London best known for being the setting in Zadie Smith’s novels. No one in my family did anything in the sciences, but I was fortunate to grow up when series like Life on Earth and Cosmos first appeared on our TV screens. I had no idea that I was part of a privileged first generation that had the whole world and universe as our home, but it had an indelible effect on me.

I earned a degree in biochemistry, then spent around seven years in the lab researching the genetics of cardiovascular diseases. I won’t admit how long ago that was, but let’s just say I know how to do Maxam-Gilbert DNA sequencing.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

For several reasons, I realised that academia wasn’t the life for me. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. So, effectively I gave a year’s notice by choosing to work on a one-year grant instead of the three-year one that I was the named researcher on. I pretty much stumbled from there into journalism. I’d be lying if I said I always thought I had a talent for it, or wrote for the university magazine in my spare time, or enjoyed writing papers. A friend of a friend was starting up the UK version of WebMD, and wanted to hire someone with a science background who was willing to start at the bottom. Fortunately for me, this person hired a great team of experienced journalists and he was a great editor and teacher, kind and patient but ruthless with the red pen. I couldn’t have asked for a better learning experience.

Sadly, this didn’t last long. When the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, we all found ourselves out of a job. I ended up at Nature Publishing Group as a sub-editor for Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology, and a chance conversation with the editor of Nature Reviews Drug Discovery led to a move to launch their news section, which I ran for over 5 years. After that, I worked as web editor of The Scientist, and then as an editor on the Nobel Prize website, before landing at my current job as deputy editor of BBC Future, the science and technology website on BBC Worldwide that launched last February.

I’d love to say there’s been a master strategy behind my career trajectory, but the truth is that by and large it’s been a series of happy accidents. All I can advise is: make your own luck, work your butt off; work with people you admire and who are better than you; constantly challenge yourself; realise that your last piece is not going to write the next one for you, as John McPhee said, and that no one owes you anything, no matter how long you have been in this game.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

BBC Future is taking up all of my time at the moment, but thankfully it’s a hugely enjoyable way to spend my time.

We launched the site in response to audience feedback; people said they wanted science and technology content that took a deeper dive at subjects that weren’t in the news, and they wanted it done in a “BBC way”. Almost everything we’ve seen within our first year suggests that there is an active appetite for this type of content. So, our current goals are to create more, and more varied, content that satisfies this appetite – for instance, we’re just launched a video series made by BBC Earth, and we have more video series in the pipeline.

What makes this such a joy is having a roster of great writers, including many past and present Science Onliners like Emily Anthes, Sam Arbesman, Cathy Clabby, Rose Eveleth, Jason Goldman, Maria Konnikova, Christopher Mims, Kelly Oakes, Jennifer Ouellette and Ed Yong. Another goal is to add more Science Onliners to this list.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

Almost everything that’s going on is interesting – we’re in this amazing, if somewhat unsettling, time in which there’s never been a better moment to experiment. There are two particular areas of interest that relate to what were trying to do at BBC Future. One is explanatory journalism. We have writers like Ed Yong, Claudia Hammond and Tom Stafford writing great articles that explain and add context to scientific and medical topics. The next step for us is to find ways of covering more areas, cover them in different and compelling ways, and get more writers to try their hand at this form of journalism.

The second aspect is the growing popularity of longform content online. I’m not keen on the phrase “longform”, and there’s no general agreement as to its definition, other than “content that isn’t short”. Definition aside, it’s great to see the adage that shorter is better online being confounded. Apps like Instapaper and Pocket have made it easier for people to find and save articles, and websites like Longform.org, Byliner and Electric Typewriter are great repositories for classic and new articles. IMHO, The Atavist stands head and shoulders above the general longform pack in terms of the quality and sheer inventiveness of what they’re producing (if you haven’t read David Dobbs’s and Deborah Blum’s articles, I urge you to do so).

I think that this format is tailor-made for science and tech stories – from an editorial perspective I think there is fertile ground for articles that are longer than Nature/SciAm/etc features but shorter than a popular science book. (I think several popsci books would be better served in a 20-30k-word feature format, but that’s another argument.) I still have some reservations about sustainable business models for longform content in specialised areas, but it’s great to see people behind projects like Matter and Aeon experimenting with this genre and creating fantastic stories in the process – Ross Anderson’s article on bristlecone pines and Cynthia Graber’s profile of a modern-day Frankenstein being just two examples of must-read articles. We’re exploring this area in a somewhat more traditional way; for instance, we’ve just published an account of three science writers who became biohackers. We are keen to do more of this, and if possible help to promote other outlets that want to publish similar content.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

I discovered health blogs first, while I was at Nature Reviews Drug Discovery. Derek Lowe’s blog In The Pipeline was the one that first caught my eye, it still remains an exemplar of what a blog can be: insightful, opinionated and witty. Science blogs appeared on my radar later, around the time that Seed launched its blogs. My list of favourites are far too numerous to name, many of which I learned about at Science Online, but that only highlights how much the area has evolved. Five years ago, my RSS feed was filled mainly with news channels. Now it’s filled with blogs.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, Google Plus and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

We don’t publish blogs at the moment, though you could argue that our columns are a form of blog – the writer’s voice is as important to us as what they choose to write about. My opinion on who should write for us is anyone who cares about a subject and wants to tell the story in the most compelling way – be they a BBC stalwart for decades or a person just entering the world of blogging. So awareness of all the great blogs out there is an important part of my job, as are networks like Twitter and Facebook. When you aren’t part of the news cycle, social recommendation becomes important in terms of raising awareness of your content.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for you? Any suggestions for the next year? Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

The evening before the conference began summed up everything that I value about the conference. The hotel bar was full of people meeting and laughing: whether it was old friends and colleagues, online friends or people meeting for the first time. There were no name badges and therefore no hierarchies; experienced heads were talking to any newbies who were willing to introduce themselves.

I’ve been to two Science Onlines and the overwhelming feeling I’ve had from both is how much I have to learn. I love the idea that I can sit next to someone on the bus, or stand next to them in the queue, and they can blow my mind about their research, or make me intensely jealous about their site, or even help me control my email inbox better (thank you Walter Jessen!). And I love the spirit in which this is done, we all want to do what we do better, and people discuss this without any airs or graces, irrespective of their level of experience.

The other aspect I appreciated most is the effort that you, Anton, Karyn and everyone else put in to make sure that every detail is covered, from the wi-fi to the quality of the coffee in the mornings. On these details, great conferences and experiences are made.

Thank you so much…and see you tomorrow!

Commenting threads: good, bad, or not at all.

Proposed alternative title: “This post is not about climate change”

Yes, we've all been there....

Yes, we've all been there....

A couple of weeks ago, an article was published in Science about online science communication (nothing new there, really, that we have not known for a decade, but academia is slow to catch up). But what was interesting in it, and what everyone else jumped on, was a brief mention of a conference presentation that will be published soon in a journal. It is about the effect of the tone of comments on the response of other readers to the article on which the comments appear.

I have contacted the authors and have received and read a draft of that paper. Since it is not published yet, I will not break all sorts of embargoes by going into details, but can re-state what is already out there. An article about nanotechnology, a topic most people know very little about and usually have no a priori biases for or against, was presented to the test subjects. Half the people saw the article with (invented) polite, civil and constructive comments. The other half was given the same article but with uncivil comments – essentially a flame-war in the fake commenting thread. The result is that readers of the second version quickly developed affinity for one side of the argument and strongly took that side, which affected the way they understood and trusted the original article (text of which was unaltered). The nasty comment thread polarized the opinion of readers, leading them to misunderstand the original article.

The assumption is that on hot topics, like climate change, readers already come to the article with pre-concieved notions, and thus the civility of the comments would have no effect on them – they are already polarized. Choosing nanotechnology as a topic was a way to see how comments affect “virgin minds”, i.e., how the tone of comments starts the process of polarization in new readers.

They specifically chose a topic about which most people know very little and do not already have any opinion. Neither the article nor the comments contain sufficient information to turn the readers into experts on the subject. So they have to use mental heuristics – shortcuts – to decide what to think about this new subject. Uncivil, aggressive comments resulted in quick polarization. Readers, although still not well informed about the topic, quickly adopted strong opinions about it.

1-9-90 rule

As many of you may already know, there is this thing called a 1-9-90 rule of online participation. In any given online community, about 1% of the participants produce most of the content, another 9% participate regularly by editing (e.g., on a wiki), commenting (on blogs and articles), occasionally producing new content (in forums, etc), and the remaining 90% are ‘lurkers’ who do not publicly participate but only read (though these days, many of them participate a little more publicly, if not creatively, by “Liking”, tweeting, and otherwise sharing the content in ways that are visible to others, but without adding any thoughts of their own). The exact proportions vary from site to site, but are usually close enough to 1-9-90 for the general rule to hold.

For sites like this one – a media organization and a blog network – the 1% are pre-ordained: our editors, staff, freelancers, network bloggers and guest bloggers. In other word, they are selected, not self-selected, and many of them can do it only once or very rarely. The 9% are active commenters, and the 90% read and perhaps share, but never say anything on the site itself.

Where are the comments?

Many people have noticed that the quantity of commenting, especially on blogs, has sharply decreased over the last couple of years. One reason is that discussion of the article or a post is now happening elsewhere – on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus…) or online communities (Reddit, Digg, Fark, Slashdot…), and are not physically attached to the original post. The trackback functionality is disabled on many sites due to enormous amount of spam.

Some new commenting systems are trying to re-attach such detached discussions back to the original post, but that is still not completely technically feasible – one can certainly not bring in a conversation happening on someone’s private Facebook wall. Some of those 9% of readers, instead of commenting on the post (at least a brief “Nice post, thank you”) are now sharing the link elsewhere and perhaps discussing it elsewhere, without the author of the original article ever being able to see that discussion.

Instead of “silent” participation leading gradually to more active participation as one becomes more comfortable with the site, it seems the opposite is happening: mildly active users are now becoming silent users as it is easier to click “Share on Facebook” than to post a brief comment.

But there is another problem here – most of the good, nice, constructive commenters may have gone silent and taken their discussions of your blog elsewhere, but the remaining few commenters are essentially trolls.

The question every blogger in this situation has to ask is – what to do next?

One option is to give up on comments entirely, and perhaps completely shut down the commenting functionality, trying, at the same time, to find and track discussions wherever they may be happening. A veteran blogger, Dan Conover just did that – go read his explanation why.

Commenting is not an essential element of blogging. Some of the most popular blogs never had comments, e.g., Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo (though his site has plenty of other spaces for the community to be active), or John Hawks’ blog. They always got plenty of reader feedback via email, and now also get it via social media where all of them are quite active.

Another option is to do some serious and time-consuming work on building the commenting community and motivating readers to post comments. It is much harder now than is used to be. And the presence of those few remaining comments – most of them vile and nasty – does not motivate serious people to add constructive comments into a cesspool of primitive discourse. Which brings us to the topic of…

Comment moderation

What does it mean to moderate comments? Different people have different ideas about it, but many focus on technical fixes.

Spam filters – most spam filters already come pre-programmed to eliminate specific types of spam, e.g, those that contain words like Rollex, Vuiton, Viagra, Texas hold-em (unfortunately, sometimes just “Texas”) as well as various XXX words. Some spam filters allow the blogger to manually add or remove terms that trigger the spam filter. Other blogging software allows one to “teach” the spam filters over time, by sending comments to Spam, or by rescuing valid comments out of the spam folder.

Pre-comment moderation – in which the blogger sets up the software to send email notification each time there is an attempt at commenting. The blogger then goes to the dashboard, reads the comment and makes a decision: to set the comment live, to trash it, or to ‘teach’ the spam filter by sending the comment to Spam.

Post-comment moderation – in which all comments initially go live, but the blogger is generally online a lot, gets email notifications about each posted comment, and can quickly react and, if necessary, delete or spam the offensive comment. In some cases, the first time someone comments, their comment is held in moderation, but if the comment is approved, subsequent comments go through automatically.

Sophisticated graded moderation – some sites have been experimenting with more complex commenting systems which allow for, e.g., upgrading and downgrading comments (so upgraded comments get moved up to the top, while downgraded comments may become invisible); or letting valued commenters earn badges and special privileges over time, so their comments may show up on top, perhaps in different color, or with different types of signs or avatars; or allowing users to report inappropriate comments to the moderators. Other sites are starting to experiment with annotations in place of comments. Also see Dave Winer who separates main blog from comments – he requires an additional click or two to comment. I find this an interesting strategy, to make it harder to comment, thus filters in only who have something to say, and are motivated to do so, perhaps because they have been reading Dave for a decade and consider him a friend. Other bloggers may have the opposite problem – too few comments, so they want to make commenting easier in order to get comments, but then they are likely to get trolls first.

