Category Archives: random

How my favourite poet introduced me to my favourite editor (or…vice versa?)

April is National Poetry Month. As many of you know, I’m not much of a poet, and not much more a reader of poetry. It seems I struggle with everything that makes poetry, well, poetic. There’s either too much freedom in form or not enough, counting syllables one minute, dropping capitals and punctuation the next. As in art, there is a fine line in poetry between what counts as a masterpiece and what looks like someone kicked over a paint can. I’ve never really gotten it.

And yet, the most memorable book of my childhood — not my first book, but the book I can still largely recite from memory — was a book of poetry. My first grade teacher used to read every day from Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. I still have my copy, faded and worn and much loved, with my name etched in practised elementary school scrawl on the inside front cover. The book is home to some of my most beloved literary characters: Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (who would NOT take the garbage out!), Ickle Me, Pickle Me, and Tickle Me (who went for a ride in a flying shoe), and dear old Reginald Clark, who was afraid of the dark, and begged each day, “Please do not close this book on me.” (which of course we did, every day before lunch time…and I still do, as a rule, anytime I feel the need to look up a Recipe for a Hippopotamus Sandwich.)

It’s a book that’s lost little of its charm over the years.  Indeed, it was only a few years ago that I discovered the book’s dedication, “For Ursula” referred to the legendary Harper & Row editor, Ursula Nordstrom, the woman who, over the span of a fifty-year career, revolutionized children’s publishing. Ursula Nordstrom not only nurtured some of the greatest creative talents in 20th century children’s literature (e.g. Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown – to name just a few!), but she also dared to publish what she called “good books for bad children,” shattering the strict moralistic standard of children’s books in favour of books that catered to the real emotions and imaginations of children.

Nordstrom began her career at Harper & Brothers in 1931, when she accepted a position as a clerk in the College Textbooks Department. Although Nordstrom expressed an early interest in writing, she did not join Harper with any immediate ambition to become an editor. Instead, she climbed the ranks as an assistant to her friend, Ida Louise Raymond, who headed Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls. When Raymond retired from the post, Nordstrom was named her successor, and would remain in a leadership role within Harper for the next forty years, amassing a long list of notable firsts: she published one of the first juvenile books handling the subject of menstruation (The Long Secret, by Louise Fitzhugh) and the first novel for young readers that explored homosexuality (John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip). And when Maurice Sendak’s picture book, In the Night Kitchen, was censored and burned because it depicted a nude boy, Nordstrom publicly decried the “mutilation” of the book and maintained that “it is only adults who ever feel threatened by Sendak’s work.”

Though widely revered by authors, artists, and librarians, she sometimes faced staunch criticism from self-proclaimed authorities on children’s literature. One such critic, Anne Carroll Moore, famously asked Nordstrom what qualified her to be a children’s editor, given that she had no formal education, no children, and was not a teacher or librarian. Nordstrom was undaunted, replying matter-of-factly: “I am a former child, and I haven’t forgotten a thing.

Her letters — many of which have now been published as a collection — are an absolute delight to read. Most are letters between her and her authors and artists, which capture the special bond she had with them. But there are also letters to her readers — mainly children, but also some critics — which are as heartfelt and honest as many of the books we grew up with, thanks to her.

It’s difficult to imagine that Shel Silverstein — who began his career as a songwriter (most famous for Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue“), and whose poems were originally published in Playboy – would have gotten a second look from any other children’s editor of the time. But Nordstrom actually helped convince a reluctant Silverstein that he should try his hand at children’s poetry — and I love her for it.

Because what fun would have been growing up without Me Stew and The Loser and the Crocodile’s Toothache?  (I think I’d rather have been eaten by a boa constrictor!)

Happy Poetry Month!

 

Five common grammatical mistakes explained with pancakes

Tuesday, March 4th (March forth, get it?) is National Grammar Day. This year, it also happens to be Pancake Tuesday, the day when we’re all supposed to confess our sins and stuff ourselves with pancakes before Lent.

I’m not so crazy about Lent, but grammar and pancakes? On the same day? You mean I can make pancakes in the shape of punctuation marks for…um…educational purposes?

