Category Archives: Personal

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…

Big Announcements

No, not that! (Yet)

First, let’s get bad news out of the way – in the end, I will not be able to go to the World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar. But I will watch (with envy, of course) the #WCSJ11 hashtag on Twitter. And I will re-double my efforts to make it to Science Online London in September and the NASW/CASW Science Writers meeting in Flagstaff in October.

Now to the bright side, and some good news.

Starting in September and lasting two years, as was just announced over the weekend, I will be a Visiting Scholar at the NYU school of journalism Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP), co-sponsored by Jay Rosen’s Studio 20 (more). This will be a great opportunity for me to learn about the teaching of the craft from within, and to help the students network and prepare for the new media ecosystem. This promises to be great fun! And is a great honor, of course.

Stories: what we did at #WSF11 last week

As you probably know, I spent last week in New York City, combining business with pleasure – some work, some fun with friends (including #NYCscitweetup with around 50 people!), some fun with just Catharine and me, and some attendance at the World Science Festival.

My panel on Thursday afternoon went quite well, and two brief posts about it went up quickly on Nature Network and the WSF11 official blog.

But now, there is a really thorough and amazing piece on it, combining text by Lena Groeger (who also did a great job livetweeting the event) with comic-strip visualization of the panel by Perrin Ireland – worth your time! Check it out: All about Stories: How to Tell Them, How They’re Changing, and What They Have to Do with Science

More about the trip and the Festival still to come…

Update: See also coverage at Mother Geek.

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Fun in New York City last week, a new blog post, and more.

This past week I was in New York City (again – my monthly trip), trying, as always, to couple business with pleasure. Apart from coming into SA office for work and meetings, I also got to attend a couple of nifty events.

On Tuesday evening, I finally got to meet Mary Roach in person. I learned on Twitter she was going to be in town and doing a reading from her latest book ‘Packing For Mars’, but I thought (and tweeted) it was too late as I already had other things planned. Well, she tweeted right back at me and politely suggested I better show up or else….so I changed my plans and showed up and it was great fun – she is such an amazing person and a great public speaker (there is a video of her in this post in which I review her previous book ‘Bonk’).

And of course, the topic is fascinating – how do astronauts and cosmonauts deal with various aspects of life we take for granted here on solid ground and gravity: how they eat, sleep, go to bathroom, take care of hygiene, take care of mental hygiene, and more.

On Wednesday night I went to see The Story Collider, a science-themed storytelling show (sorta like Moth in NYC or The Monti here in the Triangle). This time, the topic was the intersection of science and art – The Cambrian Explosion, an art exhibit and storytelling performance with six wonderful personal stories by artist who draw inspiration from science and nature and math. It was also wonderful to see some of their art in the gallery right after the show to connect what they said to what they do as artists.

But the biggest deal of the week was on Wednesday morning, when I went along with Katherine Harmon and Eric Olson to the American Museum of Natural History for the press preview of the ‘Giant Dino’ exhibit. You can see their video embedded into the article: New exhibit reconstructs the very biggest dinosaurs–inside and out. And you can read my take on it (with lots of pictures) in: Giant Dino exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, or, why I should not be a photojournalist.

It was also great to be able to meet a bunch of people – despite not having an organized #NYCscitweetup – during these two days at various times: Lena Groeger, Steve Silberman, Nancy Parmalee, Ivan Oransky, Robin Lloyd, Steve Mirsky, Cassie Rodenberg and Hannah Waters among others.

Next week – DCSWA Professional Development Day 2011 on Saturday in Washington D.C. – come by if you can.

#NYCScitweetup – meet us in New York City

We’ll be in NYC again all next week. The whole family is going so I will split my attention between work and fun, while the rest of the family will have all fun all the time.

We’ll also meet everyone who can come to #NYCScitweetup – you don’t need to be on Twitter despite the misleading name of the event – if you have an interest in science, science communication, science writing, science journalism, or you are just a fan, come by at 7pm at Ninth Ward.

More details (and you can add yourself as “Attending”) on the Facebook event page.

The exact day is not completely determined yet. If you think you can show up, put your name and all the free nights you have on this little form. The date that has most checks wins. So far, Wednesday is in the lead, but that can change….

I hope to see you there…

Update: poll is now closed – the meetup will be on Wednesday.

Interview in Italian (but you can listen in English)

About a week ago I was interviewed for Jekyll, an Italian science journalism blog. The interview is now up – you can read it here if you can read Italian, and if not, all the audio files are in English, the recording of the phone interview itself, in its entirety. We cover a lot of ground on science blogging, media, etc. Listen/read when you have time.

On Peer Review Radio

If you missed it earlier this week (i.e., if you do not follow me on Twitter or Facebook), you can catch up now. Adrian Ebsary interviewed Marie-Claire Shanahan, Greg Gbur, Chris Gunter and me for the Peer Review Radio Episode 20: Go Sing it On the Mountain – Communicating Science Online, about science blogging, science writing, teaching, open science and more. Worth a listen (at least for the other three guests – great stuff!).

Web breaks echo-chambers, or, ‘Echo-chamber’ is just a derogatory term for ‘community’ – my remarks at #AAASmtg

As you probably know, I was in D.C. last week, attending the annual AAAS meeting. This was my second one (funny, back when I was a member of AAAS I was still in grad school and I could never afford to go – now that I am out of science, invitations are finally happening). It is an enormous meeting (about 8200 people this year, I hear) and I missed even seeing some of the friends as the space was so enormous and the program so rich.

Unlike last year, when I was in a session that made quite a splash, this year I was a part of a much more academic panel on Social Networks and Sustainability.

Organized by Thomas Dietz of Michigan State University, the panelists were Mrill Ingram (University of Wisconsin), Ken Frank (Michigan State University) and Adam D. Henry (West Virginia University). These are people from areas like sociology, people who make graphs like this one and understand how to properly interpret it:

My role on the panel was as a ‘discussant’, i.e., someone who does not give a separate talk but comments, at the end, on what the other panelists have said.

I am glad I got the materials from the panelists in advance as this was quite dense stuff.

Every scientific discipline invents new words – the terminology (or jargon) with precise meaning that is necessary for practitioners to talk to each other. For the most part, natural sciences tend to stick to agreed definitions, and counter-examples are relatively rare thus usually quite well known (e.g., the different use of the term “gene” by population geneticists vs. molecular geneticists).

Social sciences, on the other hand, tend to appropriate words from the existing English vocabulary and give those words new, precise definitions. Thus, possibility of misunderstanding by non-experts is greater. Also, some of the terms are defined differently by different sub-disciplines, research communities or even individuals, which makes it even harder to be sure one got the meaning correctly.

This all made reading the materials, as well as listening to the panel, quite challenging for me, the outsider in this field. I am also not a researcher of social networks – I am a user and observer, perhaps an amateur student of them. My thoughts could not be supported by numbers and graphs, but had to, by necessity, be more impressionistic – what I learned from my experiences using, living in, and running online social communities.

As all the speakers went substantially over their allotted times all I had left was seven minutes. Fortunately for me, I had all seven (not 3.5) as the other discussant’s flight into D.C. was canceled. Also fortunately for me, this was the very last time-slot of the meeting, so nobody was in a rush to go to another session and thus everyone let me talk a few minutes longer and then remained in the room asking even more questions.

As I tend to do, and in this case particularly, I decided not to prepare too much (OK, at all) in advance. Instead, I listened to the panelists carefully and made the decision what to say only once I climbed onto the podium in the end and knew how much time I had at my disposal. I decided what to say in the first couple of sentences – the rest came out on its own, pure improvisational theater.

As I was reading the materials and listening to the talks, I realized that a couple of examples were clearly discussing real-world, meat-space, offline social networks, but that all the other examples were ambiguous: I could not figure out if those were online, offline, or combined/hybrid social networks.

So, I decided to use my seven minutes to compare and contrast online and offline social networks, how they differ (more important than how they are similar, which is the default thinking), and how they interact and potentially strengthen each other due to such differences.

This is, roughly, what I said – or at least what I meant to say but had to speed up, i.e., this is an (very) expanded version:

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 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 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 the 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 connectiveness 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.

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 someone on Twitter (let me know who said it first if you know). Edit: Thank you – it was Chris Rowan,

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 GW 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. There would be no such meetings as ScienceOnline, Science Online 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.

Meet me in NYC on Monday at 7

Yes, I will be in NYC next week, #snowmaggedon or not. This will be a very short visit, flying in early Monday morning and leaving Tuesday afternoon, so I will be in town only one night. So let’s make that night a fun night!

Let’s meet at KILLARNEY ROSE this Monday (Feb.7th) at 7pm – upstairs. If you are in NYC and want to meet me and my friends, show up – you don’t need to be a scientist or writer or blogger or tweeterer – everyone is welcome. Let’s have dinner and some liquids and have fun.

Tentative 2011 calendar

I am really bad with using my various Google and other calendars, so this is mostly a Note To Self, so have it handy if/when I get invitations etc. to know when I am actually free….

January 24th – final move to a new house.

January 25th – Sigma Xi pizza lunch about bed bugs with Coby Schal

January 31st – Guest-lecture at Nicholas School for Environment at Duke.

February 5th – a very special dinner

February 7-8 – monthly trip to NYC

February 17-21 – AAAS – my panel on 21st at 9:45am: Social Networks and Sustainability

March 5-8 – monthly trip to NYC plus TEDxNYED

March 14th 3-6pm, Skype into science education class

March 20-25 – NYC

March 26 – NCWC (BIO101 lab)

April 2 – NCWC (BIO101 lab)

April 9 – NCWC (BIO101 lab), also adv.board meeting for the UNC j-school medical program

April 11-12 – NYC monthly trip, #NYCscitweetup

April 16 – NCWC (BIO101 lab)

April 18-19 – Passover

April 23rd – Washington DC – D.C. Science Writers Association

May 3rd – Boston – annual meeting of the advisory group for PRI/BBC/NOVA/SigmaXi Science.

May 7th – an important wedding

May 12-13th – Wake Forest University workshop on science writing in the Biology department

June 25-28th – Cairo, Egypt new location is Doha, Qatar – World Conference of Science Journalists

September 2-3rd – London, UK – Science Online London

October 14-18th – Flagstaff AZ – CASW/NASW Science Writers 2011

November 5 – an important wedding

2010 in review

Probably the best way to review one’s year is to dig through one’s blog’s archives and see what is written there. Our Blogs, Our Memories.

So, how was 2010 for me? Let’s dig through the archives together and see…. Of course, there are many posts there – I hit the 10,000th post about halfway through the year – and many of those are cool videos, quotes, announcements, linkfests, and a number of interviews with cool people. But this retrospective is more personal – what I did, what happened to me, what I thought (and how that changed over time).

January was, of course, all about ScienceOnline2010, the preparations, last-minute announcements, and then coverage afterwards. At the end, I wrote my own summary of the meeting, pretty long, and I think still pretty relevant for ScienceOnline2011.

February was really busy on the blog. The biggest event, of course, was the publication of the fourth annual anthology of the best writing on science blogs – Open Laboratory 2009.

I published a scientific paper and blogged about it.

I went to the AAAS meeting and made them uncomfortable with a post about lack of online access and other backward ways of defining who is media.

I saw Megalodon teeth,

There were three posts in a row about young science bloggers:
Very young people blogging about science and Very young people blogging about science – let’s welcome them and Explaining Science to the Public.

Finally, two more provocative posts – Why is ‘scientists are bad communicators’ trope wrong and Using Twitter to learn economy of words – try to summarize your research paper in 140 characters or less!

In March I was really on a roll with posts about old and new media. See Why it is important for media articles to link to scientific papers and New science journalism ecosystem: new inter-species interactions, new niches and What is journalism and do PIOs do it? And what’s with advertising? and What is Journalism? and Push vs. Pull strategies in science communication and the critique of a journal article about science blogging – Science blogs and public engagement with science.

I reviewed ‘Spring Awakening‘ at DPAC.

I was also thinking about conferences – see On organizing and/or participating in a Conference in the age of Twitter – and I did a radio show about organizing an interactive conference. Of course, as that month I just attended Raleigh Ignite and co-organized TEDxRTP.

In April I attended the WWW2010 conference which I subsequently blogged about. I also went to the NYC edition of The 140conf.

I reviewed a student rendition of ‘Rent’ at Duke.

Other notable posts from April include For the millionth time: bloggers vs. journalists is over! and Twittering is a difficult art form – if you are doing it right and More on mindcasting vs. lifecasting.

Probably most notable for April was that I actually did real science blogging again: Evolutionary Medicine: Does reindeer have a circadian stop-watch instead of a clock?

In May I was busy going to local book events and talks – Scott Huler – ‘On The Grid’ at Quail Ridge Books and Serious Gaming at Sigma Xi and Cory Doctorow in Chapel Hill.

In June I went to a vaccination meeting in Philadeliphia and blogged about it.

I reviewed ‘Bonobo Handshake’ by Vanessa Woods, ‘On The Grid’ by Scott Huler and ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’ by Deborah Blum.

I got interviewed on topics I usually do not get asked so it is an interesting one…

And then, of course, a bunch of posts about the media, blogging and related stuff, e.g., The continuum of expertise and No, blogs are not dead, they are on summer vacation and Why is some coverage of scientific news in the media very poor? and Am I A Science Journalist? and ‘Going Direct’ – the Netizens in former Yugoslavia, altogether some interesting stuff.

And I tried to collect as many books published by science bloggers as possible.

That was the placid first half of the year. And then….then all hell broke lose! July was the time of #Pepsigate, #Pepsimageddon! The seismic event that moved around all the tectonic plates of the science blogging world.

I collected the PepsiGate linkfest.

Then I wrote my own post – A Farewell to Scienceblogs: the Changing Science Blogging Ecosystem – that really got stuff moving around. I heard it in good confidence that the post was read (as required reading) by students in at least two science journalism programs in j-schools in the USA this Fall.

That post had a few follow-ups that added more links, more information about the events, and more thoughts about the future: Thank You and Science Blogging Networks: What, Why and How (essentially a How-To-Build-A-Science-Blogging-Network manual).

A certain Virginia Heffernan wrote a bad piece on science blogging in NYT, so I collected the reactions.

And I did write some science as well – Are Zombies nocturnal?

And had a great guest post by Dr.Marie-Claire Shanahan: UC Berkeley Genetic Testing Affair: Science vs Science Education.

In August I continued the post-Pepsi series of long posts, with Links ‘n’ Thoughts on emerging science blogging networks and Branding Science Blogging: Cooperatives + Corporate Networks.

Two new networks launched – so I introduced Scientopia and Guardian blogs. This proliferation of new networks prompted us to build a new aggregator site – Drumroll, please! Introducing: Scienceblogging.org.

I wrote a science post – Food goes through a rabbit twice. Think what that means!

And wrote two ruminations: Why republish an old blog post? and Origins of Science Writers…but am I one?

In September I announced Some Big And Important And Exciting News! – my new job! And new blog. And new blogging network-to-be.

Speaking of new networks, two more appeared – PLoS Blogs and Wired Science Blogs.

I went to The Most Awesome Wedding and to the Block By Block conference and to see the Mythbusters – yes, I got to meet Jamie and Adam.

I guess I had enough excitement for the year, so October was pretty calm.

I did two interviews – radio: Skeptically Speaking show about Science Journalism and video: Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour 68: Taking Science Online.

I reviewed ‘Social Network’.

And we announced ScienceOnline2011.

In November I gave a talk at Sigma Xi, which inspired a blog post – Blogging. What’s new? which in turn was the seed for one of my epically long posts – and my first Scientific American article – The line between science and journalism is getting blurry….again – that was already in December.

I was on a panel at the NASW meeting (you can scroll down this page to watch the video).

