Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Facebook, As We Knew It

Have you ever heard the term, "shoulder surfing?" It is the practice of peering over someone's shoulder to look at what they are viewing on the internet, particularly if they are logged into sites that have content that isn't visible to the general public. I recently read this Time article about employers asking interviewees to log into their Facebook so they can shoulder surf your profile, thus getting around those privacy controls. This has caused enough of an uproar that Facebook actually commented on it, urging users not to allow employers to circumvent the privacy settings as it is actually a violation of Facebook's user agreement. All this (and some other stuff) has got me thinking about what role Facebook plays in my life.

Hello freshman year profile picture,
you're looking particularly
 innocent today. 
In August 2005, I was extremely anxious for my freshman year at Lehigh University to begin. My brother, one year older and thus a fountain of wisdom about such things, insisted (and I do mean insisted to the point that he set it up for me) that I needed a profile on this thing called Facebook. Back in those days Facebook was just for college students, so you didn't have to worry about your mom, the kids you used to babysit, or your employer checking up on you. It seems crazy to me now how safe that little fact made us feel.

We posted just about everything. We wore our lives in the open on a profile, most of the time without security settings. We covered each others walls with pieces of flair and bumper stickers (yeah, remember those?) to show how cool we were with our inside jokes. We tagged ourselves in pictures out on the dance floor, beer in hand at tailgates, and crowded into the mirror in the ladies room (I shake my head at my own participation in such bathroom photo shoots). I didn't think about the implications of such posts further than, "oh thats funny, except my bra strap is showing, alright detag."

Fast forward seven years to where I am now, finishing up grad school and getting my ducks in a row for my impending job hunt. I started looking at my Facebook profile with a more critical eye when Facebook went from requiring a college email address to open for the general public. While in the grand scheme of Facebook, I never had anything on my profile that I considered particularly inappropriate (how lame of me, I know) I became much more vigilant about what was said on my wall and what pictures I was tagged in. I started thinking about how harmless jokes that I understood the meaning of could be seriously misinterpreted because Facebook took them out of the context in which they occurred. I'm now friends with both my parents and several of my aunts, which can be a useful barometer for the appropriateness of your content. I have my profile set for "only friends" and I am only friends with people I actually know. You won't see any pictures on my Facebook profile that I would be embarrassed to see elsewhere on the internet. I understand that private comes with risks.

Still, the nature of my Facebook posts and pictures is inherently personal. Just because the content is of an appropriate nature and it wouldn't be the end of the world if it got out doesn't mean I actually want to see any of it elsewhere on the internet. Why should my vacation pictures be open for all when really I just wanted to share them with my aunts? That picture of me with no makeup? Yeah I don't mind if my brother sees it, he already knows what I actually look like, but a business contact I've never met in person? Not so much. I feel like there is still something about the personal Facebook those of us who jumped on the bandwagon back in the only college days just don't want to let go. Not because it was safe and personal, but because it felt that way. I have established Facebook for seven years as a running conversation with close friends and family. Turning it into a free for all makes me feel seriously exposed.

I use Twitter professionally. My blog is professional. My website is professional. LinkedIn is obviously professional. I have, but don't use Google+. So what is it about Facebook that I don't want to turn over to my professional life? I believe my main audience is on Twitter, but at the same time I fully recognize that there are other target audiences that are most reachable by Facebook. There could be real value in turning Erin Podolak into a business page, but I just don't want to do that. I know I'm not alone in this either, because it is a sentiment that has been expressed over and over again by my fellow students in the social media for the life sciences course I'm taking this semester.

In class we had the opportunity to pick the brain of Sarah Bedrick from Hubspot. She gave us a lot of great advice, in addition to nobody likes a whiner she also told us to use common sense online. This includes but is certainly not limited to making sure all of your public profiles would hold up to public scrutiny. In addition to Bedrick, we've also been able to talk to Mark Schaefer, John Morgan, and Joe Sorge all of whom got asked the same question about keeping Facebook personal, and all of whom echoed the same sentiment that they don't separate the content of any one of their social media platforms into personal and professional. It all just blends, and if it is personal to the point that you don't want to share it openly you should probably think twice about posting it in the first place. I understand this, I mean it doesn't get simpler than just "use common sense" but at the same time I still hold onto my Facebook "privacy" as though it is my precious.