So, here we go — five grammatical sins explained with pancakes:

1. Using “comprised of” when you mean “composed of”

This is my all-time biggest grammar peeve. Frequent readers and former lab-mates will have no doubt heard me rant on this before. When you are describing the parts that make up a whole, for instance, the ingredients in a pancake, you might say, “Pancakes are composed of eggs, milk, and (because it’s a Monday night and I’m lazy), pancake mix.” Or, you might say, “Pancakes comprise eggs, milk, and pancake mix.” Either of these would be correct.

You would not say, “Pancakes are comprised of eggs, milk, and pancake mix.”

The word comprise means “to include,” so when you say “comprised of,” it’s like saying “included of.” It’s gibberish. It’s painful. And I’m pretty sure a unicorn accidentally steps on a kitten somewhere on the internet every time you use it. You wouldn’t want any murderous unicorns on your conscience, would you? Good. So please stop the madness.

Just remember, the whole always comprises its parts:

comprises

2. Plural-possessive confusion

The other day I saw a sign that said, “WANTED: Auto’s dead or alive.” Of course, we all know they really meant “autos,” as in more than one automobile. So why the wayward apostrophe?

Here’s the rule:

  • If you are making a plural (i.e. more than one of a thing), you don’t use the apostrophe. (e.g. three pancakes)

plural

  • If you are making a possessive (i.e. signifying that a thing belongs to someone), then you use the apostrophe. You do not use the apostrophe to signify a plural, unless you want to be stabbed with a fork, like this:

noapost

  • Exception to the possessive rule: “its” — see #3 below for clarification.

3. Confusing “its” and “it’s”

“It’s” is a contraction of two words: “it is.” As in: “Look, it’s a pancake!”

1 pancake

“Its” is a possessive signifying that something belongs to “it.” As in: “You spread butter on its surface.”

its

4. Fewer vs. Less

We’ve all seen the express checkout line at the supermarket that reads “15 items or less.”  Now, I’m with Stephen Fry on this one — for the sake of keeping the express line moving, I can let this one go. But if you aren’t sure when to use “fewer” or “less,” here’s the rule:

  • If you can count the thing, and you can reduce its quantity by countable amounts, then you use “fewer.” For example: “Two pancakes are fewer than three.”

morefewer

  • If you can’t count the thing, you use “less.” For example: “I have less pancake batter than I had before.”

moreless

5. Where punctuation goes relative to quotation marks

OK, I’ll admit, this one can be tricky, because the rules are sometimes different depending on where you are and what style you’re using. In the US and Canada, the following rules are most commonly used:

  • Periods always go inside quotation marks.
  • Commas always go inside quotation marks. (Revision 3/4/14: my original pancake comma was backwards! Eeep! All fixed!) 

inside2

  • Semicolons and colons always go outside quotation marks.

OUTSIDE

  • Question marks & exclamation marks go inside quotation marks if they form part of the direct quote; otherwise, they go outside.

Okay, now here’s my confession: This post was supposed to be about seven deadly grammatical sins. But all these pancakes made me hungry. So I ate them. :-)

Resolution Zero: Ten things I did this year that were better than my New Year’s resolutions

I have issues with New Year’s resolutions. For starters, the new year doesn’t, by definition, stay “new” for very long. By my estimation, the new year only lasts until about the third week of January, when residual holiday cheer and New Year’s resolve is subsumed by the grim reality of at least two more months of bitter cold and darkness. Second, of all days to make a fresh start, why January 1st, the universal day of hangovers, sleep deprivation and Honeymooner’s marathons?

I’m also annoyed with the commercials. We spend the entire holiday season eating and drinking in excess, while simultaneously being bombarded with ads for exercise machines, fad diets, gym memberships, and the countless other products that seem to crawl out of the woodwork in time to cash in on our newfound but short-lived New Year’s willpower.

For the last few years, I’ve done little more than go through the motions of setting resolutions, which is to say, I’ve sat down with a friend and we’ve dreamt up outlandish things for each other to do that we know neither of us will actually get around to doing. None are out of the realm of possibility — I could go on a moonlight picnic or I could get my handwriting analyzed, but I could also just as easily make myself a peanut butter and tofu sandwich at midday and read my horoscope.

Stranger things have happened, and without any resolving on my part.

The other day I thought — rather than resolving to do a bunch of stuff I probably won’t do, why not celebrate all the random things that did happen that I couldn’t have planned for?  Isn’t spontaneity the spice of life?