We opened ScienceOnline2011 for registration and had to close in 45 minutes as the conference was full! A little later on we posted some updates and a Thanksgiving message.

The big event in science in December was the brouhaha over arsenic in bacteria – so I collected a linkfest of the key articles and blog posts on the topic.

I went to NYC again and lived to tell about it.

I was interviewed by a Staten Island Academy student for their Extreme Biology blog – read the interview here.

And throughout November and December, I made sure that the Scientific American Guest Blog had good, fresh posts almost every day.

What does the next year bring? Who knows, but I am optimistic in many ways – personal, professional, global. Happy New Year everyone!

NYC update

Last week I took a train to NYC. It was a busy two days at the office. Things are moving steadily on the blogging network front. I’ll have more news probably pretty soon.

On Tuesday afternoon, I joined the last class of the semester of SHERP (New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program) and then the graduation party for the 28th generation. Both the 28th and the 29th class were there, packing the room, in which five of us discussed the current state of science journalism.

Ivan Oransky took this picture of us, L-R: Dan Fagin, John Rennie, Jay Rosen and me:

Sigma Xi pizza lunch lecture – Science in the current media environment

Next Tuesday at Sigma Xi:

Hi all. Normally we aim to hold pizza lunch on the 3rd Tuesday of each month. In November, that date conflicts with the ship date of the January-February 2011 issue of American Scientist. So we’ll convene a week later. Still, I think you’ll find the session—something different this time—worth the wait.

Join us on Tuesday, Nov. 23 to hear one of our own, veteran science blogger Bora Zivkovic, talk about the shifting ecosystems within his craft. Zivkovic has had a front seat to much of that change, as author of the influential A Blog Around The Clock, as co-founder (with Anton Zuiker) of the international conference ScienceOnline in RTP, as the former online community manager at Public Library of Science and, now, as the new blog and community editor for Scientific American magazine. For a long time, people spoke of the day when print and online media would converge. In a growing share of the publishing world, that convergence has occurred. And Bora, when it comes to science journalism, has been a catalyst in that change.

Thanks to a grant from the N.C. Biotechnology Center, American Scientist Pizza Lunch is free and open to science journalists and science communicators of all stripes. Feel free to forward this message to anyone who might want to attend. RSVPs are required (for the slice count) to cclabby@amsci.org

Directions to Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society in RTP, are here: http://www.sigmaxi.org/about/center/directions.shtml

Serbian Dreambook: National Imaginary in the Time of Milošević

Some of you may know that my brother is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alberta. He also works as a visual artist in photography, video, and other media, mostly in collaboration with his wife Gordana who is an artist.

In a few months, his book willl come out – Serbian Dreambook: National Imaginary in the Time of Milošević:

The central role that the regime of Slobodan Milošević played in the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia is well known, but Marko Živković explores another side of this time period: the stories people in Serbia were telling themselves (and others) about themselves. Živković traces the recurring themes, scripts, and narratives that permeated public discourse in Milošević’s Serbia, as Serbs described themselves as Gypsies or Jews, violent highlanders or peaceful lowlanders, and invoked their own mythologized defeat at the Battle of Kosovo. The author investigates national narratives, the use of tradition for political purposes, and local idioms, paying special attention to the often bizarre and outlandish tropes people employed to make sense of their social reality. He suggests that the enchantments of political life under Milošević may be fruitfully seen as a dreambook of Serbian national imaginary.

I have read most of the stuff in the book, at least in some earlier drafts, over the past few years, and I know this stuff is good! It will help you understand Serbia – in the wartime 1990s as well as before and after. And it may help you understand some other nations or some other groups of people (perhaps even TeaPartiers if you are dilligent in adjusting for different contexts, histories, etc.).

So, pre-order the book now – it will come out next May but it will be worth the wait.

The recording of the Skeptically Speaking show about Science Journalism is now available online

You can download it or listen to it here.

New E-mail address

If you want to contact me about something directly related to my job – building a science blogging network at Scientific American – you can now do so via this e-mail address:

Bora AT sciam DOT com

For everything else, you should keep using my old address (coturnix AT gmail DOT com), but if you really want to get my attention, DM me on Twitter.

Calendar

This is, tentatively, where I plan to be over the new few months. If you are in the same town on the same date, let me know and we can perhaps meet:

October 6th, 2010, Raleigh, NC. Maryn McKenna reading/signing ‘Superbug’ at Quail Ridge Books (I may also go on the 7th for the second reading at Regulator shop in Durham).

October 12th (most likely), 2010, NYC. #NYCscitweetup – if you are there, join us.

October 19th 2010, Durham NC. The BlogTogether Birthday Bash, I would not miss it for anything!

October 21st 2010, 9-11am at Duke Perkins Library, Room 217, Durham NC. Open Access Publishing. I’ll be on a panel with several other people and we will talk about our experiences with open access publishing and its impact on scholarly communications.

November 3-4, 2010, Greenville SC. 2010 Conference on Communicating Science. I will do the session “New Tools for Communication (Use of “New” Media)” on the 4th in the morning.

November 5-9th, 2010, New Haven CT. ScienceWriters2010 co-organized by National Association of Science Writers and Council for the Advancement of Science Writing’s New Horizons in Science Briefings®. I will be a part of a panel on November 6th, Rebooting science journalism: Adapting to the new media landscape, together with Emily Bell and Betsy Mason, organized and moderated by David Dobbs.

November 23rd, 2010, Morrisville, NC. Pizza Lunch at Sigma Xi. I’ll be the speaker, about the ways WWW is changing the nature of science communication.

December 2-4th, 2010, Raleigh NC. W.M.Keck Center for Behavioral Biology Alumni meeting. As I am an alumnus, I will definitely attend to see all my old friends from grad school.

January 13-15th, 2010, Durham, NC. ScienceOnline2011. Of course.

March 19-20th 2011, Deidesheim, Germany. 4th SciLogs conference. I’ll go to meet with European science bloggers.

June 27-29th, 2011, Cairo, Egypt. World Conference of Science Journalists 2011. I’ll be on one panel and moderate another panel (see preliminary program). This will be fun.

Science Journalism at Skeptically Speaking

This Friday at 6pm MST (8pm EST) I will be a guest on the Skeptically Speaking radio show. The topic is Science Journalism. Send your questions in advance and tune in on Friday.

Meet us at the October #NYCscitweetup

Lou Woodley (Twitter) and I will be in NYC in mid-October.

Usually when I travel, if there is time, I organize a meetup, but this time Lou was faster – see the #NYCscitweetup hashtag on Twitter.

So, if you are a science blogger, twitterer, writer, journalist, commenter or fan, go to this place and put in your preference for the exact date/time of the meetup.

Block By Block

Next two days I will be at the awesome Block By Block conference in Chicago.

You can see the list of participants, check out the Program and tune in to the live stream of the event.

You can also follow on Twitter – hashtag is #bxb2010.

It is about local, community, online journalism. I am going mainly as a representative of our local science news site – Science in the Triangle.

This is exciting – I am sure I will tweet and blog from there, but mostly I am excited about all the things I will learn and all the forward-thinking people I will meet.

Alert! Some Big And Important And Exciting News!

I have no idea how well I managed to keep this secret – at least 20 people already know this for sure. But you should know as well. There have been some big changes in my life over the past couple of weeks.

My e-mail address, my cell phone number, even my snail-mail address will remain the same, at least for a while. But some other important things will change, as…

…I got an offer I could not refuse.

After the unfortunate Pepsi event, I left Scienceblogs.com and wrote a couple of long, detailed posts about the new science blogging ecosystem, and even got together with a few friends and built a website that can help you track all the changes.

Many people expected I would join another network quickly, so they got progressively more curious as they noticed I did not join Scientopia, Guardian Science Blogs, PLoS Blogs or Wired Science Blogs. I kept getting questions. I heard gossip. But the day has finally arrived for me to announce.

I will be doing this:

Blog and Community Editor, Scientific American : New York, NY:

Scientific American seeks an editor to acquire and manage our expanding blogger network. The position requires at least three years of experience in online editorial positions for science-related outlets.

The ideal candidate will have a facile writing style and a demonstrable track record for successful online community development; a discerning eye for finding engaging scientists in various disciplines who want to engage directly with the public through blogging; the ability to develop editorial packages from the material for print and digital media; familiarity with the production of online material; and the ability to negotiate and manage rights and other associated administrative functions.

The job requires an organized, highly motivated individual who can work in a fast-paced environment and in our Manhattan offices.

Except, I will only be visiting Manhattan offices a few times a year, and will do most of the work from home, here in Chapel Hill. This may change a year from now – a move to NYC is definitely not going to be off the table at that time.

So yes, I will be working with the Scientific American editors and staff in conceptualizing, building, launching and then running a new science blogging network. How could I say No when given such a chance? To do what I love and what I think I can do well, and all of that under the banner of a magazine that was published continuously since 1845.

Mine is actually one of three new appointments at Scientific American announced today. The other two are Christine Gorman who will primarily edit health and medicine features, and Anna Kuchment who will edit the front of the book section of the magazine. You can read about all three of us in the press release. About my role, the press release says:

In this new role at Scientific American, Bora will recruit talented science bloggers and serve as moderator for the community, encouraging discussion and facilitating the exchange of ideas with both the bloggers and Scientific American readers.

Now, as you may know, blogging is nothing new to Scientific American. They have had six blogs for many years now: Observations written by SciAm editors and reporters, Expeditions written by researchers from the field, Extinction Countdown where John Platt introduces endangered species, Solar at Home where George Musser chronicles his attempt to solarize his house, Cross-check where John Horgan covers the news, Bering in Mind where Jesse Bering writes about the Brain and the Mind, and the Guest Blog which hosts the posts by a variety of invited science and blogging luminaries. Their international editions have their own multi-author blogs and networks in several languages.

And then there are all sorts of other cool things on the site, including podcasts, images, multimedia, Ask the Experts and much more.

There is a wealth of stuff on the site already, so we’ll now start figuring out how to build a fun and useful blogging network that is well incorporated into the rest of the site, well connected to the rest of the science blogging ecosystem, and will be a destination for many who are interested in science. It is too early in the game to say much, but I will keep you posted over the next couple of months as we start developing the network.

This also means that I am leaving PLoS after more than three years with the organization. This was a hard decision to make – working at PLoS was a fantastic experience, it opened so many other doors for me, and the office is full of great people I am happy to call my friends. I want to thank everyone there for a great time, for giving me all the opportunities, and for educating me about nuances of Open Access publishing (of course I will remain an OA evangelist!).

As recently as three or four weeks ago, I was involved in developing PLoS Blogs and was slated to move my blog there. But the offer from Scientific American changed that – I will either move this blog or start a new one at the SciAm network once it is ready to launch. My bora@plos.org e-mail will be discontinued pretty soon and I assume I will get a new one from SciAm, but my personal address, Coturnix@gmail.com, will always work. Or DM me on Twitter, FriendFeed or Facebook, or post a comment here on the blog. I am not going anywhere – if anything, you will see and here even more from me in the future!

The Most Awesome Wedding

Last weekend, we went to a wedding in New Jersey.

My wife, being in the wedding, went earlier in the week. My teenage son is too cool to go to a wedding so he stayed with Grandma, programming something on his computer. So my daughter and I got on a train early Friday morning (the Carolinian) in Durham. I don’t think she has ever been on a train before! As for me, I traveled by train a lot back in Europe, but not so much in the States – a trip to Charlotte a decade ago, a quick ride in San Francisco in 2007, that’s about it. And this is a looooong ride – about 10 hours from Durham to Newark, NJ.

The train ride was very comfortable. The train is clean, spacious, people on it nice, so I wonder why we don’t use train more often. Ten hours is a lot of time. My daughter and I chatted some, went to the diner car to get some food and drinks a couple of times (though we did stock up on chocolate, chips and sodas before boarding), looked out of the window, etc. She loaded a few movies onto her laptop and watched a couple of those. I read some of Carin Bondar’s delightful book ‘The Nature of Human Nature’. There were parts of rural North Carolina and Virginia where there was no signal for my iPhone, but for the most of the trip the train passes through urban areas and, although there is no wifi on the train itself, there was sufficient signal for my iPhone to be useful. I spent a lot of time reading science blogs via Scienceblogging.org and realized how useful the site is (and that it does not really need a special mobile version – it works fine as it is).

We arrived in Montclair, NJ in the evening and were first taken to a high point (High Lawn Pavillion, for those familiar with the area) from which we could see the night skyline of Manhattan. We stayed with the parents of the bride. Actually, one of the brides. This was to be a wedding in a same-sex marriage, a first one I attended. And also a Jewish wedding (not a first for me, though).

On Saturday, we had time to get on a bus and spend the morning in Manhattan, have lunch there, and meet some friends (you may have seen some pictures I posted on Facebook – my wife has much more still to upload). The Saturday dinner was organized by the parents of the other bride and the wedding itself was on Sunday (we drove back on Monday – a drive much easier and smoother – and with the truck stops much cleaner – than what I remember from 19 years ago, the last time I went that way by I-95, in the opposite direction – North).

This was probably the most fun and relaxed wedding I ever attended (it is hard not to be nervous at one’s own, so I’ll refrain on commenting on that one). The rabbi had fun. Both brides had fun. Everyone in the synagogue had fun. Not a dull or tense moment during the entire ceremony. It was beautiful, it was spiritual, yet it all felt so normal, so natural, I had to remind myself at the end that I was participating in history. A ceremony like this, just a few years ago, would not just have been impossible, but unthinkable.

The two brides come from two very different families. One from the North, the other from the South. One Democratic, the other Republican. One Jewish, the other Christian. In many ways – polar opposites. Yet both families stepped up to the plate and embraced each other fully.

It was not just Lisa and Erika being revolutionaries and trailblazers. It was not just that Lisa and Erika got married to each other and a couple of hundred of us were there. We were not just observers, but participants. I like to think that each one of us came out of it a better person. That each one of us is now a seedling, making the world a better place wherever we may be.

Ooops, forgot my blogiversary!

I posted my first post on my first blog on August 14th, 2004. In a previous life….

Tentative conference schedule for Fall 2010

For various reasons, mostly financial, I had to say No to a number of invitations to meetings throughout the summer (including, unfortunately, the Lindau Nobel conference and Science Online London). But in Fall I will be busy again. This is the tentative schedule. Let me know if you will be at any of these meetings so we can meet up there.

August 21st, 2010, Raleigh NC. Science Communication Conference at the Museum of Natural Science in Raleigh. See the organizing wiki (Note: I was somewhat involved in advising during the early stages of organization, will attend but will not be on the podium – as it is an Unconference, I am likely to speak up from my comfy chair in the audience). Edit: I will give the Concluding Note at the end….

September 14th, 2010, Boston MA. 140 Characters Conference. I am currently on the “reserve” list in case one of the targeted bigwigs declines the invitation. If given a chance, I will talk about real-time science communication online.

September 16th, 2010, Raleigh NC. PechaKucha Raleigh #4. I will not speak, but intend to attend. The #3 was excellent.

September 23-24th, 2010, Chicago IL. Block by Block: Community News Summit 2010 organized by Michelle McLellan and Jay Rosen, about community news online. I accepted the invitation but am not sure yet about the format and if I am expected to say something from the front or the back of the room. I am assuming that I was invited at least in part due to the local science coverage efforts here in NC, especially Science In The Triangle.

October 1st-2nd, 2010, Greensboro NC. ConvergeSouth. Very tech and business oriented this year, under a new management. But still an occasion to meet my Triad friends.

November 3-4, 2010, Greenville SC. 2010 Conference on Communicating Science. I will do the session “New Tools for Communication (Use of “New” Media)” on the 4th in the morning.

