How to Write Like Nicolas Cage

Actually, Charlie Kaufman. Or Nick Cage playing Charlie Kaufman as written by Charlie Kaufman taking evolutionary liberties with Susan Orlean.

In any case, I tried to write about three different posts yesterday, and never really quite got going well on my main-burner project … and then, first thing this morning (thinking about coffee and a muffin, in effect), I ran into this. Perfect.

Via the marvelous Jenny McPhee, who was passing it on from the exquisite Bibliokept. Thanks to all involved.

PS Those McPhee and Bibliokept links are marvelous. So is that movie, which haunted me for days.

The Brain as a Slum

This re-imagined human brain seems more analogous to a slum than to any conventional urban ideal. Like a slum, the brain does not reveal its intricacies by exposing its design. Instead, it works in mysterious ways, moving through invisible systems and unseen channels that escape explanation.

An installation by Yaron Steinburg, via Architizer and  John Rennie.

A Troubling Adaptation: The Beautiful Teenage Brain

Fight club. Photo by Kitra Chana/National Geographic

Although you know your teenager takes some chances, it can be a shock to hear about them.

One fine May morning not long ago my oldest son, 17 at the time, phoned to tell me that he had just spent a couple hours at the state police barracks. Apparently he had been driving “a little fast.” What, I asked, was “a little fast”? Turns out this product of my genes and loving care, the boy-man I had swaddled, coddled, cooed at, and then pushed and pulled to the brink of manhood, had been flying down the highway at 113 miles an hour.

“That’s more than a little fast,” I said.

He agreed. In fact, he sounded somber and contrite. He did not object when I told him he’d have to pay the fines and probably for a lawyer. He did not argue when I pointed out that if anything happens at that speed—a dog in the road, a blown tire, a sneeze—he dies. He was in fact almost irritatingly reasonable. He even proffered that the cop did the right thing in stopping him, for, as he put it, “We can’t all go around doing 113.”

He did, however, object to one thing. He didn’t like it that one of the several citations he received was for reckless driving.

“Well,” I huffed, sensing an opportunity to finally yell at him, “what would you call it?”

“It’s just not accurate,” he said calmly. “ ’Reckless’ sounds like you’re not paying attention. But I was. I made a deliberate point of doing this on an empty stretch of dry interstate, in broad daylight, with good sight lines and no traffic. I mean, I wasn’t just gunning the thing. I was driving.

“I guess that’s what I want you to know. If it makes you feel any better, I was really focused.”

Actually, it did make me feel better. That bothered me, for I didn’t understand why. Now I do.

My National Geographic feature on the adaptive adolescent, The Beautiful Teen Brain, is now online. The take-home: This troublesome animal we call the teen, believe it or not, is adaptive.Continue reading →

What eBooks Can Offer — and Take Away

Multimedia enrichment in The Atavist app

The New York Observer today has an article on what new longform e-pub venues like the Atavist and Byliner offer writers like me:

When the journalist David Dobbs first had the idea of writing an article about his mother’s love affair with a flight surgeon during World War II, he initially went the traditional route: he pitched the story to several magazines. …. The magazines he approached turned him down. He suspected at the time that the scale of the story was one problem—it was a complicated tale, hard to fit in a magazine, even at 6,000 or 8,000 words. Dedicated to his story despite the rejections, Mr. Dobbs started talking to Evan Ratliff, editor and co-founder of the online startup The Atavist, a self-described “boutique publishing house” that produces non-fiction articles for e-readers and smart phones. Initially one selling point was the possibility of writing a longer story: The Atavist publishes “nonfiction stories that are longer than magazine articles but shorter than books,” ranging in length from 10,000 to 20,000 words.

“The length was one major advantage,” said Mr. Dobbs. “And then once I talked to Evan the multimedia capabilities added to the stories in some fun and satisfying ways.”

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Djokovic & Nadal Even Better Than You Think: A Story About Spin

[Sept 13, 2011] Last night’s US Open final showed brilliantly what makes today’s men’s game so exciting: Much as I love the serve-and-volley game, these long, kinetic, full-court exchanges of sharply angled groundstrokes make great viewing. How on earth, you ask yourself, are Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic hitting the ball so hard and keeping it in the court?

