January 31, 2009

How to Destroy Your Childhood

...with YouTube.

Watch what Microsoft's Songsmith does to "White Wedding."

And to "Eye of the Tiger."

Watch Kermit cover Nine Inch Nails (warning: cannot be unseen).

Then cower in the corner.

January 30, 2009

Atheists Talk--Bora Zivkovic

Science is moving onto the internet. Collection of data, collaboration between researchers, communication and critique of results, teaching and learning--all are increasingly being done online. ScienceOnline, held January 16 - 18 in 2009, is a conference dedicated to discussing the intersection of science and online technologies. Bora Zivkovic, one of the founders and organizers of ScienceOnline will join Atheists Talk Sunday, February 1, to talk about the purpose of the conference, the results of this year's sessions, and why it's important to meet your online colleagues in person.

Produced by Minnesota Atheists. Directed and hosted by Mike Haubrich. Interview by Stephanie Zvan.

Podcast Coming Soon!
Write a review of Atheists Talk

Listen to AM 950 KTNF on Sunday at 9AM Central to hear Atheists Talk produced by Minnesota Atheists. Stream live online. Call the studio at 952-946-6205 or email us at radio@mnatheists.org.

January 29, 2009

The Joy of Editing

Every once in a while, I'll come across someone who writes well enough (and whom I know well enough) that I offer to edit their stuff. This could be copy editing or something much more substantial. The usual reaction is, "You're a writer. Why would you want to edit something instead?"

The answer is that I like editing. In fact, I might just like it more than writing. Writing is exhilarating, don't get me wrong, particularly when it all just flows, but editing is something special. Editing is making a piece of writing all it can and should be.

When I'm editing a piece, I'm doing everything I do as a writer (except facing down the blank page) and more. I'm anticipating where each sentence, each paragraph, the work as a whole is going. In a sense, I'm writing the story as I read it and comparing the two versions in my head, word by word, scene by scene, argument by argument, to decide which is better.

When I'm editing, I'm looking at every letter and punctuation mark while, at the same time, keeping track of how all the pieces fit together and support each other to make a whole. I'm watching how long everything takes to make sure it doesn't lag while still checking that each word fits the voice of the narrator. I'm listening to the rhythm of the writing while building a picture of the action to confirm that nothing moves in impossible ways. I'm striving to maximize clarity of language and grammar while preserving the idiosyncrasies that identify the writer. I'm working to make the piece conform to both reader expectations and the writer's intent.

Reading back over all that, I feel as though editing should be impossible, a classic caterpillar's dilemma, but when I'm doing it, it all just works.

Does that make me the world's best editor? Uh, no. But it does make me a pretty good one, and that means that I make a difference by editing. I make the world a little better, or at least a little more readable.

I'm very happy to say that I have a new editing project in the works, something that will let me make more people's writing just that little bit better. We're not quite ready to announce, but it's been a long day and I needed something to cheer me up, so I'm letting myself anticipate. I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to it.

Yes, looking forward to editing.

January 28, 2009

ScienceOnline'09--The Conference

Is it remotely necessary to state at this point that I am no liveblogger?

If the day and a half before the conference was for running around and meeting people I'd only talked to online, the conference itself was all about cramming my head full of ideas it will take me the next year (or more) to fully unpack.

Well, actually, it started with meeting more people. We had breakfast with Jean-Claude Bradley, whom I hadn't met even online and who probably thinks I'm the dullest conversationalist in the world. This is only true when I'm working on a mere four hours of sleep, due, in this case, to a combination of overstimulation and husbandly snoring. I was more concerned with getting coffee in me than anything else, I'm afraid.

I did, however, manage to catch Glendon Mellow on his way out of the restaurant long enough to say, "Hi," and promise to talk later. From that point until the start of my session, I remember only a very few things: scandalizing the shuttle driver, who disapproved of the bare legs below my skirt ("That's how you get a cold, young lady."); packing very snuggly into the shuttle; finding more coffee but not being willing to wait for the espresso; Anton starting the conference with a toot on some kind of plastic instrument; discovering that I'm too short for a podium, which I fully expected; discovering that the podium had no place for my coffee, which I didn't expect at all.

Then it was time for Science Fiction on Science Blogs. I'll write more about this later, because I think where we ended up deserves its own post. I wasn't surprised to hear people talking about being afraid to be considered "lightweight" for talking about SF, but the idea that developed about using SF as a signifier of shared geekiness was kind of cool.

Plenty of others who attended have also written about the session. Ryan Somma has a good overview, and Chris Clouser has another. Henry Gee was somewhat disappointed, although he's not very specific about what he was looking for out of the session. Glendon captured the two most original thoughts to come out of the session. John Dupuis and Acmegirl both noted that certain items must be discussed any time the subject comes up.

One thing I noted at the session that I will repeat here: it's obvious that many scientists are fans of science fiction. What should also be obvious is that many SF writers are fans of science. If you're a scientist who wants to have some impact on the science in SF, Google your favorite (living) writers. These days, many to most of them have blogs. Start participating in the comments, and tell the writer that s/he has fans who are scientists. Then just see how quickly you get used as a resource when the writer is working on something in your field.

Oh, yeah, and I'm hugely flattered that a certain blogger who claims to have ADHD sat through the entire session.

I skipped out on the next set of sessions to decompress from mine. Yes, it went fine, but that never stops me from being a stress monkey. I made sure that Lou met the two people on the top of his list, PalMD and Bob O'Hara, which I did by turning around at the end of the coffee line and saying, "See those two people about six feet away? Yeah, that's them." Then I hung out with him and Bob. Eva Amsen joined us, and we talked some more about the SF session and her work as a science fiction fact checker.

Everybody else tried to get online to blog about what they were doing. We were a bit much for Sigma Xi's wireless, and it kept kicking people off. I was perfectly happy to have left my laptop at the hotel. I just kicked back and drank my coffee. Well, I probably mocked something in there too, but that's reflexive.

Then it was off to Rhetoric of Science: Print vs. Web. There was some good stuff about the role of editors and about not abandoning things like the methods and results sections of scientific papers that are structured to communicate the greatest amount of information between scientists in the shortest possible space (yes, that was Bora with the conservative position). Still, the use of language as a gatekeeping mechanism, both to keep science from nonscientists and to determine who gets to be a scientist, was prominent.

Lunch exposed the greatest weakness of the Sigma Xi center--the lack of conversational-sized social spaces. There are much larger spaces, but those tend to also be traffic paths. I grabbed a chair back in the conference room I'd just come out of and ended up having lunch with Lou and Pal. We chatted a bit about pseudonymity and coming out, and I noted with amusement that one can tell when a blogger has set up shop under a new pseudonym to talk about something different. No blogger starts from scratch knowing how to do some of these things.

Done with food, I wandered around a bit. I ran into Glendon again, and we chatted about how strange it felt to have everyone talking about pseudonymity when the point of an artist being online is self-promotion. We also talked about making money from free content without advertising. People are doing it, but it's hard to get a handle on how many--and on how many a market can handle.

I apologized for being distracted, explaining that I was still expecting to see Betül but wasn't quite sure that we'd recognize each other. I'd been watching for her all morning in the milling crowds without luck. I had, however, noticed someone badge-sniff me and disdain to recognize my presence, which was totally worth seeing.

Anton called us all to attention again to give a very secular thanks for our lunch. I was going to catch up with Greg to find out how the life transitions and gender in science sessions had gone (the sessions I thought I could be pretty sure would be covered on blogs galore), but he and Acmegirl were deep in a discussion of the same, so I just sat back and listened. Not too surprisingly, someone had taken the discussion as an opportunity to talk about what he'd do if he found out "his" students/employees/prized possessions were blogging under pseudonyms. I don't remember what I'd originally intended to attend after lunch, but this discussion was too interesting to walk away from.

