storm in local teacup

Via BigFatBlog, I learned that the local rag recently printed the following “event blurb” by one Karla Starr:

Are you a fatty? Want to be in a book? Waddle over to a computer, grab your typing stick (those sausage fingers hit too many keys at once, don’t they?), go to, and fill out the contact form for your chance to contribute to Bias’ FatGirl Speaks, a short-fiction anthology inspired by her event of the same name.

I sent Ms Starr the following:

Ms Starr:
I write in response to your recent column in the Willamette Week, in which you indulged in one of the crudest and most revolting expressions of prejudice I have seen in a long time (“Are you a fatty?”). I won’t write out your column with the relevant targets altered to blacks, gays, or some other minority group: unless you are as stupid as you are unthinkingly bigoted, you know what you did and why it was wrong.
I hope you are ashamed of yourself, and I hope you will be fired over this. I will write to your editor to promise that as long as I can find your byline, I will simply drop any copy of WW I come across into the nearest trash bin, where it belongs. Before I do so, though, I will scan it to find a couple of advertisers with whom I might otherwise do business, and write to tell them that so long as they advertise in WW, and WW employs you, they will not see a penny from me.

Then I wrote the WW editor (and owner?) Mark Zusman to say the same thing. I got a response from Ms Starr within minutes; I am still angry, so I’m not going to respond right away. (see below)
Despite being angry, though, I am already inclined to view her apology as genuine. On first reading, she does not whine or excuse herself, and gives evidence that she actually read and responded to my letter rather than sending an untailored form response.
I’ll get back to you on that, but I can say this now: I have screwed up in much the same way myself, though the “target” of my idiocy was a different group. (I’ll spare you the details; suffice it to say, I cringe when I think of it — and I think of it often.) I remember with cold and stomach-churning clarity the feeling that came over me when I realized, fully realized, what I’d done. Am I a scumbag for what I did, or a decent person for being ashamed of it now? I honestly don’t know, but I do know that if Ms Starr is feeling now what I felt then, I’m willing to give her a second chance. My only other choice is rank hypocrisy.
Update: OK, I’ve had time to cool off, and I’ve re-read the mail I got, as well as a few replies from Ms Starr that other people have posted. There’s a lot of “oh, she’s just saying what she’s told to say because her editors are worried about bad PR”, but I don’t agree. Her tone has changed from “I was just joking” to “I’m really sorry”, and (pace a number of commenters) she’s not posting form letters: all the replies I’ve seen have some cut-and-paste, but that’s only sensible when answering so many letters. I’ve yet to see any actual repeats; I believe Ms Starr is reading and answering each letter, and I think she’s genuinely sorry.
Editor Kelly Clarke is another story, and I don’t know what to expect from WW itself. I expect they will take a line somewhere between “get over it” and “but, but, we invited Stacy Bias to come and talk to us, what more does the woman want?”. Oy. Anyway, this is what Ms Starr plans to print:

I initially wanted to use this space to tell people to laugh it off, but then I started reading my e-mails–all of them. And responding. To each one. There were only so many heartfelt stories about weight discrimination I could read before realizing just how many people I’d hurt–and how many others I hurt who never wrote. It’s forced me to seriously reconsider my definition of humor and body image and appreciate the influence of my words. After experiencing firsthand the power of reading so many stories, my appreciation and respect for Stacy Bias’s work and upcoming book has grown tremendously. I’d like to thank everyone for writing and helping to open my eyes; it’s always appreciated, at I sincerely apologize to Ms. Bias and everyone I hurt with my words, which perpetuated the notion that weight discrimination is the last acceptable form of prejudice–regardless of your past or present size, it’s never okay.

There’s still a tinge of defensiveness in the references to her earlier responses (“it was meant to be funny”, “I used to be fat myself”). Ms Starr’s email to me was much more “I fucked up, I’m sorry, no excuses”, and I wish she’d stick to that in her printed response — it would do more to assuage hurt feelings — but she has had to respond fairly quickly, and I know it always takes me a good long while to get past the defensive stage whenever someone points out that I’ve fucked up.
I’ll wait for the next issue of WW to make up my mind completely, but as of now I’m inclined to take Ms Starr at her word and accept her apology.
Final update: I wrote the principals but forgot to say anything here; like Stacy Bias, I’m happy to accept Ms Starr’s apology and pleased to see mistakes being treated as opportunities for positive change.

