2008 in Blog Posts

This was my first full year of blogging, and I’m pretty happy with what I accomplished. Here are some of the posts that have gotten the most attention.

For some reason, a bunch of people do Google searches for the word “loner.” A lot of them end up at this March post on why Facebook is just about the right amount of interaction–maybe.

Blogging really started ramping up in May, with a short essay on the costs of breaking rules in writing (and why I’ll do it anyway) and a guest post on science blog content at Greg Laden’s Blog. The guest post just goes to show that if one wants lots of comments, one should talk about PZ Myers. Also from May, my recipe for the perfect margarita has stayed popular. Please just remember that it’s dangerous.

In June, I flexed a little blogging muscle (with much help) to get a problem cleaned up that should already have been fixed, told a little story about too many ex-boyfriends, and spelled out my motto.

July brought one reason it’s sometimes better to be vague in your science fiction than to be wrong, a lesson in how not to take critique (the closest I’ve come to jumping into the framing debate), and some musings about the utility of offense as a concept.

August featured a pair of posts on Muslim censorship of fiction. One event was very high-profile, with an interesting dimension not much talked about. The other was much quieter, perhaps deservedly so. Also, my views on “tolerance.”

September was the start of my career in poliblogging. I put up my first post on Bachmann and weighed in on the economy, looking at the reasons the social safety net isn’t obsolete and at the failure of our long-standing economic policy. Oh, and apparently I get into arguments occasionally.

I continued to beat on Bachmann in October. “Realists” and libertarians got theirs too. I also summarized a very long set of arguments over whether the concept of human races has any biological validity. Short answer: no. Then I went and got myself called a science blogger by a bunch of people by writing about the value of diversity. That was weird. To lighten things up: sensical nonsense and writing for wildly diverse audiences.

I got a little more sleep in November, but I still managed to make people cry, talk about religious belief, wave a flag for the defective, and argue about belonging and identity. That last one contains one of the more interesting comment threads on this blog–better than the post itself, I think.

December has seen me mashing up science and fiction in ways I never thought I would. I committed fanfic as illustration and used the literature/pulp debate to talk about how the language of science can be exclusionary. This month also produced what is already my most linked and viewed post ever: How to Hijack a Thread. Apparently, this “meta shit” works for people. Who knew?

So what will 2009 bring? There are a couple things in the works, here and elsewhere, but I’m not not one to count chickens and all, so you’ll have to wait. Mostly, I hope the new year brings me the kinds of friendship and food for thought that the old one did.

Have a very happy new year, everyone.

Rarefied Air

Every once in a while, something comes along to remind me what an atypical life I’ve built for myself. This time it was someone reacting skeptically to PalMD’s statement that he worries every day about balancing work and parenting, ’cause, you know, guys don’t really do that. Um, what? I wanted, as usual when confronting the combination of rudeness and ignorance that can be the internet, to step on the fingers responsible.

So I stepped back instead. Was there any reasonable place for the doubt to have come from?

Yeah, there was. A lot of fathers really do overestimate their contributions to the household because they’re doing more than their fathers did and more than the world tells them they must do. “Equal” parenting, when broken down by what each partner actually does, is often not equal.

So why did I have to step back to remember that? Because in my world, things don’t usually work that way. Really. This is my world:

  • Lots of child-free couples. Some because they don’t like kids. Some for medical reasons. Some because pursuing vocations and avocations at the same time doesn’t leave much time for good parenting. Some because the desire for children doesn’t outweigh the hassles of becoming gay parents.
  • Adults who are unpartnered for various reasons. No parents in this group.
  • Stay-at-home parents of both sexes who decided they’d stay home, not for financial reasons, but to work on their art. They were mostly delusional, at least while the kids were too young for school.
  • Gay parents who by default won’t be breaking things down by stereotyped gender role, because the trash would pile up or they’d starve.
  • Two-career parents who truly co-parent, usually with the help of family located nearby, because otherwise, they wouldn’t get any child-free time to share with each other.
  • A few divorced parents with joint custody.
  • Finally, way out on the periphery, a couple of couples who do things more “traditionally.” Dads who bring home the paycheck while Mom is primary caretaker. Even there, Dad comes home from work at a decent hour and unwinds by playing video games with the kids. Any work that has to be done in the evening is done at home after the kids are in bed, which means Dad won’t be getting credit for face time in the office.

This is my life. These are my friends of my generation. Does this look anything like the rest of the world? No, and I like it that way. I arranged it that way. But it does give me an unusual outlook sometimes.

In the end, I was a lot more gentle with the uncomprehending commenters at denialism blog, because it made me sad to think they don’t live in the same world I do.