November 5-9th, 2010, New Haven CT. ScienceWriters2010 co-organized by National Association of Science Writers and Council for the Advancement of Science Writing’s New Horizons in Science Briefings®. I will be a part of a panel on November 6th, Rebooting science journalism: Adapting to the new media landscape, together with Emily Bell and Betsy Mason, organized and moderated by David Dobbs.

December 2-4th, 2010, Raleigh NC. W.M.Keck Center for Behavioral Biology Alumni meeting. As I am an alumnus, I will definitely attend to see all my old friends from grad school and am also likely to give a talk about Open Access.

And then, it’s ScienceOnline2011 crunchtime….

dit

Origins of Science Writers…but am I one?

The other day, Ed Yong asked science writers, journalists, bloggers and communicators to write their ‘origin stories’, i.e., how they got into science writing plus advice to people who are interested in pursuing this line of work. He received 100 comments so far which is (almost) 100 responses, from some of the top science writers in the world. I find the entire thread fascinating!. In the end I could not resist, so I posted my own comment, reproduced (with mild edits) here:

I think I need to look at the influence of my family. My grandmother was Czech. She got a degree in Philosophy at the University of Prague (at the same time as Franz Kafka and Max Brod). My grandfather came to Prague from Sarajevo, Bosnia. He received two degrees at the University of Prague: in architecture and in civil engineering. The two met at the University, fell in love, and upon graduating got married and settled in Sarajevo where my grandfather designed and built a number of buildings, some of which (including the first skyscraper in the Balkans) are now under protection as cultural and historical monuments. Being a part of elite circles of Sarajevo, they lived under the illusion they were safe. Thus, unlike their siblings who fled the city (and even the country) at the beginning of WWII, they were caught by the Nazis and placed in the concentration camp where they perished close to the end of the war.

Through smart and fast action of some friends and relatives, their daughter (my Mom) was saved and many years later she wrote a wonderful piece about her memories of the War which was published in a book. At the end of the WWII, at the age of twelve, she was adopted by her uncle (her father’s brother) and brought to Belgrade (then Yugoslavia, now Serbia). Thus it is my great-uncle and great-aunt who were the “grandparents” I actually knew and grew up with. They both had a profound influence on me. She was a Czech-born ballerina, a world-famous ballet choreographer, and the founder of the first and (still to this day) most influential ballet school in Yugoslavia, in Belgrade. He was an Army colonel, with two degrees from the University of Prague: chemistry and chemical engineering. They were both world travelers and fluent in several languages.

My parents met at the University of Belgrade. My mother was studying English, and my father was studying Philology. They both also studied a variety of foreign languages. My mother taught English for a while, but spent most of her working career working in the depths of the Serbian government. My father, together with a few friends, owned the only printing press in Serbia right after the War. After it was nationalized, he worked as editor and copy-editor for various technical publications. Occasionally he would take me with him to the printers, where they treated him like God (“one of the last old-school copy-editors who does it right” they would tell me) and where I could stare for hours at the printing presses, marveling at the engineering, enjoying the sounds and the smells and smudges of ink on my fingers.

Needless to say, both our house and grandparents’ house were full of books (as is my house today). We were all big readers of books (I swallowed massive doses of science fiction as a teenager). And we were all big readers of newspapers and magazines as well. When I was very little, I would just read the comics page, the weekly kids section, the weekly nature section, perhaps the movie and TV schedules, but as I was growing up, I made sure to turn every page and read whatever piques my interest, which was more and more as I was getting older.

My father was a language perfectionist and he made sure my brother and I learned to speak and write perfect, grammatically correct Serbian. My mother made sure we were started on English as a foreign language early on (when I was about 5). My father was also a choir singer and taught us proper diction, which is why my favorite medium is radio.

Both our house and our grandparents’ house were always full of fascinating people. Theater people, of course, from opera singers to ballet dancers to directors to composers to conductors. Artists. Art photographers. Linguists. Mining engineers. Gay couples. Writers. Physicians. Journalists. A professor of anatomy at the vet school. A food scientist who spent her entire career doing research on chocolate. A philosophy professor who later got elected into Serbian Parliament and ran for President. Many an evening the guests stayed late into the night discussing politics and all sorts of other topics, with my brother and me allowed to stay up late and listen and soak up all of that interesting intellectual discourse.

I always loved animals and planned to do something with them, perhaps become a biologist or a veterinarian of some sort. But I was also always reading and writing and discussing stuff, so a career that involved the use of language was not an unthinkable proposition. And I had a brief stint in journalism – in my middle-school newspaper where my job was to draw doodles and line-drawings (usually of animals) as fillers of empty spaces. I translated two equestrian manuals from English to Serbian. And I bought hay and oats for my horse for a year using the money I earned translating Disney comic strips (Mickey, Donald…) for a weekly.

Life interfered – I was in vet school when the war broke out in 1991. I escaped the country a week before, on one of the last trains out before the borders closed, sanctions were imposed, and the country descended into a decade of chaos. I found myself in North Carolina and, after a couple of years of getting my bearings, decided not to pursue veterinary medicine any more, but to go back to basic science – biology at North Carolina State University.

After ten years of grad school, I realized that things I was good at – thinking, connecting ideas from disparate research traditions, designing clever experiments, observing animal behavior, animal surgery, discussing, teaching, placing my work in historical and philosophical context – were going out of fashion. Instead, biology was becoming more and more an exercise in things I was bad at – pipetting all day and running gels, following recipes, doing what I am told to, working at the bench in complete silence for 13 hours a day seven days a week, getting all secretive and competitive.

So I bailed out. While I was still finishing up my last experiments, I started blogging politics. When the Kerry/Edwards ticket lost in 2004, I switched to blogging about science. The rest is history.

While much of what I do these days has something to do with writing and publishing and the media, I still find it strange to think of myself as a science journalist. I don’t even blog about recent scientific papers very often any more. I write more meta-stuff, e.g., about science communication, science blogging, science journalism, science publishing, science education, media in general etc. I have not published any articles in legacy media and while I am open to that possibility, I am not actively doing anything to make that happen – I feel at home on the Web.

Yet just last week I was granted membership in the National Association of Science Writers (my initial application was rejected as they had to follow their old “printed on paper only” rules, but this prompted them to revisit and revise their rules to allow for online-only publications). So I guess I am now officially a science writer (and will be on a panel at the NASW meeting in November).

Advice? No idea what to say. I write what I feel the urge to write, and it seems some people like it and appreciate it. Perhaps that can work for others as well, I wouldn’t know.

Thank you!

Wow! The last couple of days were quite an emotional roller-coaster. The comments on the old blog our now closed, but the farewell post on the old blog accumulated 89 comments and its copy here already has 40. And they have been so supportive. I am so humbled.

The outpouring of love and support on Twitter (and also some on FriendFeed and Facebook) was overwhelming. The link to my post was tweeted by hundreds of my friends, and also by such luminaries as Dan Gillmor, Dave Winer and Jay Rosen (twice). Unfortunately, Twitter Search works only for the tweets made over the past two weeks so all the replies, retweets and mentions (here or here) will disappear soon. But hashtags are easier to save – just check this out!!!. Wow! Just wow! I don’t know how to respond. #I Owe You All!

A number of people have left Scienceblogs recently, just before or just after me, but there is a common Sb Diaspora RSS feed so you can follow all of us. And a @SBExpats Twitter account.

I really need to thank all of the bloggers who wrote nice things about me or my post, and those who used it as a starting point to an important discussion about the future of the changing ecosystem of science blogging.

Please see the post by Abel Pharmboy, also his farewell post, his first post at the new blog and this amazingly generous post. Thank you so much, bro!

I am not sure if I managed to catch all the links to all the posts, but here is a good sampling. Check them all out: Danielle Lee, Henry Gee, SciCurious, Stephanie Zvan, DrugMonkey, Delene Beeland, Greg Laden, Pal MD, Allie Wilkinson, Grrrlscientist (also here and also her farewell post), Dr.Isis, Jason Thibeault, Ed Brayton, Orac, Carl Zimmer (who has more on the topic), Zuska (see her new digs), Mike Dunford, PZ Myers (who is mightily battling to keep the Sb ship afloat), Dave Dobbs (also in The Guardian), Dave Munger, Dave Bacon, Dave Wescott, Maryn McKenna (check her new blog), Deborah Blum (you can now find her here), EcoPhysioMichelle, John Hawks, mrswhatsit, Dana Hunter, John Dupuis, Sheril, Josh Rosenau, Sharon Astyk (and more), Misha Angrist, Pamela Ronald, Ian Brooks, Jason Goldman, John McKay, Ed Cone, Kristjan Wager, Greg Laden, Naon Tiotami, John Wilkins, John Lynch (more), Prof-like Substance, Grant Jacobs, Kent, Brian Krueger, gfish, Cameron Neylon, Richard Gayle (and two more intriguing posts on the aftermath here and here), Chad Orzel, Anna Tambour, Southern Fried Scientist, Mathew Lowry, Daniel Cressey at Nature News and Michael Whitney at Firedoglake. Edit: And now also Newsweek!

And Thank you to the Sb Overlord Evan Lerner for keeping this Buzz topic on the scienceblogs homepage for the third day in a row:

These are interesting times. For four years there was one huge volcanic island. Now it is erupting, lava is still hot, but it appears that once the lava stops and cools, there will be an entire archipelago of science blogging networks. It will be interesting to see if the original volcanic island sinks into the sea or remains and in what shape. It will be interesting to see how many new islands spring up, their shapes and sizes.

But what will be the most interesting to see is if the new island nations will war or trade with each other, or even join a loose confederation. What kinds of boats will be used to paddle between the islands? What kind of goods will be traded between them?

As for my own blog? No rush. I need to think. First, it will take me a few days (or weeks) to get this place in shape. I need to move from wordpress.com to wordpress.org (I own coturnix.org so I should make something like coturnix.org/blog and have it there). And make the place pretty.

The traffic at the old site went through the roof earlier this week, and the new site did fine during its first couple of days. I expect it to go lower, but that is OK:

As you may have already noticed, Clock Quotes are gone. “New and Exciting in PLoS” posts are now tweets (though I may figure out a way to do something similar on the everyONE blog, something like “Bora’s Bloggables”, making sure it is obviously my own choice, not that of the PLoS marketing department). Carnival announcements are also gone to Twitter. Announcements for events (e.g., local science cafes, Sigma Xi pizza lunches, World Science forums, etc,) I can bundle 2-3 in a single post instead of each separately. No pressure to have something always on the Last24H page as there is no such page for me now. I will continue doing updates on ScienceOnline2011 and Open Laboratory, posting Q&As with the past participants of ScienceOnline2010, and an occasional monstrously long post on one topic or another, perhaps even science! Whatever rocks my boat.

As for the future? I don’t know. We’ll see. I may stay solo for a while, perhaps end up on another network (or two, or three) further down the line. There is blogging to be done on ScienceInTheTriangle and everyONE blog, so who knows.  If I ever got the opportunity to try Scripting2, that seems to be a blogging platform one could love, not just be satisfied with. That can boost one’s blogging energies in itself.  But for now, blogging itself is not a priority for me right now.

The first priority is to find a way to support my family. If you want to help, check out this store – that is stuff we already have, boxed up and ready to go. If nothing there is interesting, there is always the Zazzle store but hold off on the CafePress as the items there need to have the URL changed first (I should get to it over the next few days). Or click here:

Then, also, Anton and I are now in fifth gear organizing ScienceOnline2011. In order to make the conference a little bit bigger (something like 130 people were left on the waitlist last year!) we need more new sponsors. If you know a potential sponsor, let us know, make contact.

Open Laboratory is also going to be a big project, as it is every year, so December and January will be busy around that as well.

You are all going to see my posts if you grab my feed (or the combined diaspora feed) or if you follow me on Twitter, FriendFeed or Facebook, so I’m fine.

Thank you all so much!

Update: I added more thoughts to the events and the future at Science Blogging Networks: What, Why and How

A Farewell to Scienceblogs: the Changing Science Blogging Ecosystem

It is with great regret that I am writing this. Scienceblogs.com has been a big part of my life for four years now and it is hard to say good bye.

Everything that follows is my own personal thinking and may not apply to other people, including other bloggers on this platform. The new contact information is at the end of the post, but please come back up here and read the whole thing – why I feel like I must leave now.

Sb beginnings

Scienceblogs.com started back in January 2006. On that day, several of my favourite science bloggers moved to this new site, posting the URL on their farewell posts on their old blogs. I took one look at the homepage – which at the time was a simple, black-on-white version of the current Last 24 Hours page – and said to myself: this is where I want to be. My instant feeling was that whoever does not get on this site will bite the dust – become invisible in the shadow of the network. I e-mailed several of the original 14 bloggers with a simple question: “How do I get on?” They all assured me that the site will add more bloggers and that my name is already ‘in the hat’. In June of that year, I was one of the 20+ bloggers in the “second wave” of migrants to Scienceblogs.com.

How the move to Sb changed my blogging

You can hide on your own little Blogspot blog. You cannot hide on a network. My first instinctive and unconscious change, something I only became of aware later, was that I changed the way I made factual statements in my posts. What does that mean?

I started thoroughly fact-checking the statements before posting instead of learning the hard way that readers will do it for you.

Of course, I started (in 2003/4) in political blogging where much is a matter of opinion, stakes are high, tempers are short, speed of blogging is important, and stating things confidently and even ferociously is important as a persuasion method. If I have heard some useful factoid somewhere, I would often boldly claim it as true without checking first.

But then I gradually switched to blogging about science. This is the domain of verifiable facts. The goal is education, not so much political action. I wrote about my area of expertise, and I wrote in a way that built on that expertise and made it accessible to the lay public. I wrote about things I knew a lot about and was very familiar with the literature. So I referenced, cited and linked to a lot of supporting documents – peer-reviewed scientific papers.

When I moved to Scienceblogs, I doubled up on that effort, even when writing on other topics. Sometimes I wrote purposefully provocative posts, stating extreme positions and playing Devil’s advocate. Such posts were written as mind experiments, or as “let’s see how far the blind following of the logic can take us, even if it sounds crazy” and I hoped that nobody would mistake them for my real positions. But I tried not to make statements of fact if I was not sure they were actually facts. I became a better blogger. My place here requires I be trusted. For that, I needed to trust myself first.

Getting invited to blog here is an honor, and the only correct response is to blog with maximal integrity, even during online fights and kerfuffles that alight in every corner of the blogosphere, including the science blogosphere, with predictable regularity. Every single blogger on scienceblogs.com, even those who I may disagree with 99% of the time, blogs here with strong personal integrity (yes, human beings sometimes make mistakes, but they correct them once the onslaught dies down and it is possible to do it without losing face). And that is one of the greatest strengths of this network – just wander around the Web randomly for a while and you’ll see some interesting contrasts to this.

How getting hired by PLoS changed my blogging

Most of you probably know that I got the job with PLoS in the comments section of my blog. It is the support for my application for the role at PLoS voiced by my commenters that sealed the deal in the eyes of PLoS. Would I have that kind of support if I was not on Scienceblogs.com?

As an Online Community Manager at PLoS, I try to model myself and learn from the experiences of people like Robert Scoble, one of the first “corporate bloggers” (and everyone who thinks there is anything new or wrong with being paid to blog, should read Say Everything by Scott Rosenberg, a definitive history of blogging which will open your eyes). I have been a supporter (and promoter) of Open Access model of scientific publishing well before I got this job and I often blogged about PLoS papers because I – and everyone esle – have access to them. PLoS is a fabulous organization to work for. Its goals match my own. And I love all the individual people working there. Working with them is a blast, and I am proud of it. It is unfortunate that, in this economic situation (and my own personal economic situation), I can only work there part-time.

