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Say It To My Face, Jonah Lehrer

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Today, Jonah Lehrer gave the final address at the Knight Foundation’s Media Learning Seminar. For an hour, he spoke about his journalistic transgressions over the course of the past few years, which came to light over the summer.

He was paid $20,000 for his time. 

What struck me the most wasn’t Lehrer’s robotic, characteristically arrogant speech, but one of the questions posed by a conference attendee. She stated flippantly that Lehrer’s plagiarism affected her less than a “typo on Wikipedia,” and didn’t understand why people expected public apology for something that didn’t specifically hurt them.

Alrighty then. Let’s talk about how Jonah Lehrer has hurt the journalism community. Come on, raise your hand if you’ve ever felt personally victimized by Regina George.

First of all, the public inherently trusts successful journalists, especially ones hired as staff writers for publications as reputable as The New Yorker. Should people be skeptical of everything they read? Yes! Please, be skeptical. Should readers have to wonder if every word written in a magazine they trust is a lie or a fabrication? Dear god, I hope not.

A screencap from our furious twitter rampage

A screencap from our furious twitter rampage

Lehrer was a public darling. I was never a fan of his writing (I found it over simplified and written with a cocky tone that rubbed me the wrong way) but I always appreciated how good he was at playing into what the mainstream wanted to read. To end up in a position like that and then abuse it is to tarnish public view of journalistic morality. Permanently.

Let’s get more specific, shall we? Lehrer wrote about science. Science journalists have another layer of public trust to navigate, because science has gotten a reputation for being confusing, boring, and elitist. It’s hard to get the public listening to you when you talk about science, and Lehrer had his finger on the pulse. So yes, I do feel that there’s something wrong with Lehrer ending up on a science journalism pedestal and then making shit up, pulling quotes out of thin air, and muddling facts so that they fit the narrative he knows will sell a book. Personally.

One more thing. Jonah Lehrer’s behavior was offensive to me. Specifically me. Me, and every other young, emerging science journalist. Do you know how unobtainable a staff position at The New Yorker is, especially for a science writer, in the age of dying print and literary cutbacks? I would cut out my own kidney if it got me a regular blog on Wired, let alone a longterm print contract. The respect, stability, and readership attached to that gig is the sort of thing I’m afraid to even dream of. Jonah Lehrer got it, and he abused it. He recycled old pieces. He copy and pasted from others’ work. He didn’t provide the content he was being paid to provide.

If he hadn’t been caught, that job would still be his–and that would be one less staff position for a young science writer willing to actually write about science.

Did tweeting live zingers about Lehrer while he spoke make me feel better about what he’d done? Not really. Especially now that I know how much money he made for his lackluster public apology.

Find a new playing field, Lehrer. The other kids don’t want you here anymore. 

Songs ‘Bout Science: Space Edition

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Songs about science are kinda my specialty. That and mushrooms. In this series, I’ll share some of my favorites with you, one subject at a time. 

1. Jonathan Coulton- I’m Your Moon

(Video is ASL translation by CaptainValor)

Let’s start with a love song to Pluto from Charon, its moon before losing planet status. As Coulton likes to explain at concerts, the two revolve around a fixed point between them while also being tidally locked, meaning they spin together like a pair of ice skaters. Yeah, it’s okay if you tear up.

2. David Bowie- Space Oddity

The classic lonely astronaut song. Also the first song I ever learned on guitar. Thanks, Papa Feltman!

3. Peter Schilling- Major Tom (Coming Home)

I’ve always preferred the original German version of this riff on Bowie’s character, but the English was more popular in the US. There’s also a great cover by Shiny Toy Guns, and a really terrible one by William Shatner that I can’t condone listening to.

4. They Might Be Giants- Why Does The Sun Shine?

Okay, so it’s not strictly the most correct explanation, but we all love the original more than their correction.

5. Symphony of Science- A Glorious Dawn 

I love all the Symphony of Science series, but this is probably my favorite. Featuring the words of Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking.