Just use common sense isn't satisfying. I already use common sense. I'm not ashamed of my Facebook, but I'm still not going to accept your friend request if I don't know you. I think what we all wanted to be told was that it's okay to reserve Facebook for just us, to keep it just for our friends and family. The truth of the matter is that if I think Facebook has professional value, I'm going to have to cut back on my posts even more. This will mean not using it for picture sharing, or to post the funny things my roommate says. Not because those things are inappropriate, but because they just go to a level of my personal life that I wouldn't share with just anyone. If I don't want to use Facebook to connect with anyone I don't already know, then fine just keep it clean and keep on keepin' on. But is my comfort level on Facebook worth the possible lost connections?

I think it is time for my generation to say goodbye to Facebook as we knew it. We aren't going to get back the "safe" little bubble for inside jokes and silly pictures with our friends. We need to let go of that image of Facebook. It may need to be wrenched from my resistant little fingers, but then again there is a huge difference between understanding something and implementing it. I understand that safe on the internet can only be so safe. That doesn't mean I have to like it.

So what do you think? Should I go the public route on Facebook? (I'm only sort of hoping for a no...)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Book Review: In Cold Blood

Note: This post was written before I learned that what has long been claimed/believed to be a pure work of non-fiction, has been called into question by long-lost files from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Here is the Wall Street Journal's reporting on the revelations contained in those files.
- EP 2/13/13
Well, I'm 46 years late to the party on this one, but I finally read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. The first class I took here at UW was a literary journalism class with Deb Blum, in which we read and learned about some of the greatest narrative journalists. I have a long list of books mentioned or recommended in that class that I have yet to read, and when I find free time in my schedule I've been working my way through it. I decided last week to tackle Capote's true narrative of a quadruple homicide, and I'm glad I finally did.

In Cold Blood made me do some serious thinking about the amount of murder and mayhem my brain digests on a daily basis. My favorite television show is Criminal Minds and I watch it all the time on DVD or in reruns. I also read a ton of paperback murder mysteries as a way of relaxing my brain. I just read the Hunger Games, and the premise of that book (which is young adult fiction) is 24 teenagers fighting to the death for national television. Murder is a fairly common theme when I'm choosing entertainment, and honestly reading In Cold Blood made me feel sort of sick about it all.

I ended up feeling like In Cold Blood was too good, too entertaining. It was entertaining in a way that blurred the lines for me between real and not real, and I had to keep reminding myself that the events recorded by Capote really happened. Four people were murdered, and two more people were put to death to pay for those crimes. Six lives extinguished, and I read this for fun. It was unsettling. Even though it all happened so long ago, the murders happened in 1959 and the murderers were put to death in 1965, I feel like the book drove home the fact that there is a huge disconnect between murder for entertainment and murder as fact.

As far as being a journalistic piece goes, I was blown away by Capote's attention to detail. Particularly in the first section of the book, before the murders occur I felt like Herb Clutter and his daughter Nancy were described so vividly. The account of how they died would not have had the same impact if Capote had not spent the time setting up how they lived. It is what gives the book all of its heartbreak. The storytelling is masterful and I feel like you can see a tremendous level of skill in the way the story is structured, to set you up, pull you in, and keep you reading until the last page. I had to remind myself while reading that Capote never met any of the Clutters. They were all dead by the time he got to the story, yet they are so alive in his words.

Capote actually did interview the murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. In the sections of the book dealing with their arrest, trail, and subsequent stay on death row I again had to remind myself that these were real people. Perry Smith really did kill four people for all of $40-50 while Dick Hickock stood by and cleaned up the evidence. I really can't imagine Capote sitting with the men he describes talking about their lives and getting them to open up about all the things they end up telling him. To get to this level of detail it feels like Capote has to have become a character in the stories of Hickock and Smith, yet he is only mentioned once or twice and always as "the journalist."