So here, in no particular order, are some things I did this year that I probably would never have resolved to do — and probably wouldn’t have done if I had:

mittens

1. I made mittens. It doesn’t sound like much, but considering the Great Costume-sewing Adventure of 2012, in which I spent 10 days hand-sewing a Snoopy costume that I completely improvised despite having no practical sewing experience, I felt redeemed by my little mitten project. It only took three hours, two attempts, and one incredibly patient textiles student as my guide, but look Ma, two hands!

2. I drank iceberg beer, got “Screeched-in”, and attended my first fashion show — in rural Newfoundland.  I also got to spend three days with some pretty awesome people, learning about topics we care about, with no acronyms, jargon, biochemical pathways, or crimes against PowerPoint. Long may yer big jib draw!

3. I convocated (again). Or is it “convoked”? In either case, I guess the third time’s the charm — I won the Dean’s Medal for academic excellence in my program. And while GPA-based accolades make me a little itchy at this stage of my career (I just don’t think that GPA means that much outside of the classroom), I must admit I’m glad I had a reason to attend the ceremony. A lot happened in the three years between my MSc and my professional writing diploma, and academic recognition aside, it was the right time for a bit of symbolic closure on the whole transition. Onward!

4. I stopped for geese. And a wayward cow crossing the road in Idaho. Just one footnote on all of the great times shared with friends this year. I don’t often get the opportunity to say so without sounding mushy and sentimental, but I have amazing friends — my life wouldn’t be what it is without them — they’re like a family unto themselves.

photo 1-2

5. I learned to juggle (sort of). It would be more accurate to say that I learned a strategy for learning how to juggle. Whether any actual juggling takes place depends on how coordinated I can manage to be on any given day — but that hardly matters — it’s still fun. This is what happens when you spend a weekend hanging out in a freezing tent and the juggling club happens to show up. (and no, it wasn’t a circus tent!)

6. I took up running, and kind of learned to like it. Which is monumental, considering how much I hated it when I started. I still cannot claim to be a very strong runner, but the grinding monotony that I detested so much in the beginning has slowly given way to a more satisfying, even peaceful routine.

7I watched a campfire debate that looked a lot like this: 

The final score? PhD: 1, Person who “saw a program”: 0. Sitting by the fire watching the sparks fly: priceless.

8. I didn’t publish…and I didn’t perish. This year, there were no impact factors, no citations, no  arbitrary and nebulous measures of “productivity” — and it was probably the most creative, productive, and meaningful year of my career to date. Now more than ever, I wonder — what could science be like if everyone focused less on publishing and more on creativity? What could happen if everyone had just a little more time to slow down and think?

9. I gained a new appreciation for mathematics. This might come as a surprise from a former scientist, but I’m not really mathematically-minded, at least not at a theoretical level. Calculus was my Achilles heel as an undergrad — so much so that I once summarized a lecture in physical chemistry as “blah, blah, magic, answer!” No amount of professorial wand-waving helped — it wasn’t until I got deeper into biochemistry and into the application of the concepts that they made any sense at all. Consequently, I went through my entire scientific career viewing math merely as a tool, until this year, when a first-year undergrad explained fractals in a way that made the math inherently interesting, accessible, and really quite stunningly beautiful. Cool.

10. I took an extended holiday. Well, three weeks may or may not qualify as “extended” depending on your definition, but it’s the longest voluntary, non-conference related, e-mail and guilt-free holiday I’ve ever taken. Two weeks in, I am definitely more than 66.67% relaxed and refreshed. :-) Maybe Santa does exist!

Happy holidays, everyone! Onward and upward in 2014!

In which stuff happened, I disappeared, more stuff happened, and now my house is clean.

There’s a quote floating around Facebook right now by Zora Neale Hurston: “There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.” It’s timely — as I search for a simple way to explain my six-month hiatus from the blogosphere, I can think of nothing more succinct than to say that 2013 has been a year that answered. That it answered in the tone of Alex-Trebek-as-Yoda (“Sorry, I am, but in the form of questions, your answers must be.”) is oddly typical and rather beside the point — but that’s a different story.