Part of the answer lies in the new generation of strings. As this video below from The Atlantic shows (and an accompanying story explains), the co-poly strings in use today — which spread through the pro game only over the last decade or so — generate more spin than ever. They do so because they’re more slippery than prior string designs. Because the strings easily slide across one another, they can slip back and then snap back to position — while they’re grabbing the ball — to create more spin. (The key illustrations showing this comes at about 4:15 of the video. Some wonderful super slow-mo of Nadal and Federer generating spin follow directly, at about 5:00.)

Thus Nadal, Djokovic, and their peers can hit the ball harder than ever and still generate enough topspin to bring it down into the court. Nadal in particular generates enormous topspin — an average of 3200 rpm, and as high as 4000. (Some great slo-mo of this here. This is a huge jump over the spin rates of even his modern peers.

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You Call This Thing Adaptive? Yep: Behold the Teen Brain

Ever since the late 1990s, when researchers discovered that the human brain takes into our mid-20s to fully develop — far longer than previously thought — the teen brain has been getting a bad rap. Teens, the emerging dominant narrative insisted, were “works in progress” whose “immature brains” left them in a state “akin to mental retardation” — all titles from prominent papers or articles about this long developmental arc.

In a National Geographic feature now online to be published next week, however, I highlight a different take: A growing view among researchers that this prolonged developmental arc is less a matter of delayed development than prolonged flexibility. This account of the adolescent brain — call it the “adaptive adolescent” meme rather than the “immature brain” meme — “casts the teen less as a rough work than as an exquisitely sensitive, highly adaptive creature wired almost perfectly for the job of moving from the safety of home into the complicated world outside.” The teen brain, in short, is not dysfunctional; it’s adaptive. (See Carl Zimmer’s recent column for a rare look at this idea.)Continue reading →

Android App Lets You See Invisible Space

Well — invisible stuff IN space. Effusions of gamma rays, clouds of X-rays, “filaments, clouds, shells”, all known technically, if I recall, as space gush. Columbia Hubble Fellow Joshua Peek (almost certainly not the same guy as the rodeo Josh Peek) gets to look at these wonders through big telescopes. He collaborated with Sony Ericsson’s Xperia Studio to make an Android app, The Invisible Universe, so the rest of us could look at them with phones.

I don’t own an Android device, but now wish I did. No matter: this video about the project, a masterpiece of product understatement, leaves the app almost unmentioned as it chooses instead to simply Make Cool of Peek’s work. It nicely humanizes Peek, who seems hip and fun and smart, and the earthy attention paid to his office and lab — notebooks, drawings, lenses, stacked astrophysics journals — anchors us and the film. It’s gorgeous.

Jeb Corliss’s Flight Suit: Diaper Included?

Maybe it’s the mountaineering reading I’m doing this week: Peter Boardman’s magnificent Sacred Summits, which I’m aggrieved to see is scandalously out of print. More on that later, I hope. But I blame my taste for this thrill-seeking on the late Boardman, one of the finest and strongest climbers of the 1980s and one of the best climbing writers of the last few decades.

In any case, this is incredible. I didn’t know one could do this.

Reef Madness 11: Darwin’s First Theory of Evolution

A coral reef's evolution: fringing reef (top); barrier; atoll.

This is the 11th installment of an abridged version of my book Reef Madness: Alexander Agassiz, Charles Darwin, and the Meaning of Coral.  (Earlier installments are listed at bottom.) Here Darwin hatches the theory of coral reef formation that will start a decades-long argument with Alexander Agassiz — and create a template for his species theory.

© David Dobbs, 2011. All rights reserved.


Even as he was composing his Chile notes, Darwin was turning his mind west, for the Beagle, having finished its laborious survey of the South American coast, was making ready to sail. Examining charts of the route ahead, Darwin contemplated the oddity that is the Pacific: a broad pan, immensely deep, with arcs and ovals and doglegs of coral isles rising, as he put it, from its “profoundest parts.” Several of these archipelagos — the Galapagos, the Tuamotus, French Polynesia, the Fijis and the Friendlys — lay along the Beagle‘s route. In the 60 years since Captain James Cook had mapped them, these islands had commanded much interest among geologists and naturalists. They were intrigued by the great depths from which they rose; by their volcanic nature; by their ordered but irregular arrangements, like pearl necklaces tossed to the floor; and by the islands’ distinctive annularity.