6.  Peter Mulvey- Vlad the Astrophysicist 

Almost forgot the best one. This song sums up everything I love about the grandiosity of the universe we live in. Enjoy.

Help us get to ScienceOnline!

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ScienceOnline2013 is going to be amazing. The seventh annual “unconference” on science and the web, Scio13 is happening in Raleigh, North Carolina from January 30th through February 2nd. Quite serendipitously, Rachel’s 21st birthday is on February 3rd. She’d like to thank the good people of ScienceOnline for throwing her the greatest birthday party of all time. It will also serve as a belated bash for Arielle, whose birthday is on January 2nd.

If you’re not familiar with ScienceOnline, it’s pretty magical. Every January, Raleigh is host to a veritable flood of science communication gurus and junkies. Together, they put together three days of programming in “unconference” style. Everyone who’s been to a conference, especially one in the sciences, knows that the best stuff happens not in the lecture hall, but just outside of it. ScienceOnline brings those conversations to the center of attention. Sessions are proposed in a planning wiki by anyone with a cool idea, commented on and perfected, and then chosen based on group interest and pizzazz. At the conference, moderators start and lead discussions instead of clicking through power points. The result is part brain trust and part slumber party, with a guest list that makes our hearts go all fluttery.

For a young science writer, this conference is a gold mine. A bastion of knowledge. She can finally meet all the writers she follows on Twitter, including that one she cried over a tweet from a couple months back. She can get advice on what to do after grad school. She can learn about cool new science she should be writing about, learn new ways to write about it, and learn how to use new online tools to make sure other people read about it.

Most importantly, she can hug Bora.

So yes: We, Rachel and Arielle, roommates and proud SHERPies, have our hearts set on attending this extraordinary gathering. We’ve already made it through the Survivor-esque registration, so the worst is over. Unfortunately, we still have to pay for it.

SHERP provides us some funds to attend conferences, but we’re trying not to blow it all in our first semester of the program. Instead we’re digging into our own pockets, and asking the good people of the internet to help us out.

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Good luck saying no to these faces…

Our goal is to crowd-fund $700 to cover our hotel and airfare. Anything over that will go towards the cost of our registration, dinner on Friday (the only meal on our own–seriously, Scio is awesome), taxis, and overpriced coffee at LaGuardia. If we actually receive money we can’t use to cover legitimate expense (read: Rachel will not use your money to buy whiskey sours), we’ll hand it back over to ScienceOnline with a donation after the conference.

To shamelessly copy Jacquelyn Gill, who successfully crowd-funded her trip to Raleigh last year, we’re going to pledge to interview one Scio13 attendee for every $100 we raise. Yes, you’ll get to read adorably tag-teamed interviews by the pair of us. All interviews will also feature beautiful photographs by Arielle. . . and throughout the conference, we’ll both be tweeting, blogging, and photographing up a storm.

Other things we’re willing to offer for donations: Baked goods, open-mic serenades, hugs, karaoke partners, drinking buddies, portraits, and more hugs.

Please consider helping us out by donating or sharing this post!

The best way to donate is via paypal: RAFeltman [at] gmail [dot] com. If you’d rather send a donation by mail, email us for our home address.

Thanks for your help!

Update: As of 11.30.12 we have received $495! 

A Little Bird Told Me You Love Literary Theory

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I can say from personal experience that Twitter is a great tool for procrastination, but could it also be one for learning and productivity? A new study says it might be the tool that literature teachers have been looking for. Lots of professions (including science writing!) now practically require an active Twitter presence, but many still scoff at the idea that the social media site could actually become part of the serious literary world.

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Stalk your favorite celebrity or write a novel, the choice is yours

Launched in July 2006, Twitter takes microblogging to an extreme by allowing a maximum of 140 characters per entry, or “tweet”. With over 500 million users, it’s easily the most popular platform for social blogging. Twitter has destroyed careers and fueled movements, and following the site during a presidential debate is arguably more interesting than watching the real thing.