I can’t say much about what happened, only that after spending the last few years in a state of transition, preoccupied with questions about my future, I was confronted with a situation that served up, among other things, a jarring reminder about the power of being fully and intentionally present. It forced me to take a step back and begin to notice all of the things that get in the way…fear, uncertainty, perfectionism, cultural notions about the way things are “supposed to be,” and perhaps most powerfully, the walls we build around ourselves to guard against all of this interference. It made me realize, somewhat paradoxically, that the answer to the perennial question of “what comes next?” is really quite simple:

Make more space for what matters now.

Everything has been changing at such a whirlwind pace over the last couple of years, and while it’s all been for the best, I felt like I needed some time to catch up with myself, to take stock of where I am now, and to clear away the things that no longer fit. It’s amazing what we accumulate over time without even noticing — the habits of mind that emerge innocently enough, but then just clutter things up from a lack of purpose, like subconscious drawers of mismatched tupperware. (I’m serious — how do you end up with so many square containers and round lids? It’s like the second law of microwavable, dishwasher-safe thermodynamics.)

If you’ve ever tried to tame the tupperware drawer, you know that as soon as you start rummaging around, things inevitably fall out and get messy. Sure enough, early on in my quest to “declutter” — before I knew that’s what I was doing — I was reintroduced to the work of Brene Brown, a researcher who studies messy topics like vulnerability and shame.  She, rather helpfully (or so I thought, until I saw it), compiled a list of key themes that emerged from her research — ten “guideposts” that describe wholeheartedness. 

I read the list (from The Gifts of Imperfection):

  1. Cultivating authenticity — letting go of what people think
  2. Cultivating self-compassion — letting go of perfectionism (uhoh…)
  3. Cultivating a resilient spirit — letting go of numbing and powerlessness
  4. Cultivating gratitude and joy — letting go of scarcity and fear of the dark
  5. Cultivating intuition and trusting faith — letting go of the need for certainty (double uhoh…)
  6. Cultivating creativity — letting go of comparison (or, why I chose writing over science)
  7. Cultivating play and rest — letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self worth (Hello, Academics Anonymous?)
  8. Cultivating calm and stillness — letting go of anxiety as a lifestyle (calm? still?  and not anxious?  Hahahaha! *cringe*)  
  9. Cultivating meaningful work — letting go of self-doubt and “supposed to.”
  10. Cultivating laughter, song and dance — letting go of being cool and “always in control.” (Song and dance? She’s kidding, right?)

My immediate inclination, after I finished choking on #7, was to dismiss the whole list as too icky and self-helpy, in a “the world needs more hugs and let’s all chant Kumbaya” kind of way.

But the more I thought about it — and acknowledged my own vulnerability toward the process — the more it began to ring true, not as a sweeping prescription, but more as a handy set of behavioural substitutions: do more of this, less of that.   Let go of the things that get in the way to make space for the things that matter. Isn’t that what I’d been trying to do all along?

So I spent the better part of four months writing my way down the list. It’s been a journey of sorts. I’m still not sure if it ends with a newfound sense of “wholeheartedness”; so far, all I’ve gleaned is a deep, contradictory need to “embrace the mess,” figuratively speaking, while feeling an overwhelming urge to — very literally — purge and reorganize my entire apartment.

But…I suppose there’s more than one way to sort the tupperware.

Ten papers demonstrating unequivocally that scientists have a sense of humour

Of all the adjectives that come to mind when you think of academic or scientific writing, there’s one I’d bet sinks to the bottom of the list regardless of the audience. You might think a paper is unintelligible, incomprehensible, jargon-filled, complicated, detailed, sometimes exciting, often boring, but certainly not funny. I mean, science is serious business, and no researcher in his or her right mind would dare compromise citations for laughs.

Or would they?

Every year the scientific community waits on the edge of its collective seat for the announcement of the IgNobel Prizes, celebrating real research that “makes people laugh, and then think.” The lucky winners become the laughing stock for awhile, but the giggling is often followed by a sober realization: “Someone actually studied that? Seriously?”

Part of what makes the IgNobels so unabashedly funny is that often, they start out with a completely serious question. Does a person’s posture affect their estimation of an object’s size? (Apparently so, especially if you lean slightly to the left). Can a doctor accidentally make your butt explode while performing a colonoscopy? (Turns out it’s rare, but I’m sure…um…relieved that they did the research).