Modifying comments – leaving the inappropriate comments on site, but altering them in ways that makes them much harder to read, or making the commenter look silly, e.g, by inserting a picture of a bunny rabbit, or disemvoweling or using the Kitten Setting. The lightest ‘touch’ is to leave the comment as it is, but remove a link contained in the comment if it leads to a site you do not want to send traffic to. And yes, all of this is completely legal, and a very good strategy.

Engagement – the most important element of comment moderation is the presence of the author in the commenting thread. Responding to readers’ comments, thus showing that they are being read, observed and appreciated, is the most effective way to make sure that the discussions stay on topic and do not veer over the line of appropriateness. Sometimes a comment hurts, or makes you angry. Sleep over it. Then come up with a smart, witty, civil and firm response. Be in control of your own commenting threads:

So, why are so many comment threads so nasty?

Because they are not moderated! At all! In ALL of the senses listed just above. If commenters think your commenting thread is a public space where they can do whatever they want because nobody’s watching, they will do whatever they want. And that is not pretty. And then the potentially constructive comments never get posted, because normal people do not want to waste their time thinking and writing comments that will just get flamed.

If you don’t delete or disemvowel inappropriate comments, people will think you are not even reading the comment threads. If you don’t show up in person, nobody will know you are even interested in their thoughts. If you don’t delete the trolls, the trolls will take over and the nice people will go somewhere else.

Early online discussion spaces, e.g., newsgroups, were largely unmoderated affairs (with some exceptions). It was a Wild, Wild West. When first blogs appeared, the spirit of free speech permeated the early online discussions – bloggers felt they should let everyone have their say, because their blogs were rare spaces where people could do that.

Then traditional media got into the game and started allowing comments on their articles. And that is where everything broke down. Due to a grave misunderstanding of an old court case by the legal departments (I really, really hate to use nasty words like “idiotic”, but my Thesaurus has come up empty with suggestions for apt synonyms) at some media organizations – which then spread to all of them – newspapers decided not to moderate their comments at all! Not using any of the methods listed above. Actively preventing authors and editors from deleting, editing or responding to comments! Really! What did they expect to happen – intellectual treatises occurring on their own in each comment? Perhaps they thought the comments would be just like Letters to the Editor, but already edited, chosen and filtered automatically before they even arrive?

Yes, all methods of comment moderation are perfectly legal and don’t let any media lawyer tell you otherwise – they keep getting it wrong.

Free Speech is a very American concept. Most of the other 200 nations on the planet do not provide constitutional protection of free speech. And Internet is global.

And even within the USA, the concept of free speech does not mean everyone has the right to say everything everywhere. It does not mean you have the right to say your stuff on my blog. It means you have the right to start your own blog. Just because I have commenting functionality on my site, does not mean you have the right to post whatever you want on it. Every host of every site has the right to delete, edit, or modify any comment in any way, to ban users, and to implement whatever moderation norms and techniques one wants.

Commenting is a privilege, not a right. You have to earn it.

While early bloggers were generous, giving their rare online spaces up to public discussion, there is no need to feel so generous any more. Starting one’s own blog is easy these days, and ranting on social media is even easier. There is plenty of space for people to discuss stuff, and that does not have to happen on your site – the era of such generosity is mostly over, and most veteran bloggers have severely tightened their commenting rules over the years.

And yes, some blogs are still rich with vibrant commenting communities – e.g., Atrios, Pharyngula, etc. They have people there who talk to each other every day, often ignoring the topic of the actual post. And then mega-blogs, like DailyKos, are a completely different animal, where community provides most of the content, in form of diaries (as well as lots of comments).

My blog is my living room in my home. I set the rules. I determine the tone. I determine the topic of conversation. When you post a comment on my site, you agree to abide by my rules, you stick to the topics I determined, and you keep the tone I deem OK to be used in my home (imagine reading out loud your comment in front of my wife, mother and kids). I have the right to warn you and to kick you out of my home – it’s my party, after all. You have no right to be here, no right to say anything – it is up to me to welcome you here, and up to you to ensure you are welcomed.

Another way to think of your blog (which I heard from Anton Zuiker) might be as a classroom where you are the teacher. It is important to keep control if you want to facilitate a constructive discussion. Unless you are willing to use your time and energy to keep control and engage in the discussion yourself, you may be better off not having comments at all.

If I delete your comment, it is not censorship (and if you cry “censorship” I will laugh out loud). You are free to start your own blog and start working on increasing its Google Rank so it becomes visible in searches. It takes time and effort, but I will not lend my Google Rank to you to use for your blatherings. Do the work yourself.

And if you are a blogger, and your comment threads are nasty, you have only yourself to blame.

In this comment on a recent post of mine, I was commended for having a good, vigorous, constructive discussion. How did I manage to do it? By swiftly deleting about a dozen trolling comments as soon as they were posted. If I did not do that, half of the good comments would not have been posted as their authors would not have bothered. The discussion would have veered off-topic onto some silly tangent, and trolls would have taken over.

And it is not about blocking every opinion that is different from mine. Obviously, some of the commenters disagreed with me on the content and conclusions of my post. And there are a couple of comments there by obvious climate dieniers that I left standing because they were on-topic and civil in tone, despite me not agreeing with them one bit. It is not about censorship, it is about tending the garden of one’s commenting threads, by nurturing the good flowers and removing the weeds.

“You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” – Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Different websites and blogs have different goals. This one, see the banner above, has the word “Scientific” in it. This means something. This means that the discussions are about science and about the way science and society interact. This also means that the content of our site tries to present factual information about the world, as best discerned from scientific data.

This magazine is 167 years old. The magazine and its website and blogs often cover the latest studies that add just a new twist to an old, established body of work. Some articles summarize larger, established bodies of work.

Early in the magazine’s history, during its first couple of decades of existence, it was established that biological evolution is a fact. Since then, we cover, daily, new twists and turns in details of exact mechanisms of how evolution works, or about its results, e.g., discoveries of new fossils or new living species. But the fact of evolution is long established. Thus, almost none of our articles discuss this fact. Thus, a constructive comment thread on any of those news articles would involve discussions of those fine points of mechanism, or details of the new finding. A comment thread that debates the fact of evolution is off-topic. It is not “vigorous debate”, it is a comment thread hijacked by creationist trolls. They are entitled to their beliefs and opinions, but they are not entitled to their facts. Evolution is a fact. Questioning the fact of evolution is not a part of discussion of a particular new finding or mechanism. There are other online forums that discuss that – this is not one of them. Thus, such comments are trolling, and need to be deleted so people who do have a scientific mindset have a free and welcoming forum to discuss the details of the study described in the article.

The same goes for climate change. It is a fact that global warming is true. And it is also a well established fact that humans played a big role in it. And the notion that if we broke it we should fix it is what responsible humans do. Thus, an article about a new study about climate or weather or energy or infrastructure is not a proper forum for debating the well-established facts. There is no debate there. Thus, such comments need to be deleted.

Now let’s go back to the very beginning of this post and the forthcoming article about the effect the tone of comments affects readers. If we leave the creationist or denialist troll comments up, what does it do to the rest of the readers? It polarizes them, it makes them more certain about things than what their actual knowledge warrants, while at the same time repelling experts from wading into the mud-pool to correct, over and over again, the untrue statements and anti-facts posted by denialist trolls.

How do you decide what is a trolling comment?

The first definition of trolling is ‘posting comments in order to derail the discussion’, to take it away from the topic of the original article and onto a topic the commenter wants to discuss – his/her own pet peeve.

If you want your comment threads to remain clean and civil, and to stick to the topic in the article, you HAVE to delete off-topic comments.

So, if I write about a wonderful dinner I had last night, and somewhere in there mention that one of the ingredients was a GMO product, but hey, it was tasty, then a comment blasting GMOs is trolling. Any comment that contains the word “Monsanto” instantly flies into the spam folder.

If I write about a wonderful weekend mountain trek, and note I saw some flowers blooming earlier than they used to bloom years ago, then a comment denying climate change is trolling. I am a biologist, so I don’t write specifically about climate science as I do not feel I am expert enough for that. So, I am gradually teaching my spam filter to automatically send to spam any and every comment that contains the words “warmist”, “alarmist”, “Al Gore” or a link to Watts. A comment that contains any of those is, by definition, not posted in good faith. By definition, it does not provide additional information relevant to the post. By definition, it is off-topic. By definition, it contains erroneous information. By definition, it is ideologically motivated, thus not scientific. By definition, it is polarizing to the silent audience. It will go to spam as fast I can make it happen.

For a science site, every comment that insert non-scientific, anti-scientific, nonsensical, ideologically or religiously motivated anti-facts, is by definition not just trolling, but spam. Like online Viagra sales. Literally! There is more and more evidence that a small subset of trolling posts (e.g., those aggressively promoting climate denialism) may be paid for by astroturf organizations funded by some vested interest groups. By peppering every article and post that can remotely have anything to do with their topic of choice, they provide an illusion that their pet movement is bigger than it really is, or that support for their position is more widespread than it really is (which then, if it works, results in the actual rise in the support for their anti-science positions). This then encourages the others (after they got persuaded quickly, without having their own sufficient knowledge, as the nanotechnology paper showed) to keep posting additional comments for free. The first troll comments are supposed to be seeds for more trolling. Which is why it is essential to cut them at the root. You do not want to provide a free platform for a paid political operation.

I am certainly not using cowardly, mealy-mouthed He-Said-She-Said mode of writing my own posts, so I will also not allow for a He-Said-She-Said pseudo-debate to develop in my comment threads. You don’t like it? Deal with it. Go and complain in the comments on Watts’ posts, or on your Facebook wall.

And the idea that deleting inappropriate comments reinforces the formation of “echo-chambers” is a complete myth. Plenty of different opinions are out there, many more of them much more easily available than before the Web. The commenting threads are not a place to showcase the whole spectrum of opinions, no matter how outrageous some of them are, but to educate your readers, and to, in turn, get educated by your readers who always know something you don’t.

My own moderation rules

You are reading this on my own, personal blog. I know, the distinction is fuzzy. The blog is hosted on Scientific American, and I am an editor at Scientific American, thus this blog is in some way a public face of the organization. But writing this blog (or even hosting it on this site) is specifically not included in my contract and in my job description. This remains my own, personal blog. I host it here because it makes sense to me – it is easy (I am here all the time anyway), it feels natural, and it provides me a greater visibility than if I self-hosted it elsewhere.

Now, I am aware I represent the organization in public. Thus, I am very careful that everything that goes up on this blog is following the range of topics and the discourse standards of SciAm. If I think something I have to say does not really fit here, I post it on my Twitter or Facebook or Google Plus or Tumblr. And even there I am aware that I am still seen as a public face of SciAm so I am careful what kind of language I use, how I behave, etc. Deleting trolls, and not providing a platform for anti-science ideas, is good behavior for a scientist, a science writer, and an editor at Scientific American. It demonstrates I care for the truth.

If I want to say something that does not fit my public role as an editor, and if we cannot meet in person or chat on the phone, I will send you an email. I treat email as the last remaining channel for private, confidential communication, so if I tell you something in an email, it is between you and me, and not to be shared with others.

So here, on my personal blog, I like NOT to have pre-written Moderation Rules. Sure, I can be capricious, which keeps commenters on edge. But, really, I am putting a lot of thought into comment moderation, and I think carefully about each comment. I make decisions on a case-by-case basis. What is my post about? The same comment may be appropriate on one post and not on another.

Blasting in here with “Al Gore!” makes it easy for me to decide – you are not coming here to do anything but start a flame war and perhaps get a rise out of me. Perhaps you are paid-per-comment (or you were duped into doing it for free). Your comment is going straight to spam. A few more times, and I’ll ban you (and as there is no way to ban a commenter from just one blog, I’ll ban you site-wide, after consulting with colleagues, something I did only a couple of times in the last two years – I am careful, and do not ban easily, though there are dozens of other regulars who are under my careful watch and coming dangerously close to getting banned, which is fine, as that opens the field for better commenters to take their place).

But if you come in with strong language, or ideas that are not constructive, but I detect that you are just uninformed about my commenting standards (perhaps you just arrived from YouTube or DailyMail or 4chan), I will welcome you in a comment, explain that my kids are watching (so mind your language), and explain my “three strikes and you’re out” rule I sometimes employ on commenters like that. The commenters who get greeted that way either disappear forever, or they make the three strikes so get banned, or they tone it down and become regular, productive members of my commenting community (even though some of the same people may have been banned from many other science blogs).

I also have moderation powers on several other spots on the site, e.g., on Guest Blog, Expeditions, The SA Incubator, The Network Central and if I post myself on some of the other spots (Observations, @Scientific American, or on the main site). I employ pretty much the same rules there, though I am even more careful, and put even more thought into each comment. I especially want to protect our guest bloggers – some of whom are academics and not used to rowdy online behavior – from at least the worst core of our regular trolls.