Pieces of writing are considered classic for a reason, and I'm glad I finally read Capote's classic story of mystery and murder. You have to read journalism, good journalism, and lots of it to appreciate what a narrative journalist really does. It is a great book, but it certainly isn't for the faint of heart. Not because it is graphic (certainly not by today's standards) but because the knowledge that every word is true will send your emotions rattling around.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Science For Six-Year-Olds: Noctilucent Clouds

Science For Six-Year-Olds is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak's first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year in first grade we've also done an experiment with butter, talked about hurricanessugar maple trees, and learned a song about the states of matter.
Hello First Graders! Now that it is officially Spring, it seems like a great time to start your new science unit on clouds. I hear you have started to learn about what clouds are made of, and the different types of clouds. I wanted to share some information with you about a special type of cloud called a Noctilucent cloud. Have any of you ever heard of a Noctilucent cloud? They are a unique type of cloud that can be observed at night and are formed by ice at the line where Earth's atmosphere meets space. These clouds are known for looking shiny because they are so high up in the atmosphere that they stay lit up by the sun, even after it has set for the day.

Noctilucent clouds. Image via NASA
This kind of cloud is a relatively new discovery. They were first observed in 1885, which is a long time ago but not for scientists who have been observing and learning about the Earth for as long as humans have existed. Since they began studying Noctilucent clouds, scientists have learned that they form at temperatures around -230°F. What is the temperature outside today? What about in your classroom? Can you imagine how cold it is at -230°F? In the upper atmosphere when it is that cold, dust blowing up from Earth below or falling down into the atmosphere from space gives water vapor a place to condense and freeze. 

Noctilucent clouds are most visible as the sun is going down or right after it has set, typically in Summer months between 50° and 70° north and south of the equator. Can you find where that is on a globe? Lately these clouds have been appearing outside of their normal range and with increased frequency. This has led some researchers to hypothesize (propose an explanation based on the preliminary evidence) that the appearance of these clouds may be linked in some way to global climate change. 

Global warming is causing the atmosphere to heat up, and when it heats up it expands. Noctilucent clouds form at the edge of the atmosphere, if the atmosphere is pushed out further it will be colder (because it is very cold out in space). If it is colder, it is possible that this would result in more Noctilucent clouds forming and forming in different areas. However, this is just one possible explanation scientists still have a lot of research to do to learn more about these special clouds and figure out exactly why they are increasing in prevalence. 

Check out this great video of Noctilucent clouds captured from onboard the International Space Station. If you have any questions let me know and I'll do my best to answer them, but remember scientists are still learning about these clouds and there may not be answers yet. 

*I got the idea for this post when this Wired article popped up in a Google search about clouds. For more information about Noctilucent clouds in general, NASA also has some great information (though not specifically for kids.)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Final Countdown (Part III) The J-School

In this third installment of my special segment where I look back on my time in grad school I want to talk about what I actually took away from my program. I'm in the University of Wisconsin Madison's School of Journalism and Mass Communication Master's Pro-Track program. I realize that is a mouthful, which is why I typically refer to it as just the Pro-Track.

The program has only three core courses: short form journalism, long form journalism, and digital storytelling. The rest of the credits (you need 30) come from electives, either in the J-School or in any of the other departments on campus. I've taken classes in Zoology, History of Science, Life Science Communication and of course the J-School. Everyone has to have a specialty but you can choose to specialize in whatever field interests you most, I obviously chose science. I tried to choose electives that would be useful for science communication, not just journalism in general.

One of the best and worst things about the program is the flexibility it affords you to do whatever you want. I liked not having to fit into a pre-fab mold for what a Master's student should look like. However, there were a lot of instances where I felt like I was completely on my own. Sure, I can always go ask for help, and when I've needed guidance I've sought it out. I just feel like in general, the Master's Pro-Track students are an island unto themselves within the overall J-School. I literally had a PhD say to me once, "I don't really consider you part of the department." Yeah. Well, learning to be a practicing journalist is very different from doing academic research in communication, it just is.

