Tag Archives: blogging

ScienceOnline – crossing a river with Anton Zuiker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passionate. Pleasant. Present.


The other kinds of expertise

If you read my old and new posts about the media, science journalism, etc., you know I come down strongly on the side of specialists and against generalists. But it is a caricature, a simplification I have to use to make my posts clearer, and to cut my posts down to a semi-manageable length 😉

Yes, people are hungry for information. They are asking to be educated, not served content. And education requires expertise.

If people were not hungry to be educated, and if there was no inherent trust in experts, there would be no interest in either editing or using Wikipedia, there would be no interest in TED talks, and there would be no interest in either producing or using MOOCs and other forms of online education. I am far from being the only one who sees an article in a newspaper and, before sharing the link anywhere, first double-checks it with an expert blogger. Which is why expert bloggers are so popular.

We used to read a newspaper, nodding along, assuming they got it all right, until we get to an article that covers a topic on which we actually know something, an article within the domain of our own expertise. Then we scream bloody murder: “Why can’t they ever cover X correctly, idiots!”. The assumption everyone had was that media covered everything well except the domain of our expertise.

The emergence of the Web, especially the expert blogs (and expert commenters), opened our eyes. We saw that every expert is complaining about (and skillfully dissecting) the coverage of their own area of expertise, leading to the conclusion that the traditional media covers everything poorly. We started losing trust in the media and consuming it less. The way media reacted to economic consequences of lost trust was to fire experts and hire generalists who were asked to cover seven different topics per day, not covering anything well. Audience asked for expertise and for education that could only be provided by specialists, yet the media responded by offering more and shorter articles all written by diluted generalists.

But these are extremes I needed to use in my past writing in order to make a point clearly and strongly. So, here is the missing piece, about varieties of expertise that exist between the two extremes of super-expertise of hyper-specialists and the super-diluted non-expertise of hyper-generalists.

Temporary Expertise

If you work for one of those media mills, expected to churn out several articles per day, good luck with that. The work will, inevitably, be shallow, superficial, formulaic and sprinkled with inaccuracies.

But if you have the luxury of having time to write something longer, perhaps a feature, or a series of articles or blog posts on the same topic, then you have time to become a temporary expert. You have time to read books and articles on the topic, to study, to interview many experts, to take a class, to go to a meeting or conference or a series of public lectures, to think about it, process it, digest it, internalize all of that knowledge. You have time to learn enough to be able to write a piece that is accurate.

Expanding into new Expertise

Every one of us is an expert on something, at least one thing, probably several things.

This also means that each one of us is completely non-expert on many other things.

One can argue that each one of us is the expert on our own personal experiences. And if one writes about that, this can certainly be wonderful, riveting reading. But it’s fiction, and entertainment, even if it hints at some bigger generalities about human condition. It is not expertise, and it does not educate or inform.

And then there are topics we all think we are experts on and like to pontificate about. For example: politics. But even there, there are people who know the arcane rules of the Senate, or details of how Electoral College works, or actually sit down and read through thousands of pages of the bill going through the House. Such people have a much more deserved reputation of being experts than the rest of us cheering for our side.

My personal rule: never write about topics I am not at least somewhat expert on. And if I write about politics, to make it clear it is personal opinion, colored by my own background – from comparing USA to ex-Yugoslavia, to having studied some psychology of voter behavior.

There is no money you can pay me to write about exoplanets (or baseball!!!). I find the topic fascinating, but I have zero background. It would take me months of intense, focused, time-consuming study to even reach the level of “temporary expert” (and several years to become a real expert). Thus, I’d run my draft of the article by real experts…who should have written the piece themselves anyway, right?

My narrowest expertise is in “role of gonadal steroid hormones in the development of individual, strain, age and sex differences in circadian and photoperiodic time-measurement in Japanese quail”. While doing my own research on this, I also read a lot and thought a lot about related topics. I know quite a lot about sex hormones, brain and behavior, about circadian rhythms, and about bird physiology and behavior. Even more broadly, I studied quite a lot about animal physiology, animal behavior, and evolution. I took several graduate courses in history and philosophy of science. I have written blog posts about biological clocks in non-bird organisms, from bacteria, protists, fungi and plants, to arthropods, mammals and even humans (although I systematically avoided the literature on humans throughout grad school). I have written blog posts about other aspects of bird behavior. I have written about evolution and ecology and hormones.

So, a few weeks ago, when a bunch of people started asking if NYC subway rats would drown or survive Sandy, I decided I had enough background to be able to extend my area of expertise to rats. This is not my area of expertise, but I knew enough to know where to look, how to evaluate information, and how to quickly get up to speed. So I wrote a blog post about it (and a follow-up) and ended up linked and quoted all over the media. I was a ‘temporary expert’ on rat behavior during floods, but this expertise was not isolated from my other expertise – it is tangential to it, quite closely related.

When I write about human clocks, that is expanding my expertise. When I write about sleep, that is expanding my expertise. Those are not the cores of my expertise, but they are related enough, close enough that I can figure it out pretty fast.

The worst situation is when one is not even aware that a topic requires expertise and pontificates anyway. Remember a few years ago when old-skool, curmudgeon journalists wrote op-eds making fun of blogs (and later Twitter), each one of them instantly revealing they have never actually seen a blog?

Or today’s example – this one – which appears totally ignorant of a decade of writing, studies, companies, software and other stuff related to Open Access publishing (and scientific publishing in general, and alternative methods of peer-review). How does one even start critiquing such a piece? Where does one start, when so much has happened in the decades since the last time those arguments may have appeared valid? With the definition of “publishing”? Or “what is publishing for?”. Or “at what point in the timeline of scientific process does publication fall (hint: not at the end)?” Or “when did pre-publication, publisher-driven peer-review become accepted (hint: around 1960 or so, before which science worked perfectly fine for a few centuries)?”

So, better to stick to one’s own expertise, and then slowly expand to neighboring topics. Don’t jump head first into a topic you know nothing about. People will know. And they will point and laugh.

Technical Expertise

There are many more ways to tell a story than just a block of text. There is art and illustration. There are comic strips and cartoons. There is data journalism and infographics. There are talk podcasts and non-talk sound files. There are photography and slide-shows. There are animations and videos. And there is interactive stuff – “move the sliders!” – where users can change inputs to see how it changes the output.

Just like long articles (and blog posts) have a much longer staying power than short ones, good multimedia packages also are treated differently by users, regarded as valuable resources, something to save, bookmark and share with friends.

People who make that stuff are not topical experts. They have other kinds of expertise. They have technical skills needed to make that. They may have heightened sense of visual aesthetics. A really good ear for rhythm and timing. They may be really good at math. And as this kind of work usually takes more time, they may become ‘temporary experts’ on the topic as well.

Just like we, as users, run to topical experts, our “Go To” people to learn about the topics that are in the news, so producers of media run to their own “Go To” people when they want to produce videos, or infographics, or multimedia packages.

Many people produce videos, but not all have the same appeal. There are many good cartoonists out there, but there is a reason why we all flock to XKCD, PhD Comics and The Oatmeal – they are really, really good. For data journalism, infographics and interactive stuff, some big old organizations are really good at that, e.g., The Guardian and The New York Times, but we also check out ProPublica which really specializes in that format and sets the standard for everyone else.

For a multimedia package to work both short-term and long-term, it has to be appealing, inviting, intuituve to explore, entertaining, informational, educational, beautifully and clearly written (the text parts of it), and 100% factually accurate. Thus such a package is usually done by a team, at least two people: a topical expert, and a multimedia expert. Both are experts, both are specialists, both are journalists, and both can become hot commodities in the media market.

Amazing Writing

Let’s go back to the wild days of those silly “bloggers vs. journalists” op-eds a few years ago. It is interesting how they all had the same pattern, using some of the same arguments.

“But who will report the news as it happens, from the scene?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who did exactly that.

“But who will do in-depth, investigative reporting?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who do that every week.

“But who will cover local town councils and school boards?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who are doing an amazing job with that.

“But who will speak truth to the power?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who did just that.

“But who will effect positive change, affect legislation, diplomatic efforts?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples when bloggers did exactly that.

“But the word Blog is funny!”

Eh? That’s an argument? Well, “nut graf” is funny, too. And so is “lede”. And “word limit” is a funny concept.

“B-b-b-but at least we can write! So there!”

To which the only appropriate response is a throaty laughter.

I don’t think you mean what we mean when you say “writing”….

Writing is not just the ability to compose grammatically correct sentences. Writing is not the ability to put together sentences really fast in order to turn in the copy on deadline. Writing is not the ability to follow the formula of the 500-word inverted pyramid news piece that is just like all such pieces everywhere, including all the tired old metaphors, topped by over-hyped headlines. Though all of those skills can be useful sometimes. And writing is not keeping readers’ attention because they cannot avert their eyes from the train-wreck of an op-ed you just wrote.

Writing is the ability to get the reader who finished your first sentence to decide to read your second sentence. And third. And then fourth. And all the way to the end. And then say “Wow, this was good, let me share with all my friends”. Topic, length, form, format – those do not matter. It can be a tweet, it can be a book. It can be about duck penises, it can be about cancer. A good writer writes riveting, beautiful prose. Not convoluted, Victorian-style prose, but clear, exciting prose imbued with one’s personality.

Writing is also the ability to write riveting, can’t-put-down prose without giving up one inch of factual accuracy.

People who write riveting prose but what they say is BS are not good writers, they are what I like to call ‘seductive’ writers. I already mentioned David Brooks last week as a good example of a ‘seductive’ writer.

The way he invented stuff out of thin air about neuroscience and psychology was much worse error by Jonah Lehrer, another ‘seductive’ writer, than any plagiarism, “self” or “non-self” (non-responsiveness to expert criticisms in comments was his #2 error, and complete lack of interest in being a part of the science blogging community from which he could have learned both neuroscience and ethics was his #3).