The rest of the bloggers on the network employ their own rules, use their own judgement. Some pre-moderate, some post-moderate, some are very strict, some are very lenient. And we do not (yet) have more sophisticated commenting tools here. Especially female bloggers often have little choice but to be strict in their moderation, as the Web seems to bring out the nastiest mysogynists in droves.

I do not moderate the rest of the site – articles or posts written or edited by other SciAm staff are moderated by them.

Now, I know that I used the example of Global Warming Denialism here the most – mainly because it is currently the most acute problem on our site – but the same goes for people harboring other anti-scientific ideas: creationists, anti-vaxxers, knee-jerk anti-GMO activists, and others.

This post is not about climate denial, it is about commenting and comment moderation. It is about the fact that eliminating trolls opens the commenting threads to more reasonable people who can actually provide constructive comments, thus starting the build-up of your own vigorous commenting community.

There are seven billion people on the planet, many of them potentially useful commenters on your site. Don’t scare them away by keeping a dozen trolls around – you can live without those, they are replaceable.

Thus, on this post, comments about climate will be deleted.

Image Source.

ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Sarah Webb

Every year I ask some of the attendees of the ScienceOnline conferences to tell me (and my readers) more about themselves, their careers, current projects and their views on the use of the Web in science, science education or science communication. So now we continue with the participants of ScienceOnline2012. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today my guest is Sarah Webb.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your background? Any scientific education?

I’m a science journalist, but I came to science writing and journalism about 10 years ago while I was a chemistry Ph.D. student at Indiana University. Though I finished, I went straight into journalism internships after I defended my Ph.D.– at Discover magazine and as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow at WNBC-TV. I stayed in the New York City area for 8 years until my husband and I moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee last August.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

My brain has always been split between science and the humanities. In college, I double-majored in German and chemistry. I did a Fulbright fellowship in an organic chemistry lab in Giessen, Germany before I started my Ph.D. work.

When I decided to move away from research, I first explored science writing through a master’s level journalism course taught by Holly Stocking in the Indiana University School of Journalism. She pretty much hooked me on science journalism from day one. At the same time I was volunteering at a local hands-on science museum, WonderLab, so I’ve had my hands in informal science education, too.

After my Ph.D. defense and internships in New York, I took on various types of freelance work. One of my favorite projects was working with a team at the graphic design firm C&G Partners in Manhattan on the permanent astronomy exhibits at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. I worked as a content developer, gathering images, objects and research information for the exhibit writer. All my skills– my science background, my research skills and the ability to call scientists up on the phone to ask about their work– played into that project.

Since that work wrapped up in 2006, I’ve worked as a freelance science journalist, writer and editor.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

My big project lately has been a book and website with more than 30 close friends and colleagues. The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish and Prosper in the Digital Age will be published by Da Capo Press in April 2013. I contributed one chapter on “The Diversity of Science Writing,” how to build a balanced mix of work both inside and outside of traditional science journalism. I am also the editor in chief of our book’s newly launched blog and website. (Emily Gertz and I will be giving a BlitzTalk about the site at ScienceOnline 2013).

Like many freelance journalists, I keep my hands in many different projects. I spend the bulk of my time writing news and feature articles for journals and trade publications. But I have written about science for a variety of kids’ publications, and I have written for many general interest science magazines including Discover, Science News, and ScientificAmerican.com

In terms of goals, I really want to spread my wings into more narrative writing– longer magazine pieces or even, potentially, a book of my own.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, Google Plus and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

I started my own blog 4 years ago. It’s an independent blog, Webb of Science, that has become my primary digital calling card and a way for me to introduce myself to readers, sources and the world at large. In setting up the website for The Science Writers’ Handbook, I’m more of a project manager and editor, but I’m posting there, too.

Twitter is my primary social network for work. Facebook, for me, tends to be more about connecting with friends from all parts of my life. One of my goals this year is to build an active Google+ presence. I think social networks are increasingly important (if not essential!). Time management is always tricky, but it’s worth the investment.

Thank you. See you next week!

ScienceOnline – crossing a river with Anton Zuiker

I have been conducting these ScienceOnline interviews for years now, and somehow I never got to interviewing you – one of the founders! It’s high time, don’t you think? So, without further ado, welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your background? How did you get into medical journalism?

Thank you, Bora. Like you, my last name starts with a Z, so I’m used to waiting for everyone to be called to the front of the classroom to speak. I think that that was one of the early experiences that taught me to pay attention to others. So, it’s been a pleasure to read your interviews through the years and to admire all the unique individuals who have been drawn to ScienceOnline. You’ve done an amazing thing in asking them to share a bit about their lives. The Web — the world — is a better place when we can stop to listen to each person’s story.

I live in Carrboro, North Carolina. I came here 12 years ago, and before that the longest I’d lived in one place was five years as a boy in Idaho. I’ve also lived in Ohio, the South Pacific, Hawaii, Illinois, U.S. Virgin Islands, Arizona, Minnesota and California. I’m the oldest of five sons. My father was a Peace Corps Volunteer (1965-67, Dominican Republic) and coordinator for the VISTA program, then became an attorney. My mother was a parochial-school teacher and principal. In 1981, my parents were watching the nightly news when the television sparked and died. They put it in the closet and never got another, probably the most important parenting decision in my life. I’m a voracious reader because of them. On St. Croix, the house we rented had stacks and stacks of National Geographic, and I set my mind to becoming editor of that journal. Inspired by the photos, I joined the eighth-grade photography club to learn to develop my own pictures.

My high school years were spent in DeKalb, Illinois, my mother’s hometown. I played varsity soccer, was elected student body president, edited an award-winning literary journal, worked summers detasseling hybrid seed corn and walking soybean fields, and with a couple of friends formed a juggling troupe named for the 18th-century Swiss scientist Daniel Bernoulli (our terrific physics teacher suggested that). My dad regularly took me and my brothers into Chicago to visit the Museum of Science and Industry and to see the Blackhawks and White Sox and Cubs (he taught me how to keep the box score, and always have hope), and his stories about being a hard-working vendor — ‘Beer, here!’ — were often more interesting than the games we’d come to see. Dad also taught me to think about the consequences of my actions, and to keep a record of my activities. My mother encouraged me to make new friends and to persevere when my math homework brought me to tears.

When I entered college at John Carroll University in suburban Cleveland, I knew I wanted to be a journalist and to live a life of service, including following in my father’s footsteps and joining the Peace Corps. I also thought long and hard about becoming a Franciscan friar, but decided to become a different kind of father. I fell in love, but moved to Hawaii, where I got to interview astronomer Jerry Nelson in the Keck Observatory. Eventually, I returned to Cleveland, married Erin, and worked as an arts magazine editor. Together we joined the Peace Corps and went to the Republic of Vanuatu, later returning to the U.S. via Australia, Asia and Europe.

So, geographically, I’ve been around. Around the world, quite literally. And philosophically, I’ve learned to be open to that world and its possibilities. My parents taught me to make the best of each and every situation, and how to talk with people to find our similarities and marvel in our differences.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present? And future?

You’re probably still wondering how I got into medical journalism. That came out of my time in Vanuatu. Erin and I both got giardiasis and dengue, and she also got vivax malaria. We saw Hansen’s disease and filariasis and malnutrition and ciguatera poisoning. In the heat of the tropical days, I swayed in the hammock reading the Control of Communicable Diseases manual. When later we moved to North Carolina for Erin to get her masters of public health, I learned about the science and medical journalism program at the UNC j-school, and studied under Tom Linden. I was taking Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases when SARS broke out, and one of the class instructors happened to be Ralph Baric, a coronavirus expert. By now, I knew I was never going to be editor of National Geographic, so instead I was aiming for the New Yorker: my masters thesis project was a 12,000-word narrative feature about acute HIV among college students.

An important thrust to my career trajectory, though, also came from my time in the Peace Corps. That was in the late 90s, and I recognized that when I was done on my island with no running water and no electricity, my childhood dream of being in print would have to change with the World Wide Web. I got a job at an Internet startup company in January 2000, just in time to watch the tech bubble burst from the inside. But I created my first website, became a blogger, and never looked back.

Over the last decade, you and so many other friends and colleagues have helped me combine my passions for journalism, community development and connecting on the Web. We call this the BlogTogether spirit — supporting individuals as they connect through social networks, and then creating ways for them to come together for face-to-face conversations. Those conversations, we’ve seen, promote the golden rule: blog about others as you’d have others blog about you. (I didn’t become a priest, but I’ve found my mission, you could say — or sing, as David Kroll did in Minister of Ether.)

I’m not going to be editor of National Geographic. I may never get into the pages of the New Yorker. But I do hope my career keeps me involved in supporting thoughtful observations about our world.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

I have a great job, as communications director for the Duke University Department of Medicine. It’s in a vibrant academic medical center, and we use a blog to reflect the activities of our faculty and trainees, such as Nobel laureate Robert Lefkowitz. I was in his office a while back, and loved hearing him talk about how science and humor are alike in helping us see connections.

I recently figured out an important connection in my own life. My paternal grandfather, Louis Sisco, organized the annual Sisco Picnic, and I often helped him set up for that. His devotion to gathering the extended family, and his attention to the details in planning the event, rubbed off on me. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the reasons I’ve spent the last 10 years organizing events and meetups, from the Narratives of HIV series to BlogTogether Backyard Barbecues to our shared ScienceOnline conferences. This year, though, I’m taking a break from organizing events. ScienceOnline has become an official organization, and Karyn Traphagen is charging ahead with great momentum and ideas – hers is a detail-oriented mind that my grandfather would admire. I now serve ScienceOnline, Karyn and the rest of our community as chairman of the board, and I will focus on that role. I’m excited to see where this all goes.

Not having to sweat the details of the conference means I have more time to write, and so I’m more actively writing on my blog. I’ve learned that the more I write on my blog and in my personal journal, the more balanced I am. That’s helping me to spend more time with my daughters, who need me to encourage them through their math homework, and two-year-old Oliver, who needs me to explore in the woods with him just like my dad did when I was young.

I’m in my forties now, and spending this decade learning to be a better storyteller. I love to hear great stories at the Monti, and Jeff Polish inspired me to convene the Talk Story narrative variety show. Karyn showed us postcards she wrote to her mother, and my friend Carter Kersh has gone on to tell two stories at The Monti, for which he’s been nominated for the Hippo Awards. I’ve stumbled through a few of my own stories. I may never be a great storyteller, but I do know that I’m becoming an even better listener. If my gift in life is to facilitate conversations and help other people share their stories, then I’ll continue to do that as humbly as I can.

Through my writing, my listening, my living, I’m trying to be ever more thoughtful, kind, patient and passionate.

You once described your life philosophy as crossing-a-river. What does that mean and how does it work?

I’ve spent a lot of time at the edge of the water – watching contemplatively as mountain rivers cascade, or expectantly as ponds begin to freeze over, or contentedly as the sun sets over oceans and seas in which I’ve just surfed or snorkeled or paddled. As my family moved around, and my parents taught me to find opportunity in each new place, I came to see my life as a journey across a wide river strewn with stepping stones, each stone offering new possibilities for forward or lateral movement toward that other river bank. Some steps are shorter and seemingly less memorable, others further and riskier. I’m certain I’ve fallen in a few times – the story I’ve told my daughters the most is the one about rafting on the New River, tumbling over and losing my favorite Greek fisherman’s cap – but I’m also sure that each moment has strengthened and deepened.

(As I’m writing this, sitting in 3CUPS sipping keemun hao ya, there’s a young guy at the next table over, strumming an ukulele. That makes me remember meeting the gentle giant Israel Kamakawiwoole and Big Island lutier David Gomes. Part of the allure of my crossing-a-river metaphor is the joy in looking back at the steps I’ve taken and the people I’ve met along the way.)

When I graduated from college and decided to move to Hawaii — away from the woman I dearly loved — a mentor told me something simple and profound. “Anton, if it doesn’t work out, you can always come back.” I took it to mean that I need never feel trapped, or choiceless. After two great years in Honolulu, I did return to Cleveland as Erin was finishing college. Ever since, she’s been my companion on that river crossing.

You have been blogging for a very long time, you are one of the pioneers of the form, and you have helped many other people start their own blogs. How do you see the evolution of the blogging form in the near future, both regarding your own blog, science blogs, and blogging in general?

As I used to explain in our Bloggging 101 tutorials, blogging developed in some of the same ways as the early Internet, from What’s New pages to filtering lists to personal-perspective journals. After all these years, blogs can be any or all of these types of online writing.