My colleagues in the Pro-Track, I'm the one in the stripes.
Still, while we might be our own island, it wasn't exactly a lonely island. The best thing about the way the MA Pro-Track program is structured is that you go through it with a cohort. The group of people I went through this grad school experience with were a supportive, and in my humble opinion, critical part of the program. More often than not, they were my sounding board for ideas, they answered my questions, they helped me talk through issues or problems, and they offered advice. On days when I wanted to tell journalism to go screw itself, they pulled me back. In several instances they became real friends, and an important part of my Madison life. I am very grateful to them, for helping me make the most out of this experience. (You can get the links to all of their blogs/websites here and I do sincerely encourage you to check them out).

One of the hardest things about this program, again in my humble opinion, is that we all came at it with different skill sets as writers. I have a science writing degree (BA from Lehigh University) and had three internships under my belt when I moved here, but there were several members of my cohort who had never written before. I believe there is always more to learn and work on, but my needs in this program were different from someone who has never sat through the "this is a nut graph" lecture before. It wasn't easy getting everyone on the same page, and I don't envy our professors trying to meet such diverse needs. As someone who was already comfortable with standard journalistic conventions, I was grateful when opportunities to challenge myself came up, particularly in one writing workshop course. The course, which I took last spring, was designed to give us the flexibility to tackle stories that we wanted to write but felt we needed help with. 

I think of this course as "Journalism Therapy" because in the end all six students chosen to be a part of it ended up writing a personal narrative. We presented these pieces to each other, and worked through the struggles and roadblocks we were coming up against. I've always wanted to write about my family, and took the opportunity in the workshop class to write about 9/11. For a group of young people the amount of baggage that got laid on the table every other week was astounding. (I considered posting the piece I wrote in the course here, but so far I haven't been able to bring myself to hit the publish button. If there is genuine interest, let me know I could probably be convinced to post it.)

Ultimately, what I took away from the course, and this program in general is an understanding of my own voice. It takes strength to tackle the hard subjects, to go to the dark places if you need to, to tell the story with truth and integrity, to keep going - around, over, and under obstacles if thats what you need to do to get it right. I don't think you can summon that strength if you don't know what it is you want to say. Ultimately I think my point is that I'm glad I did this. It was an experience I'm grateful to have had. While I didn't necessarily learn the things I thought I would going into it, I still learned a lot about what kind of writer I want to be, and ultimately I think that is the most important thing I'll be taking away from the J-School.

There is a lot more I could expound on about my experience, good and bad. If you are interested in the Pro-Track, or are a prospective student feel free to send me an email and I'd be happy to discuss the program in more specific terms. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Tweeting at the Science Museum

When I was in the seventh grade I got "lost" in the American Museum of Natural History while on a field trip. I got distracted in the Hall of Gems and Minerals and next thing I knew my group was gone. Following the directions drilled into us prior to departing from our middle school cafeteria that morning, I saw my English teacher with her group of students entering the hall and wandered over to her to announce the obvious, "I'm not where I'm supposed to be." I was quickly reunited with the correct group and the day passed without other incident.

This memory has to be similar to memories held by students all over the tri-state area who have made the trek into the museum's halls. Places like the American Museum of Natural History, or even The DaVinci Science Center where I would find myself interning nearly a decade after my adventure in the Hall of Gems and Minerals are special to me because they hold such great memories of exploring science as a kid, and helping kids explore science as an adult. I've always looked at science museums or science centers from that kid-centric lens. But these places have a lot more to offer, particularly for adults and I think one way science museums and centers can reach adults is through social media.

I've noticed this particularly since I started following the American Museum of Natural History on Twitter. Social media presents an enormous opportunity to connect with different types of people, and I feel like the American Museum of Natural History in particular is reaching a wide audience and making the most of having a social media presence on a platform like twitter. This isn't just marketing to soccer moms and elementary school teachers, not with over 91,000 followers. I mean I'm neither of those things and they've got my attention. I wanted to share a few things that I've noticed about the @AMNH's twitter stream that make me think whoever is behind the keyboard over there gets it.