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything:

That’s where the light gets in.

a little science, for a change

Dammit, I (re)started this blog to talk about science, and I’m gonna talk about science!
Over at JOHO/blog, Dave is posting summaries of the talks he attends at Foocamp06. This one really pushed my buttons:

Chris Csikszentmihalyi says science doesn’t work the way it thinks it does. For one thing, only 3-5% of experiments are re-proven. Often that’s because they’re so sensitive to instruments and materials. Also, much of the knowledge is tacit. Instead, scientific conflicts are usually settled by looking at the lab it came from, etc.

OK, let’s unpack that a little:

science doesn’t work the way it thinks it does.

Having just read Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I’m inclined to think this is true. However:

For one thing, only 3-5% of experiments are re-proven.

Where’d he get these numbers? This recent article (not freely available, brief summary and discussion here) shows that, of 19 papers in an apparently-randomly-chosen issue of Nature, 17 reported results that have been corroborated within four years. My own informal efforts seem to agree that a majority of results are “re-proven”, for meaningful values of “re-proven”. If CC is talking only about straight replication (same experiment, different hands) he’s simply bypassing the more common mechanisms by which scientific results are established as reliable.
As for mechanism:

Often that’s because they’re so sensitive to instruments and materials. Also, much of the knowledge is tacit.

The article I linked talks about this —

[on] recreating an exact copy of a piece of experimental kit: “It’s very difficult to make a carbon copy. You can make a near one, but if it turns out that what is critical is the way he glued his transducers, and he forgets to tell you that the technician always puts a copy of Physical Review on top of them for weight, well, it could make all the difference.”

True, but let’s not forget that ratio (17/19). This is exactly why most results are corroborated (shown to be reliable by work that builds on them) rather than directly reproduced. Well, actually, the more basic reason why is that scientists tend to trust published data, with good reason (fraud is real but not common1) — why waste time repeating an experiment that shows X when you can test X just as well, and move your own work forward at the same time, by designing an experiment to build on X? Unless X is thoroughly outrageous/counterintuitive/whatever, that’s what most researchers do: assume that published results will stand up. If the odds are 17/19, I’d call that a pretty fair bet. If CC were right, and the odds were more like 95/5, wouldn’t science have long since ground to a halt?
Then there’s this:

The Prayer Gauge Debate. In the 19th Century there were attempts to measure the efficacy of prayer. Science went up against a popular paradigm. Chris contrasts this with lab press releases getting done if they promise a cure for cancer. I.e., scientists learn to mis-represent their projects in order to get funded.

See, that just chafes my scrote. Has CC ever tried to get an accurate representation of his work into the press? More to the point, has he ever watched helplessly as some PR flack mangled his research into a press release and made him look like an ass in the media? Scientists, as a matter of course, do not mis-represent their work to the media: they don’t have to, the quality of science journalism being what it is. (They do, of course, tailor grant applications to the priorities of the funding bodies; the extent to which that practice approaches dishonesty is a different conversation altogether.)

1 (though see here, particularly comments by per, for a different view)

OK, I’ll play.

From Julie via Janet, the random quotations game: Go here and look through random quotes until you find 5 that you think reflect who you are or what you believe; grab the first five you come to or you’ll be there forever looking for a perfect set.

I do not want people to be agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them.

Jane Austen (1775 – 1817)

When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property.

Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826)

It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968)

The public interest is best served by the free exchange of ideas.

Judge John Kane, US District Court

What are the facts? Again and again and again – what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars fortell”, avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” – what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!

Lazarus Long, from Robert Heinlein’s “Time Enough for Love”

There you have: the eternal tension between my desire to help others and my distaste for them in the flesh; an important facet of my view of both politics and academia; a succinct expression of the function of law and the reason we form societies in the first place; an endorsement of Open Access; and the reason I’m a scientist by trade (I know, Heinlein’s kind of a jerk, but that doesn’t stop him from being right every now and then).

pop art subversion

17142414ozglass_.jpgFor everyone who ever wanted to go Andy Warhol one better: create your own Heinz label. I ordered the one shown; I wonder if they’ll actually make and ship it? Hello, Mr CIA Operative. Fuck you, George, I refuse to be afraid. More labels here; via We’re Not Wired Right via Coudal Partners.
Update: Phooey.

Date: Tue, 22 Aug 2006 9:17 AM
From: “”
To: me
Subject: Website Order Challenge
Upon submission of your order you agreed to the Terms and Conditions set forth by the H.J. Heinz Company. The content of your message is not within the parameters of the Terms and Conditions and cannot be fulfilled. Please revise your message and resubmit your order by clicking the link below and following the instructions. If you choose not to revise the submitted message we will have to regretfully decline the order. [blahblahblah]
Order Confirmation Number: blah
Reason: Political – Political statements are not approved by Heinz.