But really, y’all are welcome to move here anytime.

Thin Ice

There comes a point, at least once in every Minnesota winter, when the worst thing that someone can do is try to keep the sidewalks free of snow. Most of the time, we want clean sidewalks but not always. With months to go yet before we see warm, dry ground, we’ve already had a few of these days here.

They come in two flavors. The first kind of day when benign neglect is helpful is the melty day. This is when the ground is still rock hard, but the sun comes out and a warm breeze blows in. Piles of snow shrink and flow away–toward the frozen-over storm sewers. Then the sun sets.

Two things can happen at this point. The water can mix with the packed snow still on the sidewalk and turn into a slushy mess that eventually freezes with boot- and bikeprints all over the surface. It sounds ugly, but the alternative is for the water to flow in thin, smooth sheets over a clean sidewalk. The result is an patchy skating rink, tilted slightly toward the street and traffic. I’ll take the rough ice.

The second kind of day when maintenance is unhelpful is the very cold day–with snow. By very cold, I mean right around 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Snow at these temperatures is pretty rare, since air that cold is very dry. It generally requires warmer air up where the clouds are. But it does happen.

When it does, all the businesses downtown get out their power brooms to keep the snow from building up on the sidewalks. This is what they do for any snowfall, and I’m usually happy to see the brooms. Usually, they make my walk much easier. Not on the cold days, though. When slightly damp snow hits a 0-degree sidewalk, it sticks, and no broom is going to get it back up. All the broom can do is knock the snowflake flat.

Power broom, aka sidewalk polisher.
Usually seen with a weather enclosure.

Once again, the safest place to be in on a sidewalk that no one cares for too zealously. It won’t be clean, dry pavement, but it won’t be a highly polished surface either.

So what do you do when you’re stuck walking on the shiniest of ice? Again, two scenarios (aside from getting down on your ass and scooting along the ground). The first, and most popular, is the penguin shuffle. This involves tiny little steps to keep your feet under you and hands held somewhat stiffly by your sides, ready to be thrown in whatever direction is needed for balance. It also involves small cheeps as the inevitable slips and slides still occur.

The other option is much faster. It will get you plenty of strange looks, though, as it will be less familiar looking to most people, even if no dorkier than pretending you’re a penguin. If you do tai chi or bellydance or practice any number of other forms of exercise that place a high value on strong, smooth movement, this will be easy. It’ll still feel funny, but you’ll get the hang of it.

Bend your knees.

Really, that’s it. That’s the best advice for walking on ice. Bend your knees as much as is comfortable and keep them bent as you walk along. You’ll find you don’t lift your feet as much, so they’re always near the ground. When you do start to slide a little, your legs be in a position to deliver maximum power, flexing or extending, whichever way you need to go. But you won’t need it as much, because your center of gravity will already be lower.

Thus ends today’s lesson on ice. I didn’t really have a point in writing this much about it, but it seemed, somehow, that if I was going to deal with as much of it as I already have this winter, I ought to get something out of it.

A blog post will have to do.

Elite Bastardry

I consider myself as pretty egalitarian, but I may have to start rethinking that assessment. This is the third Carnival of the Elitist Bastards to feature my blog. And this one comes with a rank in Starfleet. How cool is that?

Okay, it might be more cool if you knew what I was talking about. The Carnival of the Elitist Bastards is a fairly new blog carnival, formed in protest of the political fetishization of the “average Joe.” It celebrates excellence, expertise and a wee bit of justified arrogance. For the record, the included posts do justify the arrogance, if I do say so myself (which I do).

So go check out this month’s carnival at Submitted to a Candid World. When you’re done and wanting more than this month’s short list can provide, head on over to Cafe Philos for last month’s. Excellent reading both.

Atheists Talk–Perry Hackett and PZ Myers

2008 has been a fun and interesting year in the life sciences. The Nobel Prize in biology was awarded for making animals glow. Evolution of complex, novel mechanisms was demonstrated in bacteria better known for making people sick. Scientists sequenced the genome of the woolly mammoth. We’ll chat about all this and more.

Joining us in the studio to discuss all the exciting developments in 2008 will be Dr. Perry Hackett, geneticist from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. In the second half of the hour, we’ll also be speaking by phone with Dr. PZ Myers, biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris and prominent atheist blogger. Interviewing them will be artist Lynn Fellman.

Listen to the show tomorrow, December 28, at 9 a.m. Central time on AM 950 KTNF or stream it live (use zip code 55401 if you’re from out of state). You can also subscribe to the podcasts on iTunes or through our feed.

If you want to meet the cast after the show, join us for brunch at 11:00 at Q. Cumbers in Edina.