A screenshot of the @AMNH twitter page. I love their background!

1. Offering the why, not just the what - Any organization can operate a twitter account and fill it with plugs for their programs. What an organization does is important, but why they do it is more important. The why is what is going to keep people coming back long after that single exhibit they were originally interested in has moved on. While the AMNH account certainly tweets about reserving tickets to special exhibits, the majority of the tweets offer the why. There is actual information to be had here, like this piece on archaeology on St. Catharines Island. Is it promoting the museum? Sure the post's writer David Hurst Thomas is the curator of North American Archaelogy in the Museum's Division of Anthropology. But is it offering information you wouldn't otherwise have? Sure. It is also providing depth to a topic that perhaps wouldn't have drawn many people to the museum, I mean it's hard to compete with the blue whale. It gives you a sense of who the people are who work for the AMNH. Which in this case, I think could turn a one time visitor into that person who comes back again and again.

2. Tweeting about other things - Chicago's Brookfield Zoo has a new baby aardvark, and the Google Science Fair is currently accepting entries. These two things have little to do with one another aside from the fact that I learned about both from the @AMNH twitter account. Tweeting about things other than yourself tells me that one there is a real person behind the account, and two that person is interested in the science community not just getting people through the doors. I like that. It makes me trust not just the information in the twitter stream, but the organization itself.

3. Variety - Even when just dealing with tweets regarding the museum's own content, there is a tremendous amount of variety in the @AMNH twitter stream. There are picture galleries, videos that explain different of topics, podcasts, hashtaged tweets about lectures or talks, and replies to individual twitter users. There is information about the people who work at or are involved in the museum when they are covered in the media. It all adds up to creating a feeling that this is about people. In terms of marketing, I think this strategy really works because it highlights all the people and topics that the museum is involved in, which makes it seem personal and approachable rather than simply like a box office.

There are plenty of other examples I could give about how a science museum could use social media, or even about what I've observed the American Museum of Natural History doing. They are clearly involved in a lot and have embraced social media and the interwebs. But for now, I encourage you to check them on Twitter for yourself. Whether you have kids or are a kid at heart who still gets butterflies entering the hall of African Mammals, a person who just has an interest in science and related topics or cool stuff, or are looking for an example of how to run a professional twitter stream I think there will be value in it for you. The @AMNH is #doingitright and might be worth the follow.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Book Review: The Power Of Habit

I have a smart phone habit. My cue is the little green light that indicates I have a new message. My ritual is checking the phone to see what that message is and who sent it. The reward I get from doing this is the rush of immediately connecting through a text message, email, Facebook mention, or Twitter notification with people that I like or want to talk to. I had no idea this smart phone cycle had become habitual to me, until I read about it in Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit. His description of the smart phone cycle I just explained seems to fit me exactly, particularly because I don't have to think about what to do when I see that little green light, I just check the phone without really thinking about it.

It would be accurate to say that The Power of Habit blew my mind. I walked away with that feeling of shock and awe you end up with when you finally understand something that seems so glaring and obvious now that it has been explained to you, and it has actually made sense. It is the feeling I got in seventh grade when the pythagorean theorem finally clicked in my brain after months of trying to understand it (well, maybe that was a little more exciting because my very relieved math teacher called for Jolly Ranchers all around to celebrate my breakthrough). Still, The Power of Habit blew my mind because now that I know what I'm looking for it is easy to identify the dozens of things I do out of habit, that I never really considered habitual.

Duhigg expertly explains that each habit occurs as a loop in our brain. There is a cue that triggers the habit, the routine (whatever action you do to perform the habit), and lastly the reward our brain feels from performing this routine. This habit loop takes place for different activities, at different times of day, and for different types of habits. Some habits we can easily identify because they are notorious for their negative effects like over eating, smoking, drinking to excess, etc. But there are many habits that are not detrimental, and in fact help us to get through our day without overloading our brain with decisions.