I assume that many of my readers are also interested in Open Access and may also be interested in what PLoS does. So, I blog (and tweet, etc,) about news from PLoS. As I see which new papers are coming out in PLoS ONE (and other PLoS journals) a couple of days in advance, I pick those that catch my attention, that I personally find interesting, and post links to them here once they are published. Nobody at PLoS has ever asked me to blog (or not blog) anything work-related on my own individual blog (that is what everyONE blog is for). I do it because I am genuinely excited about some of the papers, or am proud of what the PLoS team at the HQ has accomplished – new functionalities or benchmarks, etc. Like everyone else, I am promoting a cause I believe in, and I am blogging what I want and like.

One of the things that changed in my blogging comes from self-awareness that I am an online public face of PLoS. I need to behave in ways that are appropriate for this role. Thus I try to avoid (as much as that is possible) getting into big online fights and I am more careful about my use of language, especially profanity. The fact that I am much less likely today to blog on very controversial topics reflects much more my own tiredness of such topics and the endless flame-wars and troll-hunting that always follow such posts. It gets really boring after a while. I just don’t have much appetite and energy for that any more (if you think battling Creationists is nasty, try debating nationalists of various stripes from the Balkans on Usenet during the wars there – those people WOULD really kill you if they could physically get at you). I want my blog to be a positive force (while fully understanding that would be impossible if others were not doing the dirty trench warfare at the same time, providing the environment in which a positive blog can exist) and I want it to be a creative place, an informative place, and a peaceful and welcoming place for everyone interested in science and in science communication. And for my Mom. Hi, Mom!

So, while this is supposed to be my individual blog, I think of it as such, and it is seen by others as such, it is impossible to completely separate the personal from the professional. I am one of the lucky few for whom life and work are perfectly integrated – I do what I love, with great support (emotional and financial) from my wife. One of the things I am is a promoter of Open Access and PLoS, so this part of my persona is bound to find its way onto my personal blog – it would be self-censorship NOT to allow that stuff onto my blog.

Metcalf’s Law, or why are we here at scienceblogs.com

It appears that many commenters during the recent l’affair Pepsi did not understand the difference between blogging on Scienceblogs.com and blogging independently on Blogspot or WordPress. It is not so much about the direct traffic. It is not so much about payment (I earned through Blogads, back on my old blog in 2006, the same amount as I am getting here today). It is the ‘network effect’.

Let’s say I keep blogging my usual stuff day after day. I get some regular readers, some people coming from searches, some people coming from external links, etc. I also get a lot of traffic from other blogs here, from the homepage, Last24H page, from the various widgets (e.g., Reader’s Choice, Editor’s Choice, top page banner), multiple kinds of RSS feeds (e.g., Select Feed), etc. But if I have to say something really important, something that may require action, or something that many people need to know, or an important question that I may ask, there is a group of people that I can rely on much more than just my usual daily readership – the SciBlings (the name given to my fellow bloggers on Scienceblogs.com). I know they will pick up an item, link to it on their own blogs, and dramatically increase my reach for that one particular item. I don’t need to beg, or e-mail anyone, this happens spontaneously by the virtue of me being piece. Remember that still very few people read blogs through RSS feeds – they come via searches and links. These days, some of those links are posted by my SciBlings also in other places like Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook. Then others, outside the network, start linking to it and blogging/tweeting about it, spreading my message far and wide. This is something that would be much more difficult on an independent blog. This is what I call “indirect traffic” – a potential instant reach that I get just by virtue of being on this network.

This kind of network effect resulted in an explosive rise in the online reputation and ranking of Scienceblogs.com. Technorati does not count Sb as a single entity (it used to), but ranks each blog independently. The most high-trafficked blog here, Pharyngula, is ranked at number 68 today. The 68th most influential blog in the world right now. Even if Pharyngula accounts for as much as half of the traffic here (I think it is at around 40%…OK, just checked, it is 42.15%) and half of the number of incoming links to the site, the site as a whole is probably up around top 30th of all the blogs in the world. That is serious visibility and influence for all of us.

All that interlinking between us, as well as links from outside, result in all of us having Google Ranks of about 6 or 7. That is huge. Much of my traffic comes from searches (of course – I have more than 10,000 posts on many topics, some very long, using many different words and phrases). If I click to see a particularly interesting set of search keywords that brought someone to my blog, I discover that my blog is one of the top ten hits for that search string. And studies have shown that most people only check the top ten results when they do a search.

Furthermore, such a significant rise in traffic and rank of scienceblogs.com resulted in all sorts of other deals. Choice posts of ours are linked from the New York Times science page. Likewise with the National Geographic site. Our blogs are sold on Amazon.com for Kindle. And the site is indexed not just in Google but also on Google News.

This means not only that each one of us gets more direct traffic, and more potential indirect traffic from our SciBlings due to being on the network, but also an even larger and more powerful indirect traffic and visibility outside of the network. We are being closely watched, both by thousands of other bloggers and by the mainstream media. Whenever Scienceblogs.com explodes with a story, MSM takes note. It is not by chance that some of the first reactions to the Pepsi scandal, even faster than on individual’s blogs, appeared in places like The Guardian and the Columbia Journalism Review. As Jay Rosen and Dave Winer noted in their weekly podcast, the distance between us at Sb and the global media is very small. We are not just a loose collection of individuals blogging just for fun any more.

That is huge power. I keep mentioning this power every now and then (see this, this, this and this for good examples) because it is real. Sustained and relentless blogging by many SciBlings (and then many other bloggers who followed our lead) played a large role in the eventual release of ‘Tripoli Six’, the Bulgarian medical team imprisoned in Libya. Sustained blogging by SciBlings (and others who first saw it here) played a large part in educating the U.S.Senate about the importance of passing the NIH open access bill with its language intact. Blogging by SciBlings uncovered a number of different wrongdoings in ways that forced the powers-that-be to rectify them. Blogging by SciBlings brings in a lot of money every October to the DonorsChoose action. Sustained blogging by SciBlings forced SEED to remove the offending Pepsi blog within 36 hours. And if a bunch of SciBlings attack a person who did something very wrong, that person will have to spend years trying to get Google to show something a little bit more positive in top 100 hits when one googles their name (which is why I try to bite my tongue and sleep over it when I feel the temptation to go after a person). The power of the networks of individuals affects many aspects of the society, including the media.

With great power comes great responsibility, and I am not sure that all of my SciBlings are aware of the extent of this power. A Scienceblog is not a personal diary or a hobby any more.

Scienceblogs.com is Media

Scienceblogs.com has always been the project of the Seed Media Group, thus at least a self-designated media organization. But since the moment our blogs got indexed in Google News we de facto became writers for a media organization. I am not sure some of my SciBlings really understood the importance of that day and how that changed who we are and what we do.

Most of us here do not consider ourselves to be journalists or even have goals of wanting to become journalists. A few of us are. And a few of us are not sure what we are any more. But by virtue of being searchable on Google News we are journalists, whether we want it or not.

Do we write news? Some of us sometimes do. But videos, cartoons, quotes, linkfests, etc. are considered not not to be News only if one adopts a very narrow and traditional sense of the term – reporting on an event that just happened. If you open a newspaper, you will see much more than News in that sense – there are obituaries, comic strips, classifieds, horoscopes, quotes, photos, poems, crossword puzzles….all of that is News in a sense that most consumers of news think: News is what comes in the Media.

I think it is much more productive to think of media in a different way. Media is a means to disseminate and exchange information. Some of that information is important, some is informative, some is entertaining, some is educational, some is aesthetic, some is comic, some is analytic, some is opinionated, some is relevant to many people, some is relevant to just a handful, and yes, some of it may actually report on “what event just happened”. Some of it is distributed by legacy media companies, some is distributed by individuals to each other.

We here at Scienceblogs, by virtue of moving from our individual blogs to the network, have largely left the realm of “distributed by individuals to each other”. We are the Media. Which means we need to be aware of it, and behave accordingly. This does not mean we have to change anything about our blogging. After all, we were picked and hired in the hope we would continue to do exactly what we were doing with our blogs before the move to Sb. But the same picture of a cat posted on WordPress just for fun, as a hobby, becomes News once posted on Scienceblogs.com. Gotta keep that in mind at all times.

We have built an enormous reputation, and we need to keep guarding it every single day. Which is why the blurring of lines between us who are hired and paid to write (due to our own qualities and expertise which we earned), and those who are paying to have their material published here is deeply unethical. Scientists and journalists share some common ethical principles: transparency, authenticity and truth-telling. These ethical principles were breached. This ruins our reputation, undermines our work, and makes it more unpalatable for good blogger to consider joining Sb in the future. See also Jennifer’s post on this issue for a clear-headed take.

Seed is not in magazine business any more

Seed Media Group was founded in order to publish Seed Magazine. And it was a very nice magazine, glossy, lush, filled with awesome visualizations. Some articles were awesome, others a little flakier, but nothing nearly as bad as some other (don’t make me name it again) popular science magazines managed to publish under their own banners. I liked Seed Magazine. My kids liked it. It was a cool, modern and novel way to design a pop-sci publication.

In a happier time, before the meltdown of the media industry and then a general meltdown of the economy, Seed Magazine would have survived. But it was not meant to be. About a year ago, the last issue of Seed Magazine appeared on the newsstands. Its brand was not big enough, with enough longevity and reader loyalty, for any other corporation to step in and buy it out. It’s gone.

But if you think you are in the magazine business, if you think that your main product is a magazine, and if you have an office full of writers, editors and graphic designers, what do you do? You retain the mindset of a magazine publisher. Instead of rethinking the mission of the organization as a whole, Seed was only rethinking how to repackage Seed Magazine. They did not let the magazine die. They moved it online instead, retaining most or all of the editorial and writing staff. As Jay Rosen likes to quip about Washington Post, “the print guys won”. The print mindset won.

Yet, at the same time, Seed had a bunch of “side-projects”, including some cool visualization stuff and yes, Scienceblogs.com. Some of those projects, including the magazine itself, fell by the wayside. But Scienceblogs.com was going from strength to strength:

Looking at the graph (I know, PageRank measures one thing, other services measure it differently, but the take-home message is the same), it is obvious that the main product of the Seed Media Group is Scienceblogs.com.

One could argue that traffic is not the proper measure, but I cannot think of a better one. If it was a scientific journal, having a middling traffic would not be so bad if other metrics, e.g., citations, media coverage, incoming links, proportion of visits that result in a PDF download, etc., are high. But there is no such thing to measure for a magazine. Impact of an article in a magazine is measured only by traffic, and traffic is also an important metric for advertisers.

What used to be a fun side-project, Scienceblogs, became the centerpiece. Or so you’d think. But remember that the print guys won. Seed never realized that they were not in the magazine business any more. It is telling that some commenters during last week’s fiasco said they never heard of Seed Magazine until now (I had not heard of it before I moved to Scienceblogs either). It is squirreled away on its obscure website, with miniature traffic, no brand recognition, not even much linking from Scienceblogs.com to it to drive at least some traffic there. We do not hear about new articles there to help promote them (except when Dave Munger writes one and tweets the link). If we are not aware that there are new articles in the magazine, how are others going to be?

Several months ago (in the wake of a loss of a couple of our top bloggers) I suggested they move the magazine onto Scienceblogs as an “editor’s blog” and let us pitch stories for it and use the existence of in-house editors to make our stories more polished than a usual blog post. It did not happen.

What Seed Media Group is doing right now is trying to run a magazine, while treating Scienceblogs.com as a source of revenue. What Seed Media Group should be doing, what every media group should be doing, is become a tech-oriented company (one of the reasons PLoS is successful is that it is essentially a technology-rich publishing company, with an incredible and visionary IT/Web team working with the editorial team in driving innovation). Instead of trying to produce content in-house, which is expensive (all those salaries!), Seed should realize that they already have 80 (now more like 60 and getting smaller every day) producers of content. Barely paid producers of content. I know, it is really hard to fire all those wonderful people – but keeping them can just speed up the end-point so everyone ends up jobless in the end. If Seed Media Group (SMG) has money for employing twenty people, fifteen of those should be tech folks, driving innovation, serving Scienceblogs.com, making it bigger, better, more powerful.

Everything at Seed should be set up to be in service of Scienceblogs: administrators, legal staff, editors, and most importantly a large, powerful, innovative technical staff. The experiment was run, the results are in, scienceblogs.com was shown to be a successful endeavor, and the rest of the experiments, magazine included, were failures and need to be thrown out and forgotten. I guess that many people in the office are emotionally invested in the magazine, but tough luck – the thing is a corpse. Mourn for a while, and move on.

Who gets to be on Scienceblogs.com?

A couple of years ago I heard the statistic that Seed got an average of seven applications per day to blog here. That is thousands of bloggers over the years to date!

The network had a succession of several excellent Community Managers who made decisions on who to invite next. As the site grew and changed, their visions also changed, which determined what kinds of blogs they were looking for. Sometimes, they would accept a new blog, and let us know about it only about a day in advance. But in most cases they consulted with us. They would ask us to recommend who we thought were the best bloggers in a particular area, e.g., technology, infoscience, art, food, chemistry, etc., whatever they thought we lacked and needed more of at any particular time. And they would usually consider our recommendations and invite bloggers we respected. There were even times when we ganged up on them and relentlessly lobbied for a particular blogger to get invited and they would have to agree eventually.

Not everybody who was invited said yes, either, but most did. And over the years there was a natural cycle – as new blogs got added, some of the older ones shut down or left. Often life and work interfered and people decided they could not continue blogging any more. Or just got tired of blogging. Some felt too much pressure to blog more frequently than they were comfortable with. Some bloggers fused their blogs into a single multi-author blog. Some invited co-bloggers to help. Some got better-paying gigs elsewhere. Some left due to personal conflicts with other bloggers. And now several have left due to the damaged reputation of the network that started with a sale of a blogging spot to a corporate entity.

And more are leaving, and will be leaving, due to “Bion’s effect“:

“You are at a party, and you get bored. You say “This isn’t doing it for me anymore. I’d rather be someplace else. I’d rather be home asleep. The people I wanted to talk to aren’t here.” Whatever. The party fails to meet some threshold of interest. And then a really remarkable thing happens: You don’t leave. You make a decision “I don’t like this.” If you were in a bookstore and you said “I’m done,” you’d walk out. If you were in a coffee shop and said “This is boring,” you’d walk out.

You’re sitting at a party, you decide “I don’t like this; I don’t want to be here.” And then you don’t leave. That kind of social stickiness is what Bion is talking about.

And then, another really remarkable thing happens. Twenty minutes later, one person stands up and gets their coat, and what happens? Suddenly everyone is getting their coats on, all at the same time. Which means that everyone had decided that the party was not for them, and no one had done anything about it, until finally this triggering event let the air out of the group, and everyone kind of felt okay about leaving.

This effect is so steady it’s sometimes called the paradox of groups. It’s obvious that there are no groups without members. But what’s less obvious is that there are no members without a group. Because what would you be a member of?”

Yes, suddenly everyone is getting their coats on, all at the same time. This party is not as fun as it once was. Time to go.

Scienceblogs.com – The Good

Four years is eternity on the Web. But try to think back to early 2006 and understand how revolutionary that concept was at the time: grabbing a bunch of already popular bloggers, putting them all on the same site, paying them a little bit, and giving them complete editorial freedom. Anything goes! The editorial hand is in the initial choice of bloggers. Once you choose the people whose work you like, just let them loose.

The existence of Scienceblogs.com as a one-stop shopping place for all things science resulted in the high visibility of science and of science blogging and spurred the explosive growth of the science blogosphere. In 2006, I could read every post by every science blogger in the world. Today, there are thousands out there that I don’t even know about. And there are many other media companies who tried to emulate Seed and build their own networks, with, to be generous, mixed success so far.

The Seed motto, “Science Is Culture”, also contributed to opening science for the lay audience. Many of our readers are not scientists. The stereotypical image of scientists as socially inept recluses who speak in incomprehensible lingo was dispelled.