Are Words Trivial?

Last week, Kelly McCullough committed “writer heresy” over at Wyrdsmiths by suggesting that the individual words one uses while writing a story just aren’t that important. Bill Henry came back with the expected defense of words as a writer’s stock in trade:

Or to use the terms in which this idea is typically framed, “content” and “style” aren’t radically separate things, which exist independently of each other.

The story (“content,” the “story itself,” “what happens in it”) and the way you tell it (“style,” “phrasing,” the words you put on the page) aren’t materially distinguishable from each other.

I’ll get back to Bill’s argument in a bit. For now, let me just note that Bill is an excellent writer of literary speculative fiction and a respected academic copyeditor.

As usual, I mostly agreed with Kelly–with our differences being attributable to the fact that I’m primarily a character writer and he’s not.

I care about the words to the extent that I care about voice, which is a good bit. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about which words and types of words a narrator would and would not use.

That is to say that words are important because of how we individually use them. For the most part, people who speak a shared language use the same core set of words. But it’s in the differences that things get interesting. They can tell us volumes about the speaker. They can tell us where the speaker comes from, how educated they are, how culturally isolated, their age, their gender.

These unshared words tell us the identity of the speaker.

Bill and Kelly wrestled each other to a mutually respectful standstill, which might have been the end of the issue for me if a blogstorm hadn’t occurred. It started with an appearance by Abbie of erv on Bloggingheads in which she expressed her frustration once again with sensationalized scientific reporting.

Along came a couple of journalists to tell us why Abbie wasn’t qualified to have an opinion on the subject. Among the reasons: “She’s bragging about the fact she can’t write.” Dr. Isis unfortunately, while giving the self-important journos a good smackdown, fell for this criticism and suggested a copy of The Elements of Style for would-be scientists. Even Abbie…well, here:

I cant write. But I still have a relatively successful science blog.
I dont want scientists to be intimidated by blogging because ‘they cant write’. You dont have to be a professional writer to talk about your research with the general public. I thought I made it clear that I highly respect blaggers who have the ability to write well and talk about their favorite science topics (I mentioned Ed and Orac), but I do not want scientists to think they have to write well to interact with the public directly via blag.

For the record, Abbie writes entertainingly and informatively about retroviruses–specializing in HIV–in a lovely patois of scientific terms and apostrophe-free LOLspeak, spiced with fangirl squee. My background in biology is so deficient (I’m working on that) that I don’t have the vocabulary to follow a lot of posts on specific biological mechanisms, but I can follow Abbie. Despite her protestations to the contrary, the woman can write.

So why doesn’t she think so? Why do half the science bloggers I read for entertainment and information apologize for their writing (the other half being people who never apologize reflexively), even those who can make people cry on demand? Luckily, along came Bora to fit this debate into its place in a larger discussion of how science is conducted.

Academic science is a very hierarchical structure in which one climbs up the ladder by following some very exact steps. Yes, you can come into it from the outside, class-wise, but you have to start from the bottom and follow those steps “to the T” if you are to succeed. But those formal steps were designed by Victorian gentlemen scientists, thus following those steps turns one into a present-time Victorian gentleman scientist. But not everyone can or wants to do this, yet some people who refuse are just as good as scientists as the folks inside the club. If you refuse to dance the kabuki, you will be forever kept outside the Gate.

Insistence on using the formalized kabuki dance in science communication is the way to keep the power relations intact. Saying “don’t be angry” is the code for “use the rhetoric at which I excel so I can destroy you more easily and protect my own spot in the hierarchy”. It is an invitation to the formal turf, where those on the inside have power over those who cannot or will not use the kabuki dance. This has always been the way to keep women, minorities and people from developing countries outside the club, waiting outside the Gate. If, for reasons of your gender, race, nationality or class you are uncomfortable doing the kabuki dance, every time you enter the kabuki contest you will lose and the insider will win. The same applies outside science, e.g., to mainstream journalism and politics.

This is why some people in the academic community rant loudly against science bloggers. If they cannot control the rhetoric, they fear, often rightly, that they will lose. Outside their own turf, they feel vulnerable. And that is a Good Thing.

I love this analogy, in part, because kabuki is such a perfect counter to Bill’s argument about story and words. In kabuki, movement is just as important to telling the story as the words are. The story does exist independent of the words. This shouldn’t be any surprise, of course. West Side Story is no less powerful because it abandons Shakespeare’s words for music and dance. There are as many ways to tell a story as there are people to tell it.