There is a reason why we all stop whatever we are doing and go read long new pieces by the likes of Deborah Blum, Steve Silberman or David Dobbs. They do beautiful writing, their writing is assuredly 100% factually accurate, it is always interesting, and we always learn something new.

What I am trying to say is that good writing is a form of expertise. Many can quickly put together a formulaic news piece. Relatively few are really good writers in the sense I am trying to convey here. Media organizations that want to be successful have to try to lure in and hire some of those good writers, no matter what their area of topical expertise, or how much they explore neighboring topics to extend their expertise, or how much they tend to hit new topics and become temporary experts on those (and how much time they need for this). Some topical experts are also good writers. Some technical experts are also good writers. Mix and match, combine the different types, give them freedom and incentives to collaborate with each other, and you can have an awesome newsroom.

Expertise: the next generation

You are probably aware that one of the things I most like to do is “scouting” for talent, discovering new, up-and-coming science writers, bloggers and journalists, giving them opportunities, mentoring them, promoting their work, helping them become visible and successful.

Several science writing programs in the USA are churning out small armies of such amazing new writers each year (unfortunately, most other US schools and all the rest of the world are yet to catch up).

Many of them have background in science, thus have real scientific expertise to draw from. Others have always been fascinated by a topic and explored it in great detail over the years. So they are topical experts, always working on expanding their expertise, but being careful not to jump into something they don’t know anything about.

Many of them are skillful with a variety of modern tools, can troubleshoot them, modify them, and generally get them to work the way they want. Many experiment with a variety of other, non-textual forms of communication. Many can code and thus make their own tools if needed. Thus many of them are also technical experts.

They tend to be sticklers for accuracy. They do triple fact-checks on every word, number, symbol and punctuation point before turning in the piece. This also makes them good temporary experts whenever the assignments calls for it.

And many of them are beautiful writers as well, keeping my attention all the way to the end.

So, the new generation seems to combine all kinds of expertise. And working with them is a pleasure. They are so…professional!

Working with one of them, e.g., for a Guest Blog post, is so easy! We do not exchange 500 emails, half of which are irrelevant, half of which are CCd to irrelevant other people, half of which contain bits and pieces of the assignment (and I am the one who needs to track the most recent versions and patch them all together?), half of which contain images in wrong formats I cannot use, etc. No, the usual exchange is about six emails:

Email #1: Hey Bora, here is my pitch.
Email #2: That sounds great. Do it. When do you think you can have it done?
Email #3: How about April 15th?
Email #4: Deal. April 15th at 12 noon EDT it is.
Email #5 (on April 15th at noon): Here it is (attached), let me know if you want any changes.
Email #6: Perfect. Published. Thank you so much. The URL is: http…. ”

What I get is perfectly formatted text (not for Word, for WordPress), perfectly sized images with links and credits, author bios, and perfect embed codes that render multimedia exactly the way they should look. Publish-ready.

I sit down ready to edit and realize, fifteen minutes later, that I have come to the end without having to make a single change, not even to fix any typos as there were none. And I really enjoyed reading it. And that is not easy – I am a jaded, old blogger with ADHD, so keeping my attention all the way to the end is hard, and making me enjoy it even harder.

Yet these new generations keep doing this to me! Over and over again (sure, some of the veterans are also extremely good, but there the experience varies). Just the latest example – this post was due at 1:00pm. I received it (including images, embed code, etc) at 1:00pm. It was published at 1:16pm. It came in perfect. All I needed to do was read, copy, paste and click “Publish”, then spend a couple of minutes promoting it on social media and my work for the day was done. Easy. How nice for me. More time for me to read something else, or write a post of my own. Or take a long weekend.

They are really good, which makes me hopeful for the future. Now go ahead and hire them (you can find many of them in the archives here)! If you don’t, they’ll start their own media empires and vanquish the competition that still hires generalists 😉


Nate Silver and the Ascendance of Expertise
Beats vs obsessions, columns vs. blogs, and other angels dancing on pins
#sci4hels – ‘Killer’ science journalists of the future ready to take over the world!
The SA Incubator, or, why promote young science writers?
Science Blogs – definition, and a history
#scio12: Multitudes of Sciences, Multitudes of Journalisms, and the Disappearance of the Quote.
Blogs: face the conversation
Is education what journalists do?
Telling science stories…wait, what’s a “story”?
The line between science and journalism is getting blurry….again

Nate Silver and the Ascendance of Expertise

Nate Silver is now a meme (also source of the image on the left).

I usually pepper my posts with links, but today I feel lazy, so I listed a bunch of links at the bottom – hours of fascinating reading you can have after you read my post!

Who is Nate Silver?

Nate Silver likes to play with numbers. He started out with sports, then burritos, then politics. He, using statistics, correctly predicted most (not all, but almost all) presidential and congressional races in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Back in 2010, he came to ScienceOnline and moderated a session (together with Arikia Millikan) on using math to study human behavior online – the Web Science.

What does Nate Silver do?

Twenty years ago, there were only a few pollsters out there and they did relatively few polls. Today, there are many polling organizations and they, especially in the home stretch of an election, poll incessantly, every day. They do national polls, state-wide polls, even local polls. Over the years, they refine their methodology. Some predict outcomes better than others, for a variety of reasons.

Nate Silver averages all the polls, weights each poll according to the statistics of past performances, and produces a daily-changing set of numbers predicting outcomes of various electoral races. For the Presidental elections, unlike pundits focusing on national polls, he rightly focuses on state polls, especially in swing states, in order to predict the winner of the Electoral College – the only thing that really counts (we can discuss if that is right or wrong, but that is how the game is played now, so that it what he measures).

What did Nate Silver not do?

As a couple of bloggers (see links at the bottom) pointed out, Nate Silver did not do Big Data. These are pretty small and limited data-sets he has at his disposal. In aggregate, they are powerfully predictive, but that is not Big Data, though the motivations and methodologies are similar.

As Silver started in sports statistics, being a part of the Moneyball movement in baseball, people assume that what he is doing now is the same thing. But it is not. It is also not the same as what he did with burritos, though that comes closer.

In baseball (and later in basketball, though horse racing and betting industry has been doing this for a century at least), there are hard data. Player hit the ball or did not. Caught the ball or did not. The ball ended in a spot X or did not. It was a home-run or it wasn’t. Empirical data. Are two players good buddies or not does not matter that much at that level – they are both professionals and will do their best regardless of interpersonal relationships, body language and other subjective parameters. Thus, stats in sports work well, as they are based on clearly measurable things. From such stats, one can rank players and teams, and predict with quite a high degree of accuraccy which teams will win and which will lose. Or which horses have which odds for winning a race.

So again, What did Nate Silver do?

People focus on numbers, imagining they are hard data. But remember that the numbers come from polls. Polls are questionnaires. What Nate Silver did was social science.

Polls ask questions. People answer them differently. They may have conscious or unconscious biases. They will have different backgrounds and different levels of being informed. Some will lie on purpose, to skew the polls, as part of their activism. Some will lie unconsciously because they are afraid to tell what they really think. People respond differently if they are polled over their land-line phones (public) and differently if called on their cell-phones (private), and differently in online polls versus being asked in person, face to face (e.g., in exit polls). Some people put a lot of thought into their answers. Others want to do it as fast as possible and go with gut feeling, or even almost-random responses.

Different pollsters will ask similar questions, but with slightly different wording. And we know that wording affects the responses. The order of questions also affects responses.

Each pollster can only reach a limited number of people, so the small sample size results in a pretty large error.

But when Nate (and others) averages the polls, he increases the sample size, thus reducing the error. When he takes into account the past accuracy of pollsters and weights them accordingly, he further reduces the error. People who lie in opposite directions cancel each other. Pollsters who are biased in opposite directions cancel each other. A well-balanced, weighted average can take care of all of that, and produce a much more accurate prediction.

But importantly, it is still not numbers from physical measurements. It is statistics (and yes, Statistics is a sub-discipline of Mathematics) applied to messy human minds and brains and emotions and moods.

It’s people!

Why Nate Silver now?

A lot of it has to do with the current political climate. I wrote my thoughts about it on my Tumblr as I did not think it was appropriate to post it here, but go take a look.

In short, it is a backlash to alternative reality, alternative facts, alternative science, alternative math. It is a backlash to the self-perpetuating cycles of mutual lying between rightwing media, rightwing politicians, rightwing donors and rightwing voters, each preventing the others from straying one millimeter away from this alternative fantasy world. It is a backlash against anti-empiricism, anti-science, anti-facts, head-in-the-sand, “we make reality now” mindset. Practical solutions require dealing with the world as it is, not the world one imagines to be or wants it to be.

And when postmodernism in public life reaches a point of saturation, and when people have had enough of it, and when there is a backlash, people will go for as extreme opposite as they can find. In this case: math. Numbers. Hard, cold numbers. Unbiased analysis. No “gut feelings”. Which is why they go for Nate. Which is why they tend to ignore that Silver’s numbers are people.

Why Nate Silver and not other numbers guys?

Because Nate is a blogger. Really. Others put data out there as well (see links at the bottom). Nice graphs and charts and tables. Great numbers, essentially the same as Nate’s. But they don’t tell a story about the data. He does. He’s been doing it for years. He has regular readership. He has a recognizable voice. He has earned trust not just by the strength of his predictions, but also by the strength of his writing, his personality that shines in his blog posts, his transparency about his thinking and about his methodology.

People focus on Nate and trust Nate because he is an expert, but more importantly because he is an expert who can tell the story. An expert who can explain stuff in ways that people understand. He narrates his work and his numbers.

Why Nate Silver’s blog?

