Friday, November 25, 2011

I've moved!

My rambling is now over at

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Click here to add link

There's lots of talk about linking. Link, link, link – it's what Bora Z calls the "currency of the web" and a fundamental element in journalism these days. Link out to sources, to scientific papers, to interesting videos or more comprehensive explainers. Linking establishes credibility, trust, and with everything online, it's easier to do than ever before.

So linking is important, got that. But sometimes the writer of a story doesn't either a) know the best places to link, or b) care enough to fill his/her story with useful links. So why is there no easy mechanism for other people (not the original author), to add links themselves, after the story has been published? Someone could be reading the piece an think - oh! I know a great explanatory blog post on exactly that topic, or man, I know a great infographic that illustrates exactly that point, or wow, I wished she had linked to the original study, it took me 15 min to track it down. This wouldn't have to be a free-for-all link fest littering stories with useless spam – it could be moderated by the author.

Kinda like Facebook and photo tagging. Facebook lets you tag yourself or friends in photos that you didn't take, and the request goes to the original photographer, who then approves the tag or not. Couldn't links work the same way?

"So-and-so wants to add a link to your story." [Accept] [Don't Accept]

Seems simple enough to me, and for all I know this already exists in some way shape or form. But as long as stories can be edited and updated after the fact (they certainly can online) and as long as the author wants to make his/her story the most useful as possible, there should be some sort of "add link" mechanism, in addition to regular comments. Now... who knows how to make this happen?

All Wired, all the time.

The past few weeks have been, well, just slightly insane. I started working at Wired (a name that quite aptly matches the intensity of the office atmosphere), and getting used to deadlines that approach by the hour instead of the week has been, let's just say, a learning experience. Not to mention that satellites and DARPA aren't exactly my specialty. But now that my hands have finally stopped shaking, it's a blast. Learning something totally – I mean totally – new every day and having something published by the end of it is pretty cool (especially when I can Photoshop the picture). Here are some of the articles I've written so far.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Patricia Churchland's science of morality

> It all began with a very adorable vole...

I've got a new post up at Rationally Speaking about what neuroscience can tell us about morality. I'll have more to say when I make it to the final chapter of Churchland's book (where she talks about religion). Here's the beginning:
A few weeks ago I went to a talk by philosopher-turned-neuroscientist Patricia Churchland about her new book Braintrust. The talk begins with the moderator turning to a packed audience in Columbia’s Havemeyer Hall and asking quite pointedly: “With a show of hands, can science tell us right from wrong?” 
Only about four hands go up. 
“All right,” he says, beckoning Churchland to the stage, “let’s see what you all think afterwards.” 
Presumably Churchland is about to change a few hundred minds on the science of morality. But as she proceeds through her lecture, it becomes increasingly clear that even she wouldn’t answer the moderator’s question wholeheartedly in the affirmative. She is providing the “yes” to another question, something more like “Can science tell us about right and wrong?” While the question is slightly less interesting (because it seems so obvious) her answer is fascinating. 
It all begins with me. Ok, not me, but the self. Each one of us is equipped with a neural circuitry that ensures our own self-caring and well-being — values in the most fundamental sense. As Churchland likes to say “we’re all born with systems that are very deep in the values business.” Neurons in the brainstem and hypothalamus monitor the inner state of our bodies to keep us alive; they also cause us to run from predators or eat when we’re hungry. Without these life-relevant feelings we wouldn't survive very long, let alone reproduce. 
The next step is to move from self-caring to other-caring. In mammals, this shift occurs not by some radical new engineering plan, but by slight adjustments to the neural mechanisms that are already in place. Modifications to the emotional, endocrine, stress and reward/punishment systems motivate new values, namely, the well-being of certain others. It’s as if the “golden circle of me” expands to include offspring, mates, friends and eventually even strangers.
The rest of the post is here.

Image: manual crank, flickr. com 

Friday, April 15, 2011

Less or equal to?

I love love love this. A huge, controversial, political, philosophical, racial, social and legal topic captured in three single marks. 

Less or equal to?


Apr 19, 2011 6:00 PM - 8:00 PM
20 Cooper Square, New York, NY
NYU Journalism 7th Floor Commons

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Radiation Explained

Spent a good part of last week working on this radiation level infographic, for Studio 20's Building a Better Explainer Project. Check it out over at the Scientific American Guest Blog!

Monday, March 28, 2011

It's been a-lot-of-coffee kind of month...