Social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and Flickr and Instagram have given us tools to share short messages and photos and videos. It feels to me that blogs posts have lengthened (you’re the outlier, of course!), and are more essay like. Last fall, we held the Back to the Blog meeting at Duke University to discuss some of the trends in blogging, including minimal styling, responsive design and using social media to alert your networks to your new posts.

I’m still gung-ho about blogs. I still know more people who don’t have blogs than I know people who do blog. That’s a lot of people to recruit to the blogging life.

That includes scientists, of course. One of the early foundations of the ScienceOnline community was the colorful tapestry of science blog networks, and now in ScienceSeeker we have a fantastic tool for mining the rich daily output from science blogs. But even in my own institution, Duke University, there aren’t that many scientists actively blogging. You remember the keynote speaker at our first ScienceOnline conference back in 2007: Dr. Hunt Willard suggested it would have to be the postdocs and fellows who would need to be trained to use online tools. At Duke, Dr. Zubin Eapen and the cardiology fellows are a shining example of that; Dr. Matt Sparks is another. It’s going to be fun to see others take up online science just as avidly and successfully.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my own blog recently, both in terms of the design and my writing style. I started my blog in 2000 to honor my grandfathers and relatives, and to share my own life and work and travels. I think of my style as storyblogging, in which I start with a current happening, relate it to a story in my or my family’s past, and make an observation. After 13 years of writing, I’d begun to doubt whether I had anything else to record. And, yet, when I search my archives for an anecdote or reference I’m sure I’ve blogged before, I don’t find it. I’m only halfway across my river, so I guess I’ve got a lot more to share. But I also know that Narcissus sat along the water and reflected on himself to unhappy consequence, so I want to challenge myself to add other layers to my blogging, such as deeper exploration of one of my areas of interest. You’ve written much about niche blogging, so maybe I’ll finally develop a niche other than myself.

You have been involved, for a long time, in different nodes of the blogosphere: science blogs, medical blogs, technology blogs, food blogs, local North Carolina blogs — what have you learned from these different communities? What’s on your blogroll of blogs to read daily?

I’ve learned that no matter the subject or node, when interesting people are given the tools — pencil, press, microphone or weblog — to delve deeply into their interests and reflect their areas of specialty, we end up with an awesome deluge of information, insight and inquiry. Niche blogs are great for the ways they focus on a topic or industry, and I understand your argument for writing only about one’s area of expertise. But I’m also convinced that when a writer steps out of his or her niche to provide glimpses of other interests or fragments of experience, we learn more about the person. And knowing more about each other helps us relate to each other better. I believed that at the beginning of the BlogTogether experiment, and over the last seven years, the ScienceOnline community has simply astounded me with its respect and friendship and inclusiveness and camaraderie.

I’ve been reading Dave Winer for a decade, learning from him and using his new World Outline tools, and I cherished the chance to go for a bike ride with him last summer. Michael Ruhlman and Ilina Ewen and Dean McCord are my food and beverage inspirations. 33 Charts, by Dr. Bryan Vartabedian, is quite relevant to my medical communications job. I read design blogs, web technology blogs, blogs by business leaders and venture capitalists, and personal organization blogs. I use Reeder to scan RSS feeds, and I’m rebuilding my river here. On Sunday evenings, I iron my shirts for the week, listening to podcasts by The Monti, Story Collider, StoryCorps and Joel Dueck.

Family looms large in your life and in your writing. Your personal blog is essentially a chronicle of several generations of your family, with you as an acute observer and eloquent archivist. Tell me what family means to you. Are you hoping that your children will continue preserving the family’s stories?

When I was in the fifth grade in Idaho, my mother was my teacher. One day, her assignment to the class was to write a story about the first snowflake to fall in winter. Around that same time, my father would gather me and my brothers in the kitchen, where he used the bare white wall to show his Peace Corps slides. In the mailbox each week, we’d get typewritten letters from my grandfathers: Zuiker Chronicles, from Frank the Beachcomber, were travelogues and camporee reports, while the two-page ‘peek into grandpa’s diary’ detailed the daily routines of Grandpa Sisco. The narrative lives of my ancestors were a daily presence in my youth. I’m a writer because of them.

In middle school, one of my favorite authors was James Michener. I read Caravans and Space, and when I read The Source, I became enamored with archaeology. Years later, on a holiday break during college, I visited my father on the island of St. Thomas. He hooked me up with a friend working on a dig in the hills where construction for a mall had uncovered a pre-Columbian Arawak village. I spent just a day there as a volunteer, carefully brushing dirt and picking out charcoal from a fire pit. Even the tiniest of details of the past, I learned, are important for understanding human history.

The Zuiker Chronicles Online and The Coconut Wireless weblog at mistersugar.com – in many ways, these are my ways of sifting through the little details in the lives of me and my family, and trying to find meaning in the connections.

Erin, my wife, has taught me so much about communication, about being honest and open and always aware of circumstances and contributing factors. While she can gab on the phone for hours, I get twitchy after 60 seconds on the phone, so we make time each week to just sit and talk, and we make sure to listen to the other, looking for the small details about each other that we didn’t know or recall. When we started our family, Erin helped me understand the importance of communicating with our children, reviewing the days activities and reciting bedtime routines. That’s a concept — the small just, just ahead — that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately as I try to incorporate a river of news into my work and blogging.

My children lovingly joke about my blogging, and they know I’m trying to be a better storyteller. But what I hope they take with them into their adulthood is the appreciation that I was present in their lives, much as my father was present in mine, and his father and grandfather before. I hope they feel the connections to those who have come before. I hope they extend those connections into the future.

Even more than medicine and science, your writing revolves around community, storytelling and food. You have been a force in gathering and growing the local online (and offline) community around stories and food. Tell me more about some of the projects and events you organized over time, and what looms in the future?

My mother has no sense of smell or sense of taste. She made a delicious Crock-pot Swiss steak, and tasty chocolate chip cookies, but I didn’t really know what garlic was until I got to college. Our dinners weren’t gourmet, but I do remember them as family meals, all of us sitting down together (no books allowed).

Erin’s mother happens to be an amazing cook, and I quickly figured out that my culinary ignorance offered me a perfect way to hang out in the kitchen, learn how to cook, help out with the dishes, and generally show Erin’s parents that I was going to be a good companion for their daughter. It worked. Now, I love to cook for Erin and our children, and of course I chronicle our meals at home and out on my blog. Most Sundays, I roast a chicken according to the instructions of Michael Ruhlman, whom I’ve hosted three times for food blogging events. I enjoy the process of reading recipes, gathering ingredients and putting them together for something tasty, such as the slivovitz that we enjoyed last week. One lesson I learned: don’t make kimchee, with its fermented shrimp paste, when your wife is six months pregnant.

Good food, good wine, good friends, good conversation — I crave these, and The Long Table has been one way I try bring them all together. Our first dinner was quite fun, with a bunch of people standing up to tell their own food-related stories. With ScienceOnline in good hands, I hope to do more of these dinners in the next few years. I still want to organize a food blogging conference, and maybe someday we can do a conference on food-science blogging.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most? What platforms and what types of online activity have you found most useful, or most gratifying to use? What new platforms or method of online communication, if any, are you excited about?

Well, the intersection of story and science is what got me into medical journalism, and it’s what still drives me today. The ScienceOnline community is filled with great examples of science stories told well. I’m watching #scio13 and ScienceSeeker daily to keep up. And the blitz demonstration sessions at ScienceOnline2013 will surely introduce me to new platforms and approaches.

I mentioned my high school physics teacher above. He assigned our class to work in teams on an experiment. My buddies and I wanted to study the Doppler effect, so I borrowed a tape recorder from my Grandpa Sisco, and met Kevin and Craig on a quiet country road late one night. We drove our cars past each other at different speeds, Craig in his Camaro with horn blaring, me in my Catalina with the tape recorder on. Just now I had to look up Doppler on Wikipedia to refresh my knowledge, but that experience of learning together with friends never dissipated.

Collaboration, clearly, is key these days in science. At Duke, a lot of my communications plan aims to help our investigators connect with their faculty colleagues to explore new multidisciplinary and team-science collaborations. On the Web, I’m interested in exploring how we can build personal network publications, something beyond multi-author blogs and something that can feature contributions from those who aren’t already writing on the Web. Many of my friends and relatives still do not have blogs of their own, and I’m interested creating some sort of online publication with them. Marco Arment’s new app/pub, The Magazine, and the writing platform Medium are helping me think about the possibilities.

You’ve been at every ScienceOnline conference, of course. What’s most memorable of any or all of them? How do you hope ScienceOnline2013 is similar or different?

Actually, ScienceOnline2013 is going to be my first. Learn why in my blog post on The Coconut Wireless.

What I’ve most enjoyed about ScienceOnline is watching the interactions, seeing the passions, witnessing the partnerships. You and I started with a conversation in a cafe, and we’ve gained a friendship and a community. I sincerely hope that all who attend ScienceOnline2013 and the many other events to follow will similarly be better persons because they openly engaged in the conversation.

Please share three descriptive words you hope people would use when talking about you.

Passionate. Pleasant. Present.

ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Anthony Salvagno

Every year I ask some of the attendees of the ScienceOnline conferences to tell me (and my readers) more about themselves, their careers, current projects and their views on the use of the Web in science, science education or science communication. So now we continue with the participants of ScienceOnline2012. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today my guest is Anthony Salvagno.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your background? Any scientific education?

My name is Anthony Salvagno (@thescienceofant) and I am a biophysics PhD student at the University of New Mexico. I was born and raised in New York and attended SUNY Albany for my undergrad where I received a BS in mathematics and a BS in physics. Originally I intended to do astronomy research, but after an internship at the Arecibo Obsedrvatory, I changed my career path and became deeply interested in biology.

Now I am an open notebook scientist, which means that I publish and share all of my research openly in real-time. I’ve been pursuing open notebook science for the past 4 years and have a wealth of knowledge to share. I’m always looking for others who share their science, and am always willing to talk to peers who want to share but aren’t sure how. If you fall into either category or just want to have a conversation feel free to contact me!

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

My research is comprised of two completely different topics that are enveloped by my open notebook. The first project is called Shotgun DNA Mapping. Essentially, I can unzip DNA using a microscope objective and a high-powered laser (optical tweezers). Our lab has an algorithm that allows us to simulate this mechanism, and we can then compare our actual results to a library of simulated results. We are testing this with the yeast genome, but hope to one day expand it to the human genome.

I also study how heavy water affects living organisms. Back in the early 1930′s Dr. Gilbert Lewis first purified heavy water (D2O) from naturally occurring water. He then tested how tobacco seeds would grow in 99% D2O. This launched a series of experiments by a lot of scientists studying how heavy water affects various organisms. The research trail ends around 1969, with a lot of questions left unanswered. My research picks up where these studies left off and I extend them by using deuterium depleted water. I’m asking if life evolved a use for D2O since it occurs naturally in drinking water at very low concentrations.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

I have too many passions to deal with! It’s almost spring time so that means it’s time to start my vegetable garden real soon. Food is a passion of mine and my brother and I are hoping to open a food truck in Albuquerque in Fall 2013. There is a lot to learn about the food industry, food trucks, and business management and I’m learning all I can.

I also enjoy graphic design and do random odd jobs every now and then. I specialize in designing creative business cards and invitations. I also have dabbled in logo design and like to think I’m proficient in brand management. I’m working on a couple of graphic novels when I have time (still in the writing phase), and I’m also working on a story-time style book for adults.

As an extension of graphic design, I love

ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Sean Ekins

Every year I ask some of the attendees of the ScienceOnline conferences to tell me (and my readers) more about themselves, their careers, current projects and their views on the use of the Web in science, science education or science communication. So now we continue with the participants of ScienceOnline2012. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today my guest is Sean Ekins. Sean Ekins is a scientist who works from Collaborations in Chemistry as well as blogs and tweets  as CollabChem. He works collaboratively with other scientists all over the world on drug discovery, computational approaches for toxicology, tools for collaboration, mobile apps for science (Green Solvents, Open Drug Discovery Teams, TB Mobile). He is adjunct faculty at 3 US universities (UNC Chapel Hill, University of Maryland and UMDNJ) and on the board of several companies and organizations such as the Pistoia Alliance. He is currently focused on neglected disease research as well as how we can do drug discovery for rare diseases openly. He is technology focused and spends most of his time writing and occasionally winning SBIR and STTR grants so that groups he works with can develop their ideas further. He appreciates a good beer with his friends and reading to his two young children.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your background? Any scientific education?

I was born in Cleethorpes and lived nearby in Grimsby (an industrial area which is like Elizabeth, NJ..but on the east coast of the UK) until I was 18. I got interested in Biology because my uncle had left some of his high school books (when he went off to medical School) at my grandparents and I liked flipping though them. Ultimately I would study from a later edition of the very same book I read as a small child. I always remembered the picture of Crick and Watson for some reason. So I wanted to be a doctor but that was nipped in the bud. I managed to fail most of my exams (except biology) and just scrape into Nottingham Trent Polytechnic.