For example, every morning I perform the same habit immediately after waking up. My alarm goes off (cue), I go to the kitchen and press the button on the coffee pot (routine), and I end up sitting at my computer with a warm mug while caffeine percolates through me and I wake up (reward). This type of habit can sometimes be thought of as the things we do on "autopilot" like driving to work by the same route, or checking your email at the same times every day. I had never thought of my everyday actions as habits, but once I was clued into the cue, routine, reward loop I was able to identify dozens of instances within my own behavior. It is quite obvious really, but I had just never looked at my life that way before. Consider my mind blown.

There is a tremendous amount of information in The Power of Habit, and Duhigg navigates it all with precision. I think reading this book could have value for anyone interested in their own behavior. It definitely held some insights for me as to why I do what I do. A good example of the type of stories told in The Power of Habit is this excerpt which ran in the New York Times magazine "How Companies Learn Your Secrets," about how customer behavior clues companies into things you would never actually tell them. In general, I would recommend this book because the examples and explanations are really interesting and the structure of the narrative drives the book forward in a way that never seems to drag on. It is an easy and informative read.

That being said I do want to take a moment to talk about the structure of the book from a writer's point of view. I was personally impressed with the way this book is structured, with the different studies and stories cobbled together to create one strong explanation of what habits are, how they work, and what they do. The book is broken into three parts: The Habits of Individuals, The Habits of Successful Organizations, and The Habits of Societies. These parts contain three, four, and two chapters respectively. The chapters all tell multiple stories, which in my opinion serve both to provide context and examples for the scientific studies Duhigg discusses, while hooking the reader and forcing them forward through the text.

For example, chapter three opens with Tony Dungy a professional football coach (who won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts), and from Dungy goes onto Bill Wilson the found of Alcoholics Anonymous, then scientific studies of alcoholism, onto a girl who bites her nails, followed by an explanation of habit reversal therapy, back to Tony Dungy, then back to alcoholism, and finally wraps up with the conclusion of Dungy's story. The chapter jumps around, and sometimes feels like you're being teased with just bits and pieces. Still, none of this was ever confusing for me, I was always aware of where I was within the text.

All the different elements of chapter three are wrapped around the theme of how people actually succeed at changing their habits. The structuring of this chapter is smart. I wanted to know what happened to Dungy, that was the narrative I wanted to see play out. I was personally interested in Dungy, but the other content in the chapter - the discussions of alcoholism and nail biting along with the scientific research - framed the Dungy story so that it wasn't just a story about a unique football coach, it was a story about what it really takes to achieve a change in behavior drastic enough to override our established habits. It all works together, beautifully.

With a well thought out and careful structure, perfectly chosen examples, and easy to understand scientific evidence The Power of Habit is an interesting, accessible and solidly researched piece of writing. It is entertaining for anyone looking to read for fun, and a great case study for writers looking to learn more about how to structure their own work.
Note: I was contacted by the author regarding the release of this book, and I accepted a copy compliments of Random House. Never did anyone try to influence what I would say if I decided to write a post about The Power of Habit. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Am I Science?

Scientists don't really wear white lab coats. They usually don't stand in front of old cabinets full of glass jars and beakers containing a rainbow of colored liquids. Unless someone has had an unfortunate bunsen burner accident it is unlikely that there is smoke wafting through the lab, or beakers bubbling over with a frothy white foam. If these images are what come to mind when you think of scientist, you need an update. It isn't your fault, either.

Taking pictures or video to accompany my stories, I've had to ask myself how can I make a shot look more...sciencey? In the media we do a great disservice to scientists every time we stick them in the white coat peering into a microscope. Not that scientists don't peer into microscopes, they do. But the stereotype has been allowed to run roughshod over every scientific discipline to the point where people barely recognize scientists who don't fit the stereotype. Most scientists don't fit the stereotype. But I've still dragged interviewees around a building until I find a suitable science looking backdrop. We all do it, and we need to stop.