Here's my past few weeks or so of blogging and writing! On the nature/nurture debate, musical epigenetics, bias (or not) in political psychology, and why we do science in the first place. 

So, what's science good for? How doing science can make you a better person. 
March 7, Rationally Speaking

Political – or politicized – psychology? Scientists combat the charge of ideological bias.
March 8, Scienceline

The tangle of the nature-nurture debate. The false dichotomy and why it persists. 
March 10, Nature Education

The sound of epigenetics. Using musical software to explain the expression of our DNA.
March 16, Nature Education

Image: Philipp Hilpert,

Friday, February 4, 2011

What Wittgenstein can tell us about happiness

Here's my recent story on happiness and its many dimensions. 

Ludwig Wittgenstein, a famous 20th century philosopher, was miserable all his life. Depressed and anxious, he once wrote in his diary, “There is no happiness for me; no joy ever.” Yet minutes before he died, he muttered: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” 
The concept of happiness is universally understood, yet escapes all comprehension. Can someone really be both unhappy everyday and happy over a lifetime? Does the notion of happiness change throughout the world, between communities, between people? Most importantly, do we have any choice in the matter?
Recent research in psychology, economics and public policy may help unravel this tangled knot of questions. 
“Objective choices make a difference to happiness over and above genetics and personality,” said Bruce Headey, a psychologist at Melbourne University in Australia. Headey and his colleagues analyzed annual self-reports of life satisfaction from over 20,000 Germans who have been interviewed every year since 1984. He compared five-year averages of people’s reported life satisfaction, and plotted their relative happiness on a percentile scale from 1 to 100. Heady found that as time went on, more and more people recorded substantial changes in their life satisfaction. By 2008, more than a third had moved up or down on the happiness scale by at least 25 percent, compared to where they had started in 1984. 
Headey’s findings, published in the October 19th issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, run contrary to what is known as the happiness set-point theory — the idea that even if you win the lottery or become a paraplegic, you’ll revert back to the same fixed level of happiness within a year or two. This psychological theory was widely accepted in the 1990s because it explained why happiness levels seemed to remain stable over the long term: They were mainly determined early in life by genetic factors including personality traits. 
Instead of existing as a stable equilibrium, Headey suggests that happiness is much more dynamic, and that individual choices — about one’s partner, working hours, social participation and lifestyle — make substantial and permanent changes to reported happiness levels. For example, doing more or fewer paid hours of work than you want, or exercising regularly, can have just as much impact on life satisfaction as having an extroverted personality.

The full story is here.

Image: Christiaan Tonnis,

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

It's WHAT?!

My recent profile of Brooklyn artist Laura Splan, who paints with her own blood, embroiders pathogens, and thinks art shouldn't just be about beauty – it should be about ideas.

With a steady hand Laura Splan dips her paintbrush into a glass vial filled with red ink, brushing one, two, three times against the side to catch any excess drops. In a single sweeping motion, she stains the pristine white surface with a crimson brush stroke that looks an awful lot like…
Blood. It’s Splan’s blood, and it’s her ink of choice. She’s been combining horror and beauty, the biological and the familiar in her artwork for over ten years. For her current project she is using her own blood to paint over vintage doilies, which serve as stencils. When removed from the canvas, the doilies leave behind a series of overlapping, almost floating organic forms – created by the blood seeping into the negative space.
Splan’s sanguine artwork began on a curious whim. “I basically just scrounged up a needle in my house one day and pricked my finger, just to see what it would look like,” said Splan. “I liked what it was doing.”
Splan, 37, an artist and certified phlebotomist (technician trained to draw blood) lives in a small Brooklyn apartment that doubles as her studio. It was during her undergraduate years studying biology at the University of California, Irvine that she realized that “art didn’t have to be about beauty, it could be about ideas.” Scientific ideas continue to inform her art, often surfacing in unexpected ways – like the blood on her paintbrush.
The rest of the story is here

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Please, do explain.

I recently had a chance to talk to Bora Zivkovic (master guru of the science blogging world), about the who, what, and how of science bloggers and explanation. The explanation part fits in with some of the communication/education issues within science that I've spent a lot of time thinking about. How to get people engaged with scientific stories, methods, ideas, ways of thinking? What is the role of a science journalist or writer – educator? truthteller? watchdog? Also, what are the best methods and approaches for telling stories about scientific topics and making these stories relevant to a wider public? How does the public experience these stories, and how do they participate in creating them? Finally, how do these stories and ideas lead to real action in the world?