I then did a HND in Applied Biology and had a year in industry working at Servier (a French Pharmaceutical Company with an R&D site near Windsor) that really put me back on track. After this I went to the University of Aberdeen (Scotland) to do a masters in Clinical Pharmacology then stayed there to do a PhD. So I became a different kind of doctor. By this point I was interested in Drug Metabolism and different models for understanding how drugs behaved or interacted with each other and I was aiming for a career in the Pharmaceutical industry. In the early 90s the industry started to decline and constricted dramatically in the UK so I thought I better go to the US and do a postdoc. I landed in Indianapolis in 1996 to work at Eli Lilly and that really started me off again, kind of rebirth.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

So once in the USA I started doing similar work at Lilly as I had in Aberdeen, but focused on one enzyme (CYP2B6) involved in drug metabolism. This was the runt of the litter basically that no one was interested in much. Well that gave me a bit of flexibility and I started to dabble in computational software for understanding which molecules might bind to my enzyme. I basically started a new career doing computational drug metabolism or chemistry. I was having fun and realized I could do the same work with every enzyme my colleagues were working on. It was a kind of crazy time, by day I was at the bench and by night working on the computer. So in the days before a centralized database, I pulled the data they produced off the pinboard (it was all on a single sheet of paper), and used it to model every enzyme the group worked on.

I then left to work at Pfizer with my own group working on drug-drug interaction prediction while also keeping up on the computational side. Lilly then quickly hired me back to head a new group on computational ADME/Tox. Basically doing what I did as a postdoc but now the datasets were getting bigger as they started high throughput screening for lots of toxicology and metabolism related properties. I was now 100% an in silico scientist (using a computer for doing all my science) by 1999. I also started some collaborations with academics at this time which enabled me to publish research outside of the proprietary work at Lilly, this has been a continual thread to the present, each year adding more collaborators.

My next step was to join a start up in late 2001 that was using primarily computational tools to do drug discovery. I stayed with them until 2004 then joined a software company (eventually sold to Thomson Reuters in 2010) developing tools for systems biology (essentially connecting the dots between all the biology data being collected and superimposing all the genomics and proteomics data). I now focused more on integrating my models for drug-drug interactions into these tools and working on grants.

This was when I started to work from a home office which I have been doing ever since. By 2004 I had built up a nice range of publications on predicting drug interactions so I was able to obtain my DSc (science) from the University of Aberdeen in 2005. My next change of focus was getting the chance to edit a book for Wiley on Computational Applications for Pharmaceutical research and development at around the same time. This opened the door to edit a series (10 books to date) for them and coauthor 3 more books on computational aspects of toxicology, emerging technologies and collaborations.

From 2006-2008 I worked for small companies and startups getting grants and contracts working on drug discovery and pharmacoeconomics. Then my old computational chemistry mentor from Lilly recommended me to a software company in San Francisco developing a collaborative database for scientists. I have worked for them on neglected disease (Tuberculosis and malaria) work since then 3 days a week, leaving some time to carry on my academic collaborations and other consulting.

I am fortunate in that my work week rarely gets stale. I get to work on an amazing range of projects like understanding the evolution of nuclear receptors across different species from looking at the profile of bile salts that bind to them and modeling it in silico. Another day I might be building a model for a human drug transporter and predicting which other drugs may be substrates or inhibitors. I might be predicting which molecules from a drug company might interact with an ion channel called hERG, to help predict likely cardiotoxicity (something that goes back to my work at Lilly).  I might also be searching through FDA approved drugs to see if I can find new uses for them against a rare disease, or thinking of a dataset we could use as the basis of a new scientific mobile app. And that is just the 2 days of the week I set aside!

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

Most of my time has been focused on demonstrating we can use the masses of data accumulated on compounds screened against Mycobacterium tuberculosis to build models that in turn can be used to suggest molecules to test. In this way we can dramatically focus on testing fewer compounds. All of this data is publically accessible. I would also argue that this approach can be extrapolated to other research areas. We are accumulating data but not learning from it fast enough to design the next experiment. When I am not doing this I am increasingly concerned about data quality and some of the things we take for granted like – why would the NIH release a database with significant errors, or a list of potential drugs without structures ? I spend about 50% or more of my time either writing papers to get my observations out there or writing grants for companies or with academics. I rarely write anything on my own so it is all collaborative.

It is difficult to predict exactly what I will work on from one year to the next – I try to move out of areas and jump into new ones because I find a project or collaborator doing something interesting which I think I can contribute too. What I find is this comes at the cost of starting from scratch, establishing your credibility with a whole new set of reviewers etc. It does not matter how many papers you have, how many citations or whatever your h-index is, because as soon as you work on something you have never published on before (e.g. green chemistry or whatever) or try to submit to a new journal I have found I spend a lot of time on these kind of transitional papers. Once you get accepted it’s a lot easier.

I like getting into new areas because you see things that are not obvious to those that focus on it for years. E.g. the green solvents app came out of me going by chance to a green chemistry conference and randomly picking a talk to listen to on green solvents. A group had worked on collating data for 2 years across pharma and then just hid it in a PDF. Being totally naïve to the topic I asked if there was an app with all the data and tweeted the idea. Alex Clark in Montreal responded and then had the app built in a few days and on the app store. It took nearly  a year though, to get a paper written and accepted on the topic because we faced an uphill battle with established scientists not understanding the value.

So I would say that is my passion going into new areas, establishing myself and publishing and learning a lot in a short time. I am in a race against time and I feel that even more acutely in the work on rare diseases because there are ~7000 of them and few have treatments, let alone cures. I know about so few and 7000 represents a Mount Everest of sorts. I met a parent of a child with a rapidly progressive neurological disease and that really gave me pause to think how we could help using all the tools I had worked on over the years, how could we speed up and disrupt pharmaceutical R&D – really that means just accelerate it beyond the way it has progressed for the past 50 years. Again it’s another case of adapting to change and some squeaky upstart saying lets try it this way. The great thing about each rare disease is the parents of children or the patients likely vastly outnumber the researchers so the balance of power is in their hands, they raise money and fund researchers to do what they need etc.

So my goal is to do science to help these people as much as I can while at the same time putting as much of what I do back into circulation through free apps or open papers etc..my goal for 2013 is put every paper I author primarily into open journals.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

I like the speed of putting ideas out there immediately on the web compared with the process of write a paper, get it reviewed and maybe many months later see it in print. I also like the ability to give a talk or poster and put my slides on slideshare, figshare etc so anyone can find them.

I am fascinated by the creative part of science. I have rarely had the vision (or aha moment) of the final paper idea before doing the research that led to it. But I can see how using the web and other tools may speed up the science to the point where the write up has to be automated or sped up too.  What tools could help with ideation? I do all my science on a computer,  all my papers are written on a computer..why not have all my ideas provided by it too.  Writing on a beermat or back of a napkin is one thing but is the iPad a good substitute? I have blogged by phone (painful), by iPad in a moving car (very slow) so I cannot see it as actually being ‘science communication anytime by any device’. A stationary position helps and some paper to draft ideas is handy. I say that as I stand typing this on a laptop surrounded by piles of papers and notes.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, Google Plus and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

I blog frequently about anything I see scientifically, perhaps the science I or others publish. I have an interest in collaborative elements and that may be what sets my topics apart, the collaborative angle.

I have found that I do get a sense of instant gratification from blogging by putting what I am thinking (for good or bad) out there on the web. My blogs have started collaborations, they have led to numerous papers. I even had a person quite high up at the NIH, send a rant by email to me and about 70 other scientists after one of my blogs caught their attention. It would have been better if they had posted it on my blog because the whole world could see what they were thinking too rather than just a select audience.  I have also had other experienced scientists support my views on my blog.

I tweet (I was slow to come to it) more at conferences which I in turn use for ideation and as a persistent memory device. For me it is just an extension of technology development and the marketing ideas as I tweet a link to blogs, slides, posters, papers etc… I have websites, linkedin etc which help bring in business but my science collaborations happen primarily through who I know, their connections and personal interactions. I have found that email blasts and blogs and tweets occasionally bring in collaborations too. The web represents another tool for reaching people as far as I see it. I do not live in it. I live with it.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

I had been reading my friend Antony Williams blog as ‘ChemConnector’ for a long time.  A few years ago my wife pointed me to ‘In the Pipeline’ and I like that a lot because of the topics relevant to pharma, the comments are usually funny too. Since ScienceOnline I have been following lots of attendees and they point to good blogs so my eyes have been opened. I have to ration my time using Twitter and Flipboard, but I would point to David Kroll who writes very clearly.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for you? Any suggestions for next year? Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

The sessions on ‘information overload’ and ‘open science’ were highlights for me. The former made me think up an app that would bring all the information from the web and Twitter together. I got chance to work with Alex Clark again on this and we launched it early in 2012 called Open Drug Discovery Teams (a flipboard for science). We focused it on rare disease topics so we could help people share ideas, molecules and data and it inspired an IndieGoGo fundraising effort, numerous posters, a paper, a Youtube video etc..I think it’s still taking off and has potential to be developed for other uses. Over the year I have tweeted molecules and data into it so I can see the potential. If I had not attended the conference I doubt the app would have been developed. I would be keen to see what ideas people come up with that relate directly to the conference – perhaps it could expand my theory that conferences now are useful idea generators as much as for social networking.

The standard of the other blogs from the community have made me step up the quality of what I put out, I still have a way to go but if what I write gets someone in the mood to try some computational tools or connect to collaborate, I will have achieved something. So if there are folks at the next meeting who need a guest blogger or someone to throw their data at to model, then please get in touch. If you have ideas to improve what I put out I want to hear that too.

Antony Williams made me realize that blogging and everything we put on the web is as important as all the papers and patents because this can be used for altmetrics too. Being at ScienceOnline2012 made me realize that there were hundreds of other scientists on the same wavelength. Science communication is important and there are many ways to do it, even Twitter is useful as a tool for science.

 

ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Chris Gunter

Every year I ask some of the attendees of the ScienceOnline conferences to tell me (and my readers) more about themselves, their careers, current projects and their views on the use of the Web in science, science education or science communication. So now we continue with the participants of ScienceOnline2012. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today my guest is Chris Gunter.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your background? Any scientific education?

Thanks for having me visit! I have a Ph.D. and postdoctoral training in genetics (so as I tell my Lilkid, I went through like 27th grade). Geographically, I am from Georgia and have lived all over, most recently in Huntsville, Alabama. As of January 2013, I’m back in Atlanta.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

About halfway through my postdoc, I decided to go into professional science editing, so I worked at the journals Human Molecular Genetics and Science, and then spent almost 7 years as the editor for genetics papers in Nature. As I said in the story I told for The Monti at ScienceOnline2012 [and then wrote up for The Story Collider], that job is like riding the Knight Bus in Harry Potter, all the time.

For the last four years, I served as the Director of Research Affairs for a new institute called the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. I wore many hats but several involve communicating our science to the public, from colleagues doing hardcore lab work through to politicians and local disease support groups. It was always a challenge to take the same paper we had coming out in Nature, for example, and summarize it for geneticists and for our donors who are not scientists.

On the side, I started a business I called Girlscientist Consulting in 2010, and for that I do science writing and editing for a number of academics and companies. I’ve also created and populated some twitter accounts, and advised on social media strategy.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

Right now, I am trying to create a new career in scientific outreach and communication. At the end of 2012, I moved to Atlanta to live near family, and am going to take a giant leap into the unknown, career-wise! I aim to pursue a number of projects in science communication and outreach. On my better days, I think of it like declaring free agency; on my worse days, I think of it as a trip to the poorhouse (but a fun trip!). There are some books in my head that want to be written, and a bunch of interesting collaborations in genetics and genomics.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

There are so many, but I will pick one:  earlier in 2012, a new colleague Anne Osterrieder and I published a commentary in the journal Genome Biology. We proposed that all scientific papers should have an additional, short section in the back called “outreach” or “outreach resources.” The section would list 2-4 links to media that can help the non-scientist or even the non-specialist understand the advances reported in that paper. For example, we created a section for a paper on long noncoding RNAs by linking first to a game at CSHL on understanding transcription, and then to a video explaining transcription and splicing, and then to a blog post on noncoding RNA.

Right now I am talking with a few journals/publishers to get this section actually implemented. The benefits are huge:  scientists simply must do a better job of conveying their work to people outside their micro-field of specialty, and science communicators can be inspired to create even more high-quality resources which will be linked to and used. Winning all around!