Now, to be fair to Bill, he’s talking about the process of deciding how to tell the story as much as anything else. Even so, what’s wrong with finding value in the informal, the unshaped, the impromptu? Beautiful, deliberate language has its audience, but it doesn’t resonate with the masses in the way that the story behind it does–look at most bestsellers. In fact, for someone without the education or cultural background to make that kind of language familiar, it can be very alienating. It can obscure the story.

Just as the formalized language of science can obscure the knowledge it contains. It is no accident that the people who questioned Bora’s point about who is disadvantaged by the formal practices of academic science were British male scientists. Whose dance of manners do they think science adopted?

Words are trivial to these scientists only because their words are being used. The words that define science are the same words that define these people’s identities.

Words are not trivial to those for whom English is a second (or third or fourth) language. They are not trivial to those whose regional dialects are used as a shorthand for ignorance. They are not trivial to those who don’t understand that a word like “ambitious” can be an insult that everyone but them will hear because ambition is what’s gotten them past all the barriers to their participation in science. They are not trivial to those who have grown up with a
language that has moved on. They are not trivial to those who want to understand their world but can’t afford the time or energy to specialize in a field.

Words are not trivial, but they should be. It’s the knowledge that should be important.

To bring this back to the writers’ side of the discussion again, Laura Bradley Rede of the Death Pixies summed up the whole question brilliantly at Wyrdsmiths:

If I may go all Zen koan on you, I think words are the bucket for the water that is the story. The bucket shapes the water, it helps deliver the water, it keeps the water from being lost. But you can’t drink the bucket. :)

There is value to being able to speak a common language with a common grammar. It can smooth things immensely. But any language that doesn’t adapt to new circumstances dies.

I find no small irony in the fact that the people who are keeping the language of science from dying–by updating it, by carrying it into new cultures and new corners of the culture it comes from–are the people whose language skills get so little respect. These are the people who are making words trivial again, and for that, they should be thanked. Instead, the clamor against them is so loud that even they don’t know the service they’re providing, despite their audiences telling them repeatedly.

So, once and for all and for the record, you guys are wonderful writers. The fact that you write differently than someone else is a reason to be proud, not for apologies. Or in other words, thank you for the water.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yuletide gay
Next year all our troubles will be miles away
Once again as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us once more
Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now

I prefer this version of the song to the newer, cheerier lyrics. Although the author says he wasn’t thinking of the war when he wrote it, the words of separation seem all too appropriate today. More than that, it says we can still celebrate when things aren’t perfect. It tells us to hope for the future but to make a holiday out of what we have today.

The “cheery” version, on the other hand, tells us everything is better right now and is going to stay that way.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on, our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yuletide gay
From now on, our troubles will be miles away
Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more
Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now

It is a nice idea, I’ll admit. But I don’t think I want to depend on it. I don’t believe anything will always happen “from now on,” but I do believe we can “muddle through.” That’s what hope is all about.

So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

And I Thought I Was Obsessive

Well, I am, sometimes, but nothing like this guy.

This is a detail–a small detail, mind you–of the candy Battle of Helms Deep that this guy and his siblings and girlfriend built last Christmas. It’s…I…you just have to go see it.

There are catapults.

Thank you, Katie. I think.

30 Things Meme

A bunch of friends are meming on Facebook (yes, verbing weirds language), and rather than confining a bunch of random blather about me to a friends list, I thought I’d post it here as well.

1. I think we had more snakes when I was growing up than any other kind of pet. The mice didn’t count. They were snake food.

2. I’ve never broken a bone (I think; not sure about my finger), but I sprained my back when I was in my teens.

3. I went to six elementary schools, three in sixth grade.

4. I wear three rings pretty much constantly. All were made by the same jeweler, based halfway across the country, and were purchased over eight years.

5. Both of my most serious ex-boyfriends ended up at Harvard for postdocs.

6. My cats have all had abstract nouns for names.

7. I did not do well on the swim team when I lived in Georgia. However, even years after moving back to Minnesota, I could still kick anybody’s butt at swimming.

8. I was part of a trio of friends in my early teens. I’m the only one of us who survived past age eighteen.

9. I’ve skinned a squirrel.

10. I was one paper short of a college degree for nine years.

11. I spent much of my life up to about age seventeen afraid of everything. I don’t know that I’m over that, but I’ve mostly stopped noticing.

12. I still haven’t forgiven one junior high gym teacher for thinking I was faking what turned out to be arthritis.

13. I’ve been invited backstage at First Avenue, but I turned it down because I knew it was the equivalent of a date.

14. I “sneak” up on people all the time, but we usually both jump because I’m not trying to be sneaky.

15. Despite stage fright that’s never fully gone away, I’ve been onstage as an actor, dancer, musician, singer and writer. Now I’m hosting a radio show.

