Monday, October 31, 2011

Real Pain, Social Pain

Test Tubes

We often talk about emotional trouble as painful. We feel hurt by rejection, we smart from hurtful remarks, We get burned by a bad relationship, our hearts ache for company and so on. There's lots of similar expressions in other languages too; bitterness can be expressed as a form of pain in Japanese (苦痛) and your ears will hurt (耳が痛い) from hearing a painful truth. In Swedish, too, rejection and other negative emotions are painful, and experiencing others misfortune can be heart-cutting (hjärtskärande).

Emotional distress as pain is a good, productive metaphor. But — what if it's more than a metaphor? Our experience of pain is a function of our brains after all, just like emotions are. Bodily pain starts with receptors on our skin and elsewhere, but the experience of painfulness definitely happens in the brain itself.

Amputees can experience phantom pain, where the brain is led to believe there's pain in a body part that no longer exists. On the other hand, many pain relievers like morphine or codeine act on the brain pain centers rather than at the source of the pain; I've heard one person describe the effect of a similar drug as "I knew it still hurt a lot; I just no longer cared."

Do Pain Relievers Help with Social Pain?

Now, if emotional pain is real pain — if, in other words, "painful" emotions actually use some of the same circuits as physical pain in the brain — then central nervous system pain relievers, such as acetaminophen — commonly known as paracetamol — should work for emotional pain as well. And this is what a group led by Naomi Eisenberger set out to test recently. They published a paper, Acetaminophen reduces social pain: behavioral and neural evidence about this last year.

Unfortunately, the paper is heavily paywalled and I can't get it from the publisher. By current standards of science journalism we'd be going well above and beyond our duty simply by reading the abstract. But fortunately the authors have put up the paper on their own website: you can download the PDF right here1. And there's another, earlier paper from Eisenberger, Why rejection hurts: a common neural alarm system for physical and social pain2, that lays out a lot of the evidence for a common mechanism between physical and social pain.

They recruited two groups of participants — 62 university undergraduates in total. One group took paracetamol twice a day for three weeks, and the other one took a sugar pill, or placebo. The participants rated the amount of social pain they experienced every day. Social pain dropped significantly3 over time among those who took the pain reliever, while the people with the placebo showed no change. The pain reliever seems to lessen the pain of bad social events.

They also did a brain scanning experiment with two smaller groups, 25 people in total. The groups got either paracetamol or a placebo for three weeks. Then they got to play a simple computer ball-tossing game while lying in an fMRI scanner. They thought they played with two other people, but the game was really pre-programmed. The computer "players" gradually ignored the player and refused to toss their ball to them, making them feel rejected and left out.

They found that those who had taken paracetamol for three weeks had much less activity in two brain areas (the anterior insula and anterior cingulate) that we know are involved in the emotional aspect of pain. But there was no difference between the two groups in how painful that ball-game rejection was to them.

So it does seem that long-term doses — note that the effect took a couple of weeks to appear — of some pain relievers really can lessen the pain of social rejection. But the effect is not big, and it doesn't seem consistent. So don't go eat paracetamol on a daily basis to feel socially better — acetaminophen is not good for your liver, and especially so if you also like to drink alcohol.

fMRI scanner. That's me lying there getting ready for a scan. I wasn't ill or anything; I just volunteered as participant in an experiment. It was a fun experience, though difficult to stay awake for the entire experiment. And as a bonus you got confirmation that there's nothing obviously wrong with your brain.

…But There's More!

As it happens, another group led by Tor Wager did a similar experiment just this year (it's Open Access; anyone can read it). They recruited a group of people that had recently been dumped by their partners and stuck them in an fMRI scanner to find out what areas are involved with social rejection. They ran two sets of scans, one to find areas for social pain, and one for physical pain.

To test social pain they showed the volunteers either a picture of their ex-partner and asked them to think about their rejection; or a picture of a friend and asked them to recall a pleasant experience they've had with them. This was repeated multiple times while their brain activity was scanned. This way you can compare the brain activity with and without the bad experience, and the areas that are active only for the bad experience are probably connected to their rejection in some way.