A number of people, some unhappy that other number-crunchers did not reach Nate’s fame (or rightwing wreath), explain his prominence by the fact that his blog is hosted by New York Times (see links at the bottom). Even the NYTimes public editor suggested that his fame is due to the association with the NYTimes brand.

This is upside down. And she got instant and strong backlash. It is Nate who is the brand. NYTimes profits more from having Nate on their site (the traffic to his blog just before and during the election day dwarfed all the traffic to everything else on their site) than he does from being associated with them. He is strengthening their brand, by being an expert on site, rather than the other way round.

NYTimes reported on Nate’s traffic in a pretty vague way – number of site visits that included visits to Nate Silver’s blog. But we know that very few people go to sites via homepages. Older people and people within the news business may still have that habit. But most people do not. I bet that at least 90% (and more likely 99.99%) of the traffic to Silver’s blog on the election day did not come from the NYTimes homepage, or any other page on the site. It came from direct links, social media, “dark social”, emails, bookmarks, RSS feed readers, searches, etc.

Nate Silver and the Ascendance of Expertise

What New York Times does smartly, to enhance its brand, is to hire people with real expertise, people like Nate Silver (and Paul Krugman etc.) and give them a prominent spot on the site (and even sometimes in the paper version). Washington Post does the same with Ezra Klein. Many media outlets, including the one you are on right now, have set up blogging networks specifically in order to attract and host writers with real expertise.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago:

Landing on the New York Times page after you followed a link tells you something about it, to a certain extent. You still have to figure out if you trust the article you are about to read. Your expectations are higher than if it was Daily Mail, but you are still on guard. How do you decide in advance? By the name in the byline. If it is Maureen Dowd, you expect entertainment, but not much depth. If it’s David Brooks, you expect seductively beautiful writing that is based on pseudo-sociology he picked out of thin air to conform to his ideology. But if it’s Paul Krugman, you know you will get a better understanding of some aspect of economics because the guy knows his stuff – he is an expert.

And you know exactly what you’ll get if you see the byline of Nate Silver.

Expertise engenders trust. When I write about biology, my readers trust me as I am an expert. When I write about media, people trust me a little bit less because my expertise in this came later, was not “official” (i.e., no graduate school degrees), and is mostly based on my own impressions and experience, though my track record so far has been pretty good. When I write about politics…why would anyone trust me? Everyone has a political opinion, right?

What is important to note is that there is hunger out there for expertise. I started as a political blogger. Back in 2003/2004 there was a bunch of us starting political blogging. We each tried to add a particular angle, or bring in our other expertise (I focused on psychology of ideology, a nascent field now called ‘political psychology’), but mainly we pontificated about politics and performed acts of media criticism and of political activism. After the 2004 election, many of us specialized. Ezra Klein focused on health care and became a “Go To” person for it, resulting in his hire by the Washington Post. Many others did something like that and got hired as campaign managers, or writers, or consultants, etc.

I focused on science and ended up at Scientific American. In January 2005 I started a science blog, separate from my political blog. And instantly, with my very first post, the new blog reached the same traffic levels as the old blog. There were comments, questions. In science, I was an expert, and people trusted me and were hungry for information.

I said and wrote this many times, but long posts that do not shy away from nitty-gritty details (including numbers, formulae, technical terms if explained first, even Latin names for animals – see super-successful Tetrapod Zoology blog right here on the network) do extremely well. They may not get an instand surge of low-quality traffic from Slashdot, Digg, Reddit, Stumbleupon or Fark, but they accrue tons of traffic over time. Such pieces are not seen as entertainment, but as resources – something to be saved, bookmarked and shared with friends. Such pieces keep getting re-discovered and re-shared for years after initial publication. They provide value that a one-hit wonder, entertaining piece does not. They provide value that standard, short, news pieces do not – they provide context and detail and quality of explanation that comes from expertise, something that a 400-word piece cannot possibly contain, as there is not enough space for it. Longform writing works.

What is expertise?

How does one become an expert?

There are two ways. There is the 20th century method (yes, 20th century is an outlier on everything), in which one does hands-on research on a very narrow project while, hopefully, reading a little bit more broadly, resulting in an official badge of expertise – an MS or PhD or MD or some such degree.

And then there is the historically traditional method that is making a big come-back now – having a deep interest in the topic and doing it yourself, reading, discussing with others, doing own research, blogging about it, writing and reporting on it for years, establishing oneself as an expert on the topic. This is how the most respected journalists became most respected – by becoming the Go To experts on a particular topic.

The generalists and pundits – or, if you want, foxes as opposed to hedgehogs – are the reason why the audience is losing trust in the traditional media. They have seen expertise, and they are not going back.

There is something importantly different about l’affaire Silver, though. Most of the cases in the past were impressionistic. We used our own ‘gut feelings’ to say that a particular blog post by an expert X was better than a traditional news article by a journalist Y. But now we can back up our gut feelings with numbers. This case is empirical. Expert blogger Nate Silver was correct, while pundits and traditional bloviators were not…and here are the numbers.

How does expertise fit inside the new media ecosystem?

It is easy here at Scientific American. We are an expert publication almost by definition. When news breaks, and there is a science component to it, others come to our site to get the reliable scoop on it. Generalist news organizations link to our articles on the scientific aspects of news stories. All our editors are experts on the topics they write about (and some even have the 20th century badges of expertise, i.e., PhDs and such). And then we have the blog network, where we have about 50 additional experts in other fields.

Being on, or regularly reading, Scienceblogs.com over several years, where science bloggers were treated as ‘media’, taught us a lot. We learned from one another, learned from our own mistakes, and learned by analyzing mistakes of traditional media. We encountered and studied the traditional journalistic ethics and best practices and incorporated the best of it into our blogging. The Pepsigate scandal was a particularly useful teaching moment for all of us. We became better writers, better journalists, and better bloggers. The distinctions between these blurred.

But we remained experts in our domains. And we resisted some of the traditional media trappings. Being Web natives, we vehemently resist the alien concept of “word count”. No blogger I know ever counts words in their posts (if they do, they are too ashamed to say it publicly). The post is done when it’s done, when all the historical, philosophical, social and methodological context is included, all details hashed out, all conclusions finalized. And we know that #longform works best. And we resist detached “objectivity”. We know we gain rapport and trust with our readers if we insert ourselves into our stories, explain what is the personal connection, where does our expertise on the topic come from, what are our potential biases on the topic, why are we particularly excited about this topic and decided to write about that and not about something else.

As I said yesterday, the traditional and new forms are fusing, learning from each other, getting better as a result, and we are all better off because of it. The line between blogs and columns, and between beats and obsessions is getting fuzzy, and that’s a good thing. Many traditional journalists are now also blogging, experimenting with forms and formats, and then transferring those into their more traditional writing.

This is why forward-looking media organizations are hiring experts. And why the pundits and bloviators, once their contracts expire or they retire, will gradually disappear from the media ecosystem (this will take many years, especially on TV which is the most resistant to change). This is why journalism schools are training experts. This is why media organizations are hiring bloggers. And then some of those bloggers get desks in the office, salaries equal to staff, benefits, etc. One day, that will be the norm. Let’s hope.


Nate Silver: the verdict.
Under Attack, Nate Silver Picks the Wrong Defense
The Times’s Washington Bureau Chief, and Legions of Others, in Defense of Nate Silver
New York Times wants to hold Nate Silver to newsroom standards
Sorry, Margaret, You Need to Get Out More
Your Employee Is an Online Celebrity. Now What Do You Do?
Nate Silver probability map vs. Actual map
Three Lessons From The Nate Silver Controversy
Here’s What the New York Times’ Nate Silver Traffic Boom Looks Like
In defense of Nate Silver: Pundits bare their misunderstanding.
‘How Can That Be?’ More on the ‘They Can’t Both Be Right’ Saga
Wrath of the Math: Obama Wins Nerdiest Election Ever
Silver Medal
In Defense of Nate Silver, Election Pollsters, and Statistical Predictions
The Nate Silver backlash
Data, uncertainty, and specialization: What journalism can learn from FiveThirtyEight’s election coverage
Nate Silver gets a big boost from the election
Why Math is Like the Honey Badger: Nate Silver Ascendant
Nate Silver of 538.com and his critics in the press corps. Get your literacy up.
Nate Silver’s Braying Idiot Detractors Show That Being Ignorant About Politics Is Like Being Ignorant About Sports
In defense of Nate Silver — and basic math
Today’s War on Nate SIlver: Quiet Flows the Don Edition
The Passion of Nate Silver (Sort Of)
Pundits versus probabilities
What’s FiveThirtyEight Good For?: The Inevitable Nate Silver Backlash
How did Nate Silver Get the Election Odds so Wrong?
Math and Discipline — Why Nate Silver’s Accuracy Isn’t About “Big Data”
Nate Silver the Real Winner of Election 2012
How did Nate Silver predict the US election?
Among the top election quants, Nate Silver reigns supreme
Drew Linzer: The stats man who predicted Obama’s win
Was Nate Silver the Most Accurate 2012 Election Pundit?
Climate science is Nate Silver and U.S. politics is Karl Rove
Debunking Two Nate Silver Myths
Whatever Nate Silver Does, Isn’t Science
How a nerd named Nate Silver changed political reporting forever.
Nate Silver: Why I Started FiveThirtyEight
Pundit Forecasts All Wrong, Silver Perfectly Right. Is Punditry Dead?
Can Nate Silver’s example save political journalism?
Gallup is very upset at Nate Silver
Nate Silver on the Election, Pundits, and His Drunk Alter Ego
Foxy Nate Silver and why old-media hedgehogs could soon be old news

Beats vs obsessions, columns vs. blogs, and other angels dancing on pins

It seems we like dichotomies when discussing changes in the media. We pick two words, and then fight over them.