What’s a little harder to find in the scientific literature are examples of researchers being intentionally cheeky. But such examples do exist, and they call out for a Top 10 List.

Here it goes:

10. The unsuccessful self-treatment of a case of writer’s block.” (D. Upper. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 1974)

The reviewer’s comment on this paper sums it up best: “Clearly it is the most concise manuscript I have ever seen — yet it contains sufficient detail to allow other investigators to replicate Dr. Upper’s failure.” 

Which is precisely what other investigators set out to do. That it took 33 years and a research grant of $2.50 underscores the scope of the problem. Writing, it seems, is hard.

Many papers tackling such a difficult problem are lost to researchers outside of the discipline, but the beauty of Upper’s pivotal work is that it can be readily applied to different fields. Consider its recent application to a study in molecular biology:

Screen shot 2013-06-25 at 5.55.09 PM

Excerpt from Lorenz et al. (2011) ViennaRNA Package 2.0; Algorithms for Molecular Biology, 6:26 (Click to enlarge)

Only time will tell whether science will have the last…or first…word on this mystifying phenomenon.

9. “Can apparent superluminal neutrino speeds be explained as a quantum weak measurement?” 

What at first seems like just another paper full of jargon about faster-than-light particles reduces to a simple and elegant conclusion: “Probably not.”

8. Synthesis of Anthropomorphic Molecules: the NanoPutians” (Chanteu & Tour, Journal of Organic Chemistry, 2003)

They drew stick figures. With molecules!

Ever vigilant, however, of illustrating their nano-peeps in a way that would not be representative of their equilibrium state, the authors add this caveat: “…the liberties we take with the nonequilibrium conformational drawings are only minor when representing the main structural portions; conformational license is only used, in some cases, with the NanoPutians’ head dressings.”

Science…solving bad hair days, one molecule at a time.

7. “Trajectory of a falling Batman” (Marshall et al., Journal of Physics Special Topics, 2011)

This study is exactly what it sounds like. They analyzed the path of a falling Batman to determine whether our beloved caped crusader could indeed survive on a Batwing and a prayer. Their grim conclusion? Splat.

Or, as the authors put it (albeit far less eloquently in my opinion): “Clearly gliding using a batcape is not a safe way to travel, unless a method to rapidly slow down is used, such as a parachute.”  Noted.

6.  “The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute” (Lim et al, British Medical Journal, 2005)

Don’t you just hate it when your co-workers steal all the teaspoons?  If you’re a real scientist, you don’t get mad. You get a publication!

5. Chicken, chicken, chicken.

There are few things more satisfying in science than publishing a really important paper, and then being asked to present it at a really important conference. This is one of those truly remarkable papers that must be seen to be appreciated.

Now, you might think that a study such as “chicken chicken chicken” could have little application outside the poultry world. But you’d be wrong. Indeed, I know at least a few people who have adopted “chicken chicken” as the universal code word for a scientific talk that has gone on way too long. So here’s my public service announcement to researchers everywhere: if you’re ever speaking and the audience starts muttering “chicken chicken” to themselves, they’re not hungry — they want you to stop.

4. Santa and the moon” (Barthell, CAPJournal, 2012)

Do you remember when you were a kid on Christmas morning, and how you carefully examined the wrapping paper for its scientific accuracy before meticulously unwrapping the toy you’d been waiting for all year?

I totally thought so.

This one belongs in the category of “You might be a scientist if…”

Parents: If your child ever exhibits signs of trauma from the inaccurate portrayal of moon phases on wrapping paper, it might be time to have a serious talk about graduate school. Might I recommend this book at bedtime?

3. Absolute dating of deep-sea cores by the PA(232)/TH(230) method and accumulation rates: a reply” (Journal of Geology, 1963)

Sometimes, despite their best efforts, scientists make mistakes. Luckily, when this happens, there are usually other scientists happily willing to point it out. Such was the case with this paper, in which some scientists pointed out an error in the original paper, and the authors simply replied, “Oh well, nobody is perfect.”  Gotta admire their honesty.

2. Two body interactions: a longitudinal study

Who says romance is dead? Nothing quite says “publish or cherish” like a marriage proposal embedded in a scientific paper!

1. 20 more hilarious scientific papers in five minutes.

Thanks to Seriously, Science?  (or, the artists formerly known as NCBI ROFL).