They did the same kind of thing for physical pain: the volunteers either got burned on the arm4, or just pleasantly warmed on the same spot. Again, you look for differences between the painful and the non-painful heating in the brain scans. That should show you what brain areas that react specifically to physical pain, rather than to heat or things touching your arm and so on.

When they compared the two sets of differences, they found that the brain areas that deal with the emotional aspects of pain — the "feeling bad about it" — are activated by both emotional and physical pain. That's the same areas that Eisenbergers group found, and it's exactly what we'd expect. But they also found common activity in areas that deal specifically with physical pain. The emotional rejection activates areas that normally only react to bodily injury, in other words. This is surprising, and previous experiments have not found this.

One major reason, Wager's group notes, may be the level of pain. In Eisenbergers fMRI experiment, people played a simple computer game with strangers who weren't being fair to them. Not nice, but not exactly a major life crisis either.

In this experiment, on the other hand, people that have just been dumped get the picture of their traitorous ex-partner shoved into their face, and are asked to please really think through the whole sordid series of events that ended with them being thrown on the curb like yesterday's garbage. It's a whole different world of hurt, and I can imagine it took a bit of explanation to get this approved by the ethics committee.

So it may simply be that social rejection needs to be strong to actually qualify as pain. Our pain centers don't light up for every touch either; they need a minimum level of hurt to react at all. This could explain the puzzling result from Eisenbergers group, where the pain reliever seemed to have an effect for the students that reported daily social pain, but not when students were scanned. We probably encounter much worse social experiences in our daily lives than the computer ball-game they used for their fMRI scan. The pain reliever would lessen the impact of strong, but not weak, social rejection, just like it has an effect on a real skin bruise or cut but doesn't numb us to touch or slight discomfort.

…As This Is Getting Too Long Already…

The takeaway message is, I think, that the difference between our mental experiences and the physical reality is quite blurred in our brains. Paper cut or hurtful word — by the time it reaches the brain it's all just nerve inputs. There is nothing intrinsically more painful about the signals coming from your skin than from your ears. The difference is only in how our brains treat those signals.

Evolution is ultimately pragmatic. If it is useful to treat strong social rejection as physical pain then it will. It doesn't matter if it doesn't make sense from a design point of view, if it makes for a messy, untidy system, or if it will cause unintended side effects and problems for some distant descendant. The brain is full of opportunistic shortcuts, multiple-use mechanisms and exaptations which makes for a very interesting task trying to untangle it all.


#1 Are they breaking copyright by making their paper available like this? Maybe, and maybe not. A lot of journals do allow authors to make "draft" versions available; the difference to the published version is usually little more than the addition of magazine logos and page numbers. And depending on the legal residence of the researcher and of the journal, and on the exact wording of the contract, the researchers may retain the right — explicitly or though fair-use provisions — to disseminate their own paper.

On a more practical level, any journal that tries to sue its (unpaid, and frequently paying) contributors for passing out their own work is probably going to find themselves in a bad public relations debacle, with far worse consequences than the possibility of having lost fifty or a hundred dollars in revenue.

#2 If you're not familiar with the research world, you may not know why Dr. Eisenberger is the last author in the current paper, but the first in this earlier one. Very simplified, the first author is typically the one who did most of the actual research. The last author is their supervisor, or research leader or PI (principal investigator). They may have done parts of the actual work, but more likely provided guidance, original ideas, money and other resources.

Dr.Eisenberger, we can infer, probably did this earlier paper as a post-doc in Dr. Lieberman's lab, then managed to secure funding for her own lab, where she apparently continues her line of research but now as a leader of a group of young researchers.

#3 That is the science meaning of "unlikely to be due to chance", not the everyday meaning of "sort-of important". If you think about it, though, the meanings do overlap quite a bit.

#4 There's ways of using low heat to create intense burning sensation without any actual damage. Still, pain is not something you'd use lightly in experiments.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Research Publication
A Modest Proposal


I love doing science. But some things I love doing less than others. Rewriting papers is one of them. Editing and resubmitting a paper is to research what a wisdom tooth extraction is to a long summer weekend; all things considered you'd really rather be doing something else.