I have no intention to revisit the stale old debate about journalists vs. bloggers, as it was silly to begin with, and was resolved back in 2005, oh wait, in 2008, or was it in 2009, or, oh, OK, in 2010…ah, well.

That old debate was just un-serious. People who used to write anti-blog screeds did a dereliction of journalistic duty, writing pieces about phenomena they knew nothing about, and did not bother to get informed and educated about. All the scorn that was heaped upon them at the time was fully deserved.

I am more interested in some more recent discussions, where two words are compared by people who put some thought into it and wrote interesting pieces about it, not just knee-jerk emotional reactions. Perhaps there is nothing to it, in the end, but I’d like to know at least WHY is it so important to so many people in the media to have these discussions in the first place.

Beats vs obsessions

Recent launch of Quartz, an innovative online magazine, incited a round of articles and blog posts discussing the distinction between traditional media ‘beats’ and the new concept, inaugurated by Quartz, of ‘obsessions’.

The distinction is fuzzy, to say the least, and not everyone can figure out the difference yet. The ‘obsessions’ are just another effort at replacing ‘beats’, now seen as an archaic concept originating in the necessities of internal organization of media outlets printing on paper.

I guess the main difference people are noting is that obsessions are narrower – in scope of the topic, or (geographic) space, or in time. A crime beat is a broad category. Obsessively following every detail of a particular crime for a while until it’s solved (or there is nothing more to say), is an obsession. Once the story is over, obsession is closed, and the reporter moves to a new topic.

But another way the difference is explained is that an obsession is actually broader, not narrower, by being multidisciplinary. Instead of looking at many stories from one angle, it focuses on a single story from many angles. This may be a way to solve some Wicked Problems. So, looking at the Big Picture of crime, e.g., causes of crime and what measures potentially reduce crime in various parts of the globe, cultures, past eras, etc, from every angle possible, is also an obsession.

Finally, the third difference I saw in these articles, is the question of institutional organization. A beat is organized to cover a particular institution. Crime beat is coverage of cops and courts and prisons, not sociological causes of crime, or lives of criminals. You don’t cover war, you cover the military. You don’t cover policy, you cover Congress. You don’t cover education, you cover schools and school boards. You don’t cover health and medicine, you cover hospitals.

You learn the jargon, you learn their rules and laws, you learn who’s’who in that institution, and you make nice with your sources in institutions you cover. An obsession breaks out of those boundaries and covers a phenomenon or topic or theme from a perspective of people interested in that topic, different angles your audience brings to it. You need to be much more responsive, do more listening and less preaching. Notice how SciAm categories are not disciplinary (e.g., Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Biology…), but broader themes as people are interested in them (Evolution, Space, Energy & Environment, Mind & Brain, Technology…).

Columnists vs. bloggers

At about the same time, another distinction arose, that between columnists and bloggers (see the Storify of tweets of this discussion as well).

Here, the distinction IS essentially zero.

But let’s not confuse IS with OUGHT.

Obviously some people see a difference and are trying to put their finger on where exactly it is. Is column edited, blog not? Mostly yes, but there are edited blogs and un-edited columns.

Are blogs online, columns on paper? Everything is online these days (and everything can and sometimes is re-purposed for the print edition as well, or vice versa in old-skool organizations that are not digital-first yet but are still somehow surviving).

Columns have word-limits, blogs don’t (thus blog posts tend to be longer than columns)? Online, there is no need for word-limits no matter what the format.

Columns are paid, blogs are not? Ask all the professional bloggers about it, heh, though this may still somewhat persist quantitatively rather than qualitatively, with columnists being paid at a higher rate than bloggers for purely historically contingent reasons, not tied to quantity or quality of writing. There is also a balance of control in play, i.e., more you pay someone, more editorial control you can exert over that person’s work, but can reciprocate by giving the dignified title of “columnist”.

This blog network has three bloggers who consider themselves to be columnists. They started out as columnists in traditional media, and feel insecure without the safety net of copy-editors. Those three bloggers’ posts do get copy-edited (and if necessary edited, though not by me – I only edit Guest Blog and Expeditions with its outside authors). Other bloggers know they can use our copy-editing services, but it never occurs to them to ask – they are used to doing everything themselves without a safety net. I did the kindest, gentlest arm-twisting to persuade the three columnists to use the word “blogger” when they refer to themselves, for a number of reasons. First, everyone is equal, and I do not want to have perceptions that some people are more equal than others. If you use blogging software, you are a blogger. But more importantly, the word “blogger” gives you more freedom. Let me explain…

Column is an old term, and we all have a pretty good idea what it is, what to expect when we read one. There are traditions in length, form, format, language, tone, style, etc. Those traditions are now overly restrictive. On the other hand, word ‘blog’ is new and still being defined. It is about regular posting online, with experimentation being an important aspect of it – all kinds of lengths, forms, voices, styles etc can be used and nobody will find it unusual if the site is called a “blog”. Photoblogs, podcasts, videoblogs, are just as unsurprising as purely textual ones. Humor, funny photoshops, or profanity are just as “normal” on blogs as are long treatises, deep expertise and long lists of references. Heck, just look around our network: huge diversity of styles and forms, even though you can argue that the range of “acceptable” is narrower here than in the blogosphere as a whole.

Emotional effect of words

A few days ago, I discussed the distinction between beats and obsessions with a veteran journalist who’s been doing this for decades. We discovered that we have very different, essentially opposite, emotional reactions to those two words.

For him, the word ‘beat’ denotes something regular, steady, reliable and predictable, like a beat of a metronome, or heartbeat. Something that is comfortable and comforting. On the other hand, ‘obsession’ seemed dangerous to him, unpredictable, almost pathological. Obsessed people are not reliable, one never knows what crazy thing they will do next.

For me, the word ‘beat’ has a negative connotation. It is something aggressive, implying violence, as in ‘beating the dead horse’, or self-satisfactory, as in ‘beating off’. On the other hand, for me ‘obsession’ is a sister-word to ‘passion’. Without obsession, work is not worth doing. Without obsession, love is not worth loving. Without obsession, or passion, nobody will do anything risky and innovative, which is what we need in times of disruption of the entire system. During ten years in research, I was obsessed with it, thinking, dreaming, doing and breathing my science 24/7. I am just as obsessed with science communication, building the new media ecosystem, and discovering/promoting new writing talent now.

I was stunned by this difference in our reactions. Perhaps this is because English is second language to me, so my impressions of the words are colored by the context in which I first encountered them years ago when I was learning English? Or is it due to our temperamental (or even age) differences, me being always anti-authoritarian and kinda revolutionary, always proselytizing the new thing, the new order? Am I the one being crazy here?

So (and thanks to K.R. for giving me this idea in the first place), I checked the original etymologies of the two words. Apparently, we are both half-right. Both words are aggressive. The etymology of ‘beat’ indeed has something to do with physical violence. But etymology of ‘obsession’ is just as bad – implying near-possession by demons! But words evolve…

As someone who entered the media horizontally (from science to blogging to newsroom) as opposed to vertically (through j-school, or starting in the mailroom and working my way up), I am not emotionally wed to terms like ‘beat’, or ‘column’. For me, they have the patina of the old days of constraining tradition, not the comfort of ‘good old days’ I don’t remember (or don’t remember as “good”).

On the other hand, whenever one encounters a new word (or a word new to the person), it always looks strange. One way to deal with strangeness is to find it funny and laugh. This was the commonly voiced reaction by curmudgeon journalists to the new words like ‘blog’ and ‘twitter’. If they find the word funny, then the phenomena those words denote are not worth studying or taking seriously, but are perfectly OK to make fun of in public. They thought they were savvy, but they quickly discovered they looked stupid, in public. They fell for their own emotional reactions.

Oh, did I mention I hate the word “verticals”? How uni-dimensional (and hierarchical) for a network that is the Web!

Other subtle effects of words

There is another subtle difference in the way I subconsciously (well, consciously as of today) respond to the words “beat” and “obsession”.

Beat is repeated action. Obsession is a continuous action.

Oh, wait! Column writing is a repeated action. Blogging is a continuous action.

Or rather, beat (and column) is a repeated action, it’s work. Obsession and blogging are constant emotions that spur one into action all the time, out of love.

This is something related to a theme I often talk about (and write about, e.g,. here and here).

Blogging, unlike writing a column (or writing news pieces, or features, etc.), rarely produces stand-alone pieces that can be read in a vacuum. Blogging at its best is a series of posts, each building on what was previously written, and each connected to what other people have written (or what one has written elsewhere).

I have a beat here at my blog. Animal physiology and behavior, especially in respect to time (daily and seasonal rhythms), and especially when studied out in the field, within ecological and evolutionary contexts. Most of my blog posts on those topics are more or less stand-alone pieces. They link to scientific papers, or media coverage, but rarely link to my older posts.

I also have an obsession – studying the way the media ecosystem is changing. My blog posts on this topic are all connected. Which is why, just like the one you are reading right now, my posts on this obsession are chock-full of links, both to my older posts (so you can see where I am coming from, how my thinking evolved, etc) and to other people’s writing (to see the context within which I am thinking, who are the other people who are influencing me, etc).

A number of our other editors also do both. They produce perfectly traditional self-contained news pieces for the Observations blog (and elsewhere on the site, or in the print magazine), and fantastically gripping, innovative and experimental blog posts on their own personal blogs here (see their blogs on the pull-down menu above: Brainwaves, Streams of Consciousness, Talking Back, Octopus Chronicles, Budding Scientist, Critical Opalescence, Degrees of Freedom).

Our network bloggers are all over the spectrum here – most have some topics that are beats, some topics that are obsessions. For example, John Platt has a beat – endangered species (though he does obsess about a couple of species he writes about over and over again). Cassie Rodenberg has an obsession – addiction, from every possible angle: chemical, medical, societal, historical, ethical, legal, political, psychological, journalistic, artistic, and even personal. One can read most of Platt’s posts in isolation. One has to read many of Rodenberg’s posts before becoming acquainted with her enough to be able to, for example, post an appropriate comment.