There wasn't much contention in the race and science panel, but it did start out by covering what felt like some very basic ground. It got more interesting after a bit, when people focused less on the need to treat the subject seriously, which I felt everyone understood, and focused more on what worked. I thought the two most interesting points came from the moderators. Acmegirl noted that while mentors are good, people shouldn't expect to have all their needs met by one mentor. Multiple mentors can offer perspectives on all your complex issues. Danielle Lee talked about working with kids who were in trouble and pointed out that science offer them a chance to succeed without having to fit in with all the other kids. Science as subversive activity--love it.

Then it was time for the art and science session, moderated by Glendon. Now, Glendon had been on an art-as-parasitical-on-science kick for a couple of months, probably feeling a little bit of impostor syndrome at being a non-scientist moderating sessions at a science conference (I know I was). He was disabused of the idea quite quickly. The more interesting ideas to come out of this session for me were that scientists make artistic choices frequently in determining how to represent data and that they frequently borrow the symbolism used in art to convey their points. Glendon is still collecting examples of art that has inspired science, so if you have one for him, let him know.

Coming out of this session, I heard my name called. I shouldn't have worried. Betül is Betül, and there is no mistaking her for anyone else. Nor would it have been possible to miss her. She and Karen Ventii had driven up together and gotten to the conference a bit late. I have no idea what Betül and I actually said to each other. It was just cool to finally meet. I did catch up with what Karen's been up to since she quit blogging. No plans to resume any time soon, unfortunately.

The last session I attended for the day was on social networks for scientists. No, I'm not likely ever to use one, but I do have an interest in what facilitates the formation and maintenance of communities. The session ended up being largely about what not to do to create a social network, namely just try to get people to show up and hope they'll connect with each other. Specialized social networks that do work (Flickr for photographers, Ravelry for knitters) are organized around content. The Nature Network seems to be the closest comparable site for scientists, but it's hampered by some very clunky technology that was not meant to do what it's been doing.

Then the sessions were over for the day. Back at the hotel, I got to check out some very cool photos from Ben's shoot for the day before it was time for the big dinner. I finally got a chance to introduce myself to Abel Pharmboy on our way in. After that, though, well, there weren't many spots at the big tables left, so I felt a little unsocial as Ben, Greg, Lou and I grabbed a table together. It's ironic, of course, because the conference was the first time I'd met Lou, but it's not as though we don't know each other.

Luckily, the buffet line wandered right past our table. We chatted with Tom Levenson about a Darwin project he was working on. We talked a little more with Betül and Karen. I took forever to flag down a server to ask for water instead of sweet tea. I ran into Scicurious getting seconds (and feel a little better about her not starving any time soon). Our food got cold as she told me about a project that she wants to take on and that I can't wait to see. (Somewhere during the weekend, she also told me the secret of getting DrugMonkey to buy your drinks, although I don't think it'll work for me.)

Four hours of sleep caught up with me somewhere in the middle of dinner, and I pumpkined shortly thereafter, whereupon I discovered the fatal flaw of a confernce like SO09. My brain would not shut off. Between that and the hard drive noise that I thought was Ben's photos uploading to the server at home, I only added another five hours of sleep to my total for the weekend.

The morning brought the unwelcome news that the noisy hard drive was not Ben's, but mine, which should have been idle all night. Getting the machine to shut down was a pain. Getting it to restart took two tries. Then I shut it back down, packed, loaded the car and went to breakfast.

Yes, the conference did serve fruit and pastries and muffins, but it was nice to start the day with a slow, sit-down meal. Breakfast discussion on Sunday was of natural and man-made climate change, with Jean-Claude and Greg again and joined by James Hrynyshyn. Then back to Sigma Xi.

Ben had come along that day, since he didn't have a shoot and because I thought he'd be helpful to Glendon in his blog images session. I didn't feel there were any sessions at 9 that I really needed to attend, so I showed Ben the conference center.

We were out there for about 10 minutes when someone came out of the impact factor session. She needed a break (already) and more coffee and looked to be on the verge of tears. "I want to support open access, but if I don't publish in a journal with an impact factor of X, I won't have a job. My advisor won't get tenure. What am I supposed to do?"

That was the statement that really crystalized the conference for me. So many of the conclusions in so many of the sessions were really, "This needs to be changed/recognized as irrelevant/valued more," but they weren't being uttered by people who were in a position to change the policies we were all talking about. How many people at the conference were on search committees or tenure committees? How many review for journals?

The attendees at this conference were, on average, young and early in their careers. At least three-quarters of them were younger than I am. They're not in a position to make most of the changes we discussed. They will be in a few years, but should the changes wait that long? If not, how does everyone get the buy-in of the people who are able to make the changes? Do people need to start dragging their older peers, their PIs and department chairs and deans to ScienceOnline? And how do they balance the need to make changes with the preservation of their own careers? I don't have any answers.

It was in a considerably more thoughtful mood that I ducked into what was left of Pal's Blogging 101 session. Oh, the joy of trying to run a live demo on intermittent wireless. Still, he is every bit as entertaining in person as on the blog and PalCast, and the session finally provided some incentive for me to fix a gaping hole in my sidebar.

Acmegirl stopped me after the session to ask my advice on a blogging project a friend of hers wants to start. She was actually the second person to seek me out for advice at the conference. It was very weird. Cool, but weird. Extra cool because they were both such interesting projects that I'm tickled to get to play even a tiny part in them.

Then it was on to "Hey, you can't say that!" This session was about blogging coming into conflict with employers. There were some very interesting stories to come out of this, but I did feel that we spent too much time treating blogging as something totally new, rather than another form of public speech. There are precedents for how public speech can and cannot affect your employment (without a contract to specify otherwise). Running some of this down is one of the things I added to my to do list after the conference. You'll see it here when I put the information together.

The final session I attended was on blogging networks. I can't sum this session up any better than Eva did, so I won't even try.

Then it was all over but for lunch and travel. Mmm, baklava. I chatted some more with Glendon and Blake. Funny how the artists and the writers end up converging. Betül and Karen stopped by on their way out, and Betül gave me a nazar, so I now have my own "superstition hanging from a chain." At this point, I completely lost track of whom I said "Hi" and "Good-bye" to.

Having tons of time left before our flight, we grabbed Greg and headed over to Red Hat so Ben could have his picture taken out front. Yes, we're geeks.

This time in the airport, it was Greg and I geeking about blogging while Ben followed along politely. We compared notes on the sessions we'd both been to and filled each other in on the ones we'd seen separately. We also chatted about the things we each wanted to follow up on from the various sessions.

We parted ways before security, since Greg ended up on a different flight than we did coming back. I'd warned him coming out that Ben and I were a pain to go through security with, since Ben traveled with photo gear and a bunch of electronics. Ironically, I was the only one who got held up in security. My boarding pass got the random code printed on it that meant I got patted down and some poor, overworked TSA guard got to swab down two laptops, one backpack, one purse, my shoes, and my coat. She didn't look happy. Adding to the irony was the fact that no one blinked at Ben's bag o' stuff, so he had to wait for me.

The flight back was uneventful. I finished my first readthrough on my friend's beta draft of his novel and made some notes on my dying hard drive about the conference. The train ride from the airport was much more interesting, as a group of young women held an earnest discussion of what types of tattoos and piercings were "okay" and what kind made a girl a skank. "They do that in Dallas." "Yeah, but Minneapolis is no Dallas." Hee. I wish I could have recorded it.

Then, finally, we were back home. The conference was over, except for digesting all the ideas to come out of it--and appeasing the cats after our absence.

I'm so going again next year.

Another One Gone

In yet another sign that this is the wrong kind of economy in which to have not updated your business model for the electronic age (just Google "publisher" and "layoff"), Realms of Fantasy is stopping production with their April issue.

I'm not even going to go look at how few pro publishers of short fantasy that leaves. I don't want to know.


January 27, 2009

The Widget Code

Okay, there seems to be some demand for this, so here's the code for the recent comments widget.

Updated to make copying easier and to fix a bug with anonymous commenters: In the end of the script, replace my URL with your own. Then all you have to do is add an HTML/Javascript widget to your sidebar and paste in the text.