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, Google Plus and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

I am lucky enough to be an editor on the Double X Science website, which lets me hang out with some of the coolest kids in science blogging. This came about through me meeting the awesome Emily Willingham and Jeanne Garbarino at Scio12! Blogging does not come naturally yet but they are kind enough to let me keep working on it.

My medium of choice is Twitter, and I’ve tried to get more and more working geneticists/genomicists to use the service. A recent success was the 6000+-person American Society of Human Genetics meeting in November 2012. I was asked by the chair of the program committee to stand up with him at the closing session and summarize the meeting based on what people were tweeting with the hashtag #ASHG2012. Given that I’ve experienced much scorn from hard-core scientists about the usefulness of Twitter in academia, I view this as a victory for social media!

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

Of course, Double X Science is awesome.

This year, I asked to write for Nature’s Soapbox Science section – Laura Wheeler and Lou Woodley, the ladies who run it, are excellent and the site has so many good resource posts.

I greatly admire the crew at Last Word on Nothing, and got to meet some of them at Scio12. And I got to share real North Carolina barbeque with Ivan Oransky of Retraction Watch and Embargo Watch, both of which I follow even if they sometimes raise my blood pressure.

In my subject area, the people at Genomes Unzipped are great, even if we don’t agree on everything. If you’re interested in the intersection of genetics/genomics and the law, Genomics Law Report is the place. And the site GenomeWeb has a Daily Scan blog full of insider tidbits as well as snark. The titles make me laugh regularly.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for you? Any suggestions for next year? Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

You know, being an editor at Nature means you go to a LOT of meetings. In my field there’s also a hierarchy of who’s publishing at the very top tiers, and who is not at the moment, and yada yada. The spectacularly awesome thing about ScienceOnline2012 was that it was so not like that. I met so many cool people whom I had read on Twitter and in blogs, and they were friendly and approachable. I was Scared. Out. Of. My. Mind. to be trying something new at The Monti’s storytelling night, and people were supportive before, during, and even after. That feeling of community has lasted and helped me make the career decision to move into science communication rather than traditional academia.

 

 

Virtually Speaking Science

Tune in tomorrow (Wednesday, January 16th) at 6pm EST to Virtually Speaking Science, online radio show about science. Host Tom Levenson and I will spend an hour talking about…well, whatever Tom asks, but likely about ScienceOnline, science reporting and blogging, the new media ecosystem, science communication, and other topics Tom and I have been discussing online and offline for the past several years. I hope you tune in….

‘Echo-chamber’ is just a derogatory term for ‘community’

I wrote this post back on February 27, 2011, but decided to re-post it here as the talk of echo-chambers is once again showing up in various articles and blogs. This was an expanded version of what I said at AAAS meeting in Washington DC and the original post (see the link) contains a longish intro, providing some more context, which I decided to cut out of the post here.

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Social norms build and enforce echo-chambers

You want to remain in a friendly relationship with the people you see (or potentially can see) often: neighbors, family, colleagues and friends. Nothing makes for a more unpleasant interaction than discussion of politics, ideology or religion with the people you disagree with.

Thus, there is a social norm in place: politics and religion are taboo topics in conversation. It is considered bad manners to start such conversations in polite company.

This means that most people are not exposed to views other than their own in their day-to-day interactions with other people.

In a small tightly-knit community where everyone’s politics and religion are the same (and people tend to move to such places in order to feel comfortable, on top of most likely being born in such a community to begin with), there is no need to discuss these topics as everyone already agrees. If the topic is discussed, there are no other opinions to be heard – it’s just back-slapping and commiserating about the evil enemies out there.

In mixed communities, the taboo against discussing politics and religion is strongly enforced. Again, as a result, there is not much chance to hear differing opinions.

There is no more airtight echo-chamber than a small community which interacts predominantly within itself, and not so much with the outside world.

Mass media builds and enforces echo-chambers

If you are born and raised by parents with a particular set of beliefs, you will also inherit from them the notions of which media outlets are trustworthy. If you were raised in the reality-based community, you are unlikely to waste much time with the media of the fantasy-based community (and vice versa). If your parents read Washington Post, you are unlikely to read Washington Times. You’ll prefer New York Times and not New York Post. MSNBC rather than Fox News. NPR rather than Limbaugh show on the radio.

But it is even worse than that – the choice is really not as broad. The media shapes the public opinion by choosing what is and what is not respectable opinion, i.e., ‘sphere of legitimate debate’ – what opinions to cover as serious, what opinions to denigrate and what opinions to ignore. There are many ideas that people hold that you will never see even mentioned in the US mass media and some of those are actually very legitimate in the Real World.

Furthermore, the press then divides the ‘respectable opinion’ into two opposites, gives voice to each of the two, and will never actually tell you which of the two is more reasonable than the other – “we report, you decide”, aka, He Said She Said journalism.

By presenting every issue as a battle between two extremes (and the fuzzy, undefinable “middle” is reserved only for them, the wise men), the mainstream press makes every opinion something to be sneered at, both those they deem worthy of mentioning and the unmentionable ones.

By refusing to acknowledge the existence of many stands on any issue, by refusing to assign Truth-values to any, by looking down at anyone who holds any opinion that is not their own, the mainstream press fosters the atmosphere of a bipolar world in which enmity rules, and the wagons need to be circled – the atmosphere that is so conducive to formation and defense of echo-chambers and yet so devoid of airing of any alternatives.

The Web breaks echo-chambers

When an individual first goes online, the usual reaction is shock! There are people in the world who believe what!?!?

The usual first response is anger and strenuous attempts at countering all other ideas and pushing one’s own.

But after a while, unbeknown to the person, all those various novel ideas start seeping in. One is not even aware of changing one’s own mind from one year to the next. Many ideas take time to process and digest and may quietly get incorporated into one’s gradually enriching and more sophisticated worldview.

We all learn from encountering all those other opinions even if we vehemently disagree with them. And we cannot help bumping into them all the time. There are no taboo topics online, no social norms preventing people from saying exactly what they think.

Forming, finding or defending a vacuum-sealed echo-chamber online is extremely difficult, if at all possible.

Your Facebook friends will post stuff that reveals their politics is different than yours (and you did not even know that about them before – they seemed so nice in real life!). By the time you get around to blocking them…it’s too late – the virus has already entered your head [this one sentence added 2-27-11].

People you follow on Twitter because of some common interest (e.g., food or knitting or parenting or technology or geographic area) may be very different from you when concerning some other interest, e.g., religion, and will occasionally post links to articles that contain opinions you have never heard of before.

If you are, for example, a liberal and tend to read only liberal blogs, you will constantly see links to conservative sites that are being debunked by your favourite bloggers – thus you will be exposed to conservative ideas daily.

If your interest is science, you are even luckier. The mainstream media, if it links to anything at all, tends to link either to each other or to governmental sources (e.g., CDC, USDA, etc.). Political bloggers link a lot more, but again the spectrum of sources is pretty narrow – they link to MSM, to governmental pages, and to each other (including the “opposition” bloggers).

But science bloggers link to a vastly broader gamut of sources. If mass media is linked to at all, it is usually in order to show how bad the coverage was of a science story. Linking to each other is important (and that includes linking to anti-science sites when needed to counter them), but what science bloggers do that others do not is link to scientific papers, documents, databases, even raw data-sets (including some Open Notebook Science bloggers who pipe data straight from their lab equipment onto the web).

What echo-chamber? Contrary to what some uninformed op-eds in the mass media like to say, the Web breaks echo-chambers that the social norms and mass media have previously built.

The online and offline social networks can work synergistically to affect real change

Many curmudgeons like to say that the Web does not do anything on its own. They (unlike behavioral biologists) do not understand the distinction between Proximal Causes and Ultimate Causes. Web is a tool that allows, among other things, many more people in much shorter time to organize to do something useful in the real world.

Release of Tripoli 6 was an instance in which massive outpouring of support online (centered around now-defunct blog ‘Effect Measure’) forced the mainstream media to cover the story which then forced the hand of politicians to do something.

Likewise, in the case of resignation of George Deutsch from NASA, it was investigative work by a blogger, Nick Anthis, that energized the blogosphere, which pushed the MSM to finally report on the story, which forced the event to happen.

PRISM was an astroturf website built to counter the pro-open-access NIH bill in the US Senate. Outpouring of online anger at the tactics by the publishers’ lobby inundated the senatorial offices – as a result the bill passed not once, but twice (GW Bush vetoed the first version of the large omnibus bill it was a part of, then signed it with no changes in the language on this particular issue) and the Senate is now educated on this issue.

But probably the best example is the Dover Trial (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District) that made Intelligent Design Creationism illegal to teach in US public schools. The ruling by Judge Jones (pdf) is one of the most powerful texts in the history of judicial decisions I am aware of.

There are anti-evolution bills popping up somewhere in the country seemingly every week. But because of the Dover ruling, they are all illegal. Most don’t make it to the committee, let alone to the floor of the state legislatures. Others are soundly defeated.

Before Dover, both Creationist sites and pro-evolution sites, when linking to me, would bring approximately the same amount of traffic to my blog. After Dover, getting a link from PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Larry Moran or Jerry Coyne brings substantial new traffic. Links from Creationist sites? Essentially undetectable by traffic trackers – I discover them only when I search my blog URL to specifically see if there are new links out there. Creationism, while still popular with many people, is politically essentially dead. The Dover ruling castrated it.

But Dover Trial would not have gone that way, and would not result in such a gorgeously written document by the Judge, if it was not for a small army of bloggers who contribute to the blog Panda’s Thumb. A mix of scientists from different disciplines, lawyers, etc., this group has been online – first on Usenet, later on the blog – for a couple of decades before the trial.

This is a group of people who battled Creationists for many years, online and offline, in courtrooms and political campaigns, in classrooms and in print. They know all the characters, all the usual creationist “arguments” (and provided all the answers to them in one place), all the literature, etc.

It is one of them who discovered that the new Intelligent Design “textbook” is really just a reprint of an old Creationist book, in which the word “Creationists” was replaced by “Intelligent Design proponents” throughout the text….except in one place where they made a typo: “Cdesign proponentsists”.

Ooops – a huge piece of evidence that Intelligent Design Creationism is just a warmed-up version of the old-style Creationism masquerading as something new. The Panda’s Thumb bloggers were at the trial as expert witnesses who provided all the expert evidence that Judge Jones needed to make his decision. People who organized on the Web have helped a meatspace history come to pass.

The online and offline social networks can work synergistically if the ecology is right

When looking at the role of online communities and networks in meatspace events, counting the numbers of networked citizens (or ratio of networked to non-networked citizens) is not sufficient – one also needs to know their geographic distribution, and their connectedness with non-networked citizens. The most fresh example are the so-called “Twitter revolutions” in the Arab world.

There are at least two possible scenarios (or thought experiments) that demonstrate the importance of ecological thinking about social networks:

1) There are 10 people on Twitter in a country. All in the same city, all in the same college dorm, good friends with each other. No communication with other people. No Twitterati in other cities. Nobody knows that other people in other cities have the same negative feelings toward the government.

2) There are 10 people on Twitter in a country. One each in 10 different cities. They communicate with each other via social networks continuously. Each is also a center of the local community of thousands of non-networked people using offline methods of communication. Through this connection, they become aware that there are millions of them, all over the country, and that a revolution is feasible.

In scenario 1, there are 10 buddies dreaming of revolution. In scenario 2, there are thousands of people in ten cities organizing revolution. In both, there are only 10 people on Twitter. Yet, the outcome is likely to be very different (I am aware that March 1991 demonstrations against Milosevic in Serbia were likewise coordinated by about a dozen people, well positioned around the city, who had email – most of us learned about the existence of email years later).

Thus, the ecology of the networkers, their spatial and temporal distribution, and their effectiveness in informing not just each other but many non-networked citizens, are important data one needs for this exercise.

‘Echo-chamber’ is just a derogatory term for ‘community’

I shamelessly stole this sub-heading from Chris Rowan on Twitter.

A great example of a case where the Web produced a community (aka echo-chamber) but that was a good thing, is the case of American atheists.

Before the Web, each atheist in the USA thought he or she was the only one in the country. The social norms about the impoliteness of discussing religion, as well as the real fear of reprisals by the religious neighbors, made atheism completely invisible. No need to mention that the media never mentioned them – they were outside of the “sphere of legitimate debate”.

But then the Web happened, and people, often pseudonymously, revealed their religious doubts online. Suddenly they realized they are not alone – there are millions of atheists in the country, each closeted before, each openly so after! It is not a surprise that “no belief” is the fastest-growing self-description in questions about religion in various nation-wide polls and censuses.

President Bush Senior, himself not very religious, could say that atheists are not real American citizens. A decade later, his son G.W. Bush, himself a fundamentalist, could not say that any more – his speechwriters made sure he mentioned atheists in the listings of all the equally American religious groupings.