So, most of us here on the network are sometimes columnists, sometimes bloggers, sometimes just wonderful storytellers, and sometimes something in-between. And that is probably the best. It is up to readers to recognize where they have just landed after following a link to a blog post. Is it a traditional piece that stands alone? Or is it a post that is one of many in a series, and digging through the archives and following for a few weeks or months are needed to really start understanding what is going on – at which point you will be richly rewarded because you have discovered a person with unique expertise and unique voice?

And this brings us to the next pair of words journos love to discuss: generalists vs. specialists.

Generalists vs. specialists

The Web has allowed many angles, many points of view, and yes, many truths to be available to everyone. Some of those angles and truths are more legitimate than others, but who’s the referee any more? It used to be the gatekeepers of the traditional media, but with so many voices out there now, and the trust in traditional media at a historic low, the MSM is not a referee of truth any more. It cannot do that as an institution, but it can regain some of it by hiring people who are referees of truth by virtue of having the relevant expertise.

Landing on the New York Times page after you followed a link tells you something about it, to a certain extent. You still have to figure out if you trust the article you are about to read. Your expectations are higher than if it was Daily Mail, but you are still on guard. How do you decide in advance? By the name in the byline. If it is Maureen Dowd, you expect entertainment, but not much depth. If it’s David Brooks, you expect seductively beautiful writing that is based on pseudo-sociology he picked out of thin air to conform to his ideology. But if it’s Paul Krugman, you know you will get a better understanding of some aspect of economics because the guy knows his stuff – he is an expert.

Every expert will have naysayers. There is always some fringe group that for emotional, political or financial reasons has an interest in promoting an alternative, illegitimate “truth” (see: global warming denialists, creationists, anti-vaxxers, anti-GMOs, animal rightists, etc). But for most people, expertise matters. Most people rightfully believe what Krugman says about economics. I hope people believe me when I write something about circadian rhythms. Expertise counts.

Expertise does not require a PhD in the topic. There are several bloggers on this science blogs network that came originally from English degrees, or journalism. But they developed obsessions for some areas of science, and over the years they became experts. And you know they are experts because they keep writing about it over and over again, they back up their claims with copious links to trustworthy sources, and they get general agreement from other experts in the same field in the comments or in responses on their own blogs. Over time, they earned respect and reputation for being experts on the topics they usually write about (and nothing wrong with occasionally using the blog to test new ideas in a new field, as a learning tool, perhaps as a test for moving from the old obsession to a new one).

A generalist who covers a different topic each time will never become known for expertise in any group of readers passionate about any of those topics. The articles and posts may be OK, but they will never be as inspiring or awesome as articles written by experts. A generalist may gain reputation among editors as a reliable freelancer who does good work, meets deadlines, is easy to work with and does not require too much time and effort to edit. But that reputation is inside baseball, it does not turn the writer into a personal brand, but one dependent on (usually declining, and often disappearing) institutional brands. In the world of “Friends in Low Places“, that is probably not the best strategy.

Thus, it is not surprising that j-schools are now trying to train experts, though that may be misguidedly turned into training computer programmers instead of journalists. Furthermore, some places are now taking existing experts and turning them into journalists.

When an expert keeps writing, that is more likely to be an obsession than a beat. It is more likely to look like a blog than a column. It will be continuous, rather than repeatable. It will be a constantly developing corpus of work, rather than a collection of unrelated articles. It will be an opportunity to gain regular audience and to build reputation, respect and a personal brand that is easy to move from one institution to another (or to freelancing). A person with a brand is attractive to hire by media organizations that understand that their institutional brand depends on the quality and reputation of the expert writers they hired – as bloggers, treated and paid as if they were columnists of yore.

“Bloggers vs. journalists” really makes no sense any more, does it?

ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Maryn McKenna

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

Today my guest is Maryn McKenna (blog, Twitter).

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

I’m a journalist working in several different channels: I blog (for Wired), write medium-length pieces (as a columnist for Scientific American), write long-form pieces (for a variety of magazines) and write books: so far, Superbug, about antibiotic resistance, and Beating Back the Devil, about the CDC’s disease detectives.

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

I fell into science-writing sideways — in my case, through studying theatre, becoming a dramaturg, realizing I was about to starve, going to journalism school and coming out as a finance reporter. My first newspaper job involved doing analyses of sleazy savings and loan deals. That made me into an investigative reporter, and my next two newspaper jobs involved investigations into public health issues: in Cincinnati, cancer clusters near a closed nuclear-weapons plant, and in Boston, the earliest cases of Gulf War Syndrome. On the basis of those I ended up working in Atlanta as the only reporter assigned to full-time coverage of the CDC, which basically meant wheedling my way into (many) outbreak investigations.

This is a good place to answer the education question. I didn’t study science as an undergraduate; I studied science writing for my masters’. But once it was clear I was going to be a public health reporter, I used journalism fellowships to do post-graduate work, including a year at University of Michigan studying the social history of epidemics and a year with the Kaiser Family Foundation studying emergency rooms.

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

I am in the proposal stage for a book that will look at the intertwined histories of antibiotic development and modern agriculture. My goal is to figure out how to free up enough time from the rest of my life to work on it!

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

I’m fascinated by how communities self-assemble on Twitter, and I’m increasingly interested in how social media can be used to support public health, for instance through crowd-sourced surveillance.

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

Blogging (first at Blogger starting in 2007, then Scienceblogs, then Wired) has been essential to my re-invention: from a newspaper reporter to a freelance journalist, and from writing only about public and global health to venturing into food policy as well. Blogging gave me a publication space, gave me an identity, gave me an audience and community. My professional life now could not exist without it. In addition, I’m on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, Pinterest and some semi-closed networks such as GoodReads, and I feel as though all of those support and extend what I (try to) do. Twitter in particular is essential to me — not just for community but also for identifying and researching stories.

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

I think I “discovered” science blogs around the time I stumbled into blogging myself, and I don’t think I could say at this point who first caught my eye. “Favorites” is a very hard question to answer, both because I read so many — my RSS reader has, literally, hundreds of subscriptions in it — and also because I fear to accidentally leave out people whose work I really do like. But if I only have time to read a few, I will always go first to my Wired colleagues and friends Deborah Blum and David Dobbs; to Ed Yong, of course; to Tara Smith for her insights and Mike the Mad Biologist for his outrage; and to Maggie Koerth-Baker not just for her choices but for her pitch-perfect voice. For deep dives in diseases I love Contagions, Body Horrors and the mysterious Puff the Mutant Dragon. And for knowing what’s up on the food-policy side of my life I rely on Mark Bittman at the New York Times, Tom Philpott at Mother Jones and Helena Bottemiller at Food Safety News.

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

For me it’s the face-to-face meetings above all. Writing is a lonely business, especially for freelancers, and most especially for people like me who live in parts of the country where there are not dense artistic cultures. (I live mostly in Atlanta: great for public health, not great for random creative interaction.) To have so many people rejoicing in each others’ obsessions is fantastic. Even more, though, I love ScienceOnline because it brings me gently face-to-face with my unknown unknowns; that is, the conference and community introduce me every year to so many people who know more about my subjects than I do. I always come away not only with fresh ideas but also with the knowledge that I have met people whom I can trust to educate me, with enthusiasm and without judgment, when I need them.

ScienceOnline2012 – interview with David Ng

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

Today my guest is David Ng (blog, The Science Creative Quarterly, Twitter).

Hi Dave, and welcome to A Blog Around The Clock!

Hi Bora, thanks for having me. You know, I just read your about section and I totally forgot that you are a chronobiologist. I also just realized that I’ve never actually been interviewed by a chronobiologist before. Which is very cool – being interviewed and also the word “chronobiologist” generally. I wish I could call myself a chronobiologist…

Well thank you… chronobiology is a very interesting field… Anyway, would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself?

You mean apart from the fact that I wish I was a chronobiologist?

Yes, apart from that. For instance, my readers would like to know where…

…Because having the word “chronobiologist” on my business card would be awesome. In fact, if it were me, I would have it in a huge font size, just over the bit where it says I’m from Vancouver, Canada, University of British Columbia. Is the word “chronobiologist” on your business card?

Well, no…

Oh man! You should totally put it on your business card!

Well… I’ll take that into consideration. But anyway… my readers… my readers would like to know where you are coming from, that is to say your background and how you feel about science generally?

Well, sometimes, how I feel about science is kind of complicated. Although I suppose that is the point. Science – what it is, why it’s important, and how we can share it – is, as you know, a pretty nuanced thing. That’s what makes it great and wonderful, yet challenging and occasionally scary. The problem is that not everyone appreciates this diversity in perspective. In other words, not everyone considers the idea that science is a kind of culture all to itself – they tend to think of science as a collection of facts, homework even, or maybe even something that only works within defined stereotypes. Makes them tune out and… Sorry, what was the question?

I was asking about how you feel about science… which I think you kind of answered…

Oh yeah, right… Did I answer it? Ummm, maybe this picture can clarify things a bit…

I suppose that also works. So then, what about your background? Any scientific education?

Look Bora, we’ve already established the fact that I’m not a chronobiologist – there’s no need to rub it in…

No, no… I didn’t mean to rub anything in. I just mean, er, tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

Oh right… Well, my training was in molecular genetics, and cancer research specifically, but the last decade or so, I’ve been mostly considered an academic in science literacy – working on projects related to science education and science literacy.

You mean projects that use genetics as a subject matter?

Well, yes, there’s a bit of that – but it’s more about my faculty position being administratively (shall we say) “interesting,” meaning that I’m in the fortunate position to be involved in all sorts of different kinds of science communication projects, and all sorts of different types of science education projects, and OMG! WE SHOULD TOTALLY START A PROJECT ON CHRONOBIOLOGY!