You may not see comments right away, as my widget started by reading the comment feed prospectively only, but as people leave more comments, the widget should fill itself out.


<script type="text/javascript">
<!-- // hide from browsers
//Recent Comments Widget originally by Blogger Templates and updated by Blogger Buster then edited by Ben Zvan for simplicity
function showrecentcomments(json){
for(var i=0;i<show_number;i++){
var feed_raw=json.feed.entry[i];
var comment_link_raw;
for(var k=0;k<feed_raw.link.length;k++) {
if(feed_raw.link[k].rel=='alternate') {
var comment_link=comment_link_raw.split("#");
var comment_link=comment_link.replace(/\u003d/,"=");
var post_link=comment_link.split("/");
var post_link=post_link.replace(/-/g," ");
var author_name
var author_link;
var author_out;
// Output phase
document.write('<div class="recent-comment">');
document.write(''+author_out+' on '+post_out+'<br/>');
// -->
<script style="text/javascript">var show_number=10;</script>
<script src="http://almostdiamonds.blogspot.com/feeds/comments/default?alt=json-in-script&callback=showrecentcomments"></script>

January 26, 2009

The Comments Widget


I would just like to take this opportunity to thank PalMD, in whose Blogging 101 session I declared Recent Comments to be the single most important widget a blogger can have, and Lou, who sent me a widget that turned out not to work with my template, for getting me off my ass to find a widget I could use. Thanks also to Ben, who tracked down why a simple change in the (unformatted) Javascript to customize said widget made it stop working.

Anybody who wants a recent comments widget that works with the layout function in Blogger templates, just let me know.

January 25, 2009

What Type Am I?

Do I need to say anything more about my opinion of personality tests than to say that on this measure:

Agreeableness is the tendency to be sympathetic and cooperative towards others. People who score high on agreeableness strive for social harmony and value getting along with others. Disagreeable people tend to be more suspicious and hostile towards others.

I scored at the 14th percentile and Comrade PhysioProf scored at the 55th?

Well, probably. For now, I'll just note that this isn't a dig at CPP (I tend to think our behavior is pretty on par in this respect) and that how one perceives one's own views (i.e., suspicious) is not necessarily a good predictor of how one acts.

January 24, 2009

Athiests Talk--Todd Allen Gates

Okay, we're trying this one again tomorrow. Third time's the charm?

It has been said that an atheist is a person who disbelieves in one more god than everyone else does. Our guest this Sunday, Todd Allen Gates, explored that idea in his book, Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer.

The author's description from Amazon:

Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer is a Socratic dialogue between a skeptic and a Christian apologist. The skeptic does not address atheism, but accepts the premises--for argument's sake--that there IS a Creator of sorts, that this said-Creator has made some sort of communication effort with mankind, and that the fundamentalists are correct in their assessment that "one religion is from God, the rest are man-made." The two characters then discuss non-Christian religions, and reach agreements on specific reasons why such faiths fall into the "made-by-man" category: (a) they're pieced together from pre-existing religions, (b) their holy laws are often based on irrational prejudices and erroneous conclusions about cause and effect, and (c) their stories contain inaccurate and earth-bound descriptions of the universe. The discussion then turns to examining the Christian religion in the same light as the non-Christian. Their conversation remains a respectful exchange of ideas, but is no longer harmonious.

The book's two themes:

(1) "If you understand why you reject all the other religions, you'll understand why I reject yours."

(2) A marveling at humans' handiwork in the creation of the world's religions: the stunning range of creativity, cruelty, compassion, ingenuity, and absurdity. Included are scriptural passages from Bahaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism; as well as mythology and folklore from the Aztecs, the Babylonians, Egypt, Greece, Japan, Kenya, the Native Americans, Nigeria, the Pygmies, the Sumerians, the Vikings, and more.

Programming Note: Todd was our guest in November (show #045), and we have invited him back.

Produced by Minnesota Atheists. Directed by Mike Haubrich. Hosted by Stephanie Zvan.


Podcast Coming Soon!
Write a review of Atheists Talk

Listen to AM 950 KTNF on Sunday at 9AM Central to hear Atheists Talk produced by Minnesota Atheists. Stream live online. Call the studio at 952-946-6205 or email us at radio@mnatheists.org.

January 22, 2009

ScienceOnline'09--The Pre-Show

It was about fifteen below (Fahrenheit) when we got on the plane. They warned us that we'd want our coats on the jetway. They were right. We giggled a little bit at the "cold weather" warnings that everyone in NC was posting.

This was Thursday, as we traveled to ScienceOnline'09, and we meant me, my husband and Greg. I was half expecting PZ to be on the same flight, as there's only one direct afternoon flight between Minneapolis and Raleigh. We didn't find out until Friday that he wasn't coming.

Greg and Ben had geeked out about open source software over lunch, as fully expected, but we weren't seated together on the plane, so I got about half of a beta draft of a novel read for a friend. It would have been more, but the toddler on the lap next to mine protested being told to take a nap by banging his head into my arm. C'est la vie.

We could tell we were at a blogging conference as soon as we unpacked and headed down to the hotel bar. GrrlScientist was sitting at a table across from Bob O'Hara and Blake Stacey. The number of laptops out varied but was never less than one. Once we got drinks started and dinner ordered, everybody introduced themselves (except Blake, who had wandered away) and chatted for a bit.

The contingent who'd shown up early enough to attend the early bird dinner got back about the time we finished our food. Bora acted as the official greeter by telling us about his multi-stage Facebook research project. Even if you haven't met him yet, I'm sure you'll be unsurprised to know that he isn't quite so much human as a force of nature. (A very charming force of nature.)

We also met Danica Radovanovic about then, as well as the cutest overlords ever. We pulled another table up to the sprawl that was now half the bar and chatted with Grrl, Bob, Henry Gee and Alex Ley until it was time for bed.

I finally met Blake the next morning at the breakfast buffet and can attest, after having seen him eat, that he is indeed a grad student. Most of the people there on Friday headed out to the coffee cupping, but Ben and I had a project of indeterminate length to complete that day, so we hadn't signed up for anything.

While waiting for Lou, who was a necessary part of the project, Greg, Blake and I competed for title of former geekiest high school student. I'm not sure who won, but I know I lost. gg wandered by during the competition and introduced himself.

The project deserves its own post when it comes to fruition, so I'll only say that Lou was held up by traffic, that there are stories that will never be blogged by me (having next to nothing to do with us, just with the people we were working next to), and that we accomplished it in record time. Oh, and that I was reminded how simultaneously cool and strange it is to meet someone in person who you know pretty well, but only electronically. Particularly so under the circumstances.

Unsurprisingly (we were at a conference), getting back to the hotel meant heading back to the bar. Lou couldn't stay for the evening, but he wanted to say hi to a few people. We walked into the tail end of the Sblings pizza party.

The guard was changing as people prepared to go to the wine tasting, so we got waved over and sat down across from Zuska. I introduced myself to Dave Munger, trying to keep the fangirl suppressed. He asked, "Are you the same Stephanie who comments a lot on Greg's blog?"

"I...uh....yeah." I may have blushed. Zuska can probably tell you.

James Hrynyshyn held out his hand next. As I said my name again, someone on my left shouted an echo, which is how I met Scicurious. She...I'm not sure how to describe her, except to say that trying to keep up with her would probably tire Bora out and she's positively fabulous.

Somewhere in the middle of passing pizza around and getting drinks, ScienceWoman joined the party. When the subject of where we were from came up, she said, "You look like you're from Minnesota." I had no real good idea what that meant until she said, "I'm from [town in the region big enough for me to have heard of it]," and I thought, Yeah, okay. She looks like she's from the upper Midwest too.

More shuffling of seats ensued as more people headed toward the wine tasting and others got back from other errands. PalMD came in after a failed nap attempt and admitted that no, he doesn't sleep. Life is just too interesting. We talked for a little bit about high-maintenance people managing to attract each other and quitting the internet as a form of blood pressure medication.