16. I’m the slowest eater I know.

17. I would love to play with my hair color more, but I don’t like coloring over my gray.

18. I’ve been scuba certified, but it’s been almost 20 years since the last time I was diving.

19. Twice, I’ve gone on road trips to Canada on a whim.

20. I can cook ridiculously elaborate desserts with multiple layers, techniques and components. I’m no good at bread.

21. I used to take embroidery to class and do it during lecture.

22. I went an entire year without eating dairy, because things like pancakes made me throw up. It seems to have mostly worked, although I still can’t drink plain milk, and ice cream sometimes still equals poison.

23. I’m a highly competitive person. Therefore, I rarely compete.

24. I don’t do the polite Minnesotan thing. If I say I have no preference, it’s because I don’t. If I do, you’ll hear about it.

25. I’ve seen my father twice since I turned eleven. The first time was at my wedding.

26. My favorite kind of lie is the one that tells most but not all of the truth.

27. I have yet to figure out any “rules” on what kind of music I like. I thought I had, then Beck came along. Fit the rules, but I said, “Eh.”

28. I’ve only been stung once by a bee that I remember. I did everything right, but the stupid thing flew into my hair, got caught and panicked. Got me on the temple.

29. I use full capitalization and punctuation in instant messaging. It’s faster for me than adjusting to text speak.

30. Coming up with 30 things to share was difficult because, despite blogging and occasionally treating Facebook status updates like performance art, I’m really bad at talking about myself.

Explanation Please

I recently overheard an exchange that boiled down to a woman telling a man who was obviously quite close to her, “Oh, the work you do is so important and wonderful, but it’s too complicated for me. I just couldn’t understand it if I tried.”

I wanted to cry. For him. Her I wanted to shake.

How lonely it must be to have someone dear to you tell you that putting your intelligence to good use raises a barrier between you. How lonely to have embraced a vocation they won’t work to understand. To know that if you talk about the ins and outs of what you do, the little things that make it fascinating, challenging work, you’ll be speaking to the air.

She, on the other hand, has no idea what she’s missing.

I wanted to invite him to come over and tell me about his job, and not just because the whole situation tugged at my heart (or because he was smart, articulate and kind of cute). My reaction to finding someone immersed in the esoterica of a field I know nothing about is somewhere between a friendly chat about their day and a job interview combined with taking a life history.

If I were to persuade him to talk, despite the inhibiting presence of his lovely whatever, we’d start with the basics. “Where do you work? What’s your job title? What kind of training/education is required for that?” Then we’d hit the big question: “What do you actually do day to day?”

If I were lucky, I’d get an answer that I didn’t understand. More likely, I’d have to prod a bit for details. I would try very hard not to glare at the whatever at this point, because I’d know the generica I was fighting to be a product of the incurious reactions he receives every day. (Just a note, the genders here are entirely situational. This also happens with them reversed.)

Eventually, though–assuming neither of them decided I was a stalker–he’d hit details that meant nothing to me. That’s when the fun would start.

“What is an XX?”

“How do you do YY?”

“Can you explain how ZZ works?”

You’ve seen the classic maze-solving screensaver, right? The one that draws the maze, sends out a line that randomly takes each turn until it hits a wall, then backs up to the last unchosen branching and picks a new turn over and over until it finds the exit? That’s what this conversation would look like if it were diagrammed. Of course, in this case, each branch would be a new concept or process I needed explained and instead of hitting the wall, I’d gather enough information to understand the next higher explanation.

The conversation would end only when he was dragged off by his whatever or when I had a pretty good picture of what he did do with his day. At no point would I ever say, much less think, that I couldn’t understand what I was being told. If I needed more explanation, I’d just ask.

I really have conversations like this–about people’s jobs, hobbies, PhD projects. As a result, I know a fair amount about things like brewing, systems architecture and administration, the politics of management in industry and academia, fundraising tactics, how to tease apart two very interesting proteins that are widely considered to be the same but may not be, church history, etc.

Am I an expert in any of these things? Oh, no. Not even close. I can’t do any of these things that have been described to me. Deep knowledge and practice are what make an expert, and I’ve acquired neither. All I can do is understand what I’m hearing and ask intelligent questions.

So what do I get out of it? I could say that I get material for writing, which would be partly true. A shallow knowledge of many things can lend richness and realism to a fictional world, as long as the writer understands her limits. I could say that I get the friendship of extremely bright people, which is much more of the story, but still not complete.

The other thing I get out of this is the chance to test myself against a new field, a new idea. I get something the person who says, “I can’t understand that,” will never have.

I get proof, over and over, that I can.