Ummm… Sure… But first tell me what do you mean by administratively “interesting?”

Well, in a nutshell, I’m a Faculty member without a faculty. How this came to be, appears to be a bit of a mystery at my institution, but I suspect it had something to do with my old boss being smart enough to realize that a faculty position that deals with science literacy needs to have as much room as possible to explore. Put another way, what this means is that I have the usual academic perks, but without most of the usual academic ties that can often lead to bureaucratic limits. In other words, there’s a lot of freedom to explore different projects. Add to that, the fact that I have a lab that is quite well equipped from an infrastructure point of view, amazing colleagues (Joanne Fox – also not a chronobiologist – in particular), and a pretty decent track record in acquiring funding, culminating in ideal circumstances to try lots of different things.

Such as?

Well, conventional things might be hosting genetics fieldtrips for high school students, or providing professional workshops for working scientists, or simply being involved in our university’s undergraduate/graduate community through an advocacy role or by being directly involved in various courses. But I have to admit – it’s the unconventional stuff that is really fun and interesting.

Like what?

Well, lots of different things actually. Examples might include the launching of an elementary school fieldtrip program that was designed by the collaborative efforts of Science Graduate Students and Creative Writing Masters of Fine Arts students. That was pretty interesting, and wonderful too, at least from the feedback from teachers and students involved. Another strange one, which has been getting attention on and off, is this crowdsourcing initiative we have called Phylo or Phylomon. It’s basically a game project that revolved around biodiversity education and Pokemon culture. AND DID YOU NOT HEAR MY SUGGESTION FOR A CHRONOBIOLOGY RELATED PROJECT?

Ahem… Are any of these things taking up the most of your time and passion these days?

Actually, the Phylomon project has taken off in all sorts of interesting directions. Lots of activity there, and there’s movement now for all manner of different decks to be produced in collaboration with specific organizations or groups (like museum decks or we could even have a ScienceOnline deck for example). Because of its fluid crowdsourcing nature, the direction it goes is super open in principle. I’m currently recruiting folks to work on a new game mechanic that could highlight some evolutionary biology concepts for instance.

Anything else?

Yes, I’ve been really thinking a lot these days about grand things like “What exactly is science?” and “What does it mean to be scientifically literate?” In doing so, I’m thinking that it would be fun to focus on a project that tries to address these fundamental questions at a level where younger children can contribute. Maybe produce some well crafted resources for teachers, that could first exist as a “scientific method field trip” or “scientific method camp.” I like the idea of starting off with field trips and camps, because here we could actually see things in action with the kids and assess how effective they are. Basically, something that gets kids to value “questioning everything” but to also do this by using that thing we call the scientific method, the good and the bad. Just banging around some ideas here, but wouldn’t that be lovely?


Although, I imagine really really tricky to do well.


…But worth a go, I think. This is why I’m hoping to talk to a lot of very clever people over the next couple of months. Actually, I’m going to want to talk to you Bora, maybe even include you in a roster of sorts. Every roster needs a chronobiologist. You probably know this already, but it looks very impressive.

Well, I’m not sure about that, and plus, I’d have to check my schedule…

Yes, of course, of course – but that is why ScienceOnline and social networks and all of this web stuff – well, it’s just so wonderful! Because, now, more than ever, it’s easier to connect with other folks, and there must be other chronobiologists out there!

Oh yes, I’m definitely not the only one… There are many of us out there. Related to that, what type of social networks do you use?

…I mean, how amazing would it be, to have TWO chronobiologists on the project’s committee. Doesn’t that all but practically guarantee any funding requests? I think I saw that written somewhere once.

Well, I don’t know about that. Anyway, what networks do you use? And do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

I guess I’m most fond of twitter. I find twitter to be both useful and fun. #Ihuggedachronobiologist

So a net positive?

Yes, although maybe not a necessity, but certainly very very helpful.

And do you blog?

Not as much as I’d like. Years ago, I started a web publication called The Science Creative Quarterly, but that was more about showcasing creative science writing. Then, for a while, I wrote a blog with Ben Cohen called the World’s Fair. We initially came together because we were both interested in science humor (Editor’s Note: Here are links to some humor from Ben and Dave), or at least exploring different ways of science writing. In other words, we didn’t take things seriously all of the time, which made for an interesting experience. We had good time with all sorts of silly things, like hosting puzzles (as a vehicle to look at hypothesis formation, and paradigm shifts) or creating basketball tournaments between different science concepts (as a general run down of some fundamentals of science).

Oh yes, I remember that. The basketball tournament was pretty epic. But what you’re telling me is that you don’t blog anymore?

Well… these days, I sort of blog. I have a site called Popperfont, but that is mainly a repository of funny, pretty, or surreal science things I find daily on the net. You know, the kind of stuff that might be good to include in a slide as a transitional break – in case your science talk gets a little too unwieldy, and here’s an amusing image which gives the audience a teeny tiny lift before you segues to this and that. I also, on occasion, contribute to Boing Boing, which is always fun – usually a humor angle is involved with these posts which sometimes works well and sometimes not so much.

So you sort of blog?

Maybe curate is a better word? In many ways, I’m more of a consumer of the web science writing, usually by checking links via twitter, and perusing the usual excellent suspects of science blogging (although I should note that I consider the writings of Maggie Koerth-Baker, Marie-Claire Shanahan and Alice Bell required reading, especially with the scientific method stuff in mind). Anyway, I don’t write as much as I would like: part of it is a time thing, but another part is that I secretly don’t have the confidence to self identify as a writer – still a muscle that needs some major practicing I think.

Yes, practice does makes perfect as they say. Although, if I may say, that’s probably a good reason to do more.

Yes, too true… And, ironically, I am working on a book right now, so there is that. Maybe you can read it when I’m finished and give me a quote or something.

Well, I can see what I can do.

Yeah, something like, “I enjoyed the book so much, that time just flew by – TIME JUST FLEW BY – get it?” And make sure you sign off with “Bora Zivkovic, Chronobiologist.” My agent would totally dig that.

Er, sure… Now onto the conference. What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for you?

(O.K. being serious here) I think for me – and especially because my lab tackles so many divergent ways of science communication – ScienceOnline was just about the perfect place to survey and discover all of the many different ways you can talk about and interact with science culture. It was, frankly, awesome. Add to that, the idea that when all is said and done, everybody at the conference is working towards more or less the same thing – expanding the notions of science literacy, and sharing that knowledge with the world – plus the conference had a truly friendly vibe and a refreshing lack of egos. It is basically one of the best conferences I’ve been to, and the whole package definitely made for a very productive experience overall.

Any suggestions for next year?

YES! I think it would be great to somehow formalize and capture all of the great content that was being discussed. But more in a formal “this works as an excellent resource to be shared” way. And I say this as a potential moderator begrudgingly giving myself more work. Still, I don’t think it’s a stretch to ask moderators to contribute a proper write up after the session when all is said and done. It doesn’t seem like a bad trade for getting a guaranteed spot in the conference, and wouldn’t that collection of resources be something else?

O.K. Well, Dave, I think we’re about done here. Thanks for taking the time to do this, and hopefully, we’ll see you at the next conference. Any last words?

You know, it just occurred to me that I don’t actually know what the heck a chronobiologist is – does it have something to do with time travel?

I’ll explain it to you at the hotel bar in January, but you’ll have to get to that date the usual way, day by day…

The Scienceblogging Weekly (August 26th, 2012)

The week was too busy to finish this on Friday. Then on Saturday the news broke that Neil Armstrong died – something I wanted to highlight as a special topic – so I decided to wait another day and give people a chance to wrote posts and articles about Neil. So, with a delay, the weekly linkfest is here!


Blog of the Week:

We are all in the gutter is a an astronomy and astrophysics group blog. The title of the blog comes from the quote “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” from Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde. Emma, Niall, Rita and Stuart are astronomers, astrophysicists, star-gazers and space geeks at various career stages, having fun with their blog, exploring the universe from every angle they can possibly think of.


Top 10:

Unless They’re Zombies, Fossils Don’t Live by Brian Switek:

I hate the phrase “living fossil.” The term should be eradicated from the vocabulary of science writers, and anyone who employs it should be promptly encased in Carbonite. “Missing link” is the only slogan that pisses me off more. My acute allergic reaction to the idiom may be a little overwrought, I admit. But, to me, “living fossil” is nonsense that obscures more than it elucidates. Take the coelacanth, for example….

Hyenas Eschew Lent, Chew Donkeys Instead by Anne-Marie Hodge:

Anyone who has ever attended a holiday parade or gone on a summer vacation knows that cultures tend to create their own seasonal patterns. In much of Western culture, December is a time of much celebrating and feasting, while similarly wintry January is relatively dreary and dull (after New Year’s celebrations subside). This raises a question: how do the behaviors and culture of a society affect the animals that depend upon that society’s garbage for their food? The progressive encroachment of human settlements into the habitats of wild animals has opened opportunities for animals to avail themselves of human refuse. A raccoon in North America is likely to find a juicy watermelon rind in July and leftover turkey remains in November. Perhaps equally enticing for a roving dumpster-diver, but by no means nutritionally equivalent….

Why Is the Night Sky Turning Red? by Amy Shira Teitel:

The idea of a red sky at night used to invoke beautiful images of vibrant sunsets, the product of warm sunlight bathing the sky near the horizon. The adage of “red sky at night, sailor’s delight” refers to a calm night ahead; a red sunset suggests a high-pressure system in the west is bringing calm weather. But red skies at night have taken on a new meaning in recent decades. As outdoor lighting become increasingly prominent, our night skies are gradually turning from black to red….