“Twitteracy: Tweeting as a New Literary Practice,” addresses the idea that Twitter could be considered a new literacy practice, or a tool to use in increasing student literacy. The study, published by Christine Greenhow of Michigan State University College of Education, compiles previous research on Twitter and other forms of social media. Greenhow concludes that using Twitter for literature classes makes college students feel more connected to what they’re reading. Use of the website improved communication between students and professors, taught students how to voice their thoughts succinctly, and even allowed students to reach out to authors and researchers.

Outside the classroom, the site has already become a new literary platform: Of course there are thousands of authors on Twitter, but some of them are actually authoring on Twitter. Much as Charles Dickens once released his classics in serial form, some writers have taken to breaking down their novels into 140-character tweets. Perhaps less gimicky are those who use Twitter to publish high-concept poetry, who use the website without leaving their readers literally hanging on each sentence of a long story.

Wanting to celebrate their new position as a literary form, Twitter has announced the first Twitter Fiction Festival, a “storytelling celebration” to “feature creative experiments in storytelling from authors around the world.” If you think you have a good idea for a literary experiment that’s made for tweeting, you can submit it now. The five-day festival will start on November 28th and highlight the most creative proposals.

Just keep in mind how short 140 characters is! It’s really easy to run out of room, especially when you’re just getting to the really good–

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s The Pirate Bay!

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Founded by Swedish rapscallions, TPB has been going strong for almost a decade

The Pirate Bay, the site of choice for illegal downloaders everywhere since 2003, has moved its operations skyward. The site, which serves as a sort of search engine for available files, partners users with shareable data with users who want to download it for themselves. Self-billed as “the galaxy’s most resilient BitTorrent site”, The Pirate Bay will now use multiple cloud servers across the globe instead of existing in physical locations that can be raided.

But how on earth do they get away with it? It’s not like The Pirate Bay pretends not to offer free downloads of copyrighted material, after all. It’s the whole wide world’s one-stop-shop for absolutely free music, games, movies, porn, and now even templates for use with 3D printers. Technically, European Union law states that someone who provides an information service is not responsible for the information that is shared on it, but the line is blurring between allowing copyright infringement on your website and encouraging it. That gray area is where The Pirate Bay often gets caught.

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The Pirate Party: Always here to remind you that Sweden is just cooler than you are

Although Sweden is notoriously supportive of file-sharing and has a political party based on the support of it, the founders of The Pirate Bay have been convicted of aiding copyright infringement before, and probably will be again.

The Pirate Bay is always adapting to thwart enemies of file sharing. This past February, the site made the switch from hosting torrent files to hosting magnet links. While torrent files are stored on a server, leaving the website vulnerable to legal threats,  magnet links only hold enough info to connect you to other users who have the file on their computers.

Now The Pirate Bay has gone a step further by shifting to cloud computing hosts located in two different countries. With bits of data stored on virtual machines instead of in physical servers, the website will now be even more difficult to shut down.

Whatever your views on illegal file-sharing, you can’t deny that The Pirate Bay has got moxie. It has over five million registered users (and really, who registers before downloading?) and over four million available downloads. Its resilience is owed in part to the conviction of its founders, who in launching it were motivated as much by their belief in anti-copyright activism as they were by profit. Whether it’s a modern-day Robin Hood or a menace to society, The Pirate Bay is here to stay.

Things I’ve Learned in the First Month of (Science) J-School

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Hello there, readers!

A lot has happened in the past month. I’ve moved to the city, settled into my apartment in Hamilton Heights, and (most importantly) started grad school at SHERP. My blog has been grossly neglected, but hopefully pretty soon some of my early assignments will start making their way onto Scienceline and you’ll no longer have a Rachel-Feltman’s-Awesome-Science-Writing-Shaped hole in your life.