Could you name a scientist? Seriously, do you know one? Heard of one? A single one? Can you name anyone actively engaged in research in the United States or around the globe? Do you realize that billions of your tax dollars pay for research, and you may very well not be able to name a single scientist other than your local meteorologist, or if you're lucky (and a child of my generation) Bill Nye the Science Guy? I'm not trying to scold anyone here. I'm also not playing high and mighty. I can't really name any importance finance and economic people, and they are important. So please don't take this as me preaching. All of us could stand to be a little more aware of the fields we don't work in directly. I'm plugging science and scientists here because, well, thats what I do. If someone wants to school me in finance, please do. I could use the lessons.

Anyway, I realize that not everyone loves science, but a huge chunk of money is devoted to research each year, don't you want to know who gets it? The name Francis Collins should mean something to you. It may or may not, but for those who don't know he is the Director of the National Institutes of Health. The NIH is the largest research funding organization in the United States. It has a fiscal year 2012 budget of more than $31 billion. But the people that are actually getting this money are largely out of the public eye. Why is that? I don't have an answer exactly, but I can promise you it isn't because scientists are boring.

We need to change the way we think about scientists. This is already happening in the science community itself where there are a lot of scientists who don't want to be seen as lame. Even Collins has participated in some stereotype busting by posing for a magazine spread with Joe Perry from the band Aerosmith a few years back (Collins does play guitar himself) for a project called Rock Stars of Science. But even the best intentioned stereotype busting isn't going to go anywhere if the only people paying attention to it are other scientists, science writers, and members of the public who already like science. We need to get the message to the people who still picture Doc Brown from Back to the Future when they think of a scientist. That being said, there are a lot of people involved with and working on correcting the stereotype. I wanted to take a moment to bring your attention to just one example, called I Am Science.

I Am Science started as a hashtag on Twitter (#iamscience). First suggested by marine biologist and science writer Kevin Zelnio, the hashtag was used to mark stories shared by scientists about the path they took to attaining their careers. It became obvious immediately that scientists are a wonderfully diverse group, finding their passion by any number of different paths. Scientists are people too. People with different backgrounds, and different interests. Sometimes wildly different interests, doing very different things but all of it is still science. They are all science.

I like I Am Science because it started with a Tweet, because it reflects the desire for scientists to try to share who they are failures and struggles included, and because it shatters the crazy mad scientist stereotype. To learn more about I Am Science read this wonderful post by Zelnio on Deep Sea News, check out the Tumblr he created to store all the tweets, if you are so inclined support I Am Science on Kickstarter (they've reached their goal, but can still use donations!) and watch this video.

The video was created by Mindy Weisberger and uses the song "Wicked Twisted Road" by Reckless Kelly. I hope all of this has inspired you to learn more about scientists. Look up people researching in the areas you find most interesting. Read their books. Attend their speeches or talks. Bust some stereotypes.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Guardian's Take On The Three Little Pigs

The Guardian's recent advertisement promoting open journalism is brilliant, while still leaving me asking "what the what was that actually about?" First thing's first, let's define open journalism. This is actually harder than you'd think because lately just about everything is "open" - open news, open media, open source journalism. The idea is essentially that because the majority of people now get their news online people who are not trained as journalists play a larger role in reporting the news, discussing events, and revealing truth and details in stories. Now you need to see the advertisement. So here you go:

Obviously, I understand what they are doing. They are taking a well known and beloved story, one the is very approachable and showing how it would be covered if it happened as an actual news event today.  This is brilliant because it pulls elements of how current events like the uprisings in Egypt, Lybia, and Syria or Occupy Wall Street broke in the media and injects them into a story everyone is so familiar with. It is totally amusing to see a fresh take on this classic tale, but also to see the power shift in how a story is told from a writer crafting a tale to the public changing the ending.