Someone excited sleepless by geology wasn’t likely to resist such shapes. Darwin’s Andean wanderings and ruminations had fired what would prove an insatiable appetite for discovering patterns spanning space and time. These ringed islands presented precisely such a pattern.

Continue reading →

Academic Publishers: Making Murdoch Look Good

It’s no big secret that the scientific journal system, originally created to share scientific information, now operates mainly by restricting access to that information. The spring, in “Free Science, One Paper at a Time,” I wrote about what that walled garden feels like from the inside, as evolutionary biologist and extremophile microbiolgist Jonathan Eisen tried to free his father’s papers. Today, in the Guardian, George Monbiot has a spirited rant on what those garden walls look like from the outside. He’s not pulling any punches:

Who are the most ruthless capitalists in the western world? Whose monopolistic practices make Walmart look like a corner shop and Rupert Murdoch a socialist? You won’t guess the answer in a month of Sundays. While there are plenty of candidates, my vote goes not to the banks, the oil companies or the health insurers, but – wait for it – to academic publishers. Theirs might sound like a fusty and insignificant sector. It is anything but. Of all corporate scams, the racket they run is most urgently in need of referral to the competition authorities.

Everyone claims to agree that people should be encouraged to understand science and other academic research. Without current knowledge, we cannot make coherent democratic decisions. But the publishers have slapped a padlock and a “keep out” sign on the gates.

You might resent Murdoch’s paywall policy, in which he charges £1 for 24 hours of access to the Times and Sunday Times. But at least in that period you can read and download as many articles as you like. Reading a single article published by one of Elsevier’s journals will cost you $31.50. Springer charges €34.95, Wiley-Blackwell, $42. Read 10 and you pay 10 times. And the journals retain perpetual copyright. You want to read a letter printed in 1981? That’ll be $31.50.

As Monbiot notes, the companies charging these fees are making splendid returns; Elsevier, for instance, is ringing up operating profits of 36% at a time when libraries as well as individual subscribers need to cut back on costs. Both the Guardian story and mine describe the sort of constraints this poses on researchers and the flow of scientific information.

Monbiot is rightly irked that the UK government is doing so little to make publicly financed research results available to the public. (The US, by requiring open access to such papers within 6 months of publication, does a bit better.) I see more room for hope than Monbiot appears to — some signs that pressure from libraries and open-access publishers like PLOS are changing things. Conceivably I’m overly optimistic; it’s happened before. And of course Monbiot means to rant, has good reason to do so, and rants effectively. The issue is far from academic: The worst constraints sharply slow the free sharing of scientific information, even among researchers. And with science driving both our economies and our efforts to improve health and curb nasty diseases, that concerns everyone.

Update 8/30/11, 12:10 pm EDT: Noah Gray, an editor at Nature, has published (in personal capacity) a sharp Google Plus post that a) argues that Monbiot overstates or glosses the case in a few instances (I agree) and b) lists some reasons why Nature Publishing Group is usually not mentioned in articles like Monbiot’s or mine. I largely agree with that argument too. His post is full of extremely helpful context and caveats. (Disclosure: I sometimes write for Nature and have friends there, as well as at open-access publisher PLOS.)

PS: This one’s so fat it almost seems unfair; then again, not. Via Retraction Watch, a one-sentence retraction (i.e., notice that an article has been retracted) that costs $32. That’s right: $32 to read a sentence that says an article is no longer available. You can’t make this stuff up:

A completely unhelpful retraction notice appears in the September issue of Molecular Biology and Evolution for “Investigating the Role of Natural Selection on Coding Sequence Evolution in Salmonids Through NGS Data Mining,” a paper first published in March.

Here’s the entire notice for the paper — which has been removed completely from the journal’s site, we should mention:

“This article has been permanently retracted from publication by the authors.”

Reading the entirety of that unhelpful notice, by the way, will set you back $32 if you’re not a subscriber. Otherwise, you will learn only that “This article has…”

Has what? Cooties? Been given an award? Too many references? Come on, Oxford University Press. We know times are tough. But you can’t make the whole sentence free?

Get the whole thing at Retraction Watch.


Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist | George Monbiot | Comment is free | The Guardian

Free Science, One Paper at a Time