In many ways my feeling that “who is not here will bite the dust” was not realized. Instead of building an isolated elitist community, we felt the responsibility to be generous, to constantly look for, seek out, link to and promote bloggers who are not on the network. Instead of acting as “we are elite bloggers producing elite content”, we acted as “we are elite filters, finding and choosing the best content on the Web and showcasing it to everybody”.

Thus, much of what we did as SciBlings had, as a goal, the building of the science blogging community that is much broader than just our own internal network community. Nobody got rich from, and many put a lot of work into, the Open Laboratory anthologies which not only showcase the best of science blogging to the audience outside of the Web, but also promote new and upcoming bloggers outside the network. The ScienceOnline conferences (now a full-time job to organize, but still done for free on our own time) also contribute to a similar effort to get people on and off networks together. The DonorsChoose action every year brings us all together, as well as many other such actions. Scienceblogs.com was definitely a key player in the emergence and building of the science blogging community.

Scienceblogs.com – The Bad

The network has evolved over time. The initial offering was composed of bloggers who were already popular – they brought their readership with them. They just happened to be mostly bloggers – and this is probably why they were popular in the first place – whose blogging covered those aspects of “science is culture” that are quite controversial, from beating up on pseudoscience and medical quackery, to the relationship between science and religion, to the politics and politicization of science. This made for quite a lively discourse on the network, bringing up discussion topics that were important to have yet were considered taboo before. This did not sit well with all of the audience, many still squeamish about breaking of such cultural taboos (especially bold defenses of atheism), and the network got somewhat of a bad reputation in some circles, as a hotbed of godless, pinko-commie, liberal whateverwhatever people. That reputation, even during the most recent period when only about five out of 80 bloggers focused much on politics and/or religion, seems to persist.

Since the continuous additions of popular bloggers did not add many new readers and traffic (they were all already reading here anyway), and as the erroneous perception which Sb-haters promulgated that “there is no science on scienceblogs.com” needed to be countered, Seed invited many bloggers who never touch controversial topics and only blog about science. They also invited a couple of bloggers who are openly religious and a couple of conservatives. More recently, several bloggers who joined were reputable science writers and journalists. A new idea was to try and pick up some very new and not-yet-established bloggers, especially very young ones with talent, and bring them here and help them grow.

But none of this helped dispel the nefarious myths about Sb being an atheism network. In this effort to dilute politico-religious content with science content, Sb grew, in my opinion, too big. I think 80-something blogs with 90+ bloggers is too big. Internal rifts and formation of cliques was inevitable in such a large group, which led to some hidden and some very public fights, and resulted in some of our prominent bloggers leaving in a huff. This did not look good from the outside, I’m sure. And it did not work well for the bloggers’ morale either.

The chronic inability of the Seed management to communicate to and with bloggers did not help either (I feel the Overlords who tried to represent our interests were sidelined in the Seed newsroom). As a result, there is not much loyalty to the Seed brand. We are here for the network effect and traffic (and even the little money we get is important grocery money for some of us, including me), not because we are in love with Seed.

This is not about Pepsi

Two weeks ago, as most of you probably know, Seed started a new blog on Scienceblogs.com. It was to be not just sponsored, but authored by people from PepsiCo, a continuation of their Food Frontiers blog (go take a look). It was to be hosted, I believe, for three months, for a fee that PepsiCo would pay Seed (out of which, I guess, we bloggers would also get paid, perhaps even get up to date on payments – I just got my April check).

We have hosted a few corporate-sponsored blogs before, but the main bloggers on them were either independent journalists or some of our own bloggers. Those blogs were introduced to us in the backchannels in advance, we were consulted, changes were made as needed, and some of us still protested on our blogs or wrote posts that are quite damning to those corporations, their shady corporate behavior, and their products.

It is not well known – at least I did not see anyone mention it – that Seed tried to hire an outside freelance science journalist to host the Pepsi blog. Apparently, they could not find anyone. So, when the date came when they promised Pepsi they would start, they launched the blog without an independent host, with just Pepsi employees blogging. Huge mistake! They should have quickly asked some of us to pitch in that role, but instead they did not even tell us about it – the appearance of the blog was a total surprise to us all. Orac was the first one to spot it on the Last24Hour page and alerted the rest of us. Understandably, we all went berserk (and if you think our anger was strongly worded on our blogs, can you imagine what it looked like in the backchannels!?). This is a flagrant breach of the wall between content and advertising. A huge no-no in any kind of media. We are Media and this was the (un)ethical straw that broke the camel’s back.

Greg Laden was not the first one to think of it, but explained it the best the other day how the blog could have been made much more palatable to us and readers, if Seed just thought to ask us (even if that meant a delay of a couple of days before launching) to blog there. We have many bloggers here who could have contributed their expertise on various aspects of food. We have bloggers who could write with authority on obesity from physiological, medical, public health and sociological perspectives, on the chemistry of food, on poisons, on neuroscience of appetite, on nutrition, on raising one’s own food, on evolution of food plants and domesticated animals, on endangered seafood, on the economics and politics of the food industry, on useless dietary supplements, on the reason why a piece of bread always falls on the buttered side, how to desecrate crackers, and even how to roast a zebra and share it with locals in Africa. Not to mention pie recipes! That could have been fun and informative. And if Pepsi scientists contributed as themselves, not as frontmen for the company, their perspective would have been interesting as well.

Instead, we got an infomercial posing as one of us.

It is completely irrelevant that it was Pepsi.

It is completely irrelevant that it was about food.

It is completely irrelevant that they never got to post anything on the blog before it was removed under the storm of criticism by us, readers and the media.

It is completely irrelevant if their content was going to be good or bad.

What is relevant is that a corporation paid to have a seat at the table with us. And that Seed made that happen.

What is relevant is that this event severely undermined the reputation of all of us. Who can trust anything we say in the future?

Even if you already know me and trust me, can people arriving here by random searches trust me? Once they look around the site and see that Pepsi has a blog here, why would they believe I am not exactly the same, some kind of shill for some kind of industry?

Even if you know me and trust me, would you be able to trust any new addition to the network? All those thousands of bloggers who applied to Sb and did not get invited to join? What are they all thinking now about someone paying to blog here? Do you think anyone will ever apply again?

Is Scienceblogs reputation permanently damaged?

In the wake of the Pepsi scandal, other things started coming to light. Things like this and this and this and this, all adding up to the realization that Seed is not what it makes out itself to be. So yes, I think the reputation of Seed is permanently damaged. The quick reversal, under pressure, and removal of the Pepsi blog is not enough.

Will it survive? I don’t know. Probably it will, but smaller (this also depends on the biggest-traffic bloggers remaining). But the scienceblogs.com stable is shrinking rapidly, and I do not see it growing in size or reputation again any time soon. Without it – the only profitable enterprise in the SMG – I am not sure the company can survive. We won many big races, but our racing career is now over, and we should retire to some pleasure riding in the meadows now (not ready for the slaughterhouse yet, not me).

Where will bloggers go?

Some of the most prominent bloggers who have left – or will leave – can quite easily go solo. Since 2006, the Web ecosystem has evolved and now has mechanisms, including social networking sites, that can keep an already popular site from fading into oblivion by going solo. One’s blog is now only one part of one’s online presence.

Others have been approached or will be approached (as soon as they make their leaving Sb official) by many other existing or incipient newtorks out there. Field Of Science is a new network. There is also Lab Spaces. GenomesUnzipped is a new group-blog for people interested in genomics, All Geo may try to collect geobloggers, and Southern Fried Science new network may accumulate more ocean bloggers. Panda’s Thumb offered evolution bloggers defecting from Scienceblogs.com to post there (I am not sure how to think about the division by topic – does it mean that general science networks can never attract a geoblogger and an ocean blogger any more?).

SciBlogs NZ is a wonderful network, but limited by geography to New Zealand bloggers only. There are German Scienceblogs and Scienceblogs Brazil (in Portuguese). There is a growing North Carolina group science blog.

Ira Flatow offered to host bloggers on Science Friday. And so did Wired UK (and US?) and apparently The Guardian as well. Scientific American is bound to jump into the fray, picking up defecting SciBlings. National Geographic has a blog network – I guess they are watching these developments as well. These media-run blogs/networks may well be changing their technological architecture as we speak in order to absorb multiple new bloggers they are trying to attract.

Blogging on Huffington Post is an instant loss of credibility – a day of a Pepsi blog is nothing compared to years of pseudoscience, medical quackery, Creationism and Deepak Chopra’s posts there. Nobody in their right mind would want to be associated with such a cesspit of anti-science.

There are awesome blog/news networks for students of science journalism at NYU (Scienceline) and their counterparts in the UK, mainly at City University (Elements).

Nature Network whose target audience are primarily scientists rather than lay public, and Science 2.0 (formerly Scientificblogging.org, not to be confused with the similarly named but very new and interesting Science 2.0 network that does more than just blogging) seem to be pretty open and approachable and have nice internal communities, but are essentially invisible from the outside. Likewise for Discovery Networks Blogs. The Psychology Today blogs is a very big network, but they do not seem to have anything like a community, and seem to be pretty non-selective as to who they accept. I have heard of at least three new networks still in the making.

But going to any of these is potentially a step down and a big loss of visibility and traffic. The only network that has recently started to come close to the clout of Scienceblogs.com is Discover blogs, but they have a specific type of blogger in mind and do not appear to have an appetite at this point to suddenly invite dozens of new bloggers – they seem to be building the network as a small, but highly elite place for people with some existing journalistic and professional writer cred. Definitely ones to watch!

New scienceblogging ecosystem

The potential step down and loss of visibility by leaving Sb may be an illusion. It makes sense in the existing ecosystem in which Scienceblogs.com is The Borg and everyone else is biting the dust. But the ecosystem is changing. Scienceblogs.com is rapidly losing reputation and bleeding bloggers. A number of other networks are absorbing these bloggers and adding more, growing in size and visibility very rapidly. Very soon – and I mean SOON as in weeks – instead of one big place to watch, there will be two dozen medium-sized places to watch. Instead of one site that everyone reads, there will be a number of sites that will have to read each other instead. Networks that get too large will be viewed, perhaps, with suspicion they are not selective enough. Networks that are too small will get lost and invisible in such a crowded ecosystem. The trick is to find the Goldilocks solution – just the right size.

Many science bloggers are personal friends, and many are also heavy users of social networks like Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook, so the ties will remain. The popularity of blog carnivals may come back up, at least temporarily, due to their well-established effect of building and maintaining the community. ResearchBlogging.org, apart from building respect for science bloggers in the outside world, is also beginning to serve as a center of the blogging community (and I hope it survives, funded by Seed or, if that becomes impossible at some point in the future, by whoever else can be lured to do so).

Instead of one big network, there will be a network of networks. Nobody can afford now to ignore or be ignored by others. I bet we will see aggregators springing up that link to all the networks, perhaps networks will carry each other’s RSS Feed widgets on sidebars to facilitate cross-linking and traffic between networks, and thus raise visibility of all. And the legacy media will have to adjust to the new ecosystem as well, and instead of just watching Scienceblogs.com, find a way to monitor all of the networks at the same time.

When science blogosphere was young, existence of Scienceblogs.com was a boon – it lifted all the boats with it, made both the science and the science blogging visible and prominent. Today, having only one overgrown site so visible is toxic – it takes the oxygen out of the system, and makes the other networks and independent bloggers invisible. With the current process of Sb being cut to size, and concomitant process of other networks growing in size, visibility and relevance (as well as brand new networks springing up), we are reaching a point where being on Sb is not the pinnacle of one’s potential science blogging career – it is one of many places where it is good to be.

Many who are, for now, deciding to stay on Sb, are doing so because they are terrified of becoming invisible by going solo. But in the new emerging ecosystem, going solo is not necessarily going to mean invisibility. People who go solo will still be a part of the community – yes, the same science blogging community that Scienceblogs.com was a key to building in the first place.

Going solo also makes one “fair game”. Other networks will not approach Sciblings who are not officially leaving as they do not want to tread on Adam Bly’s territory or be seen as poaching. But they will approach people who go solo. And they will also approach independent bloggers who were never on a network before – because those bloggers are really good and have been left out so far, because there are not enough Sb defectors to build sufficiently large networks just out of them, and because they do not want the perception that they are growing and building networks entirely on the ashes of Seed.

A growing number of networks and growing visibility of all the networks, also means that bloggers will have many choices. Seed is not the only game in town any more. Some networks pay bloggers, others don’t. Some have advertising, some don’t. Some have posting frequency requirements, others don’t. Some are run by for-profit organizations, others by non-profits, and others are bloggers’ cooperatives. Some have complete editorial freedom, some have limited restrictions. Some have excellent tech support, some lousy or none at all. Some are smaller and highly selective as to who they invite, others are big and also accept bloggers who are not really up to par. Thus, each blogger has a range of choices and the ability to choose according to what each individual finds important for their own goals. And those bloggers who think of this as a hobby and do not want to be seen as Media, can easily go solo and remain connected to the ecosystem in a variety of ways.

What will I do?

My first impulse when Pepsi blog suddenly and surprisingly showed up on the homepage was to bail out immediately.

But I decided instead to take some time to think and decide. My wife also told me to wait and watch the events unfold instead of saying anything myself. Wise.

Not saying anything publicly also made me open to others – I was approached by many with questions, fears, confusions, and their own plans. I have heard a whole lot from various people – who is courting them, where they are going to go, what new networks are being secretly built, etc. which gives me a pretty good lay of the land. I have a pretty good grasp of what is going on out there, I think (though I can be surprised, I’m sure). Most people are quite secretive about their plans, and I will NOT reveal anything that anybody told me until they themselves go public, but I am also not ready to completely reveal my own plans just yet.

After agonizing for almost two weeks, I finally made a decision. I will leave Scienceblogs.com, effective today.

I am not making this decision lightly. A number of factors played a part in this. On one hand there are negative factors – the loss of reputation by Sb, the complete lack of technical support here, the deflated morale of bloggers here, and the indications that all the recent changes at Seed are not a sign of losing the print mindset, which makes it unlikely that meaningful changes will happen. There is also a feeling that SMG is financially a sinking ship. On the other hand are positive factors – I am excited by the swift evolution of the new science blogging ecosystem and want to position myself well within it. I feel that this is also an opportunity to make something better once the dust settles. But the main reason I am leaving is the ethical breach that has seriously placed our reputation in jeopardy.

Unlike some others, I have nothing personal against Adam Bly. We have met once and he seems to be a really nice guy. We loved going to the New York City meetups in the early years and meeting with him there and being hosted at his house. He has interesting ideas and I think his goals are quite in sync with my own – increasing the prominence and relevance of science in our society. I just think that he is consulting with (and sometimes hiring) people with the old legacy media mindset, getting outdated ideas from them, and not being aware how the world has changed even in the past four years and how those changes require a much more dramatic change in direction.

I also want to acknowledge how much being on Scienceblogs.com has meant to me both personally and professionally. This is where I got my job, many other gigs, invitations to give talks, preview copies of books, and a general prominence and reputation in the worlds of science, publishing and the Web. Without Scienceblogs.com, there probably would never be Open Laboratory and ScienceOnline. I have made many fast friends here, both SciBlings and readers, and I am optimistic that these friendships will continue, wherever any one of us end up blogging.

Though many other solutions are possible for me, I have decided that I want to be solo for a little while – I want to see who approaches me and with what kinds of offers. Perhaps something great comes out of it. With my wife on disability leave our finances are shot, and I need to find a way to get paid for all the things I do so I can support my family. And even if no good offers come about, at least when I make up (and announce) my final decision, I will be sure I had all the necessary information I need to make the best decision for myself.

So, farewell, Scienceblogs, it was honor to be a part of this community for so long.