Zuska and I chatted for a little bit after the wine tasters all left. We compared notes on getting used to the idea that other people were interested in the things we wanted to blog about and on finding readers in completely unexpected places. Talking about lurkers brought us to the concept of the paralysis of good intentions (although I didn't use the term until talking to Greg about a tangentially related topic later that night). I suspect some of it was a bit of dry run for her thoughts on the subject of allies.

Then we lost more people to the WISE event, and I got to listen in on a cool conversation between Greg and Greta Munger on the evolution of cognition. I can't do it justice, so I won't try to reproduce any of it here.

We did attend one organized event on Friday, since Dave recruited us to fill out their reservation for dinner at Serena. The place came highly recommended and didn't disappoint, although they were out of a few items. The conversation was even better. I kept bouncing back and forth between a conversation with Josh Rosenau and Salman Hameed and talking to Tom Levenson. The part I remember most clearly was discussing Bora's shock value post with Tom. We both felt it was two posts in one and each agreed with him fairly strongly on one point and disagreed with him slightly on the other--Tom and I each championing a different point--but I think we agreed with each other almost entirely. I haven't figured out the math on that one.

I had just ordered a second tall beer at the hotel when Dave insisted we come along. I'd finished it quickly and found a microbrew on the menu at Serena that I'd never seen at home, so I was not entirely sober by the end of dinner. I was back at the hotel at the bar, winding down and sobering up while talking to Greg when the squid and the lobster entered. Shortly thereafter, the sea shanties started.

That seemed a little weird, which told me I was tired. I've seen much, much stranger things. So I said good night and headed to bed. I had a nine a.m. session to run, so it seemed like the wise thing to do.

After all, the conference hadn't even started yet.

Lego What?

Thanks to Kelly, my brain has just been somewhat rearranged. Again.

So, as usual, I share.

More at the Guardian online.

January 21, 2009

I Love Peter Sagal

Okay, so everyone loves him when he's being funny. But sometimes I love him better when he's being serious.

The fact is, when people talk about “the great inaugural addresses” they’re really talking about three at most, and from those three, three phrases:

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

So basically, people are scanning Obama’s speech to see if there are any Immortal Phrases, which here means simplistic notions expressed in a rhetorical antithesis. Big whup.

Seriously people, if you can't handle a speech made of more than soundbites, you're part of the problem.


The internet is just too big. There's no other way to account for the fact that I hadn't heard about PodCastle, Escape Pod and Pseudopod yet (except for the facts that my interests are too broad and I'm too involved in generating content myself, but...uh...hey, look over there!).

Short fiction in the fantasy, science fiction and horror genres respectively, these podcasts are perfect for you if, like my friend James, you believe, "Nobody reads anymore."

Actually, there are a bunch of short fiction podcasts out there these days, but I'm starting with these. In particular, PodCastle has a short story I haven't read from Naomi Kritzer (who writes amazing short stories). Then there's Ellen Klages' "In The House Of The Seven Librarians," which I heard the author read when it was a shorter piece. And then...

And then....

Oh, boy. I'm in serious trouble now. See y'all when I come up for air.

January 20, 2009

Today, I Am Hopeful

There were a couple of things that stood out in my day. The president mentioned--lauded--labor:

...it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor — who have carried us up the long, rugged path toward prosperity and freedom.

And there is a new project out there, a blog and a lobby and other things, dedicated to peace. Not the absence of war, but peace.

So, peace activism. Active. Not passive. And not simple.

These are good things.

Whither Allies

I'm back from ScienceOnline09, with an inaccessible laptop hard drive holding all my notes, and I've gotten one mostly full night's sleep in the last four. It would be wiser of me to hold off on blogging contentiously until I'm better rested. In fact, I have a ton of comments I'm dying to respond to. Instead, I'm writing this, and I ask a small amount of indulgence in the reading, because I think it's important enough to write even under less than ideal conditions.

I had a number of very nice chats with people before the sessions they were moderating about the topic of the session. Not surprising. Most of the moderators were a little overprepared and very invested in the topic, as they should be.

One of these discussions was with Zuska in the hotel bar. We were talking about lurkers and who reads her blog, and I made a comment about the risks allies take in opening their mouths and the inevitability of screwing something up. She agreed and said something about the responsibilities of allies when that happens.

Janet is now saying something very similar at Adventures in Ethics and Science.

You can't tell just by looking which purported allies have had a crystalizing experience. When people who say they are allies let you down in the crunch (which happens a lot), it's hard to trust that any ally can be relied upon. Thus, one lesson for allies (beyond the importance of being reliable at crunch-time) is not to be surprised or offended when you're not immediately recognized as an ally. Saying you are doesn't count for nearly as much as showing you are.

Let me say something now: You can't count on me.

Of course, you can't count on your parents to step up when your uncle is being an ass about your college choices. You can't count on your best friend to know what you need to hear about your date. You can't count on your sweetie(s) to know what you want for your birthday. You can't count on you to do what's best for you when you're feeling tired and unmotivated. As comfortable as it would be and as useful as it is sometimes to act as though the opposite were true, you can't count on people, even the people who are supposed to be on your side.

There are a couple of reasons you can't count on me. The first one is implicit in the examples I just gave. I don't know what you need or want at any given moment. The fact that I recognize you as part of a marginalized group tells me that you're marginalized. That's all it tells me, because part of being an ally is recognizing that marginalized and stereotyped groups are just as diverse (if not more so) than the mainstream.

The second reason is one I brought up talking to Zuska. I'm an ally, in part, because I don't deal well with authority. This means that it's easier for me than for some to look at the reasons given for marginalization and say that they don't make sense. However, it also means I take a step back any time someone says allies should behave in a particular way.

On top of that, I'm dealing with my own issues of marginalization. Some are relatively small and many are problems of privilege, but they're still real and part of the reason I understand marginalization. I may not have brought them up because, well, I've been listening. But that doesn't mean that I don't sometimes have to take a step out of your fight to fight my own.

So, no, you can't count on me. What you can do, though, is tell me what you would like me to do in a given situation, know that I'm likely to say an enthusiastic "yes" if I can (as I did a couple times this weekend), and know that I don't make promises lightly. Well, you really can't know those last two, but those are the areas where I want to be called on the carpet if I screw up.

That's a lot of speaking for myself, I know. But in the end, that's all I can do. I'm not your ally because I feel sorry for you and think you need caretaking. I'm your ally because I believe you have things to say I want to hear. I'm your ally because I believe in the intrinsic value of diversity and basic human dignity.

I hope that's enough. It may not be, in which case, you have every right to decide I'm not your ally. That would sadden me, but I understand that trying to change your mind would waste energy we could both put to use better elsewhere, just as trying to change me would be.

We don't achieve diversity by insisting that we all be alike.


As an aside that's nothing of the sort, I also want to respond to DrugMonkey's comments to Janet's post. If you follow this blog or DrugMonkey, you'll know that there was a big to do last month involving a commenter on DrugMonkey who I and some other DrugMonkey regulars felt was a trollish poster child.

Now, I had two purposes in mind in pointing out the trolling. One, I've developed an interest (perhaps even an unhealthy fascination) with that kind of thing, and two, I wanted to give people a place away from the fray to react to the manipulation. I thought both worked.

Then I saw this comment from DM:

Some, see Stephanie Z's post, consider you to be nothing more than an unrelenting disruptive troll. and suggest that I should ban your ass.

I was concerned briefly that DM really thought I was suggesting the troll should be banned, but I didn't say anything. For one thing, he was delivering an excellent lesson. I didn't want to interupt. And there are always more chances to talk about trolls and how they should be handled.

[sigh] Always.

But when it keeps coming up, I get more concerned.

Fascinating. And by this may we conclude that those who may have the privilege of ignoring said clueless idiots' obnoxiousness in case they are redeemable are themselves proving to be bad allies? Is it letting down in the crunch to fail to come to the same conclusions as those with said finite time and energy?

For the record, DM, no.