Zen and the art of not hating running

It may have been a weak moment. I blame February. February is cold, dark, and confining, just the thing that would make me agree to something on a whim that I might regret later.

In February I sat down to lunch with some friends, and an hour later returned to my office having agreed to participate in a 5K run in which the sole purpose — other than charity — is to be repeatedly colour-bombed until you stumble away resembling a technicolor Smurf.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Just one problem, though. I am not a runner. I’m not even particularly fit. I’m the type of person who pokes around the edges of fitness the way small children play with their vegetables instead of eating them. Kickboxing was fun, but that wasn’t so much for the fitness as for the opportunity to hit things repeatedly and with substantial force. Then I tried an early morning mixed fitness class with a perky trainer named Brian* [*note: His name may have been changed to protect his identity.** (**Or maybe not.)], but he was a bit too happy for my sleepy, under-caffeinated self. He would stand there all smily and smug with his arms crossed as we alternated between weights, cardio, and standing on our heads. I was not amused. Then there was a spin class in which the instructor would try to motivate us with visualizations, like imagining we were passing a dump truck on the highway. Really? Chasing imaginary vehicles on a stationary bike gave me an inkling of what my cat must go through in pursuit of the pesky red dot. Finally I settled on swimming — a good, low-impact, full-body workout that also provides stress relief, provided you’re not stuck with a bunch of noobs who can’t read signs and swim in the wrong direction. If there was such a thing as aqua-kickboxing that involves pretending to drown perky trainer Brian and people who swim in the wrong direction, I’d be all set. But there’s not.

This brings us back to running. Clearly, not my first choice. Or even my second or third* [*or fourth depending on whether you count the time I tripped over an aerobics step before the class even started...]. Suffice it to say, it’s probably a good thing that I just said “yes” to the 5K without thinking, because if I had enough time to think, I surely would have found plenty of reasons not to do it. In the end, however, I chose to do it for pretty much only one reason:

Because I can’t.

General fitness woes aside, running has always been the thing I sucked the most at. I couldn’t even run a convincing three-legged race in grade school, never mind a race in which I wasn’t being dragged along by another person strapped to my leg.

I think that’s precisely why I feel compelled to do it now. It’s not (just) about fitness. It’s about resetting my own expectations. You see, the part of me that says “I don’t run” is the same part that once fled in a cold sweat at the very mention a black tie dinner and the necessity *gasp* of an evening gown, the same part of me that then confronted a Spanx-loving dress Nazi and lived to tell the tale. Somehow, that part of me emerged not only in an evening gown, but with a newfound sense of possibility and a love of bright and happy shoes. So, red shoe, blue shoe, green shoe, running shoe? Why the hell not?

But let’s not be fooled by optimism. Running is hard. Beginning running, especially when you’re about as nimble and fleet-footed as a pair of Clydesdales, is really hard. And not hating it?  Sigh.

You hear people talk about getting a “runner’s high”, or about the Zen of running, but when I first stepped onto the treadmill, all that came to my mind was the theory of relativity: the faster you go, the slower time goes. Time doesn’t fly when you’re not having fun.

someecards.com - If you think a minute goes by really fast, you've never been on a treadmill.

But here’s a confession: I’ve stopped hating running. I wouldn’t call it Zen and I certainly wouldn’t call it fun, but as time goes on, I find that my hostility toward running has lost its edge. Maybe it’s just a consequence of my body now being otherwise occupied with its continuous state of muscle repair, or maybe it’s actually getting easier, I don’t know.  Here’s what I do know so far:

  1. Music is essential. Half of my motivation is an ever-changing playlist that provides a balance between music familiar enough to get lost in, and varied enough to keep things interesting when the run gets tough. How else would you imagine Eminem and Dr. Hook on the same playlist?
  2. Have a buddy. And by buddy, I don’t mean someone to run with. That’s what music is for. I mean a person who won’t let you quit, that you can still be friends with after they won’t let you quit. I am fortunate to have two — one is an avid runner; the other, like me, began running only begrudgingly. One appreciates the small victories (i.e. “Yay, I ran today!”). The other prods (i.e. “Are you strength training?”). Together, there’s no getting off the hook.
  3. Keep it simple. When you start off not being able to run for a minute, and you’re staring down a 5K on the calendar, beginning seems a daunting task in itself; there’s such a long way to go. As useful as it is to have a goal and a deadline, I’ve learned it’s best not to think about it too much. The frustrating thing about trying to do something you’re not very good at is that in order to get anywhere, you first have to give yourself permission to suck at it. And then, even with a training plan and the best intentions, there are still days when progress still feels slow. On those days, I have to keep it really simple: Did I run today? Was it more than I ran yesterday? Am I still breathing?  If the answer is yes, it’s progress. Another day that running didn’t kill me.