When will we find life in space? by Phil Plait:

One of the reasons I love astronomy is that it doesn’t flinch from the big questions. And one of the biggest is: are we alone? Another reason I love astronomy: it has a good shot at answering this question…

Paleo-politics: The really long view by Will Femia:

…..The other explanation is that the Cretaceous ended when, 65 million years ago, an asteroid (or asteroids) slammed into the earth, right across the future-Gulf of Mexico at the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Not only did the impact and resulting fallout from that asteroid kill the dinosaurs, it also wiped out huge quantities of marine life, including many of the “tiny marine plankton with carbonate skeletons” (I’m guessing some version of Coccolithophore? Anyone?) that would become the rich soil that slaves would farm on land their ancestors would inhabit in voting districts that would favor Democratic candidates around the turn of the second millennium of the Common Era……

What the Dark Knight knows about holding our urban lives together by Scott Huler:

There’s a lot not to love about The Dark Knight Rises, the crazyish new chapter in the latest Batman cycle: a series of actions and explosions so unconnected that they make a Rorschach test look like a syllogism by comparison; Marion Cotillard’s death scene, which lacked only her eyes rolling up and her tongue lolling sideways from her mouth to equal those put on by toddlers on playgrounds; and Christian Bale’s Batman growl — close your eyes and you think Cookie Monster is saving Gotham City….One thing the movie got right, though, is its focus on the infrastructure systems that serve as the beating and vulnerable heart of our urban existence. Every major plot point directly relates to the built environment and the networks that make every element of our lives possible….

Science For Princesses by Janet Stemwedel:

I have always known that I loved science, that delicious alliance of imagination and methodical testing that could help you figure out something about how a piece of the world worked. However, being born at the tail-end of the 1960s, I grew up in a culture that wanted me to know that girls were not supposed to like science. In fact, between toy commercials and TV shows, teachers and peers, I got the message pretty quickly that science is not something for girls. Rather, girls should turn their attention to more important matters . . . like being properly feminine. There was a way that girls were supposed to be—neat and tidy and pretty and pink and quiet and well-behaved. I was not any of those things. I didn’t want to be any of those things. I didn’t know how to be any of those things. And, as far as I could tell, trying to be those things was not going to help me get my hands on the science-y stuff that I wanted. So what was the point?….

How to Annoy E.O. Wilson by Michelle Nijhuis:

…….During a panel at the Aspen Environment Forum in Colorado, as she describes here, Emma piqued Wilson with her talk of making more nature — of expanding our definition of the natural world to include places humans have invaded, altered, and restored. Spending billions trying to return coastal areas like the Everglades to pre-Columbian “purity,” she added, is a lost cause. Better to invest in upslope reserves, and perhaps even learn to admire the tenacity of invasive species…..

Father’s age dictates rate of new mutations by Virginia Hughes:

With every passing year, men are increasingly likely to transmit new mutations to their children, according to the largest study yet of the so-called paternal age effect, published yesterday in Nature. The findings could help explain why older men are more likely to have a child with autism or schizophrenia than are younger men, the researchers say….

I Am Science…and a Nerd by Craig McClain:

I am a nerd. I was a nerd. I will be a nerd. Perhaps in kindergarten I wasn’t, where nerdom had difficulty establishing itself among the simple lessons of the alphabet, counting, and colors. In kindergarten, we are more or less the same in deficiencies and achievements. But after that, I am pretty confident my geek flag flew. I cannot remember ever being a bad student. Repeated straight A’s and the honor role defined me….


Special topic 1: Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong’s message to the future by Amy Shira Teitel

Neil Armstrong: Ace Engineer and Hotshot Test Pilot by Amy Shira Teitel

Neil Armstrong’s legacy went to waste but a new space race is on the cards by Alok Jha

Neil Armstrong: 1930 – 2012 by Phil Plait

Pow! ZOOM! To the Moon! by Phil Plait

Debunking myths about Neil Armstrong by James Oberg

Rocks remember, and so do we by Ethan Siegel

What Neil Armstrong Knew Is What We Never Will by Charles P. Pierce

Keep in mind as you put together your Neil Armstrong packages tonight… by Charles Apple

The Man and the Moon by Anthony Lane

As We Say Goodbye to Neil Armstrong, Should We Also Let Go of Our Space Fantasies? by John Horgan

For Neil Armstrong, the First Moon Walker, It Was All about Landing the Eagle by Andrew Chaikin

Neil Armstrong by Babbage

Neil Armstrong Talks About The First Moon Walk by Robert Krulwich

Neil Armstrong by Neil Gaiman

Neil Armstrong’s Last Interview by Jeff Marlow

RIP Neil Armstrong, star of the first big story of my news career by Steve Buttry

The Cold War Push Behind Neil Armstrong’s ‘One Small Step’ by Andrew C. Revkin

Rest in Peace, Neil Armstrong by Matthew Francis


Special topic 2: rape and pregnancy

Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) serves on House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology by David Kroll

Here is Some Legitimate Science on Pregnancy and Rape and What Do You Do When There is No Best Dataset? A follow-up on pregnancy and rape statistics by Kate Clancy

The sperm don’t care how they got there, Rep. Akin by Emily Willingham

Sure, women cannot get pregnant from rape. Also, all mean people are ugly and puppies are immortal. by Melanie Tannenbaum

Legitimate rape, seminal priming, and preeclampsia by Jon Wilkins

Unfamiliar sperm, Tibetans, and cheese: Why evolutionary biology doesn’t excuse Todd Akin by Jeremy Yoder

What people who talk about “legitimate rape” really mean by Naomi McAuliffe

Todd Akin and the Anti-Science House Science Committee by Brandon Keim

‘Legitimate rape’ – a medieval medical concept by Vanessa Heggie

Backstory: the reporter who interviewed Akin by Mike Hoyt

A letter to Paul Ryan about forcible rape by Dr. Jen Gunter

Pregnancy Flowchart by Adam Weinstein

Hard words: Do we know what we’re talking about when we talk about rape? by Kathryn Blaze Carlson

The Crackpot Caucus by Timothy Egan

Why Sex Education Helps End Rape by Erica Grigg

Akin breakin’ science by Phil Plait

It’s trigger warning week by Laurie Penny

Rape exceptions aren’t legitimate by Irin Carmon

Where Akin got the idea that rape victims rarely get pregnant by Tim Townsend and Blythe Bernhard

An Open Letter to Rep. Akin From a Woman Who Got Pregnant From Rape by Shauna Prewitt

Todd Akin’s Abortion Position Reflects GOP Platform by Laura Bassett

Conservative Media Dismiss Akin “Rape” Comments As “Dumb,” But Rhetoric Is Reflected In GOP Policies by MIKE BURNS & SOLANGE UWIMANA

The Problem With Men Explaining Things by Rebecca Solnit

Todd Akin and the Right’s False Fact Machine by Josh Barro

Words and deeds by David Wescott

Rep. Todd Akin’s statements have a familiar ring to them… by Sassquach

Legitimate takedown: Todd Akin meets the women of the Internet by Virginia Heffernan

A Canard That Will Not Die: ‘Legitimate Rape’ Doesn’t Cause Pregnancy by Garance Franke-Ruta

The Official Guide to Legitimate Rape by Katie J.M. Baker

Todd Akin’s “Legitimate Rape” Comment Was Not a Misstatement. It Was a Worldview. by Laura Helmuth

Rep. Todd Akin’s Rape Remark At Odds With Science Of Pregnancy by Jeanna Bryner

What Does Todd Akin Think “Legitimate Rape” Is? by Amy Davidson


Special topic 3: superbug at NIH

The “NIH Superbug”: This Is Happening Every Day by Maryn McKenna

Genome detectives unravel spread of stealthy bacteria in a hospital by Ed Yong

Not a failure, a lesson. The NIH Clinical Center KPC Outbreak by Eli Perencevich

The NIH Superbug Story—a Missing Piece by Judy Stone

Hunting a Superbug by Deborah Blum

‘Superbug’ stalked NIH hospital last year, killing six by Brian Vastag

NIH should have notified it of superbug outbreak, Montgomery County official says by Brian Vastag

Like a Game of Clue, Genomics Tracks Outbreak, Revealing Evolution in Action by Ricki Lewis

Genome Detectives Solve a Hospital’s Deadly Outbreak by Gina Kolata

Govt. Gene Sleuths Stop Superbug That Killed 6 by The Associated Press


Best Images:

Drake equation: How many alien civilizations exist? by IIBStudio

Sunday Morning Anole Cartoon: When Lizard Biologists Compete by Rich Glor

If you were to summarise the world into 100 people, how would the population turn out? by Charlie Hilton

Conventional Wisdom by Randy Yeip

Are those pictures of Mars from the Curiosity rover? by Is Twitter Wrong?