As I said above, I think it's silly to expect or even want monolithic behavior from people supporting diversity. Yes, there are times when a massed voice is helpful, but aside from that, well, it's a lot like my take on science communication. The people we need to reach, in the mainstream or in other marginalized groups, are not monolithic. We need as many ways to reach them as there are people to be reached.

In addition to places for people to sit and rest outside the line of fire, we need both carrots and sticks, and it's really hard for the same person to provide both at the same time. So as far as I'm concerned, as long as you can handle all the mixed metaphors, I'm happy to apply the pressure and allow you to show someone which way they need to move to get out from under it.

That's what allies are for.

January 18, 2009

Flamer Bingo

Home again. Must crash for a bit before trying to get conference notes off my laptop hard drive. [sigh]

Since y'all like the writing about trolls, maybe this can entertain you until I'm functional again. Teresa at Making Light started a thread about the verbal cues that tell you when someone isn't looking for real conversation. The comments are packed with trollish goodness (badness?). Note, it's called bingo because one is not enough to indicate ill intent.

A few of my favorites:

"I expected a group of [insert type of group here] folks to be [enlightened|loving|accepting|welcoming|more evolved]. But you people are a bunch of [unenlightened|hateful|rejecting|cliquish|troglodyte] [insert plural noun for male or female animal or genitalia here]."

God, you all are a bunch of sheep/lemmings/silent Germans in the 30's/brainless followers.

"You're typing with one hand, aren't you?"

"I already told the moderator about you. They're going to ban you now."

(Particularly amusing if it's on my own site and the troll doesn't realize they just told the site owner she's going to get banned.)

If it's so important for [minority group] to have the freedom to live their weird and perverted lifestyle, why don't I have the freedom to live my normal, regular life and think badly of the weirdoes if I want to?

Reasonable people can disagree on [issues that affect an oppressed group the speaker is not a part of]

*bites his tongue*

[meta] Because if you don't actually express your objection, but only make reference to your noble self-control in not expressing it, no one can actually refute whatever it is you're feeling smug about. [/meta]

[Posts rambling screed full of half-truths, non-sequiturs and pure mis-information]

[Gets a dozen responses picking apart the misinformation point-by-point]

"Those were some very interesting replies, but unfortunately, I have a life/job/hobby/ingrown toenail, so it'll be a while before I can respond to all of you."

Don't bother replying to this [abusive commentary], I'm not going to read anything more you write.

"Well, if somehow, somebody found that offensive, I'm sorry."

what [group of which i am not a part] need to do to [choose 1: improve their credibility... win an election... get my sympathy... deserve public services for which they already pay taxes... purge their ranks of extremists... behave/appear in a manner more resembling myself... i could go on] is...

Many, many more where those came from.

January 17, 2009

Atheists Talk--Dan Barker

Dan Barker is the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), based in Madison, Wisconsin. (FFRF has 14,000 members.) He recently authored "Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists." It is an update of his previous work "Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist." Dan has participated in more than 50 atheist-theist debates and is known for his "Friendly Neighborhood Atheism."

Produced by Minnesota Atheists. Directed by Mike Haubrich and August Berkshire. Hosted by Mike Haubrich. Interview by Grant Steves.

"Atheists Talk" radio program 9 a.m. to 10 a.m, Sunday, January 18. KTNF AM 950 or stream live on-line at am950ktnf.com/listen. Studio call-in number: 952-946-6205 or e-mail questions to radio@mnatheists.org.

Program notes here.

January 16, 2009

Unshared Social Cues

I was chatting with, oh, let's call him an old friend of mine the other day. The subject of Asperger's came up, and he suggested he might have an undiagnosed case. I laughed at him. I told him he was far too adept at picking up social cues for this to be the case.

He said, "With you, I'm perceptive. With everyone else, not so much."

Aaah, got it. "You grew up in geek culture. Were your parents science fiction fans?"

"Science fiction, no. Geek culture, definitely."

I pointed him to this piece on the differences between geek/fannish communication behavior and "mundane" behavior.

We also speak in larger word groupings between breaths. This does not necessarily mean that we speak faster; we just pause for a shorter time between words -- except where there is punctuation. She pointed out that when Teresa Nielsen Hayden said she came from Mesa, Arizona, Teresa actually pronounced the comma by putting a slightly longer pause there, while most mundanes would simply run the words together. Mundanes slur a lot of consonents that we pronounce individually. We use punctuation in our spoken utterances. Sometimes we even footnote.

What we say in those large word groupings is also different. We tend to use complete sentences, and complex sentence structure. When we pause, or say "uh", it tends to be towards the beginning of a statement, as we formulate the complete thought. The "idea" or "information" portion of a statement is paramount; emotional reassurance, the little social noises (mm-hmm) are reduced or omitted. We get to the heart of what we want to say -- if someone asks us how to do something we tell them, not leading up to it gently with "have you tried doing it this way?"

This leads us to body language. Our body language is also different from mundanes. We tend to not use eye contact nearly as often; when we do, it often signifies that it's the other person's turn to speak now. This is opposite of everyone else. In mundania, it's *breaking* eye contact that signals turn-taking, not *making* eye contact. She demonstrated this on DDB; breaking eye contact and turning slightly away, and he felt insulted. On the other hand, his sudden staring at her eyes made her feel like a professor had just said "justify yourself NOW". Mutual "rudeness"; mixed signals.

Oh, yeah, he recognized himself.

There's just one bit from the report that I have to quibble with.

She didn't get much into why this is all the case (I think she was surprised at the laughter when she suggested diffidently that we might be a bit under socialized. No, really?? ), and turned away questions about possible pathology.

It doesn't require any kind of pathology or even under-socialization to produce this kind of behavior pattern. Sure, fandom is very accepting of social disorders like Asperger's and its ranks were once stocked with people who had it.

However, fandom has become its own culture, isolated to a certain extent from the pressures to conform to "normal" society. The label, "mundane," for people outside of fandom indicates just how isolated it is comfortable being. We're into a second generation of people who are being raised almost entirely within fandom. Kids are being socialized to this behavior, just as my friend was. This is their normal.

So, given that my friend and others like him are perfectly well socialized to a standard that mundane society says is pathological, what does this mean for diagnosis (lay or formal) of things like Asperger's?

January 15, 2009

That Kind of Weather

This is the kind of weather:

  • Where you walk outside, breathe in and immediately cough, because your lungs are smarter than you are.
  • Where your eyelashes freeze together, or to your scarf if they're that long.
  • Where you instantly detect the smallest shift in wind direction.
  • Where you get brain freeze--from the outside.
  • Where your cheeks get chafed by the frost on the inside of your scarf.
  • Where your nose doesn't even run until you get back inside.

For me, this is the kind of weather where I want to get on a plane and go some place warmer for just a few days. Today, right about now, in fact (I hope), that's what I'm doing.

I'm headed off to North Carolina for ScienceOnline09 and to experience the region's idea of cold. I hear it will be below freezing at night. I'm positively bouncing with the excitement of meeting everyone, but I'm trying to do it very carefully.

I wouldn't want to slip on the ice and have to stay home.

January 14, 2009

Why Vaccinate? Pertussis

Apropos of the sudden influx of self-righteous antivax parents suddenly popping up at Greg's, it's time for another of these posts.

Our local paper noted earlier this year that we were possibly in for a peak year of pertussis, or whooping cough cases in the state. Pertussis is one of those lovely diseases where herd immunity counts for a lot.

Pertussis is a highly contagious bacterial infection that causes intense and persistent coughing in older children and adults. In infants it can be fatal.

Babies routinely get vaccinated for it at 2, 4 and 6 months, but they are not fully protected until after their third shot. Young children get another dose before entering school.

But the vaccine wears off, and older children can become infected. For most of them the illness can result in weeks of coughing, and they can infect vulnerable infants. Last year in Minnesota 11 infants were hospitalized for pertussis.

Since 2005 doctors and health officials have recommended a new vaccine for adolescents and adults, largely to protect infants. But nationally only about a third of adolescents and teenagers have received it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Only a third of the most common vectors for the disease are vaccinated. But hey, keep your infants away from teenagers and they should be fine, right? Of course, you won't have a babysitter for six months.