Two months of it not killing me may still be a long way from Zen, but it’s not a bad start.

Viewer discretion advised?

Earlier this month, I opened up my iPad news aggregator and was shocked by the image that greeted me:  a man, staring down the New York subway tracks at an oncoming train, helplessly scrambling to pull himself to safety. The headline:  “DOOMED:  Pushed onto the subway track, this man is about to die.”

The now (in)famous full-page cover photo of the December 4th New York Post is a haunting image, for both the story it tells and story it doesn’t. Why was no one there to help the man?  Why did the photographer choose to take a photo in a life-or-death moment rather than lend assistance? And what editor decided it was a good idea to publish it as a full-page cover photo?

The cover immediately prompted a public backlash about the photo, what it means, who’s to blame, and what it says about our society.

On Friday, as I heard news of the Connecticut school shooting, I couldn’t help but wonder the same thing.

We’ve seen it all before. Gunman walks into a public place, commits an unspeakable act of violence, and then turns the weapon on himself. It’s become a cliched template for a repeating news hourly news cycle: the sullen correspondent reporting live on the scene, the eyewitness accounts, the timeline. Still-shots of tearful bystanders segue to a commercial break. Coverage returns to the studio where, within hours, the networks have tracked down old high school classmates of the suspected gunman who claim they never imagined him committing such an atrocity. Then comes the expert opinion of a psychologist who speculates about the mental health of the gunman. Cue the president offering supportive words and promises of meaningful action that never quite materialize.  Hour after hour, the endless commentary struggles to fill the void left by an unanswerable question:  Why?

It’s been 13 years since Columbine, and the media are still dutifully trotting out the same story.

A journalist snaps a photo of a man about to die on a subway track, and the critics pounce on him for not doing more to help. But year after year, Journalism continues to stand idly by as history tragically repeats itself — in schools, theatres, and shopping malls — and we don’t just condone the coverage, we expect it.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I don’t blame the media for the violence. I blame the media for complacency. For continuing to tell the easy story. For allowing the difficult issues to be swept under the latest news of Royal morning sickness or Mitt Romney having a bad hair day.

How many people have to die before gun violence becomes a story that will not go away? How many times do we have to watch a tragedy unfold before we look at it is as something other than a random, senseless act? These  aren’t natural disasters; these are people killing people with legally purchased assault weapons. The story is no longer about the actions of one disturbed individual, or even about who or how many died. At some point, these shootings have to stop being treated like isolated events and start becoming a catalyst for meaningful public dialogue.

Will Sandy Hook finally prompt the media to put down the camera and help rewrite the script? Or will they keep standing on the sidelines showing us pictures that are all too painfully clear, as we wait for the next one to happen?

 

Why does interdisciplinarity matter?

Because this is what can happen when scientists let other scientists go on YouTube:

It’s just like the original. So wrong. But kinda catchy too.

Potentially educational, if the faces don’t distract you.

It just makes you want to dance, doesn’t it?

This one’s for you, Mr. Maestripieri. My, what a big…uh…conical, you have!

Had one of those once. Now I got 99 problems but a bench ain’t one.

Where are all the supermodel scientists? (Why, in binders, of course!)

You know, there’s one thing I’ve always wondered about men in science. Why do we always get the nerdy-looking  ones? How come I can get calendars with hot firemen but can’t seem to find any pinups of ruggedly handsome, half-naked men in lab coats?  Is it because they’re all so pale and fragile-looking? Maybe they think they can compensate for their weak physical attributes with their stunningly attractive intellect?

I mean…brains are sexy too…right?

Not according to neuroscientist Dario Maestripieri, who allegedly posted the following comment to his Facebook page:

My impression of the Conference of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans. There are thousands of people at the conference and an unusually high concentration of unattractive women. The super model types are completely absent. What is going on? Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience? Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain? No offense to anyone..