Miss Insomnia Tulip’s Anatomical Macaroons by AnatomyUK

Votive Ear by Jai Virdi

Glow-in-the-dark cockroaches look like Jawas by Jess Zimmerman

London Zoo animal audit – in pictures by The Guardian

Animals in the News by Alan Taylor


Best Videos:

How Did Apollo-era Astronauts Sleep in Space? and Learning to Land on the Moon by Amy Shira Teitel

Amazing Color Differences In Lizard Populations Separated By Little Distance by Jonathan Losos

Can dinosaurs still be badass with feathers? by Charlie Jane Anders

Camera shutter speed synchronized with helicopter blade frequency by whataboutlarry1

Why Insect Wings Don’t Fracture by Sid Perkins

The High-Resolution Life of a Neuron by Brandon Keim

Curiosity Drops in on Mars in High-Res by JPLnews

Doodling in Math Class: Connecting Dots by Vi Hart

Jessica Wise: How fiction can change reality by TEDEducation

Learning By Play by Nadja Popovich



Three Ways of Looking at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by Miriam Goldstein

Thomas Kuhn: the man who changed the way the world looked at science by John Naughton

Kuhn the Irrationalist by Peter Coles

A brief history on how I became an Animal Behaviourist… by Kate Mornement

How Domed Dinosaurs Grew Up by Brian Switek

Microbes manipulate your mind by Mo Costandi

Kissing bug – the real vampire of Latin America by Samantha Price

Is solidarity a thing of the past? by Kurt Cobb

No, immunology should get the same scrutiny as psychiatry. And vice versa. by Tim Skellet

So, you’ve dropped a vial or lost a sample box in your liquid nitrogen container…now what? by Brian Krueger

Breeder by Melissa Wilson-Sayres

‘Beam Us Up, Mr. Scott!’: Why Misquotations Catch On by Maria Konnikova

Superbug Summer Books: EXPERIMENT ELEVEN by Maryn McKenna

Chemical Free Dirt (for the Fairytale Garden) and Smoked Out and No, no. Not Nicholas Kristof on Chemicals Again by Deborah Blum

Why are languages so different—and disorderly? by Philip Ball

Aphids, carotenoids and photosynthesis by Ian Le Guillou

Do Be a Dick (sometimes): Emotions and Skeptics by Ashley F. Miller

Tesla’s Revenge: Filmmakers Kickstart Electrifying Docudrama About Cult Genius by Hugh Hart

The neurology of Psalm 137 by Vaughan Bell

Book review: Connectome by Sebastian Seung by Moheb Costandi

TGIPF: Penis in My Head by Christie Aschwanden

First US stem cell trial for autistic children launches today by Kathleen Raven

Stem cell clinical trial for autism: proceed with caution by Emily Willingham

Is a trial of stem cell therapy in autism scientifically and ethically justified? by Orac

Would Rachel Carson Embrace ‘Frankenfoods’? – This Scientist Believes ‘Yes’ by Pamela Ronald

Debunking the Hunter-Gatherer Workout by Herman Pontzer

Morality and Basketball by Sean Carroll

Republican spending plan casts shadow on science by Amy Maxmen

Making Liquor Recommendations by Dr24hours

Richard Dawkins in Playboy by Faye Flam

Amateur Scientists Discover Asian Needle Ant Has Expanded its Range by Thousands of Miles, Unnoticed by Rob Dunn

Dogs Chasing Their Tails Are Akin to Humans With OCD and Celebrating 1,447 Years of the Loch Ness Monster and Go to Sleep, All-Nighter Cram Fests Don’t Work and Want to Avoid a Mid-Life Crisis? Get Friends and Crafty Bonobo Shows Humans Aren’t the Only Stone Tool-Makers by Rachel Nuwer

Asperger’s Doesn’t Make You an Asshole by Heina

Bodies in art, art in bodies by John Hawks

NASA’s Amazing Gliding Gemini Capsules by Amy Shira Teitel

Can Identical Twins Get Away With Murder? by Brian Palmer

What can survive on Mars? by Steven A. Edwards

How to Learn a Language Nobody Speaks and Lance Armstrong Surrenders Against Doping Charges and Will be Banned for Life by Rose Eveleth

Rockstars, Ethograms and Behavior (Problems) by Julie Hecht

Planetary alignment pyramid scheme by Phil Plait

We Can Save the World by Eating Bugs and Drinking Urine by Erin Biba

Clothes Make the Man—Literally and The Neuroscience of Optimism by Jordan Gaines

Wasps Follow Order of Succession When Queen Dies and The Shambulance: Zero-Calorie Noodles? by Elizabeth Preston

Friday Weird Science: This quail has a cloth fetish by Scicurious

Vowel Movement: How Americans near the Great Lakes are radically changing the sound of English. by Rob Mifsud

How to Teach a Horse the Rules of the Road by Miriam Kramer

Remnants of a stellar suicide pact and The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Scientific Talk by Matthew Francis

Helium-Breathing Gibbons Sing Like Human Sopranos by Tanya Lewis

Siberian Princess reveals her 2,500 year old tattoos by The Siberian Times reporter

The birthplace of English? by Tim De Chant

Anti-Terrorism Campaigns and the Criminalization of Public Non-Conformity by Gwen Sharp

Hormones Explain Why Girls Like Dolls & Boys Like Trucks by Natalie Wolchover

The Nature of Consciousness: How the Internet Could Learn to Feel by Steve Paulson

New Morbid Terminology: Coffin Birth by Katy Meyers

Are You a Hero or a Bystander? by Sue Shellenbarger

Invasive species provide important lessons for surviving climate change and New species of barbet discovered in Peru by GrrlScientist

Just how big were dinosaurs? by Dave Hone

How Plantain Trees Could Become an Energy Source by Rhitu Chatterjee

Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist by Ann Finkbeiner

WWWTP? Time’s Aspirin Structure Causes Headache by See Arr Oh

Candidates clam up on climate by Curtis Brainard

Overlooked and Underfoot: Sidewalk Cleaning in New York City by Ashley Taylor

Spawning coral monitored for effects of climate change by Melissa Gaskill

10 Myths About Space Travel That Make Science Fiction Better by Charlie Jane Anders

Goo-eating snakes and the eggs that evade them by Andrew Durso

Bonobo Stone Tales: The Making Of A Story by Charles Choi

Replacement Parts and Newly discovered rat that can’t gnaw or chew by Ed Yong

Artist Patricia Olynyk inspired by light pollution by Casey Rentz

Scoop: A preview of Romney’s energy plan by Philip Bump

Neuroscience: Solving The Hard-On Problem by Neuroskeptic

Every Step You Take by Wendy Lovelady

Fighting the stereotype that math is only for boys by Patricia Valoy

The Wall Street Journal Does It Again: Another Whopper Of A Lie On Climate Science by Dana Nucitelli

It’s all about objective multiples… by Mia Cobb

Medieval Women as Physicians by Tracy Barrett

Was Vincent van Gogh Color Blind? It Sure Looks Like It by Colin Schultz

Ego v. Efficiency at the U.S. National Science Board by Jeffrey Mervis

The Science of Bad Neuroscience by Neurobonkers

Social Position Drives Gene Regulation of the Immune System by Daniel Lende

Q&A: Alexandra Cousteau by Emily Fisher

The evolutionary history of dragons, illustrated by a scientist by Annalee Newitz

Egg-ceptionally Bad by Cassandra Willyard

The Free Will Confusion (1): On “My Brain Made Me Do It!” by Stephan Schleim

Should we teach algebra? by Paul Raeburn

The Rats of War: Konrad Lorenz and the Anthropic Shift by Liam Heneghan

Why College Binge Drinkers Are Happier, Have High Status by Maia Szalavitz

How many species are there? by Zen Faulkes


Media, Publishing, Technology and Society:

How to Succeed in Journalism when You Can’t Afford an Internship by Alexandra Kimball

Who are the offline-academics? by Katie Wheat

Sick of Impact Factors: Coda by Stephen Curry

Taking the Impact Factor seriously is similar to taking creationism, homeopathy or divining seriously by Bjoern Brembs

There are cons to open acces? Really? by Bjoern Brembs

“You’re not entitled to your own facts” vs. That’s your opinion. Kiss my ad. by Jay Rosen

Twitter rewrites the script for political conventions by Martha T. Moore

Barbara Mack: best media lawyer I ever worked with by Steve Buttry

Ask A Writer: “How Do I Write What The Audience Wants To Read?” by Chuck Wendig

The End of My Writing Career / Author Sharon Potts by Clay Stafford

Research As You Go by Steven Johnson

The ridiculous SVP embargo is back again by Ross Mounce

Intellectual power and responsibility in an age of superstars by Daniel W. Drezner

Coming in the side door: The value of homepages is shifting from traffic-driver to brand by Adrienne LaFrance

Google Hiring Data Reveals Two Things Women Can Do To Get Hired And Promoted More by Nicholas Carlson

A Day In My Life As A Freelance Science Writer by Charles Choi

Turn Off the Phone (and the Tension) by Jenna Wortham

Adulthood, Delayed: What Has the Recession Done to Millennials? by Derek Thompson

Why Are Young People Ditching Cars for Smartphones? by Jordan Weissmann

The Cheapest Generation by Derek Thompson and Jordan Weissmann

How Wikipedia Manages Sources for Breaking News by Heather Ford

Ex-NPR Hill reporter: Lied to daily by Patrick Gavin

Report: Social network demographics in 2012 by Pingdom

6 questions journalists should be able to answer before pitching a story by Tom Huang

Plagiarism, defamation and the power of hyperlinks and The billion-dollar question: What is journalism for? and Why it’s better for fact-checking to be done in public by Mathew Ingram

Rutgers Professor’s Research Shows Social Network Sites Foster Close and Diverse Connections by Lisa Intrabartola

Don’t blame Twitter when journos tweet stupid things; blame stupidity by Steve Buttry

How long-form journalism is getting ‘a new lease of life’ in the digital world by Rachel McAthy

Why fact-checking matters by Emily Willingham

Rotary Dial by Ftrain

The closing of American academia by Sarah Kendzior

Be More Productive. Take Time Off. by Jason Fried

Journalist Of The Day: SciAm’s Bora Zivkovic talks about the evolution of social by Chao Li


Blogs of the Week so far:

May 11, 2012: Academic Panhandling
May 18, 2012: Anole Annals
May 25th, 2012: Better Posters
June 1st, 2012: Vintage Space
June 8th, 2012: Tanya Khovanova’s Math Blog
June 15th, 2012: Russlings
June 22nd, 2012: Parasite of the Day
June 29th, 2012: March of the Fossil Penguins
July 6th, 2012: Musings of a Dinosaur
July 13th, 2012: Contagions
July 21th, 2012: Life is short, but snakes are long
July 27th, 2012: Science Decoded
August 11th, 2012: Powered By Osteons
August 18th, 2012: Do you believe in dog?