You can find me, in the meantime, at http://coturnix.wordpress.com/. I will continue blogging at everyONE blog and Science in the Triangle blog as well. And you can follow me on Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook, so you will know when I make other moves in the future.

Seven Questions….with Yours Truly

Last week, my SciBling Jason Goldman interviewed me for his blog. The questions were not so much about blogging, journalism, Open Access and PLoS (except a little bit at the end) but more about science – how I got into it, what are my grad school experiences, what I think about doing research on animals, and such stuff. Jason posted the interview here, on his blog, on Friday, and he also let me repost it here on my blog as well, under the fold:

Continue reading

I got interviewed…

….by my SciBling, Jason Goldman at The Thoughtful Animal blog. But this time, it is very little about blogging or Open Access publishing or science journalism, except at the very end. This interview is more about my experience in the academia – how I got into grad school, how I survived it, how and why I left research, the How and Why questions of using animals in research, and more.
I know it’s long, but I hope you read and comment – go ahead and click right here and read it right now! ;-)

Various updates

Not everything gets posted on the blog (though people who follow me on Twitter, FriendFeed or Facebook may catch some of these blips), so here’s a quick summary of the past few weeks:
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Most important news first – there is a new kid on the block! Not exactly my block, but close enough – this is a small town! Welcome Oliver Anton Zuiker to the world! So, no surprise Anton’s been busy lately – for all the good reasons. Congratulations, my friend!
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These brief respites from what is usually deemed “work” do not stop us! We are – though in a slower, summer-style tempo – working on our various projects, including the organization of ScienceOnline2010. We have officially switched the Twitter hashtag from #scio10 to #scio11 (collected here) and will soon do the same with the official Twitter account, the Facebook page, the website, etc.
We are still looking for new sponsors. We need to know roughly what we can expect for the next meeting, money-wise, in order to see if we can afford a bigger venue, which would mean accepting more people, which means a richer program and a different daily schedule, etc. If you work at or know people in an organization or a company that would be interested in sponsoring the event, showing their stuff in a booth or in a Demo, or providing travel grants for a student or two (or bloggers who win contests etc.), let me know.
From various discussions with people who attended the last meeting, we are getting some vibes about the areas people want to see expanded and explored further. It seems that media, journalism, blogging, book-writing and entertainment, as well as education, Open-Access publishing and librarian/info-science communities are already large and self-sustaining and already thinking what to do next January. But other areas people feel require more attention. These include tech – people who are building new technologies, software, or web-based experiments used for doing, teaching or communicating science.
The other one is math – we are working with some people to bring a bunch of people involved in online math communities (from math bloggers to math teachers to math gamers to origami/topology geeks) to build an entire block of math sessions. Want to get involved? Let us know.
The other one is Web Science – study of the Web and how people behave online.
The next one is expansion of social science (history of science, philosophy of science, as well as application of social science to the study of online behavior – with connotations to online activism) and even humanities (science fiction as a vehicle for science) – interested? Drop us a note.
People are asking to see more coverage of virtual reality words, or using games and gaming in education, or about mobile technologies, or about the importance of meatspace and how online and offline can interact productively. Ideas? Want to lead such sessions or demo your work? Let us know.
And also – how do we get more non-blogging (and perhaps skeptical) upper-tier research scientists to come and see, perhaps for the first time in their careers, what the cutting edge use of the Web for science looks like? If you can come up with a scheme that may just work – share with us, please.
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The ScienceOnline2010 interviews are a big hit, apparently. People love them (and they are a great marketing tool for the next event). I have four new ones coming this week – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at noon, and hopefully a few others I sent questions to will respond soon as well.
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Check out the new and improved homepage of Science In The Triangle. Apart from re-arranging the page, we added a news section called Inside RTP which will be mainly written by Sabine Vollmer. The blog continues (probably slower during the summer, getting back to full steam in Fall) with the core group of bloggers – Sabine Vollmer, DeLene Beeland, Cara Rousseau, Ross Maloney and myself – and additional people who, for now, will blog occasionally but may join the core later, e.g., Marla Broadfoot, Scott Huler, Ben Young Landis, Will Alexander and a few others who are still waiting for the green light to start posting. Also, don’t forget to check (and bookmark for later use) the Science In The Triangle event calendar so you don’t miss out on any events in the area. And we want feedback!
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We saw ‘Wicked’ at DPAC in Durham a couple of weeks ago and it was one of the best performances we have seen at the venue yet! I wish we could afford season’s tickets again like we did the past two years – the upcoming line-up looks amazing.
Last night I also went to my kids’ school where the high-schoolers performed their rendition of
A Very Potter Musical – that was fun.
Last week, we went to Carrboro ArtsCenter to see The Monti – with storytellers including Vanessa Woods (‘Bonobo Handshake’) and Elizabeth Edwards (whose part funny part poignant story had to be turned all political by the local media and their commenters, gah!). It was a great show and we are going again this Tuesday for the Story Slam (where instead of local celebrities people in the audience put their ideas in a hat and five names get drawn and those five people get on stage and tell their stories – true stories, no props, 12 minutes, on a common theme of the night).
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I’ll be in Philadelphia on June 14-16th, discussing blogs and social networks with scientists at a meeting. More information later, but if you live there and want to meet, let me know.

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It’s just a number….

Environmentally friendly chico bags

We bought a couple of these recently and use them for all our grocery shopping. They are environmentally friendly, strong chico bags, tiny when wrapped up (and easy to wrap up) and large when opened up:
chico bag.jpg
Conflict of Interest: this is Bride of Coturnix’s store (look around for other items). Every item sold puts money in our joint account. Which is good for me as I am owing tons in taxes…..

Never go anywhere unprepared

Shy about openly carrying condoms around your pocketbook? Well, hide them in a tasteful little case – a variety of styles, including, for those with a sense of humor and fun, these Kitty cases, pre-packaged with two condoms each:
kitty condom cases.jpg
Conflict of Interest: this is Bride of Coturnix’s store (look around for other items). Every item sold puts money in our joint account. Which is good for me as I am owing tons in taxes…..

This week we’ll be in New York City

The Bride Of Coturnix and I are flying to NYC early tomorrow morning and leaving Thursday afternoon. While we set Monday and Thursday to be “for us”, we are flexible if anyone wants to meet for coffee or lunch – just let me know and we can arrange something. We plan to meet with my brother late Monday night for dinner or drinks (depending how timely is his flight in) but we can meet earlier.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, we will attend the 140 Characters Conference organized by Jeff Pulver:

At #140conf NYC we will be taking a hard look at something Jeff Pulver calls “The State of NOW” and the continued effects the worldwide adoption of social communication platforms such as twitter is having on a number of industries including: Celebrity, “The Media”, Advertising, Politics, Education, Music, Television, Comedy, Real Estate, Public Policy and more.

This is the second time this conference is held in NYC (it was also held in Los Angeles, London and Tel Aviv last year and is planned for DC, Tel Aviv, Atlanta, Los Angeles and London later this year). When it was in NYC the first time, the Twitter stream and the subsequent videos and blog-posts revealed a level of energy and excitement, as well as wealth of information, that told me we should not miss this second one.
There will be an amazing list of speakers and an incredible schedule. The Twitter hashtag for this event is #140conf NYC so you can follow.
There is an organized dinner for attendees on Tuesday to which we may or may not go, but on both Tuesday and Wednesday we will go wherever people we most care about decide to go and I will tweet the location so you can join us – have to be flexible and up-to-the-last minute this time around (not my usual style – I tend to plan these events in advance, invite people to a Facebook Event etc.). So follow my Twitter feed if you are in NYC and would like to have a beer at some point that is good for you.

‘Rent’ at Duke

Rent_4C-1.jpg
The other night I went to the opening night of RENT at Duke, the latest production of the Hoof ‘n’ Horn ensemble, the ‘South’s oldest student-run musical theater organization’ (find them on Facebook and Twitter). Here’s the promo video, released before the opening night:

I always have difficulty judging plays by amateur ensembles – at exactly which standard should I hold them? I have seen amazing high-school plays and horrible professional ones (I mentioned both in this post), as well as, of course, amazing professional ones. The Duke group is a mix of people with some stage experience and even Broadway aspirations and their colleagues in other majors for whom acting is fun and they take it seriously, but not in terms of a life career.
But it was reassuring, in the car back home, that my wife and I had some very similar reactions and thoughts – this meant I was not crazy!
There are two ways to take this performance. One is curmudgeonly: “these kids are too young to grok it”. The other is much more charitable: “they subtly and successfully adapted the early 1990s play for their 2010 audience of peers”. Of course, not having interviewed the Director or anyone in the cast, I do not know what their conscious intention was with the play. But I will go with the charitable interpretation here.
What does it mean to ‘adapt’ a play? On one hand, one can take the main story and completely change the time and place, the names of characters, the details. This is what Akira Kurosawa liked to do to Shakespeare when he adapted Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear to the large screen. The work stands on its own and the knowledge of the original is not necessary for one to understand and enjoy the movie.
Then, one can take an old play and keep it in its original setting – time and place – but adapt it to a modern audience. I suspect that this is what was done to the original Spring Awakening. I have not read the original script, but I assume that it did not contain nudity, or even stylized acts of sex and masturbation. On the other hand, the original probably contained references to geographical places, persons and events that have been lost to memory except for a handful of German historians. After all, the play happens in 19th century Germany. The adaptation also happens in 19th century Germany, but unnecessary details have probably been excised to make the play relevant to today’s audiences. What is important is that the cast has to study the place/period while preparing for their roles, and the audience needs to try to transport itself into the said time and place.
RENT is in itself an adaptation of Puccini’s opera La Boheme. While the original opera is set in 1830s Paris, RENT is set in 1980s New York City. There are many parallels, even some names of main characters remain the same, and the main storyline is certainly the same. When one watches La Boheme on stage, one knows to mentally transport oneself to the 1830s Paris and the cast does its best to convey the atmosphere of that time and place. Yet even La Boheme has had adaptations done over the years – some set in Paris in 1957, some in London, etc.
With RENT, if one has seen it before (I saw it at DPAC a couple of years ago and it was excellent) and knows what it’s about (I have heard the soundtrack at home about a gazillion times), one tries to transport oneself to the NYC of the 1980s (or early 1990s). Many of us remember that time – it is so recent (I was not in the States at the time yet – arrived at JFK in 1991 – but the situation was similar around the world, and we were certainly carefully watching from the sides, with some bewilderment and fear, the soap-opera that was Reagan’s America). We know the atmosphere of those times: Reagan years, marginalization of The Other, alienation, refusal to take AIDS seriously as “gay disease”, etc.
At the time, AIDS was very new. We did not know much about it – what kind of disease it was, how it was transmitted, who could or could not get it, how long could one harbor the virus before getting sick, if there was a way to prolong one’s life or even cure the disease. AIDS at that time was absolutely terrifying! Fear of unknown, coupled with the fear of a debilitating and deadly disease, coupled with horrendous stigma attached to it by the rest of the society.
AIDS is still a horrible and deadly disease. But it is not as horrifying as it once was. We know much more about it today and there are much more effective treatments that can allow the patients to live decent lives carrying the virus for quite a long time before succumbing. Much of the stigma associated with it is gone as well, as most of new cases are now found among the heterosexual men and women of all ages. Thus we can now deal with AIDS in a much less emotional (and political) and much more rational way. It has become a part of the social milieu, and we have built methods to deal with this problem as a society (how good those methods are is debatable, but they exist, thus we can at least feel complacent about AIDS now).
The Duke play, for better or for worse, reflects that shift in attitude. AIDS in their version is not as horrifying as in other versions (e.g., at DPAC). While the script (and the stage set) is the same, the acting – posture, movement, facial expression, tone of voice – minimize the terror of AIDS. They are all so…..damned cheerful all the time! Nobody even really, truly dies in their play. Even the officially dead ones immediately hop up and dance and sing with a smile right after the dying scenes!
But perhaps that is on purpose. Perhaps the new generation is trying – consciously or accidentally – to tell us something.
East Village on Manhattan is just not as dark and dreary as it once was. The artistic avant-garde has, for the most part I hear, moved to Brooklyn. Bohemia, art, drugs, AIDS, freedom, alienation, rebellion, loneliness, desperate search for community – all mixed up (often within the same person) – it’s not in Manhattan (or America, for the most part) any more. So it is not in RENT any more either.
The Duke crew shows us how they can resist being rent apart – in this age of greater tolerance, greater connectivity and community (helped tremendously by the massive spread of cell phones and Internet since the play was written), it is harder to feel lost. One feels it is much easier to find people who can help, find communities to join. Everything is easier when one has friends – and friends are easier to find today than ever in history – just a phone-call (no need to put a coin in the public phone) or a tweet away. Perhaps the experience of 9/11 has changed the attitude of New Yorkers in a similar way.
These kids, just toddlers when the play was first put on stage in 1994, live in a different era – perhaps the grand ambitions are toned down compared to my generation, but the general optimism about the ability to lead a decent, happy life is much greater. Not to be snide about it, but this is Duke students experiencing life in their own social circles, where everything comes easier…
So, one is left wondering – are these kids incapable of grasping how dark and desperate and lonely was life for AIDS-riven artists in 1980s NYC? Or are they trying to tell us to stop preaching to them about the bad old times and to get on with the program?
It’s really hard to tell – I’ve been thinking about it for two days now and am still not sure. How much is it on purpose, and how much is it just naturally flowing from who they are, their age, their socioeconomic stratum, their generational outlook on life?
Is it on purpose that Mimi is blond and Maureen brunette? It is the other way round in pretty much every other version of RENT. Mimi (remember, her full name is Mimi Márquez) is supposed to be Hispanic in a very obvious, stereotypical way. In every play (or movie or novel or comic strip for that matter), most characters need to be stereotypical, to help the audience orient itself. A transformation of the character into something audience does not expect is often the story. Even the voices and the singing styles are reversed. Throughout the play I kept thinking to myself that Ryan Murphy would be a perfect Mimi and Allie DiMona a perfect Maureen. Yet they did it the other way round – why? Is it because of some personal deals behind the scenes, is it some kind of an inter-Duke hierarchy, or is this on purpose, to provide a different vision that should make people like me uneasy, but will make perfect sense to the 99% of their intended audience – the other Duke students? Mimi is supposed to be a dancer at a strip club and Ally does a great job acting like and moving like a dancer at a strip club – something that most Mimis don’t emphasize. Is that also a generational change in sensibilities, a greater ease with sexuality?
The role of Angel, probably still pretty shocking back in 1994, is pretty bland here. One of the key characters in traditional versions, Angel is in the background in this version, not having the energy and the seriousness that I think Angel should have. Is that also on purpose? To show that cross-dressing (and dying of AIDS) is not such a big deal any more?
The ensemble has huge energy whenever they sing together as a chorus. The chemistry they have as a group is palpable. Yet, this chemistry vanishes when they sing duets. Is it because they did not have much time – a few weeks in-between classes (and Blue Devils games) – to rehearse, or was that also on purpose: showcasing the community spirit at the expense of inter-personal relationships, perhaps as a poignant reminder that there are pros and cons to every generation’s mindset: this one, perhaps, being more at ease in groups than one-on-one? Or was it accidental, because they are who they are, acting out their own selves? Or is that the case with every generation at that age: feeling more secure in a group than when dealing with others one-on-one, something that one gradually gains with age and maturity?
RENT Production Photo.jpg
I got free tickets from the producers of this show, and I am aware that this is an amateur college production. I have no inclination to be as critical about each individual’s skills or performance as I would do if I paid hundreds of dollars to watch big theatrical names in a top-flight theater. Some of them are excellent singers (Amber Sembly, Brittany Duck, Aidan Stallworth), others excellent actors (Matt Campbell, Robert Francis), a few are both (notably Ryan Murphy, also Brooke Parker), and a few are really not that great, but so what? They are all having great fun doing this, and it shows, and it was fun to watch. Most of them have no ambition to make theater their profession, so why not have fun while in college.
Alessandra DiMona (Mimi) is interesting – a great presence on stage, and an amazing voice. Yet, listening to her sing, I was thinking of my father (who was a professional singer) and his insistence that Number One trait of a good singer is diction – every syllable and every word has to be clear and understandable to the last elderly foreigner in the back row of the third balcony. It felt to me like she is in the middle of a transition of her singing training, still enjoying the amazing potential and scope of her voice, but still learning how to discipline it. She can certainly belt out a note or two, but the next note should not be barely audible (and if that is due to movement, e.g., dancing, well, that can be trained as well – general fitness training plus voice training), just to pick up again on the next syllable. I feel like she should hire some old Russian lady teacher of the Old School to drill her several hours a day until she cries….for several months, until that amazing voice is under control. She has a great potential so I hope she gets the necessary training to fulfill that potential. If she does that, she can have a career on Broadway – her voice is that powerful and pleasant.
But back to the question of ‘adaptation’. When one adapts a 19th century play for 21st century, the audience is aware of that. But how can one subtly adapt a 1980s play for 2010? The intended audience – the Duke students – may have never seen RENT before, may not be aware that it was set in 1980s, may have no idea how life in the 1980s America used to be. But a couple of old geezers in the audience, like me, are going to be confused as we remember the 1980s, the AIDS scare, the isolation and alienation of the Reagan years, and we know where and when RENT is supposed to occur – is this a case of the new generation missing the point of RENT, or is this a case of adaptation to the worldview of the 2010 set? Even if the shift was unintentional, it certainly made me think – something that should be obvious from this review you are reading right now.
I am also aware that this was the opening night. Even professionals are nervous on the premiere night. It was visible how the ensemble started out tense and relaxed as the night wore off (and they noticed that no huge disasters happened on stage). They are probably getting better and better each night. You should go and see them if you can – they still have a few nights to go.