Luckily most parents do vaccinate their infants as soon as possible, but when they don't, what are they potentially letting their children in for?

The baby was 9 months old, his birth weight was 8 lbs 5 ounces. At six months he weighed just shy of 20 pounds. Today he weighed 15 pounds - he was a skeleton and he was dying.

Mom had brought him in after treatment by his naturopath had failed. Constant coughing had made it impossible for him to take in adequate nutrition and starvation, coupled with a raging bacterial pneumonia were conspiring to shortly end his very short life.

We worked feverishly. Intubation, IV boluses, major antibiotics, vasopressors. All futile.

The end of the story is at ERNursey, but do you really have to read it? Just get those kids stuck.

January 13, 2009

A Bigger Gamble Than Ever

Oh, this is not good.

State-sponsored gambling, which faced long odds in past legislative sessions, might not be viewed so negatively this time around as legislators look everywhere for a few dollars to help solve the state's massive budget problems.

A cross section of state legislators are expected to introduce a wide spectrum of gaming bills in coming weeks.

I get the appeal. I really do. Voluntary revenue for the state, in a world where "tax" has become an epithet meaning "sodomy," is about as sexy as it gets, especially when the word makes our governor blink slowly and say, "But I made a promise."

The problem is that gambling isn't free--and all the calculations of how long it would take to pay off start-up costs and bring in revenue are more than a year old. Normally that wouldn't be a big deal, but what a year it's been. You've heard about Atlantic City.

"Over the last two years, about $600 million in gross gaming revenue has disappeared from Atlantic City," said Joseph Weinert, senior vice president of Spectrum Gaming Group.

Also gone during that period: 3,330 casino jobs.

Atlantic City has tried to blame the decline on growth in other gambling and, of all things, a smoking ban. But that doesn't explain Las Vegas.

Recently, the Nevada Gaming Control Board released “win,” or revenue, figures for the month of October. The results showed a significant decline in state-wide revenue from gambling, which slid 22.33% in October when compared to the same month last year. Las Vegas Strip revenue was down 25% year over year.

Clark County, Nevada reported a gambling win of $757 million, falling from just over $1 billion in October of 2007. The change represented a drop of 24.34%, among the largest declines in the state. Casinos on the famed Las Vegas Strip reported $475 million in revenue in October, down from $639 million year over year. That percent decrease amounted to 25.77%. North Las Vegas saw its revenue tumble by the largest reported percentage. October gambling revenue there dropped from $28 million in 2007 to just $18 million in 2008, a slide of 34.53%.

Nor does a casino have to be a plane flight away to be in trouble.

The Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority announced Sunday that effective Feb. 1 it will cut pay for all employees, with salary rollbacks of 10 percent for vice presidents and above, 7.5 percent for middle managers and 4 percent for all line and hourly employees.

In addition, it will eliminate annual raises and merit-based salary increases and is scrapping its matching contribution to employee 401(k) plans.


The announcement comes a month after the casino's parent company reported a double-digit percentage decline in net earnings, primarily due to a drop in gambling revenue. For the year ending Sept. 30, Mohegan Sun reported $1.36 billion in net revenue, down about $68 million from the previous year.

Only state lotteries are seeing any increase in revenue, and not even all of them. New Jersey isn't getting any of it.

Officials say their sales slipped by 4 percent between July and the end of November compared with the same period in 2007.

The sales slump runs counter to what other states are seeing. Scientific Games, which makes scratch-off tickets, says revenue is up for scratch-off and daily games in 25 of the 42 states with lotteries.

Neither is New Hampshire.

Lottery sales were down 11 percent in 2008 over the previous year, according to Rick Wisler, executive director of the New Hampshire Lottery.

Whatever may have been the case in the past, gambling is not recession-proof, not this recession. And with all the other demands for funding, now is not the time to be gambling state money on the chance of future revenue.

January 12, 2009

Science and Fiction--Recommended Reads

This is my last summary of responses to the questions Peggy and I posed in November. Today's question was posed to both science bloggers and science fiction writers.

Are there any specific science or science fiction blogs you would recommend to interested readers or writers?

The short answer is "yes." Here's the long answer:

Science and Technology
Astrobiology Magazine Science news relevant to the possibility of life on other worlds.
Astronomy Picture of the Day
Bad Astronomy Phil Plait on astronomy and general skepticism.
BBC News One of the few large media outlets that still has broad science coverage.
Biology in Science Fiction Peggy Kolm finds the science in science fiction and vice versa.
Blogging on Pseudo-Science Database Aggregating skeptical posts on junk science.
Carnival of Mathematics Blog carnival: mathematics, including math in pop culture.
Carnival of Space Blog carnival: space and astronomy.
Centauri Dreams Paul Gilster looks at peer-reviewed research on deep space exploration, with an eye toward interstellar possibilities.
Cocktail Party Physics A group blog lead by by Jennifer Ouellette that looks at interesting science and pop culture.
Cognitive Daily Fascinating peer-reviewed developments in cognition.
Cosmic Variance A group blog of physicists and astrophysicists talking about whatever interests them.
Deep Sea News All things wet and wild. At least those found underwater.
denialism blog Stamping out anti-science.
Dinosaur Tracking Brian Switek finds dinosaurs everywhere.
Discover Blogs Discover's blog swarm.
DrugMonkey A primer in the politics of funding and publishing in biology.
Encephalon Blog carnival: neuroscience and psychology.
Four Stone Hearth Blog carnival: anthropology and archaeology.
Geoblogosphere Feed A combined feed of geobloggers.
The Great Beyond The Nature news feed (many blogs also listed individually).
The Giant's Shoulders Blog carnival: history of science and classic science papers.
Greg Laden's Blog Archaeology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, politics. Oh, and robots.
Highly Allochthonous Chris Rowan is a geologist specialising in the dark arts of paleomagnetism.
Knight Science Journalism Tracker A review of science news stories as they make the MSM rounds.
Laelaps Brian Switek blogs about evolution. With cool pictures.
Mendel's Garden Blog carnival: genetics.
Mind Hacks Neuroscience, psychology, and the workings of the brain.
More Grumbine Science Robert Grumbine looks at climate science and whatever other science strikes his fancy.
NASA's Image of the Day
Nature News The latest science news from the journal Nature.
Neuroanthropology Encouraging exchanges among anthropology, philosophy, social theory, and the brain sciences.
New Scientist The magazine's online home.
Pharyngula Read PZ Myers. Everybody's doin' it.
Real Climate Climate science from climate scientists.
Research And Media Network Bringing people together to improve communication of research findings.
Research Blogging Aggregating posts on peer-reviewed research.
SciDev News, views and information about science, technology and the developing world.
ScienceNOW The latest science news from AAAS & the journal Science.
SciTalk UK organization that hooks up writers with scientists.
Science Not Fiction The science of futurist technologies—and cool TV shows, books, movies, toys, and video games.
Seed Magazine Science and culture.
Seed ScienceBlogs The sciborg (many blogs also listed individually).
Sentient Developments George Dvorsky's blogs about transhumanist perspectives on science, philosophy, ethics and the future of intelligent life.
Slashdot The great repository of all things geeky.
Space.com Putting all your space news in one place.
Tangled Bank Blog carnival: science and medicine.
Technovelgy Database of technology in science fiction, and news about science and technology related to SF.
Tetrapod Zoology Darren Naish talks about dinosaurs and whatever other creatures fascinate him today.
Thus Spake Zuska Suzanne Franks highlights the position of women in the sciences and engineering.
Uncertain Principles Chad Orzel, physicist and SF fan.
Universe Today Space news and home of the Carnival of Space.
Wired Magazine Not your grandfather's tech news, unless you're my niece.
why I hate theropods Nick Gardner finds the paleobiology news that others miss.
Worldchanging Collecting news and resources on environmental sustainability.
xkcd If you don't know why, you haven't read it yet.