It takes a lot of time to write a long-form paper. The text may go through several revisions over the course of months even before the initial submission, and be picked-over several times by all the authors. The total time we spend may easily be a month or two. Extensive edits or a resubmission can double that time. And a lot of this work is almost invisible; we're debating commas, or precise wordings, or the order of arguments for a minor point in the text.

But very few people will actually read your paper in such detail. Most people who see it will just browse; we all "read" — that is, quickly check the summary and figures — a lot of papers, but we focus in detail only on a few. Some estimate that the average number of serious readers of a paper is around 5. And this probably follows a power-law distribution, where a small number of papers get many hundreds or thousand of readers while most papers get almost none. If your paper isn't in a top-tier journal you can probably assume your serious readership is 0-5 people.

We spend a months worth of work or more on tedious polishing. Meanwhile, almost all of our readers will simply skim the abstract, check a summary of results, look through the bibliography and then move on. Only a very few people — and perhaps nobody — will actually want to know about our work in detail.

So perhaps we are all spending our time on the wrong thing. I suggest we stop publishing painstakingly polished 20 or 30-page masterpieces. Instead we publish just a 2-3 page text with an abstract, a to-the-point summary of methods and results, and the bibliography. That will satisfy the vast majority of our readers, and will in fact make it easier for them to find what they want.

Then we meet by video-conferencing with those few who want to know all the details. If we save a month of work by not writing the long-form paper, and a one-hour conference takes a total of three hours with preparation and setup, then we could meet with fifty separate groups and still save valuable time. More likely, as we saw above, only a few people would ever want to discuss the details with us, saving us most of that month of project time. And those that want the details will get something better than a paper: they get the undivided attention of the researcher that did the actual work, and get precise answers to their specific questions.

We record the sessions and put them online. In the near future we'll have automatic transcription of each session as well. That will save the details for posterity and will satisfy most people looking for details, so only those with new questions and novel insights will want an in-person discussion. The just-the-facts summary and the accumulated, searchable discussions will hold far more detail, reasoning and justification of the work than any static paper could ever be able to.

Ok, so perhaps the idea isn't perfect. But it sure looks good to me while I'm sitting here editing a paper…

Thursday, October 27, 2011

No More Ikea

Ikea has always been a great place when you live abroad. They sell Swedish foods and drinks, candy and chocolates that are hard or impossible to find elsewhere. We go there every few months just to get pickled herring, cheese, flatbread, liquorice and other stuff.

And of course, this being Ikea you never buy just what you set out to do; we also come home with extension cords, drinking glasses, a new lamp… And you get inspired when you walk through the store. We bought our couch in Ikea, as well as Ritsukos new desk. In both cases we saw them when we were just there for some food, and ended up returning a few weeks later to get them specifically.

No more, unfortunately. Ikea has decided that they are better off selling their own-brand things rather than the popular Swedish brands they used to carry. Most specifically Swedish things are gone: the cheeses, the pickled herring, the bread, the liquorice, Kexchocklad and Dumle. What is left is generic-brand stuff, often not even made in Sweden, and indistinguishable from what we can pick up easier and cheaper in the supermarket at home.

So, no reason for us to visit Ikea now. And as we'll no longer browse in the stores, I doubt we'll be buying any much furniture or home goods from there anymore either. We have plenty of other furniture stores around here after all, with any conceivable style and any price level we'd ever want. From Japanese blogs it seems we're not the only ones; the reaction has been surprisingly negative even among people with no emotional connection to these particular goods.

Seems like a pretty dumb misstep on the part of Ikea to me. I may be wrong of course; the greater profit on own-brand generic foods may more than make up for the small loss of business that results. I don't think so, though. The connection to Sweden is an important part of their brand, and diluting it even further — they haven't been a Swedish company for many years — risks damaging themselves far beyond the loss of a few expats crying over their lost mustard herring.

Now the sole remaining question is where to buy or order pickled herring in Osaka. Anybody know?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


I was going to post a different thing early this week but it just sort of fell through. Instead, let us celebrate the very apex in human musical history with this 1980's-inspired original composition for synthesizer and Theremin. The sunglasses really bring this whole video together, I think, and he gets extra credit for the perfectly themed video effects.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Short Takes

No real time for a longer post this week. So, instead, a small collection of notes:
  • Google has gotten a lot of criticism for it's real names-only policy. Now it looks as if they may be preparing to back down on it. No word on exactly how and when, but my guess is that this will coincide with the appearance of company and brand-name accounts; they need a public name separate from whoever is actually managing the account so the back-end mechanism would be just about the same. I also guess that they'll still require a real name for registration and only your publicly visible name will be pseudonymous. That'd be good enough for most cases.