Challah

The best challah I ever tasted, baked by my daughter.:




Super-secret recipe and special braiding technique: the mother-daughter team produced a work of art tonight

Week in review

This was a busy, crazy week.
On Monday and Tuesday I was in Boston. You may remember I went to Boston last year as well and for the same reason – spending a day at the WGNH studios, helping with the World Science project that combines radio, podcasts and online forums. You have probably noticed I have posted announcements of these throughout the year.
A short story airs on the radio show The World, about some science-related topic with a global angle. The same scientist (or physician, or science journalist) who is interviewed for a couple of minutes on air is also interviewed for 20 minutes for the podcast, and then keeps coming back for another week, responding to the questions on the online forum. Last year, that was just an idea we helped turn into reality – the website went live about a month or so later.
This year, we had something to look at and analyze – how did it go, where the traffic came from, etc, and could make suggestions for improvements for the next year. I hope that the insights from us, the outside consultants, is useful to the crew there. I personally felt that this year’s meeting was better and more productive – perhaps because we had the website and the statistics already in front of us, instead of just visualizing in our minds how this should look like.
The composition of outside consultants also changed over the year. Only Rekha Murthy and I were there from the last year’s lineup (see the first two links in this post for last year’s list). The new folks in the room were C.C.Chapman, Andy Brack and Adnaan Wasey and we quickly ‘clicked’ with each other and with the World/SigmaXi/Nova/PRI people so the business of the day was pleasant and productive.
I will keep pointing out the new podcasts/forums over the year here (and on Twitter/FriendFeed/Facebook) and I hope you give them a listen/read. And I hope I get invited to Boston again next year. I really like this project and think it can become big and popular over time. You can follow World-Science on Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook and download their podcasts on iTunes.
Unfortunately, unlike last year, I was staying in Boston only one night and did not have time for a meetup/dinner with friends, bloggers and twitterers. If only I knew I’d spend six hours at Logan airport waiting for my flight home, I could have organized one. Eh, perhaps next year….
Being in Boston, I had to miss both Pecha Kucha Raleigh and this month’s Monti. Can’t get everywhere!
You already know I spent some time struggling with my laptop. I am also in the middle of teaching my BIO101 course, lectures on Wednesday nights, labs on Saturday mornings.
And yesterday, for the third year in a row, Abel Pharmboy and I went to Misha Angrist’s class to talk about science blogging, social networks and media. Last two years, Sheril was the third part of the trio, but as she just moved to Texas, we went without her. We’ll need a replacement for her next year, I guess. This is always a fun thing to do – Misha always has interesting, engaged students.
And tonight, we are off to the Salon of Music, Poetry, and Theater at Common Ground Theatre in Durham.

TEDxRTP

Yesterday I spent the day at the RTP headquarters, attending TEDxRTP. The TEDx conferences are small, locally organized offshoots of the well-known TED conference.
This was the first TEDx in the Triangle region (though Asheville beat us as being the first in the state) and, judging from the response of the audience, it seems everyone expects this will become a regular annual event. You can check out the Twitter account as well as the Twitter chatter if you search the #TEDxRTP hashtag.
The event was livestreamed and the rough videos are already up on the Ustream channel. Better quality videos will be posted soon (Ustream and/or YouTube, just check out the TEDxRTP webpage or Twitter account for updates when this happens).
TEDxNYED (on Twitter) was happening in NYC at the same time, focusing on “the role of new media and technology in shaping the future of education” and a stellar line-up of speakers. The idea to organize TED events specifically for young people (both as presenters and key audience) sprung up spontaneously at both the RTP and NYC events – follow the #SpreadTED hashtag for more – though it has been done before at a local scale: see TEDxTerry (see this video for one example of their talks – I met Jennifer Kaban subsequently at AAAS).
As you may know, I was involved in the organization of the event to some extent, mostly early on. I do not remember now how I got a wiff that a group of locals was trying to organize this (Twitter, Facebook?), but I joined the group early on and we met several times for monthly organizational meetings. Realizing that location dictates everything else (number of participants, number of attendees, amount of food/coffee needed, sponsorship money needed to cover food/coffee, etc.) we set out to investigate location options in the Triangle and took a look at something like 40 potential locations. Some were too small, some too big, some too expensive, others fully booked for the year, and yet others just did not spatially fit for our event. We looked at theaters and movie theaters, hotels and convention centers, restaurants and cafes. In the end, I helped negotiate the perfect location – the RTP headquarters: perfect location smack in the center of the Triangle, easy drive from everywhere in the area, great LEED-silver building, and experienced staff that could help with myriads of aspects of organizing an event, from catering and parking to technical aspects (wifi, video recording etc.).
Later on, busy with ScienceOnline2010 and then trip to AAAS, I pulled out of the organization a little bit. I especially did not want to dictate the speakers, for two reasons: one generous, one selfish. First, I am already organizing the awesomest, most kick-ass, most well-known annual conference in the area where I have a big say as to who is speaking. Second, I wanted to see local speakers that I am not aware of, yet others think are worth listening to. Just like at Ignite Raleigh a few days earlier, all the speakers were new to me (at least in the sense that I have never seen them speak – I did know a few people from before, either from Real Life or from the online world). And I approached the TEDxRTP speaker line-up with a deliberate decision to be open and tolerant to everything, even if that is a little bit outside my own comfort zone.
And yes, several were outside of my comfort zone. As the theme of the event was “Living to Our Highest Potential”, the talks were highly inspirational. Yes, several invoked spirituality, alternative medicine, uncritical infatuation with the “wisdom” of Ancient India, and even, gasp, religion, but none of them crossed the line for me, the rational, reality-based robot. The only talk that made me really uneasy is one that invoked a far too traditional and conservative vision of what a family looks like (and judging from the Twitter chatter, I was far from alone in being uneasy with it. Update: Carlee Mallard also agrees with me on this in her blog post).
I am an analytical kind of guy, so I analyzed the talks a lot! There was a lot of stuff there that I learned from the first time, from design of serious games, through the ways private companies are planning on going into outer space, to how to teach swimming, to business practices of trapist monks. Then there were talks which covered well-trodden ground but framed it differently, in a new and potentially useful way. And Catherine Cadden broke my analytical shields and moved me emotionally.
Nick Young did the best job blogging about TEDxRTP so far – see his preview, the first part of the review and second part of the review for good descriptions of the event and the individual presentations (though we may not agree on details).
What I was initially worried about turned out to be actually a good thing about TEDxRTP – the layering and mixing up of some very different presentations. It was not just talk after talk after talk. We showed four original TED videos (this is one of the rules of TEDx). We had one speaker read a poem. A trio playing serious music. And two (one planned one unplanned) skits of improvisation theater. The whole thing was connected together masterfully by MC for the day Zach Ward whose dry humor made the event even more fun. I hope he comes back to do it again next year.
This is a time of heavy concentration of similar events in the area. There was an Ignite Raleigh 2 on March 3rd (I already blogged about it), and upcoming are FizzledDurham on March 8th (that’s tomorrow), Pecha Kucha Raleigh on March 23rd, and the March edition of The Monti also on March 23rd.
The real biggy this year is WWW2010 in late April which includes several side-show events including Web Science Conference 2010, 7th International Cross-Disciplinary Conference on Web Accessibility and the FutureWeb: WWWhere Are We Heading?, the latter one I hope to be able to attend.
You can find these and other events on the Social Carolina calendar and plan accordingly – and hope you can get tickets, as most of these events sell out within minutes! Now that all these small independent groups are finding each other, we can probably be able to coordinate the dates and times better for the next year’s events, including TEDxRTP2011.

Spring Awakening

On Friday, the Bride of Coturnix, Coturnietta, a friend of hers and I went to DPAC to see ‘Spring Awakening‘. As you may already know, this is a rock adaptation of an old play located in late-19th century Germany, following the growth and maturation of a group of high school students surrounded by a disciplinarian and authoritarian adult world, in which sex is taboo (so they have to learn on their own, feel guilt about it, and suffer consequences) and strict, dogmatic religion trumps every attempt at independent thought or questioning.
I have not seen the play before, though I have heard the soundtrack a million times, but the Bride of Coturnix has seen the original cast on Broadway and says that this rendering was excellent. I agree.
Yes, there is a moment of partial nudity on stage at one point. And a stylized masturbation. And a stylized sexual intercourse. And a kiss between two gay men. And a botched back-alley abortion that kills a girl. And an accurate portrayal of cowardly, insecure adults making up for their own shortcomings by preventing and punishing every youthful act that challenges their power, their standing on the top of the hierarchy, their mad use of religion to enforce that hierarchy, and their own unease with sexuality.
Which is the point of the play.
Which is why it is exactly the young people who are the target audience of the play. The warning on the DPAC website – “Parental Discretion is advised. Mature content, including brief partial nudity, sexual situations, and strong language.” – is there more to satisfy the conservative, authoritarian, cowardly, sexually insecure, adult curmudgeons in our own current society than a statement of fact. Or a real warning to young people to stay away.
The funniest moment for me was when, at the end of Act I, the old man in front of me got up and said how scandalized he was, asking why there was no warning that this was R-rated! Hmmm, I guess a curmudgeon like that does not go online to see the warning either. And he missed the point of the show – that his style of curmudgeonness is exactly what the play is exposing for what it is: hypocritical and dangerous. It is people like him who are NOT the target audience of the play – it is the young people, being warned about folks like him.
There are some good reviews in Durham Herald Sun and Raleigh News and Observer, and even better blog posts by Theatre North Carolina and Ginny Skalski (who wrote it from the perspective of a lucky person who got to sit on the stage).
On the other hand, do not trust Byron Woods of Independent Weekly for your theatrical reviews. It appears he is incapable of arriving on time (compare this to this – half the reviews are about how he was late, and complaining about it as if it’s not his fault), and is more intent on appearing savvy (remember the ‘Church of the Savvy‘ inflicting the media in general?) and slamming a play than telling something informative to the readers – compare his reviews to everyone else’s review of the same play (another example, other than Spring Awakening, is last year’s Fiddler on the roof, compare this to this).
You can find DPAC on Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, as well as check out their blog.
The touring ensemble of ‘Spring Awakening’ also has a blog, a website and a Twitter account, a fan forum, as well as MySpace and Facebook pages. That’s the way to promote the show!
DPAC had some variation in quality of shows this year (expected for such a new place), but ‘Spring Awakening’ was right at the top. If it comes to a theater near you, go and see it.

AAAS 2010 meeting

In San Diego this week. Check it out. I’ll be there – see my session. If you will be there, let me know. Let’s have coffee or lunch, etc. My session is on 21st in the morning, and there is a lot of social stuff I agreed to on the 19th in the afternoon and evening, and of course I want to see a lot of other sessions, but I am generally flexible. Just ping me over e-mail or Twitter or phone (if you have my number) or post a comment here.

My latest scientific paper: Extended Laying Interval of Ultimate Eggs of the Eastern Bluebird