Science Fiction
AboutSF.com A science fiction resource center.
The Alien Next Door Musings of Nina Munteanu, SF writer and ecologist.
Ambling Along the Aqueduct SF from a feminist point of view.
Angel Station Walter Jon Williams, author, game designer, kenpo maven, scuba fiend, and fantasy Iron Chef.
Beyond the Beyond SF writer Bruce Sterling blogs at Wired.
Charlie's Diary Writer Charlie Stross on, well, everything.
Cyberpunk Review Robots and cyborgs in news and entertainment.
Eat Our Brains A different brain (and writer) for every day of the week.
Ecstatic Days Writer and editor Jeff VanderMeer.
Feminist SF--The Blog! Books, movies, comics, games, reason, & ranting.
Feminist SF Blog Carnival
Futurismic A group blog about near-future science fiction and fact.
GalacticMu SF with an extra dose of snark.
Hero Complex The LA Times genre blog, with an emphasis on TV and movie news.
Hindi Science Fiction In Hindi.
io9 Attack of the 50-foot blog.
Lablit Dedicated to the portrayal and perceptions of real laboratory culture in fiction, the media and across popular culture.
Lakeshore Prolific writer Jay Lake blogs slightly less prolifically.
Mike Brotherton SF writer and astronomer.
No Moods, Ads or Cutesy Fucking Icons (Reloaded). Peter Watts keeps the focus on science and fiction.
People of Colour SF Carnival
Post-Weird Thoughts News, reviews and interviews.
Schlock Mercenary The comic.
Science and Entertainment Exchange Providing entertainment industry professionals with access to top scientists and engineers.
SFNovelists A collective of professional speculative fiction writers write about writing.
Sf Signal News, reviews and the Mind Meld (including several relevant to this discussion).
SF Writer Writer Robert J. Sawyer.
Tobias Buckell Online
tor.com The publisher provides a place to geek about all things fantasy and science fiction.
The Ultimate Science Fiction Web Guide It's not pretty, and hasn't been updated recently, but it's still an excellent way to find SF with specific themes.
Whatever Writer John Scalzi talks about science fiction, politics, geekery and, well, you know.

Science Art
The Art Department Blog of Tor Art Director Irene Gallo.
bioephemera A miscellany of incredibly cool stuff.
BLDGBLOG Finding a remarkable amount of science in architecture.
The Filter Art, video and other media "to help you, help others 'get' science."
The Flying Trilobite Glendon Mellow's art in awe of science.
Gurney Journey An art blog by the writer and illustrator of Dinotopia.
Paleo-Future Futurist predictions from the past.
Pruned Landscape architecture and urban planning.
Raptor's Nest Paleobiologist Manabu Sakamoto sketches his subjects.
seedbyte Garden design, garden organizations and individuals who stand out in the garden community.
Warren Ellis A steady stream of art, science and weirdness.
When Pigs Fly Returns Zachary Miller on dinosaurs, art and dragons.

As always, links to all the responses and the summaries to all the questions can be found at the conference wiki. And a huge thank you to everyone who participated.

January 11, 2009

Technical Difficulties

Usually, when a radio show fails to go on the air due to technical difficulties, those difficulties happen in the studio--sometimes on the phone line.

This morning, they happened on the freeway.

Anyone looking for the podcast of today's interview with Todd Allen Gates is going to have to wait, probably two weeks, although we're still finalizing the arrangements. I can't tell you how much I appreciate that he's willing to return to the show. Anyone less committed to rationality would be considering us cursed by now, since his first time on Atheists Talk was marred by a button in the studio with an indicator light that came on even when the button wasn't fully pressed.

Today's story is a little different. It started out perfectly. I'd just hit Send on an email when the doorbell rang. I had my show notes and hot drink sitting ready and grabbed them as I headed out the door. The streets were a little slushy from last night's snow but not slippery. We got on the freeway and headed for the studio.

We were on an overpass the first time it happened. I didn't even feel it, but Mike said, "Whoa," and the car slowed down. "Maybe the roads are a little icy."

Everything seemed okay after that, and once we were off the overpass, Mike slowly went back up to speed. We were good for another mile or so.

I felt it the second time the car jerked, and the third and.... I could see the wheel twisting in Mike's hands. We pulled over to the side of the road.

"I think it's the tires." Mike opened the door.

"I'll call Ben." I got out my cell phone. "Hi. We're on 35, and the car is doing bad things. Can you get us to the studio?"


Mike stuck his head back in. "The wheel well is packed with ice and snow. I'm going to see if I can clear it."

Ben and I speculated about the various problems it could be if not ice--while Mike was out of earshot, of course. Then Mike got back in the car, started it up, and drove cautiously on the shoulder for a bit. No problem. I let Ben go.

We lasted a few miles the second time. Then the car jerked hard to the right again. Its timing was excellent, as we were going around a curve under an overpass with concrete barriers a couple feet to our right.

Needless to say, we slowed way down again, but there was still far to go until we were out of the construction zone and to someplace with a shoulder again. We didn't hit a barrier. We didn't get hit by a car doing the speed limit. The only thing that took damage was our nerves.

By now, between the stop and the slow periods, we'd already hit the time when we should have been at the station. We had buffer time, yes, but not enough to make it there going 20. Not enough time for any of the backup transportation or hosting plans to work either, not once Mike was willing to take his hands off the wheel long enough to pull out his phone, where people's numbers were.

So we called the Todd, who was wonderful about it (and possibly more rational that we were by then), and called the engineer at the studio, who reran an already recorded show for us. Then we concentrated on figuring out where we could get Mike's car looked at on a Sunday morning.

Final results for the morning? We had disappointed listeners, Mike has a sheared axle boot, and I have a bunch of numbers to add to my cell phone. All in all, it could have been a lot worse.

January 10, 2009

Atheists Talk--Todd Allen Gates

It has been said that an atheist is a person who disbelieves in one more god than everyone else does. Our guest this Sunday, Todd Allen Gates, explored that idea in his book, Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer.

The author's description from Amazon:

Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer is a Socratic dialogue between a skeptic and a Christian apologist. The skeptic does not address atheism, but accepts the premises--for argument's sake--that there IS a Creator of sorts, that this said-Creator has made some sort of communication effort with mankind, and that the fundamentalists are correct in their assessment that "one religion is from God, the rest are man-made." The two characters then discuss non-Christian religions, and reach agreements on specific reasons why such faiths fall into the "made-by-man" category: (a) they're pieced together from pre-existing religions, (b) their holy laws are often based on irrational prejudices and erroneous conclusions about cause and effect, and (c) their stories contain inaccurate and earth-bound descriptions of the universe. The discussion then turns to examining the Christian religion in the same light as the non-Christian. Their conversation remains a respectful exchange of ideas, but is no longer harmonious.

The book's two themes:

(1) "If you understand why you reject all the other religions, you'll understand why I reject yours."

(2) A marveling at humans' handiwork in the creation of the world's religions: the stunning range of creativity, cruelty, compassion, ingenuity, and absurdity. Included are scriptural passages from Bahaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism; as well as mythology and folklore from the Aztecs, the Babylonians, Egypt, Greece, Japan, Kenya, the Native Americans, Nigeria, the Pygmies, the Sumerians, the Vikings, and more.

Programming Note: Todd was our guest in November (show #045), and we have invited him back.

Produced by Minnesota Atheists. Directed by Mike Haubrich. Hosted by Stephanie Zvan.


Podcast Coming Soon!
Write a review of Atheists Talk

Listen to AM 950 KTNF on Sunday at 9AM Central to hear Atheists Talk produced by Minnesota Atheists. Stream live online. Call the studio at 952-946-6205 or email us at radio@mnatheists.org.

January 09, 2009

Science and Fiction--Writers Respond #3

Here we continue on in our look at the relationship between science and science fiction (see my posts here and here and Peggy's here and here). Today's question for science fiction writers:

How important is it to you that the science be right? What kind of resources do you use for accuracy?

As always, the full list of respondents is on the ScienceOnline09 conference wiki, and all the answers are worth reading in their entirety.