  • And speaking of Google+, Chris Willson has finally appeared there. He's a travel photographer based in Okinawa, and has been one of the inspirations for my own photography.

  • Not speaking about Chris at all, this is a letter from a psychopath to an author who recently wrote a book on psychopathy. It's a good, insightful read. Psychopaths are usually depicted more or less as monsters in news and in fiction. This letter serves to remind us that they — like anyone with a psychological disorder ­— aren't monsters, but just people. Nothing more and nothing less.

  • I've installed the new version of Ubuntu on my laptop. It's much as I expected: mostly smooth and working well, but as always with a new version there's a few issues I've had to work around. But I have to say that by now there really are no necessary workarounds in Ubuntu any more. All things I've dealt with are about how I expect things to work after using Linux for many years; a newcomer would no doubt find the current system to be just fine. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Network Programming

Network socket programming is fun and challenging, with lots of interesting sub-problems and many chances to learn new things about your systems, your libraries and your compiler.

Or, it is a stress-filled exercise in screaming frustration, a tiny slice of hell filled with deadlocks, race conditions, incomprehensible error messages and intermittent bugs that disappear the moment you try to debug them.

Which is it? That seems to depend entirely on the proximity of your deadline.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Retractions, Corrections and You


If you're involved in academic publishing then this piece in Nature (open to all, as far as I can tell) about the system of paper retractions is a good read. Go ahead and take a look; I'll wait here.

Part of the problem with retractions is, I believe, that there's no middle ground. The article mentions several times that if a paper is retracted people will assume some kind of research fraud. A retraction is stigmatising and people are very reluctant to retract unless forced to as a result. It doesn't help that you lose a publication that took months, perhaps years, to put together.

Perhaps fraud should be the only reason to retract a paper. If the paper is invalid due to honest mistakes then it may be better to let the paper stand, but with a correction and addendum that makes clear what results are invalid, why they are wrong, and what the correct results are. Mistakes — especially mistakes that are serious enough to invalidate a paper, yet subtle enough not to get caught before publication — are an important source of knowledge in itself.
If people are reluctant to do corrections, then why not make a substantial, informative correction and reanalysis count as a publication on its own? That ought to give people a bit of incentive to do a good job with it.

The other big problem is that corrections and retractions aren't widely announced, and the information doesn't really trickle down to people using the paper. The article only touches on it, but once you've downloaded and read a paper you're very unlikely to revisit the original site again. Why would you, after all? And with the flood of new papers showing up every day you can easily miss a correction or retraction notice in the deluge. Retracted or corrected papers end up being used for many years after they should have been dumped. I don't have a good idea for how to fix that.

But I don't think the resulting problems are all that dire. Your typical paper has two kinds of references, really: the main sources, and a bunch of supplementary ones. Your main sources are really significant. They're the ones you're really building your work on and without them your paper falls apart. The supplementary sources are more about dotting i's and crossing t's; you're showing that you've read the literature and use them as support for minor points in your work. If one of them happens to be wrong1 it won't actually have much of an impact on your paper or your work.

And of course you're lot better informed about events surrounding your core references. You seek out and read other papers that reference the same work; you follow the same journals they appeared in; and you keep an eye open for more publications from the same group. If one of your core references are retracted (or simply shown to be incorrect or incomplete) you're quite likely to find out.

This is a general principle, I think: if an important paper is retracted it is a serious matter, but many people will quickly find out and knowledge of it will rapidly spread. If a paper is retracted and nobody notices, on the other hand, then it wasn't much of a paper to begin with and the damage is minimal.