Not all online communities need to be politically active. Discovering people with the same interest in knitting is nice. Exchanging LOLcat pictures is fun. But such interactions also build ties that can be used for action in the real world if the need arises.

Without the Web, I would not know many people whose friendship I cherish. Without the Web I would not have this job. Without the Web, me and many of my friends would have never gone to a meeting like AAAS or ScienceWriters or WCSJ. There would be no such meetings as ScienceOnline, SpotOn London, SciBarCamp, SciFoo, and others.

Every time I travel I make sure that people I know online – from blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc. – know I am traveling. I say on which date, at which time, I will be in which restaurant in which city. Twenty people show up. Most I have never met in real life before. But after sharing a meal, a beer, a handshake and a hug, our weak ties become strong ties. Superficial relationships become friendships. If there is a need to organize some real-world action – we can rely on each other to participate or help.

I have a separate Dunbar Number in each city I visited. And I try to connect them to each other even more than they are already connected via online communication. Which is one of the reasons we organize conferences and one of the reasons I am online all the time.

Related:

As Science Bloggers, Who Are We Really Writing For? by Emily Anthes.

Are science blogs stuck in an echo chamber? Chamber? Chamber? by Ed Yong.

Why horses and slivovitz are essential for writing science online

After years of me interviewing attendees of ScienceOnline conferences, yesterday Anton Zuiker turned the tables on me. We talked about my past, present and future, my professional and personal life, about horses, slivovitz, family, science, ScienceOnline community, support for new generations of science writers, and lots more. Go read it here:

An interview with Bora Zivkovic

Why the NYTimes “Green Blog” Is Now Essential

A few days ago we woke up to the news that the New York Times is eliminating their environment desk.

Predictably, the immediate reaction of many was “oh, noooo!”.

After all, whenever we hear such news, about a science or health or environmental desk being eliminated at a media organization, this means the reporters and editors of that beat have been fired.

But New York Times did not fire anyone. Instead, they will disperse the environmental reporters around the building. Instead of all of them sitting together, chatting with each other, they will sit next to other people, chatting with political, economic, science, health, education and other reporters.

The concern also arose as this piece of news came as a part of broader news of cost-cutting at the New York Times and actual impending layoffs of high-level editors.

And concern is certainly warranted. But there is potential for this to be a good thing. It all depends on the implementation.

My first reaction, quoted here, was that this may be a way to modernize environmental reporting at the Times. After all, reporters were not fired, the senior editors may be. All the environmental expertise is still at the Times, but now outside of its own ghetto, able to cross-fertilize with other beats, and to collaborate with reporters with other domains of expertise.

My cautiously positive reaction to this news probably comes from my recent thinking (and blogging) about three aspects of modern media. One is about the distinction between beats and obsessions. The other one is about the importance of expertise in today’s journalism. And the other one is the distinction between push and pull models of science (and other) communication.

Let me parse these a little bit more….

Beats vs. Obsessions

I wrote at length about this before, but let me restate it briefly, the part that is the most relevant to this situation.

….But another way the difference is explained is that an obsession is actually broader, not narrower, by being multidisciplinary. Instead of looking at many stories from one angle, it focuses on a single story from many angles. This may be a way to solve some Wicked Problems….

By dispersing environmental reporters from a dedicated desk to other desks, New York Times eliminated the environmental beat. Now environmental reporters are free to follow their own obsessions – whatever aspect of the environment they most care about at any given time. In essence, The New York Times is starting to quartzify itself (did I just invent a new word? I bet Quartz folks will be pleased). Instead of the environmental vertical, The New York Times will now have an environmental horizontal – environmental angle permeating a lot of other stories, as environmental reporters talk to and influence their new office neighbors.

Importance of Expertise

I have argued many times before, and most recently and forcefully here, that having or building expertise on the topic one covers is an essential aspect of modern journalism. Being a generalist will become harder and harder to do successfully. Specialization rules. And there are many kinds of expertise and ways of being a specialist.

It is much easier to turn an expert into a journalist than a journalist into an expert (though that is certainly not impossible), and there have been many calls lately (here is just the latest one) for journalism schools to insist on science, and even more importantly on math and statistics classes as requirements for their students.

I will now make an assumption that all NYTimes environmental reporters actually have sufficient expertise to report on the environment. They are now bringing that expertise to other desks. And they are now forced to discuss this with people whose expertise lies elsewhere. They will get into debates and discussions. They will teach each other. They will change each others minds on various things. They will be prompted by those discussions to dig in deep and do some research. That will inspire them to write the next piece and next piece, possibly in collaboration with each other. By forcing cross-fertilization between people with different specialties, NYTimes will force them all to learn from each other, become more sophisticated, to tackle more complex and nuanced stories, and to produce better articles. That’s the theory… We’ll see if that happens in practice. It all depends on implementation.

Push vs. Pull

You may have seen this excellent post that Danielle re-posted the other day.

I know I talk a lot about push vs. pull methods for science communication, but the earliest appearance of the concept on my blog is this brief but cool video clip. Soon after, I described and explained the concept in much more detail here and here. I have since applied it to a bunch of other topics, from the role of new/upcoming journalists to the different reporting strategies for different areas of science to strategies for gaining trust in the broader population to differences between science reporting on blogs vs traditional media to narrative storytelling in science.

I have argued many times that, despite the proliferation of many new outlets that may do reporting better, traditional big venues, like The New York Times (and just a few other ‘biggies’, like BBC, Guardian, Washington Post, The Economist, PBS, NPR and not many more), will continue to play an important role in the media ecosystem for quite some time. These are trusted brands for far too many people who grew up in that world. And they generally do a good job, even if nobody can be perfect, and expert bloggers are quick to point out errors as they appear.

But, nobody but a few crazy news junkies, all of whom are probably in the business anyway so not the target audience, reads any newspaper, including The New York Times, every day, every page, every article. I’ll tell you a secret – print edition of The New York Times lands on my front porch every night. My wife reads some of it sometimes. It is there mostly in case something I see online is so long that I want to sit back and read it on paper rather than on screen. Or if a friend of mine publishes something so I want to cut it out. Or my name appears in it, and I want to cut it out and save it, to show my Mom.

But back in the old times, when I actually read newspapers on paper, how did I do it? I pick up the paper. I open it up. I take out all the sections I am not interested in – Sports, Auto, Business, Real Estate, Classifieds, etc. – and throw them directly into the recycling bin. Then I read the parts I am interested in (front sections, domestic and world news, opinion, Sunday Magazine, Week In Review, Book Review). When I was a kid, I read the comics first, then TV and movie listings, then Kids section, perhaps some nature/science, perhaps some sports.

Other people have their own preferences. If there is such a thing as “Environment” section, or “Health” section, or “Science” section, how many people do you think automatically recycle them and go straight to Sports instead?

A dedicated Environment section is a pull method. It pulls in readers who are already interested in the topic. Others never see it. And being online doesn’t change a thing – it works the same way as on paper, in its own ghetto, isolated from the stuff people actually read.

The ‘push’ method inserts science/health/environment stories everywhere, in all sections of the paper, linked from all the pages of the website. It includes science/health/environment angles into many other stories. People interested in politics, economics, education, art, culture, comic strips, whatever, get a steady diet of relevant information mixed into their breakfast. They can’t avoid it any more. It is pushed onto them without their explicit request.

Let’s hope that The New York Times is thinking this way, as that would be the best possible outcome.

Central importance of the Green Blog

The managing editor Dean Baquet was reported to say this about the Green Blog: “If it has impact and audience it will survive”.

That is disappointing. Green Blog’s destiny is not, and especially now should not, be decided by the vagaries of traffic. It has suddenly become much more essential to the Times than they know, or so it seems. Let me try to explain…

Dispersing all the environmental reporting all around New York Times is a potentially great “push” strategy – feeding the unsuspecting readers a steady diet of environmental thinking.

But dispersing all the environmental reporting all around New York Times also makes it very difficult for the “pull” audience, the readers who are interested in environment, to find everything. People who are interested in environment, people like me, will be forced to look into automatically recyclable sections, like Business or Real Estate for articles with potentially environmental angles. That takes time and energy we don’t have, so we’ll rather miss those articles.

Now, some tech-savvy know-it-all is likely to post a comment “Use Tags”. Sure, you are a programmer, you know what tags are. Can you explain that to your grandma? Can you teach her how to use them?

No, the answer is Green Blog.

Green Blog should now become not just a cool place for interns to build their reporting chops, but also:

- place where all environmental reporters link to, explain, describe and quote from all their articles that appear elsewhere in the Times,
- place where someone puts together, every week, a summary and round-up of all environment-related Times articles of the previous week,
- place where all environmental reporters come to crowdsource their stories, get feedback and expert information from readers as they are working on their more and more complex stories
- place where all environmental reporters come to see each others work, now that they are not sitting next to each other,
- a central place where people like me can come and at a single glance see all of the Times environmental reporting in one place, and
- a central place where someone like Andy Revkin can check each day to see what else is going on in the Times regarding environment, so he can blog about it on Dot Earth.

This is like what ethologists call the “central foraging place”, like a beehive. Honeybees (readers) get information (blog posts) from other foragers where the flowers (NYT articles) are, so they go there (following links) to get nectar. They then return to the hive (Green Blog) to deposit the nectar (their comments), to tell others where else the flowers are good (e.g., on other sites beyond NYT) and to get new information so they can go for another run, again and again.

Now that there is no Environment desk and no Environment editor, the Green Blog should assume those two roles.

Now, if only higher ups at the Times get to read this post. If you know them, can you share the link to this post with them?

Image: Everystockphoto.com

ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Allie Wilkinson

Every year I ask some of the attendees of the ScienceOnline conferences to tell me (and my readers) more about themselves, their careers, current projects and their views on the use of the Web in science, science education or science communication. So now we continue with the participants of ScienceOnline2012. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today my guest is Allie Wilkinson (blog, Twitter).

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? What is your background? Any scientific education?

I’m a freelance science journalist/multimedia specialist. It’s a bit funny that I’ve ended up here actually. In looking through some old files recently, I was reminded that I had taken a nature writing course back in college– so I guess the interest in writing was always in there somewhere. I have a bachelors degree in environmental studies (heavy on the marine science coursework) and a certificate in conservation biology. Indecision as to a specific thesis topic is what brought me to a science journalism masters program. I figured I would buy myself some time to figure it out, and learn a valuable skill in the process. What I learned was that I really love sharing science with the world. Even if this career choice had been my original goal, I don’t think I could have planned my education any better if I had tried. The science background, the communications training, and the art minor seem to be the right combination for a science journalist that loves visual aids.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

Right now I’m working on a few ideas for feature articles, and running This Is What A Scientist Looks Like, a community project I started last year to dispel the myth of the stereotypical scientists. I’m also doing a lot more photography, and getting my feet wet with video again. I worked on the USGS Coastal and Marine a geology podcast two summer ago as a video editor, but I’d like to get more experience behind the camera. I’m sure ScienceOnline2013 will spring a few new projects as well.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

Visuals. If you caught my ScienceOnline2010 session, you’ll know by now that I’m a pretty big advocate for the use of visuals in science communication. I think visuals have the power to grab someone’s attention, capture an idea more simply, or enhance a story. And for some, there is no denying what you see with your eyes. So I’m trying to practice what I preach and devote more time to learning and doing– data visualization, photography, and videography. My goal for this year is to produce more video content, and really get a handle on planning and filming. Most of my video work to date has been editing, but I want to leave the figurative cutting room and start manning the camera. (So if any video enthusiasts in NYC want to offer their expertise, or anyone without expertise wants to learn as well, let’s get together!)