No offence?  No offence!?

I’ve been to many scientific conferences too, so I can see where his comments are coming from. In fact, I’m kind of pleased that he’s finally noticed the hoards of balding white guys (no offence to you either, Mr. Maestripieri) and has chosen to speak up about the persistent gender inequality that exists in the sciences.

But as a woman in science, how do I not take offence to the Maestripieri’s suggestion that a scientific conference is supposed to be a beauty pageant? Or to his implication that, as women, we’re just there to be eye candy, while our scholarly contributions are secondary?

It’s really a shame that we can’t all be supermodels, but we’ve been kinda busy working against a systemic gender bias that creates barriers for female scientists at various stages of our professional development — not the least of which is being judged by our appearance rather than our intellect. I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t leave a lot of time for spa days and shopping trips. It’s a system, by the way, that was created and is reinforced by men. So, Mr. Maestripieri…if you don’t like what you see, change it. We’ve been trying to change it for years, and trust me, we share your disappointment in the results.

Maybe you could ask Mitt Romney for some help finding suitably qualified..er…attractive candidates.  I hear he’s got “binders full of women.” About the only thing that could make that sound even more stalker-ish and creepy  is if the binders had photos. But how else do you know if you’re getting a supermodel?

Republican Science Theatre 2012

All right, let’s get things started with a toss-up question (with all due apologies to Mystery Science Theatre 3000):

Where in the @^%# did we find these people, and how did they get to run for office?

I’m speaking, of course, of the Republicans, who between them appear to be hard-pressed to pass a high school science class.  I thought things had taken a turn for the worse in 2008 when Sarah Palin didn’t understand the value of “fruit fly research“, but I suppose it’s to be forgiven, since her understanding of the world seems to be limited to what she can see from her doorstep in Alaska. (Ya know, like Russia!)

Never mind…she didn’t win.

But now it’s four years later, the menagerie is back in town, and once again, I fear for America’s scientific future. Last week we had Mitt Romney wryly (we hope?) commenting about the hazards of airplane windows that don’t open:

It’s a real problem, all right.

It’s not Romney’s first scientific gaffe. Take this gem from his last year’s interview with the Washington Examiner:

I do believe in basic science. I believe in participating in space. I believe in analysis of new sources of energy. I believe in laboratories, looking at ways to conduct electricity with — with cold fusion, if we can come up with it. It was the University of Utah that solved that. We somehow can’t figure out how to duplicate it.

Romney is referring to the now infamous 1989 announcement by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann of the University of Utah — a claim that was quickly refuted by the scientific community at the time. Is anyone concerned that Romney’s view of alternative energy in 2012 rests on a 23-year old discredited experiment on cold fusion? Or that he believes in the “analysis” of new sources of energy? Analysis and action are two different animals, as all the dithering over scientific “consensus” for climate change demonstrates. More on that later.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Romney is that he considers science something to be “believed” in, as though it’s a matter of faith, not a body of empirical evidence, of tangible, verifiable, facts.

Indeed, it’s this principle of “belief” that underlies so much of conservative thinking about scientific issues: evolution, abortion, stem cell research, climate change. It’s as though they can make the facts disappear simply by choosing not to “believe” in them. Considering that we’re talking largely about the religious right, I’m curious: What would God think about such cherry-picking of “faith”?

And what about the danger that such rejection of scientific consensus poses to the public? The anti-vaccine conspiracists were scary enough; now we have a presidential candidate campaigning for “aggressive” (and possibly dangerous) treatment of a condition that the medical community has found no scientific basis to support.

OK, maybe I should stop picking on Mitt…he’s had a bad week. But he’s not alone.

Remember Todd Akin and his suggestion that victims of “legitimate rape” could not get pregnant? This is a guy who serves on the House Science and Technology Committee, right along with a guy who thinks that cutting down trees will stop greenhouse gas production.

Suddenly, a foreign policy based on one’s backwoods backyard view of Russia doesn’t seem quite so terrifying.

More terrifying are the global repercussions of an anti-science White House. After all, as Mitt himself said,  “the reality is that the problem is called Global Warming, not America Warming.”

Americans: please remember that before you vote for the guy who thinks cutting down trees will solve the problem.

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