Lots of thoughts. Luckily, they overlap with a project I'll be helping out on this spring, called Building a Better Explainer. It's part of the Studio 20 program at NYU, and the idea is to investigate the best practices for explaining complex issues (from infographics to timelines to clear prose), and experiment with creating some of these "explainers." Providing this type of context and background – on stories from the housing crisis to fixing the budget –  hopefully creates ways for people to enter into current news stories that they don't quite understand. So instead of the news being a constant stream of updates, it will be something a bit more useful. 

I saw the connection to science right away, since describing complex, technical issues, with context, in an accurate but understandable way seems pretty darn close to a scientist or science writer's job description. Who better to tell us about explaining (providing background knowledge, presenting intelligible data, providing a historical/contextual dimension), than the people who do it every day? So here are some highlights from my Q&A with Bora, who is very excited about the project and was a ton of fun to talk to.

  • Explain until you’re done, and then stop. Don’t be afraid of length – long posts do well because they are useful, and people will come back to them again and again.
  • A personal, conversational tone keeps people reading. Just like you wouldn’t walk out on someone in the middle of a conversation, you read an engaging piece through until the end!
  • Metaphors can be useful in explaining complex issues, but it’s important not to get stuck with just one. A combination of metaphors is often the best way to help people understand.
  • Images like graphs, cartoons, or even hand drawn sketches help people visualize and see the data. Images are not just decoration – they can convey important information.
  • Sometimes complicating the picture is part of explanation. But one must find a balance between the overly simple and overly detailed.
  • Explanation is also about sending people away. Articles become useful by linking out to the best information. Link, Link, Link!
Here's the full interview.

Image: zetson,

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Back to the basics of science & data viz

One of my goals for the new year is to take a closer look at the science/design connection – especially presenting lots of data in a coherent (and beautiful) way. To start off, here's a recent article I wrote for the Scientific American Guest Blog about designing and displaying information in science (it's also basically an ode to Tufte). 
Data visualization. Infographics. Ooh, better yet, make that interactive infographics. The recent buzz around the visual display of information makes it seem like everyone should be rushing to whip up some multi-colored cartogrambubble chart or word cloud. Never before have we had both the tools and the vast amounts of raw data to play around with, and scientists and journalists alike are making fabulous use of this opportunity. From unemployment rates to air traffic patterns to the wealth and health of nations to blood test results, information has never been so fun to look at.
But before we get too carried away with swirling globes and animated charts, it’s worth going back to the basics – taking note of some simple methods for visually presenting data. This endeavor is particularly relevant to science and health, where visual information appears anywhere from diagrams in scientific research papers to public health campaigns. The field of information design is vast, but I’ll concentrate on just a few simple ways to approach the combination of words and pictures. Many examples come straight from Edward Tufte, the information design guru who put the serious study of infographics on the map, so to speak (the New York Times has called him the Leonardo da Vinci of Data). Since the publication of his first book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information in 1983, Tufte has demonstrated over and over how the right approach to visual displays can dramatically improve the clarity and effectiveness of data. And in fact, many of the classic principles of good information design can be found throughout the history of science...
The whole thing is here. I'm hoping to write more on this stuff in the near future!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Language and Lenses

Apparently I'm on a language/communication kick. The last two stories for Scienceline are both about some of the implications of language – on society and on our minds. First, the language of genetics clearly has a huge impact on how well people understand it, or don't. This includes specific words like "heritability," which has created a whole tangle of problems (don't ask me to explain it again here, it took me days to write that paragraph!) It also includes the metaphors used in describing concepts or ideas or processes, like the blueprint vs. mixing board metaphor to describe how genes relate to the environment. Second, language may have a profound influence on how we think (or it may not, depending on which way the evidence convinces you). At the very least, it seems that even critics admit there may be small ways that language can shape thought, producing certain habits or drawing attention to distinctions or particular aspects of the world, etc. Some past articles (and the sources of inspiration for the story!) on this issue: from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Economist

Also, lenses and glass imagery keep popping up:  the "Mendelian lens of heredity" and all the  looking glass, mirror, and window references in the language/thought debate. Huh. 

Anyways, here they are: 

Rethinking the Gene: The popular notion of genetics is wrong.
December 24, Scienceline

The World Through Language: What language can tell us about how we think. 
January 7, Scienceline

Image: D_P_R,