Reed-Elsevier kills babies.

I’m pretty sure I’ve linked before to Tom‘s coverage of Reed Elsevier’s involvement in the international arms trade. (If I haven’t, I should have.) That second link goes to Tom’s summary of the issue; read the whole thing, but here’s a glimpse:

The $1 trillion global trade in arms and military goods undermines human rights, fuels conflicts and causes huge civilian suffering. Arms fairs are a key part of the global arms trade, and allow arms companies to promote weapons to countries involved in, or on the brink of conflict, as well as those with terrible human rights records. DSEi’s 2005 official invitees included buyers’ delegations from 7 countries on the UK Foreign Office’s list of the 20 most serious human rights abusing regimes, countries like Colombia, China and Indonesia. Reed Elsevier do not make public the full list of invitees to their arms fairs. Reed Elsevier arms fairs have featured cluster bombs, depleted uranium munitions and torture equipment. Perhaps the most harmful and most familiar kind of equipment on sale at Elsevier arms fairs is small arms, the rifles and other hand weapons which, according to the UN, are responsible for 500,000 fatalities each year.

Tom now has a petition up; if you are an academic, researcher, teacher, grad student or any other consumer of Reed Elsevier’s scientific/technical/medical publishing products, please sign and promote it.
I’m #28 on the list of signatories; statistics prof and three-toed international man of mystery Cosma Shalizi is #19, and it was he who pointed me to the petition:

Starting about a year ago, I have refused to referee papers for journals owned by Elsevier, since it sticks in my craw to provide free labor for people who turn around and gouge the academic community mercilessly. This reasoning applies, to some degree, to all commercial journal publishers, though Elsevier is unusually exploitative in its pricing. There is however a more substantial reason to dislike them: their — forgive the phrase — mercenary involvement in the international arms trade.

Herewith my own promise, following Cosma’s example:

Until Reed-Elsevier ends once and for all their involvement in the arms trade, I will neither referee for nor submit my own manuscripts to their journals.

To this end, I have also signed Nick Gill‘s boycott pledge (background here, see other signatories here).
That’s likely to get me in trouble one of these days with a co-author who cares more about impact factors than human life. Kiss my minimally conscientious humanitarian ass, putative future co-author. I believe that scientists and academics of all walks have a certain responsibility to engage in political and civic life, but in this case there’s an even more pressing and obvious connection. The bulk of Reed Elsevier’s business is STM publishing; consumers thereof thus have a real and unique opportunity — and so, I would argue, the responsibility — to force them to abandon their much smaller arms dealership.
Note to my academic and research colleagues: I’m fairly junior, but I’m famously ornery. I’m actually willing to risk being fired or otherwise disciplined over this. Moreover, my boss is a good guy and so is his boss; the risk to my career is pretty minimal. If you’re up against more risk than you’re willing to take on, don’t sign Nick’s boycott pledge — but please do sign Tom’s petition.

A blog is really just your mind’s attic.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said that (last line of this post, which, like his whole blog, you should read), and I think he’s right. Furthermore, I just love rummaging about in other people’s attics! In lieu of actual content (I’m writing a fellowship application), here are some of the amazing and wonderful things you can find in other people’s virtual attics:
The right-on righteous indignation of Zuska: start anywhere, here is good, and read forward. If you only have time for a taste, read happy jerk-off (especially you, spousal unit) and links therein. Mind she doesn’t barf on your shoes.
(Update: you can still read the linked archive entries, but Zuska has moved to ScienceBlogs.)
Zuska’s latest entries will bring you into contact with the Tonegawa dustup at MIT; read Zuska, but also read Janet’s series of posts: one, two, three. Of course, you should be reading Janet regularly anyway if you are at all interested in philosophy and sociology of science. Here is another good post in the same vein.
What happens when an enquiring young mind finds a dead bug? What if the enquiring young mind in question happens to have access to an atomic force microscope? This is the kind of thing that keeps me excited about science. Speaking of Biocurious, here’s a good example of the sort of science blogging that leads me to believe that the web has a much greater role to play in day-to-day research than it is yet filling.
Speaking of blogs and science, check out Pedro’s work-in-progress showing that the likelihood that two proteins interact might depend on the proteins’ age. (Also, note to self: add my Connotea bookmarks to the front page here, as Pedro has done.)
And for something a bit different, if you like to think you should be reading Philosopher’s Playground. To whet your appetite, try a clear, concise background to the conflict surrounding Israel, or an exploration of the moral implications of being friends with an asshole.