ResearchBlogging.orgYes, years after I left the lab, I published a scientific paper. How did that happen?
Back in 2000, I published a paper on the way circadian clock controls the time of day when the eggs are laid in Japanese quail. Several years later, I wrote a blog post about that paper, trying to explain in lay terms what I did, why I did it, what I found, and how it fits into the broader context of this line of research. The paper was a physiology paper, and my blog post also focused on the physiological aspects of it.
But then, I wrote (back in March 2006 – eons ago in Web-time) an additional blog post on one of my old blogs (reposted on this one here, here and here) in which I followed further, thinking about the data in more ecological and evolutionary terms, and proposing hypotheses following from the data that can only be tested in other species out in the wild. As you can see if you click on the links, this post did not receive much commentary.
Then, about a year ago, I received an e-mail out of the blue, from a researcher at the Cornell Ornithology Lab, essentially offering to test one of the hypotheses I outlined in that post. My first reaction was “sure, go ahead, I am happy someone wants to do this, but please cite the blog post as the origin of the hypothesis”… The response was along the lines of “no, no, no – we are thinking about working WITH you on testing this hypothesis”. Wow! Sure, of course, I’m game!
They already had preliminary data which they sent to me to take a look. They are coming from an ecological tradition and are very familiar with the ecological literature, some of which they sent to me to read. On the other hand, I am coming from a physiological tradition and am very familiar with that literature, some of which I sent to them to read.
A month or so later, one of them, Caren Cooper, came down to Chapel Hill. We met and, over coffee, spent a couple of hours staring at the data and discussed what it all means. Then we got started at writing the paper.
And now, the paper is out: Caren B. Cooper, Margaret A. Voss, and Bora Zivkovic, Extended Laying Interval of Ultimate Eggs of the Eastern Bluebird, The Condor Nov 2009: Vol. 111, Issue 4, pg(s) 752-755 doi: 10.1525/cond.2009.090061
In this paper – which is really a preliminary pilot study (who knows, we may yet get a grant to do more) – Caren and Margaret set up video cameras on a bunch of nests of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). From the tapes they got times when the eggs were laid. The times were approximate. But the analysis gave us exactly the same result when we used the times when the nest was obviously empty before the bird sat on it to lay the egg, the times when the bird first got up to reveal the egg to the camera, and the mid-point between those two times.
I am not aware of anyone ever looking at timing of egg-laying in wild birds out in the field. There is a huge literature on timing of laying in quail and chicken (and some in turkeys) in the laboratory, but none I am aware of in wild birds. Most researchers, when asked when their species lays eggs are surprised at the question and answer something along the lines of “no idea, but we find the eggs when we come to check the nests in the morning, so perhaps over night, or at dawn?” So, this paper is a first in this domain.
What we have shown is that bluebirds, just like chicken and quail, have an S-shaped pattern of egg-laying patterns (see my older post for theory and graphic visualization).
The question is: how does a bird “know” when to stop laying? When is enough enough? When is the clutch (all of the eggs laid in one breeding attempt) complete? Most of ecological literature is focused on energetics: are birds getting hungry, have they depleted some important source of energy, etc.
But the circadian field looks for internal mechanisms. Running a circadian clock takes very little energy. Even when the animals are extremely hungry, the clock keeps ticking with no changes in frequency (if anything, the amplitude gets bigger, implying even more work!). Even when an animal gets very sick and is dying, at the time when many bodily functions start ceasing, the clock works until the very end. Being produced by a molecular feedback loop in which some reactions use and others release energy, and all of this happening in just a small number of brain cells, the clock is very energy efficient and does not require the organism to be healthy and well fed.
What is important in regard to circadian regulation of egg-laying is to understand that female birds have not one, but two circadian clocks. Let’s call one of them A and the other one B. Clock A is located in the brain (or retinae or pineal or some combination, depending on the species) and is sensitive to light: it readily entrains to a light-dark cycle. No matter what the intrinsic frequency of the clock may be (as uncovered in constant darkness conditions), it is forced to a frequency of exactly 24 hours by the entraining power of the day/night cycle.
Clock B, on the other hand, is intimately tied to reproduction. It is a result of an interplay between the clock in the brain and neuro-endocrine signals between the brain and the ovary (which may itself house its own part of the clock). Brain clock sends hormonal signals to the ovary. Those signals entrain the ovarian rhythms AND result in ovulation. Ovulation itself produces hormones that signal to the brain clock and entrain it. This feedback loop is in itself The Clock. This clock is light-blind and its intrinsic frequency is not 24 hours – it is around 26-27 hours in both quail and chicken, and almost two days long in turkeys.
These two clocks, A and B, interact with each other. Let’s imagine a hypothetical scenario in which clocks A and B are very tightly coupled. The external light-dark cycles that all the birds in the wild are constantly exposed to entrain the clock A to the exactly 24 hours period. Clock B, being tightly coupled to Clock A is then also forced to oscillate with a period of exactly 24 hours. What would that mean to the bird? She would be laying one egg per day, always at exactly the same time of day, every single day of her life: in spring, summer, fall and winter. She’d spend all her resources on making big yolky eggs every day. She would be sitting on a huge pile of eggs throughout her life. She would not be able even to move short-distance to a better nesting ground, let alone prepare and undergo a long-distance migration. Her eggs would be also hatching at the rate of one per day. Thus, she would have progeny of a variety of ages at all times, each age having different requirements for care or abilities to follow the mother around. Some hatchlings would freeze to death in winter, or starve to death at time when the food is scarce. Others would die from predation at times when they are highly visible (in the snow) or just because there are so many of them they cannot all hide under a bush.
An opposite scenario: clocks A and B do not interact with each other at all. In this case, A would be entrained to the 24 hour cycle of night and day. Clock B, being light-blind, would freerun with its own endogenous frequency, i.e., with a period of roughly 26-27 hours. Again, the poor bird would be laying one egg per day all of her life. The only difference is that the eggs would not be laid always at the same time of day, but scattered all over the 24-hour cycle. Both scenarios are obviously maladaptive to the bird.
But, oscillator theory provides a third scenario in which clocks A and B are only loosely coupled. There are phase-relationships between the two clocks when they are coupled: A entrains B. There are phase-relationships when the two are at odds: A inhibits B (and thus no ovulation happens). The phase-relationships are dependent on daylength: when the days are short in winter A inhibits B and no eggs are laid. When the days are very long in the middle of the summer (or in constant light) all phases are permissive to ovulation and the clock B can freerun with its own period of 26-27 hours.
But the interesting phenomenon happens in-between, once the length of the day gets just a little bit longer in spring, in normal breeding season. There is only a narrow zone of phase-relationships in which the two clocks are coupled – outside of that zone, ovulation is inhibited. Thus the clock A starts ticking at the beginning of that zone (e.g., at dawn in some species, at around noon in quail) and starts freerunning through it until it “phase-locks” with the clock A and, for a while, appears to be running with the period of 24 hours. But underneath, the pulses of hormones are gradually shifting later and later, just a little bit each day. Finally, these hormonal influences allow the clock B to again break free from the clock A, freerun some more until it gets out of the permissive phase – the feedback loop is broken and the ovulations stops. The clutch is over.
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The resulting pattern is S-shaped: early in the clutch eggs are laid a little bit later each day, the middle of the clutch appears entrained to the 24-hour cycle, and the last egg or two again are laid later until the egg-laying stops completely. In quail, which was bred for centuries for egg-production, the selection affected the strength of coupling between the two clocks. Thus, in photoperiods (daylengths) that are just barely longer than the ‘critical photoperiod’ (the minimal daylength needed to provide any permissive phases at all, thus the first daylength in spring at which the bird can start laying), quail will have S-shaped patterns but the middle portion, the “straight one” that is entrained, is artificially long – I have seen clutches lasting for two months and consisting of 60 eggs!
Birds out in the wild, where natural selection is likely to produce an optimal clutch-size (not a maximal one that humans prefer), may or may not use the same mechanism to determine how and when the clutch starts and ends. So, what we did was see if Bluebirds also show the S-shaped pattern that would suggest they do. And they do:
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The first egg in the clutch is laid earlier than the subsequent eggs. All the eggs in the middle (1-6 of them, not 30 – we collapsed them all into one “time-point” in the graph) are laid at about the same time, indicating entrainment of B by A (i.e., to the light-dark cycle). The second-to-last egg may be laid a little later, and the very last egg is laid much later. These results suggest that quail is not a weird unique animal, or that Galliformes (chicken-like birds) are different from other kinds, e.g.., Passeriformes (songbirds). The mechanism is likely the same – not dependent on external factors like food and energy, but a result of a fine-honed system of interactions between two circadian clocks.
Of course, this is just a first observational study, but the results are encouraging. Next steps would be to: a) improve the temporal precision of measurements by, perhaps, installing thermo-couples in the nests (there is a huge but short-lasting body temperature spike exactly at the time of lay), b) increase the sample size, c) compare the bluebirds living in three very different latitudes where both the weather conditions and photoperiodic changes are different to see how the natural selection shaped their responses, and d) do a comparative study of a few more species belonging to other groups. We’ll see if we’ll try to submit a grant proposal in the future.
Unfortunately, this paper is not Open Access. I wanted to send it to PLoS ONE, which I think is the best journal in the world and IS the future of publishing. But it was important for Caren and Margaret to publish in a journal that their peers consider important, and Condor is a fine little journal for this. So I agreed to go along with it.
Also, the listing of the original blog post in the List Of References, to my dismay, disappeared between the Provisional PDF and Final PDF versions. It is now linked to inline in the text, placing it down to the level of the dreaded “personal communication”, once again foiling our attempts to give serious science blogging some respect. Ah well….
Interestingly, I did not know when the paper came out. Apparently, it was published back in November. I learned about it a couple of days ago when I got a first reprint request from a researcher in Russia!
But hey, I am happy. I got a paper published. And now I am using my blog and social networks to promote it… ;-)
Cooper, C., Voss, M., & Zivkovic, B. (2009). Extended Laying Interval of Ultimate Eggs of the Eastern Bluebird The Condor, 111 (4), 752-755 DOI: 10.1525/cond.2009.090061

Chocolate Poundcake

This is what the Bride Of Coturnix fixed this week – so delicious, it disappeared within a day or two, but I managed to save the picture for posterity before everyone dug in:
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Year In Review

It is always interesting to dig through one’s blog archives and see what happened when, or get reminded of a post one forgot was ever written ;-)
So, here are some of the key posts on A Blog Around The Clock from 2009, chosen from almost 2000 posts that appeared here this year (which is MUCH less than the number of posts in 2008 – I’ve been slacking off!):
Science
Circadian Rhythm of Aggression in Crayfish
An Awesome Whale Tale
Do you love or hate Cilantro?
Why social insects do not suffer from ill effects of rotating and night shift work?
Yes, Archaea also have circadian clocks!
Introducing Ida – the great-great-great-great-grandmother (or aunt)
Linnaeus’ floral clock on the island of Mainau
Behold the Mammoth
No more ‘alpha male’!
Recent Science-Related Events in the Triangle
Academia, Science Publishing, Open Access and PLoS
Fossils! Fossils! Fossils!
Open Science: Good For Research, Good For Researchers?
Are solo authors less cited?
Eliminate peer-review of baseline grants entirely? and Why eliminate the peer-review of baseline grants?
PLoS ONE Collections
Creative reuse of OA materials
Why or why not cite blog posts in scientific papers?
This is an experiment…
Lindau Nobel conference – Tuesday afternoon and dinner and Lindau Nobel conference – Wednesday morning and Lindau Nobel conference – Thursday
Open Access in Belgrade
Measuring scientific impact where it matters
Waltzing Matilda – why were the three Australian dinosaurs published in PLoS ONE?
Not-so-self-correcting science: the hard way, the easy way, and the easiest way
Article-Level Metrics at PLoS – Download Data (updated with links)
Open Access Week in Serbia
ResearchBlogging.org posts now a part of Article-Level-Metrics at PLoS
Technology, Blogging and Web 2.0
Do you comment on your own blog?
The Evolution of Facebook
Hey, You Can’t Say That! Or can you?
Triangle Tweetup Tonight and Triangle Tweetup
A quick introduction to Twitter
How Facebook got us together
The Perils of Predictions: Future of Physical Media
Behold the Birth of the Giga-Borg
Web – how it will change the Book: process, format, sales
Science Communication, Science Education, Science Journalism and Science 2.0
ScienceOnline’09 – Saturday 10:15am
ScienceOnline’09 – Saturday 2pm, and on the organization of an Unconference
ScienceOnline’09 – Saturday 3:15pm – Blog carnivals
Graham Lawton Was Wrong
Why good science journalists are rare?
The Open Laboratory 2008 is here!
ScienceOnline’09 – Saturday 4:30pm and beyond: the Question of Power
Undergraduate science summer camp at Petnica Science Center
Science & Technology Parks – what next?
SO’09 Interviews and ScienceOnline2010 series….
Books: ‘Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex’ by Mary Roach
Talkin’ Trash
The Final and Complete List of All Entries Submitted for The Open Laboratory 2009
Media Revolution (including in science) and Politics
What is science’s rightful place?
D.C. press corps dissed again – but this time for good reasons
Who has power?
Defining the Journalism vs. Blogging Debate, with a Science Reporting angle
The Falsest Balance in journalism
Memo to self-described sane, rational, science-loving Republicans
‘Journalists vs. Blogs’ is bad framing
New Journalistic Workflow
How Obama uses Behavioral Economics to change our habits
The Ethics of The Quote
‘Bloggers’ vs ‘Audience’ is over? or, Will the word ‘blogger’ disappear?
I don’t care about business models of journalism/publishing
What is ‘Investigative Science Journalism’?
Trust and Language
What does it mean that a nation is ‘Unscientific’?
Other
Fiddler On The Roof
In today’s papers….
Caryn Shechtman: A Blogger Success Story (an interview with Yours Truly)
On Being a Nurse – a guest post
Cohen
See more, in the monthly ‘Best Of’ posts:
Best Of January
Best Of February
Best Of March
Best Of April
Best Of May
Best Of June
Best Of July
Best Of August
Best Of September
Best Of October
Best Of November

Interview (in Serbian)

I know there is a nice subset of my readers who can read Serbian language. If you are one of those, you may be interested in the last issue of ‘Pancevacko Citaliste’. Along with several interesting articles about science publishing and librarianship, there is also an interview with me by Ana Ivkovic, librarian at the Oncology Institute in Belgrade. The journal is Open Access, so you can download and read the PDF here.

Cohen

Last night we went to see Leonard Cohen at the DPAC in Durham. What to say? He’s the Legend. Still, at this age, full of energy and spunk. And everything was done to perfection – the set, the lighting and the slow dance of the backup singers had, together, a hypnotic effect. Three hours passed like nothing – I could have stayed another three (and that would still not exhaust all of his greatest hits).
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I was too far away to take good pictures with my iPhone, but I took these two, just to show the light changes. There were some quite magical light effects as some moments including those making Leonard look green like a leprechaun.
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I grew up with his music and it seems strange that some of his big hits, now 20 or 30 years old were once new – I knew them when they were new, buying his latest album and playing it over and over until I knew every note and every word. So long ago. I feel so old now.
Not that I was old compared to the rest of the audience there – lots of old hippies with gray beards and ponytails… ;-) After all, I was a teenager when I was crazy about Leonard and bought all his records, back in the 80s.
One weird thing …. I felt selfish last night. I did not want to share Cohen with thousands of others. I wanted to have him and the band all for myself. Just like back in the old days, when everyone is gone after the party, and only a handful of best friends remain for the night (the last bus is gone), a nice drink is taken out of hiding to replace the cheap party beer, incense is lit, and Cohen is on the gramophone. His music is for intimate occasions like that, in my mind, according to my memories and associations….
But I was happy nonetheless to finally see him sing live. After all these decades. Would not have missed it for anything. It was a magical night.

Halloween in Southern Village

The neighbors in Southern Village (here in Chapel Hill) are wild about Halloween, many making elaborate decorations of their houses for it (often more elaborate than for Christmas). The business on The Green also get into the spirit and put fun and scary dolls or scarecrows or other objects in front of their stores. These are often quite well designed as well. This year, we really liked this sign-post, showing the way to other businesses (e.g., Lumina Theater, Weaver Street Market, Harrington Bank, etc.) – click on buttons to see large:

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Field Trip! Water, sewage and flowers

This was a very busy day. I went to five science-related places/events today (and one yesterday).
The first three, this morning, were part of an education school trip with my daughter’s class and her science teacher.
First we visited the OWASA Water Treatment Plant which provides tap water for about 80,000 people in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, NC, followed by a tour of their Wastewater Treatment Plant. Last time I visited a water treatment plant was about 30 years ago, in Belgrade (which has 2 million people using the water), so it was exciting to see how technology has evolved over the years – with greater quality control, much greater energy efficiency and, most importantly, with much more environmentally friendly impact.
Everything is recycled – a byproduct of one part of the process (e.g., methane) becomes a fuel for another part, etc. Water gets recycled within the plant, solid particles are sterilized and given away as fertilizer, the cleaned wastewater is sterilized and ‘reclaimed water’ which does not meet the tap water standards is given away for irrigation, heating and other uses. Even the end-product of wastewater cleaning gets additional stuff done to it – sterilization by UV light and oxygenation before it is dumped into a creek, in order to help the wildlife living in it.
Interesting stuff sometimes flows down the sewer pipes. The large inorganic objects get caught first and our tour-guide just the other day discovered a rubber duckie! No alligators.
Then we went to The North Carolina Botanical Garden for a picnic lunch. It’s been a long time since I last visited and it was great to see how much they added over the years. Though late fall, there was plenty to see and a number of plants were in full bloom. Will have to come back soon with the whole family.
About the other two events, afternoon fare, you’ll have to wait for my reports tomorrow.

Foodblogging/storyblogging in the Triangle – the first Long Table

Under the fold are some pictures from the inaugural Long Table event at 3Cups in Chapel Hill with Moroccan food prepared by Sandwhich, organized by Anton and Erin Zuiker.
There were about 35 people there. I knew a few of them from before, but it was mostly new people I got to meet. Some people were new even to Anton and Erin as this was a publicly advertised event, open to the first 35 people who sign up. Every now and then, a person would get up and tell a short story related to food and travel, mostly about unforgettable meals in unforgettable places.
I am aware of only one blog post about it so far – by Lenore Ramm – although a couple of other people in the room are known to have blogs or are on social networking sites. We all hope that this will become a regular feature on the local social celandar – trying new venues, new cuisines, and new story topics each time.

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Music

Music that makes me laugh, or makes me want to dance, is entertaining music.
Music that makes me think or admire the artist’s skills, is good music.
Music that makes me cry is Great Music. Rare.