To illustrate my findings, here’s a really tired meme:

 

 

But seriously, here are some things I’ve learned so far:

1. Stephen Hawking runs over journalists’ feet. I must have my foot over by Dr. Hawking as many times as possible in my lifetime.

2. I hate interviews, but I’m not totally terrible at them. Seriously though, I’m a socially awkward person and a child of the 21st century. I don’t even like to order pizza from places that make me talk to them on the phone, and suddenly I have to talk to four or five strangers a week at length. I’m probably going to give myself an ulcer. Good thing I love everything else about the job, yeah? And I think it’ll grow on me. Like a fungus. A flesh-eating fungus.

3. Science writing takes you to really exotic places…Like Long Island.

 

In all seriousness (or at least some seriousness), SHERP is amazing and I’m having a great time. We’re off to Brookhaven for our big overnight tomorrow, and I’ll definitely be posting about it when we get back! Then I’m spending the weekend covering The Maker Faire. It’s just a whirlwind of science journalism over here, folks.

Mosquitos: Kill Them With Fire

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They say you should write about what you know, and right now (as I finish up a month-long stint in the Berkshires) what I know is mosquito bites. It seems like every time I’ve slathered myself in hydrocortisone cream another bite pops up somewhere else.

 

Achievement Unlocked: Silliest Possible Illustration

Fall of 2011 was a particularly bad mosquito season in western mass, and I expect this autumn to be even worse. It’s been even hotter than last year, and there’s been plenty of rain. Going through Ecology last fall meant that I spent the better part of the semester covered in itchy welts, and there was no relief until that freak snow storm in October (and thank goodness for that, because winter never really came) killed the last of the swarm.

 

So, basically:

 

  • Why the biting?

 

Some (not all) species of mosquitos feed on blood. Even within these species, it’s always the females that bite; They need the proteins found in mammalian blood in order to produce eggs.

 

  • Why the itching?

 

Mosquito saliva contains proteins that keep the blood from clotting, allowing them to feed. After the mosquito has left, our immune systems respond with antibodies. The reaction causes swelling and itching. You can use antihistamines or hydrocortisone to try to dull your body’s immune response, which will stop the itching, or you can make a paste out of water and meat tenderizer, which will break down the offending proteins.

 

  • Am I going to die?

 

Probably not. Mosquitos can carry some really nasty diseases like West Nile, but (at least within the United States) most bites are harmless. Anecdotally, I had a doctor tell me last year that “half of the campus probably got West Nile” during that particularly bad  season, but only one student I know of had symptoms that got him tested-and even he didn’t suffer the encephalitis that makes West Nile troublesome. Of course, everyone should know the symptoms and be on the lookout for possible infection, especially in young children and the elderly. You can read about how West Nile came to the US in this excerpt from Carl Zimmer’s A Planet of Viruses.

 

  • What works to keep them away?

 

Repellants work by masking the scents that make us attractive to mosquitos. Carbon Dioxide is a big one, which is why pregnant women (who produce more CO2) tend to get bitten more. Lactic acid, which is produced by hard-working muscles, is another, which is why you’ll probably get bitten if you walk out of the gym on a summer day without taking a shower first. People who have recently consumed alcohol get bitten more as well. Certain blood types, immune systems, and even moods may also produce more attractive scents, but there isn’t any evidence that artificial scents from perfumes make you more visible to mosquitos.

 

I’m going to make a confession: I use DEET. Stomping around in marshes during high mosquito season makes it sort of a necessity, and the Environmental Protection Agency does claim that it’s safe when used as directed. The Center for Disease Control recommends Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus as well, but keep in mind that essential oils evaporate quickly, meaning you’ll have to reapply all day if you want the same effectiveness as a synthetic spray.

 

There’s been research on mosquito attractants that says Limburger cheese is as appealing to the bugs as human feet are (probably because of the bacterium they have in common), so I guess you could also throw a chunk of that in whatever direction you don’t want the mosquitos to go in. I’m sort of joking, but hey…whatever works, right?

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