There was a very wide range of opinion among writers about the importance of accuracy in the science. Some felt it was paramount.

The science has to be right. Science our best determination of how the universe works, and has certainly outlined many ways in which it doesn’t work. Getting it wrong is the same as getting anything fundamental wrong in a story, like misplacing New York City in Iowa, or having Brazilians speaking Spanish rather than Portuguese. If it’s wrong, you are too ignorant of the world to write about it correctly.
--Mike Brotherton

Science must not only be right it should be rightly put forth also .Otherwise there are chances that it may transgress the limits of sensibility/rationality and may plunge into the realms of pseudo science.
--Arvind Mishra @ Science Fiction in India

For my own science fiction work, paralyzingly so.
--Kelly McCullough @ Wyrdsmiths

It’s vital that the science be right, and I research it exhaustively, all the more so as I’m not a professional scientist. Sometimes you get to the point where you just have to speculate, of course, but the question is how far you can inch your way forward before you have to take that leap. . . .
--David J. Williams @ The Mirrored Heavens

For others, it wasn't quite as much a priority.

I wouldn't knowingly leave an error in the books, and I do check whatever I can. For example, I had a scene where a robot is trapped in a vacuum at a distance from its spaceship, and uses a gas cylinder to push himself back to safety. I just wasn't sure how to research that one. Then, a couple of weeks ago I saw an old Jon Pertwee episode of Doctor Who where he pulled the exact same stunt, so now I can point to that and say 'hey, they thought it would work too ...'

Not that I'm going to claim Doctor Who as my one and only resource ...
--Simon Haynes @ Spacejock News

I've been reading every magazine I can get my hands on for general idea conglomeration, because far-future large-scale SF sort of makes science debatable. How can you predict tens of thousands of years in the future? Just fling everything together and go crazy. :D

This flippant attitude is probably part of the reason I haven't been able to create a decent SF story yet.
--JesterJoker @ Sa Souvraya Niende Misain Ye

Most writers, though, thought accuracy was important but second in priority to the needs of the story.

To me getting the science right is not that important, but a reasonable check should be done by any author wanting to right a science fiction story. But once again the story needs to dictate what and how things happen; for instance, if a character needs to travel to the asteroid belt in a certain amount of time, I’ll calculate if it’s possible to travel in the allotted time by a legitimate propulsion system, just to give credence to the story. But I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about the propulsion system, speeds, and artificial gravity or relativistic affects, unless they are important to the story.
--Robert Evans @ SciFiWriter

There is some poetic license, but for the most part, the closer to accurate science you get the more reliable your extrapolations will appear to the reader. If you’re sloppy about your science, then you might be sloppy in your observations about people and your story may suffer as a result.
--Nina Munteanu @ The Alien Next Door

Getting the science right is important. But no more important than getting the characters, the personalities, the personal stories and the details of plot right.
--David Brin

To me getting the science right is not that important, but a reasonable check should be done by any author wanting to right a science fiction story. But once again the story needs to dictate what and how things happen...

What those that are in the science and research fields need to take away from science fiction is the sense of imagination. Science fiction is not meant to be an easy to read text book for physics. It is to tell a story and initiate imagination.
--Robert Evans @ SciFiWriter

More important than it should be; my formal training has left me scarred with the usual need to cover my ass against nitpickers and professional rivals. That said, though, I think too strict an adherence to the known scientific state-of-the-art is a straitjacket that constrains the imagination. There's a reason they call it science fiction; to keep all your stories within the realm of today's established science is to suggest that there are no more breakthroughs to be made, that we pretty much know everything already. That's a profoundly antiscientific attitude.
--Peter Watts

...I do think it's important to be pretty faithful to science. I don't think you have to be a zealot about it, though. We have to remember how quickly science can change in this world. Not too long ago everyone was telling us that the whole panspermia thing was a load of crap. Now a lot of folks aren't so sure. Same with the exoplanet thing. Science changes, so there's nothing wrong with taking a few liberties here or there as long as they try to keep with the general truth of things. When it comes to the basics, though, I think one should stick with what is accurate. Physics should still work in one's science fiction story.
Shaun Duke @ The World in the Satin Bag

This is a question that I'd answer very differently on a case-by-case basis. In the end I owe my loyalty to the story -- but I've got a whole mess of scrapped fiction where an inability to make the science work with the fiction led me to abandon a piece.


But in the end, my feeling is the more accurate the better. Given two stories of comparable literary value I will strongly prefer one over the other if it has accurate scientific content.
--Sean Craven @ Renaissance Oaf

Most of the writers use a variety of resources for scientific information, online and personal. The greatest differences seemed to be among opinions of Wikipedia, which proves that writers do have something in common with the rest of the world.

I can access pretty much any scientific journal I want, thanks to some connections in the University community. Also I get telepathic messages from my cats.
--Peter Watts

I use a wide variety of resources ranging from a personal library to the internet -- and no matter what I do I'll always feel guilty for not having done more research. What's really thrilling is that scientists are frequently very generous with their time and advice -- and you can track them down on the internet. When I was working on a film script set in the Jurassic I received a great deal of advice from working paleontologists -- and it was great to see them argue with one another over such issues as whether cabeza de sauropod was a good taco filling.
--Sean Craven

When I need to check accuracy I tap the rather large academic network of scientists that I've developed through my wife and my own work in science education as well as various online resources and an extensive personal science library.
--Kelly McCullough

For me, when I write about science-rich topics, I have it easy. Easier than most, anyway. I have degrees in physics, electrical engineering, and a PhD in astronomy. I have a lot of basic knowledge and assimilate new findings quickly. I can read the scientific journals on the latest findings if I have too. Still, basic resources are usually more valuable and useful as a writer. I’ve compiled some resources that I use: the Hard SF Writer’s Bookshelf and Online Astronomy Resources for Writers, for instance. When I need to learn some science for a story outside my expertise, I will usually start with online resources like wikipedia, which continues to improve in breadth and quality. If I need to know things more in depth, I usually identify a popular science book that covers the topic and read it. I have a lot of contacts with other science fiction writers, and networking can put me in contact with someone who can answer my questions (I wind up helping other writers when it comes to astronomy).
--Mike Brotherton

My number one resource is the web in order to check the accuracy of my work. If I can’t prove what I want, and my assumption is turning in to being a science fantasy then I leave it at that.
--Robert Evans

I use a lot of resources: anything from Google and Wikipedia to text books and scientific journals in the local library. I frequently read the popular science magazines to keep abreast of what’s new (e.g., Scientific American, Discover, etc.). I’ve gotten several short story ideas from an article in one of these.
--Nina Munteanu

As for resources, I find that Google is enormously helpful for finding accurate information. But you have to be careful. Wikipedia is a great way to be misinformed. I know this first hand as a student. Wiki is often wrong and the problem with Wiki is that other sites now cite it as if it were a legit source. It's not. The best places to find out things, such as different aspects of science, are university websites or actual science websites. They're easy to find and there are hundreds of them, if not thousands. Another thing to do is to ask people who would know (mainly for things that are a bit complicated and very specific).
--Shaun Duke

David Brin, however, uses my favorite method.

I find that it is easy to get expert opinions from top scientists, for the cost of some pizza and beer.

For my own work, I agree with those who believe that whatever a writer can get right should be right. However, because much of what I write is social science fiction and because if we could predict where science will take us, we wouldn't need to do the science, I'm willing to take some leaps. I do try, though, to either give an idea of how unlikely we consider something to be (alien races that can communicate effectively with humans) or to avoid giving any explanation that would make things seem plausible in the universe as we know it (interstellar travel).

For resources, I've used all of those listed by the other writers: internet, reference books, journals, pop sci magazines, my own science education, bribing scientists to wax enthusiastic about the details. That last one really is one of the perks of writing SF.

We're coming up on the end of our summaries, just in time for the conference. Peggy has one more set of answers from the scientists. Then, coming Sunday, I'll have a guide to the science and science fiction blogs recommended by our respondents.