I like the ad, a lot. I think it very effectively promotes the idea that the public can play a huge role in how stories are covered online and in the media. However, having watched it multiple times now I can honestly say I don't know any more about open journalism at The Guardian. How does The Guardian encourage open journalism, what do they do with it, what kind of access will the public have, etc.? I don't know, the ad doesn't say anything about The Guardian's actual policies.

Is the ad effective? It will certainly get the public's attention. It will get people talking about open journalism. It will get people talking about The Guardian. While it does show people changing the tide of the story, it doesn't explain open journalism for people who aren't already familiar with it. It doesn't tell you anything about how The Guardian intends to embrace open journalism either. Still, I think that the ad is intended to wow, and in that way it succeeds.

I'd like to see The Guardian follow this ad up with more information about open journalism and what they intend to do with it. But as it stands, the ad is a good example of how to get through to people, how to move people, and how to promote something in a way that will both delight people and leave them thinking.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

History of the Scientific Book and Journal

Every Monday afternoon, I go to Narnia. At least that is what it feels like to me. In the post I wrote about the book Blood Work, I mentioned that I am taking a class on the history of the scientific book and journal. I've been asked to elaborate on what we do in that class, which I'm happy to do because it is easily one of my favorite courses I've taken.

The course is offered through the History of Science Department here at UW, and is taught by Robin Rider. We meet in the special collections department of UW's Memorial Library. The reason I equate going to class with going to Narnia is because special collections is accessible by a single elevator, separate from all the others, which is the only one that goes all the way up to the ninth floor. Special collections is gorgeous. When you step off the elevator into this magical land it is all glass and dark wood with soothing low lights and the books, oh the books. For me, short of my own library complete with floor to ceiling bookshelves and a ladder to ride around and find things, special collections is as good as a library is going to get.

via University Communications
What I love most about the class is that it gives me the ability to just completely nerd out for a few hours. There is something I love about holding a book in my hands, I felt it when reading Science Ink a few weeks ago, and I feel it every time I get to handle the class materials. A few weeks ago in class we got to see the library's copy of Andreas Vesalius' 1543 De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the structure of the human body). I was pretty awe struck, to actually get to see for yourself something from so long ago that was so important in its time was amazing to me.

Two years ago I was an intern at a science journal (BioTechniques) and was lucky enough to be exposed to a lot of the editorial decision making and publication processes as the journal was put together each month. I found getting to handle copies of the Philosophical Transactions (including the first one published!) of the Royal Society and the Memoirs of France's Academy of Sciences particularly interesting as early examples of journal writing. There is just something about getting to turn those yellowed pages myself that thrills me. Nerd alert, I know.

There are a lot of issues from back then, when the conventions of printing and publishing were just coming to be, that are still worth debate today. For instance in preparing for my next class meeting I was just reading about the issue of author anonymity in writing. Now, for the most part I believe that putting your name on something is a good way to evoke trust in what you say - at least you are owning it. However, at the same time I see why there are people out there (some wonderful science bloggers come to mind) who choose to operate under a pseudonym. Safety in the wake of backlash against what you say (extreme or not) was an issue back then (ahem, Galileo) and it remains one today. Writers - no matter what you choose to write, scientific paper, blog post, etc. - open themselves up to criticism which can and does escalate. I find it interesting that so many centuries later, claiming individual ownership over words would still be an unsettled issue.

I enjoy that in my last semester of grad school I am being exposed to so many wonderful pieces of science history, but also to the ideas, procedures, and processes that go into creating a printed work. We got to tour the Silver Buckle Press, which is located in Memorial Library, during class. I had no idea UW had a collection of old printing presses, let alone that they were set up in a working print shop on campus. I even got to print something myself, which believe me was fun. For me, this class is about incorporating new experiences and ideas with things I already knew or had at least heard of in some way. It is like taking a step deeper into the world of the written word, and so far it has been amazing.

I'm taking this class as an elective, and I would recommend it. The downsides are that the readings sometimes take more effort than a few clicks of the mouse to get to, and special collections is cold sometimes. Otherwise the professor is enthusiastic, the course work isn't particularly heavy, and I've learned a lot.