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

I really just want to get science out there, in whatever format works best. As you can tell from the last question, visual science communication is a big passion of mine. I’m also a technophile, and social media junkie. I think we’re at an exciting time in the history of science and science communication. The Web is changing how science can be done and allows opportunities for scientists to engage more directly with the public. Journalism is in transition as well, but I think the Web and mobile technology provides so many new opportunities to share the complete story, and integrate supplementary materials in a way that you simply can’t with print. The iPad versions of magazines that I’ve recently read are astounding. I love that they are interactive and you can learn more abut a graph or image, or watch a corresponding video, right there in the article.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, Google Plus and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

Blogging is a great way for me to experiment with writing about new fields that I usually don’t cover. It allows me to get more personal or casual if necessary as well. It’s also a valuable skill as many online media outlets run on blogging platforms such as WordPress. I’m also on all the major social networks, and use them to varying degrees and purposes. Is it a net positive? ABSOLUTELY. I’ve gotten clients due to the fact that I know my way around social media and blogging. I’ve generated story ideas. I’ve interacted with editors, which makes the idea of pitching them far less scary. I’ve had the opportunity to network and interact with people I wouldn’t normally get to in the real world. If you’re in science communication or science journalism today, you should be on social media.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

I first discovered science blogs in 2008, through the first class I was taking in grad school. My professor said that the new media environment wouldn’t have the budget for a separate reporter, photographer, videographer, etc., and that we would have to be one-man-bands capable of doing it all. Our first assignment was to start a blog for a week, and the rest as they say, is history. My favorite blogs are Science Sushi, Neurotic Physiology, and Not Exactly Rocket Science. I think for the most part, most of the blogs I read I have discovered through ScienceOnline in some way or another– whether it’s meeting bloggers at the conference, or ScienceOnline community members sharing links on Twitter.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for you? Any suggestions for next year? Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

The best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for me was getting in to the ever-popular Duke Lemur Center tour. After trying to get in every year, last year was the first time I succeeded. And then as with every ScienceOnline conference, the inspiration and the people. This is a time of year that I feel like I’m really in my element, and think “these are my people!” The discussions that take place at the conference and in the after hours are incredible, and so many collaborations and projects are born out of ScienceOnline. You leave the conference having a giant list of ideas that you want to work on. Last year’s keynote, and the buzz about it afterwards, made a huge impression on me. Hearing Mireya Mayor’s talk, and how she spent her whole career dealing with comments like “Well you don’t look like a scientist” is what inspired me to create This Is What A Scientist Looks Like.

ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Cathy Clabby

Every year I ask some of the attendees of the ScienceOnline conferences to tell me (and my readers) more about themselves, their careers, current projects and their views on the use of the Web in science, science education or science communication. So now we continue with the participants of ScienceOnline2012. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today my guest is Cathy Clabby (Twitter), a former longtime newspaper reporter, contributing editor to American Scientist magazine and onetime MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow. In 2012 she jumped with both feet into digital publishing. She is senior editor of Life on Earth, the innovative biology textbook under development by the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation for the iPad only.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

After so many years in print media and collaborating with digital storytellers, I’ve become a digital storyteller myself working on Dr. E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth. It’s an incredibly exciting project and I am very grateful to have been invited to join the small team creating it. One day the book will be 41 chapters that deliver a standards-based curriculum and gives high school students good tutoring on all the central topics of biology. Sounds familiar, yes? But it’s also intended to be something entirely new. With multimedia muscle we hope to show students biology like it’s never been displayed before, whether that be tours of DNA replication machinery inside (lots of) cells or helicopter tours of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, where a grand experiment in restoration ecology is underway.

I very much believe in this “book” and want to contribute as well as I can. I’ve become obsessed with taking the intelligence of high school readers seriously and figuring out ways to use storytelling to excite them about science. The longer I’m involved, the more ways I also see that I need to retool.

No longer can I be merely be a (decent, I hope!) word person waiting on artists and multimedia peeps to do their thing. I need to be able to size up the resolution of images; work the tools of iBooks Author, including the powers of Keynote; work up storyboards and narrations for videos; and try to absorb the fierce opportunities of multimedia. It’s an exciting new way of thinking but not always easy to learn on the job. All I can say is that I am on a steep side of multiple learning curves.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

Like so many of us, I fell for the Web the moment I laid eyes on it. I’m an avid consumer and my life is richer for it. As a former newspaper science reporter, I’m particularly intrigued by how this democratization of publishing has invited so many experts into public discussions about scientific findings and the rest that were once dominated by journalists. You know what I mean. Scientists are writing in engaging and informed ways about topics they understand deeply that science journalists frequently were learning on the fly. More times than man of us may like to admit, the content is simply better.

But I also worry about the loss of some of the roles that traditional media played in science coverage. For one, newspapers reached a really broad audience. I always relished the fact that I wrote for everyone, from the cafeteria staff at North Carolina legislature to the governor of the state when covering science for The News & Observer in Raleigh. That paper is lucky; it has advertiser support to run science features once weekly composed by a very able crew of freelancers.

But no one there is working the beat as news beat, on the prowl for deeper stories on ethical breakdowns, political interference with science, and the rest. The New York Times does that beautifully on the national level obviously but I don’t see their reporters too often developing confidential sources at major research universities such as Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill or NC State. Will the web ever deliver that sort of news on the regional level? If so, who will pay for it? Those questions remain important to me.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for you? Any suggestions for next year? Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

I attended the first ScienceOnline back in 2007, I’m happy to say. That was the first place I ever saw someone sitting at an event, pop out of a chair, turn and take a picture of those around him and sit in his seat to post that picture on a blog. I was intrigued. But last year was so different. What struck me most was the variation and caliber of digital publishing that I learned about. Two people stick in my mind. One was Olivia Koski of Atavist. I was fascinated to learn about the ways her Brooklyn-based outfit was merging so many multimedia tools to give authors an independent way to share their work. I’m all for that sort of democratization. The second was Scott Rosenberg, the executive editor of Grist, which is tackling something I really believe in: covering environmental issues in informed and understandable ways. If there is a more important story than ecology and the environmental at the dawn of the 21t century, I’m not seeing it. So many smart people there were trying to do something new really well.

Thank you for the interview!

2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

19,000 people fit into the new Barclays Center to see Jay-Z perform. This blog was viewed about 58,000 times in 2012. If it were a concert at the Barclays Center, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

What I learned about science blogging/writing this year

I experimented with topics, lengths, forms, and voices, quite a lot this year, trying this and that to see what works for me, what works with the readers, etc. This is what I learned:

I can still write a standard ResearchBlogging post of reasonable length, yet covering all the context it needs.

And I can post it at the time embargo lifts. And I can get quite nice traffic for it:

How barley domesticated its clock

I can blog a conference, even if the topic is not my narrowest area of expertise.

I wanted to learn how to cover a meeting like a journalistic pro. Instead, Editor-in-Chief told me “No, you should blog it”. So I did. And I had fun, I added my own photos, and people in the field liked it:

#2012SVP – what do Vertebrate Paleontologists talk about?

I can get outside of my area of expertise when the news cycle requires it, learn about it fast, and become a temporary expert on it.

And then get interviewed and quoted by the other new outlets as if I really am an expert on the topic:

Did NYC rats survive hurricane Sandy?

But my personalized follow-up on the Big News story, does not work as well as the original.

But heck, at least I finally got to publish some old photos:

No rats in Ryder Alley

I can write on deadline, with word-limit, and I like getting my stuff edited.

When all the editors started nominating stories for our Top Ten 2012 Stories list, I suggested ENCODE, so I was assigned to write about it. I was worried about having to re-write everything from scratch, so I turned it in two days ahead of deadline. When I got the piece back, edited by Phil Yam, it looked very, very red on my screen. But as I started checking all the edits, I realized that each edit was small – a punctuation here, a word-order there, a small change in wording, etc. No huge changes, but LOTS of tiny changes. And each little thing made my article a little bit better. All the changes together made my article much better. So I am quite happy how it turned out:

Publication of the ENCODE Encyclopedia: A Milestone in Genome Research

Long posts with strange structure can work well.

I experimented with coverage of several papers in a single post. I covered each one briefly, had subheadings (e.g., What is it about, What is new, Take-home message, Some more thoughts, Good coverage elsewhere, etc), finishing with my own summary of how all of the papers fit together, how they move the field as a whole forward. And it got quite decent traffic:

Clocks, metabolism, evolution – toward an integrative chronobiology

I can write fast, publish as embargo lifts, and STILL manage to get a lot of context and lot of my own thoughts.

It helps that I have written, few years before, a very involved post on a related topic, so I could draw from that pool of information, build up on it. Many people told me they really loved this post:

Stumped by bed nets, mosquitoes turn midnight snack into breakfast

Totally quirky stuff has its own fans.

It started with a bet that I could seriously use the word “callipygous” in a science article. That led me on a search for topics in which I could potentially use it. That brought me to spiders (yes, it could have been sheep instead). So I wrote a completely stream-of-consciousness post connecting all sorts of seemingly unconnected things about spiders. I wrote about spiders before. I talked about spiders very recently. I saw the Spider exhibit at the AMNH just before it. I included bits and pieces of all of that somewhere in the post. And I timed the post to show up on the anniversary of ‘Charlotte’s Web’. All of that combined into a quirky post with surprising twists and turns, cool scientific information, fun videos, personal stuff, and more. And people just loved it:

Charlotte’s Web: what was she smoking?

I can write REALLY fast! And lack of time for over-thinking makes it better.

I heard about the study at 8am. I published my post at 11am. While multitasking other stuff I had to do at the time. Yes, I carefully read the paper first. And the paper got lots of media coverage elsewhere, yet the author contacted me to tell me specifically how well I did it. And the PIO in charge of the paper bought me a beer a few months later for giving the paper so much visibility and good coverage. And the post even resulted in a comic strip, the original of which is now hanging on the wall of the institution where the research was done. My favorite post of the entire year:

Tigers take to the night – for peaceful coexistence with humans

Next year, I’ll try some new approaches, do new experiments, try to make it fun for me and you. We’ll see how it works out in the end….

ABATC-2012 Year in Review

Another year, another time to take a look at an arbitrary period of time and check what happened, what one did, and perhaps squeeze some overarching meaning out of the emerging patterns. So, why not, another annual summary of the blog – perhaps you even missed some of the old stuff!

January was, of course, busy with ScienceOnline2012. Thus, not surprisingly, my posts at the time were related to it – ScienceOnline2012 – the Unconference, the Community (important again, especially if you are coming to ScienceOnline2013) and #scio12: Multitudes of Sciences, Multitudes of Journalisms, and the Disappearance of the Quote, a post in which I set the stage for one of the panels, and some other discussions at the event. This was followed in February by a grand summary of the proceedings (again important for those arriving in Raleigh next January) – ScienceOnline2012 – thoughts about present and future.

After recovering from #scio12, I wrote my first actual science post of the year – Chestnut Tree Circadian Clock Stops In Winter, followed by a bunch of re-posts of some good ole’ posts from the old blog. And I went to Charlotte to give a talk.

March was a busy time (including a week in Edmonton, Canada) and so was April, so again I re-posted several old science posts, as well a bunch of new Q&As with the #scio12 attendees. We unveiled the new ScienceOnline website as well.

Finally in May, I found some more time to write new stuff, not just interviews and re-posts. I wrote about science: How barley domesticated its clock, Under construction – ITER in LEGO, Shaq and the Mini-Shaq, the extreme primates, When Should Schools Start in the morning? and the Big Post of the month – Clocks, metabolism, evolution – toward an integrative chronobiology. And I wrote about the media and blogging in The SA Incubator, or, why promote young science writers?

In June I did the first ever SciAm Live Chat about science blogging, circadian rhythms, sleep, metabolism and evolution. I blogged about the new scientific journal PeerJ. Then I posted the original English-language text of Why do we blog? To change the world which was published in a Croatian newspaper. And then I completely re-edited, and almost re-wrote an old post I like a lot – New Journalistic Workflow.

July was another globe-trotting busy month (I went to Dublin, for example), but I wrote about science – New research center in Madagascar opens today – and I wrote a very long post (later edited and published by the Library of Congress in a white paper) – Science Blogs – definition, and a history.

In August my travels took me to Kingston, Rhode Island and I first saw the new edition of Open Lab.

In September we had some Important updates on ScienceOnline and OpenLab. I could finally announce the names of the panelists for #sci4hels – ‘Killer’ science journalists of the future ready to take over the world! panel in Helsinki 2013. And I wrote about science again, a post I am quite proud of: Tigers take to the night – for peaceful coexistence with humans.

October was a really good month on the blog! I wrote about science multiple times, some quite cool posts! See: Stumped by bed nets, mosquitoes turn midnight snack into breakfast, Charlotte’s Web: what was she smoking?, #2012SVP – what do Vertebrate Paleontologists talk about? and my high-traffic mega-hit Did NYC rats survive hurricane Sandy?. I also Skyped in a Keynote lecture at ScienceRewired in Adelaide, Australia. And I wrote a media post as well: Beats vs obsessions, columns vs. blogs, and other angels dancing on pins.

I followed up on the rats story in November with No rats in Ryder Alley. And I did an interview on the local NPR station about the Open Lab anthology. This month was mainly on the media track, with several posts, including: Nate Silver and the Ascendance of Expertise, then the follow-up to it: The other kinds of expertise, and the follow-up on the Helsinki panel planning: #sci4hels – the ‘killer’ science journalists of the future want your feedback.

December has been busy so far, but I published my first piece outside of blogs, on the main SciAm site – Publication of the ENCODE Encyclopedia: A Milestone in Genome Research, as a part of our Top 10 Science Stories of 2012 collection. As I will spend the next week or so in Canada again, on vacation, chances of another substantive blog posts before New Years are slim. But keep checking anyway! See you next year!