#1 It's worth noting that it's common to find several papers about the same exact thing that all disagree with one another. We deal with, and make use of, potentially incorrect papers on a daily basis and have always done so. We know our sources are not some infallible truth, and the sky doesn't fall when a paper or two turns out to be incorrect.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Dennis M. Ritchie

Dennis M. Ritchie passed away yesterday. He was a pioneer of modern computing; one of the fathers of Unix and the developer of the C programming language. From these two foundations has grown most of the software tools and technologies that we all depend on every single day.

He also co-wrote "The C Programming Language". The book, like the language itself, is masterful in its brevity and clarity. It aims to describe the language, but managed to teach me an enormous amount about programming in general along the way, and in fewer pages than the introductory chapters of some programming books. It is one of my all-time favourite books and I still leaf through it from time to time.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Thought I'd make a quick note here about spam again, as one just managed to get past the normally quite good filters here.

Spam, as far as this blog is concerned, is not just sales pitches or link farm posts. It's basically any comment that tries to hijack the subject to spout whatever the commenter wants to talk about. One and the same comment could conceivably be spam when posted on one post, and perfectly fine when posted on another.

Those kinds of comments is just like that guy at every conference; the one that wants to ask the speaker a question only to spend five minutes droning on about some subject that has nothing whatsoever to do with the presentation. Meanwhile the entire room silently sits there, hoping he'll have heart attack, stroke or an inopportune bowel movement — anything to make him shut up already.

Ozawa and Juholt

As you may know, Ichiro Ozawa, general political heavyweight in Japan, is now on trial for his office having accepted some 400 million yen in illegal campaign contributions, after his secretaries have been found guilty of the same. Opinions seem sharply divided if there was criminal intent; whether 400 million is a lot or not; and whether Ozawa knew about it or should shoulder any blame if he didn't.

If we want to get a sense of what is acceptable, it would certainly help to compare with other places. We're (not so) fortuitously right now getting a point of comparison in Swedish politics. Håkan Julholt is the recently elected leader of the largest opposition party. He has now been found to have received too much reimbursement for his working apartment.

A bit of background: House members in the Swedish parliament have a right to an allowance for a place to live in Stockholm if they don't live there already. The (quite reasonable) idea is that they represent their area in the country and shouldn't have to move away permanently to work as House members. On the other hand they do need to spend a substantial part of the year in the capital, which is an expensive place to live. So you get reimbursed for your share of any accommodation in Stockholm — the operative point here being "your share". Most members do not use this; they stay in accommodations provided by the House.

What Juholt has done for years is claim the entire rent on his apartment, while living there with his partner (they're not married, and I don't think the rules would be any different if they were). He should have been claiming only half. The total disclosed amount he has received improperly is 160 000 crowns, about 1,7 million yen. At this point there are people claiming he was informed this was improper, while he and his people say he was not. There is no publicly disclosed evidence either way.

So, 160k crowns — 1.7 million yen — in allowance he should not have received, knowingly or by mistake. As a result, the police and prosecutors have started a criminal investigation. Every newspaper (including those loyal to the opposition party) are combing through years of old receipts and documents to find more. Some party members are already publicly calling for him to step down. Everybody seems to agree that if he hasn't disclosed the total amount or lied in any other way; if there is credible evidence he was warned about this and went ahead anyway; or if the police investigation leads to charges being filed; then he is most certainly gone as party leader and most likely gone from national politics altogether. Even if nothing more surfaces it's an open question whether he can stay on and be an effective leader of his already wounded party.

Politics is a game of trust. Whether you actually do something wrong matters far less than the perception that you did. I'd give Juholt a 50% chance of political life after this, and that's given that nothing more happens. Similarly, whether Ozawa has done anything illegal or not is up to the courts to decide. But Unfairly or not he is already being judged by the media and the public, and ultimately that's what determines his fate. If you're playing a game of trust it doesn't matter if you're technically legal. The perception of you as upright and honest is the only thing that matters.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Canon Autoboy II

Canon Autoboy 2
Canon Autoboy II. This one has a recording back that optionally imprints the date and time on the picture.

Something interesting happens when word gets around that you still shoot film. Friends and relatives that clean house show up with old film cameras they would otherwise throw away to ask if you'd perhaps be interested in it instead. And of course I am. By now I now find myself with dozens of old, fun toys to play with.

The Canon Autoboy II - also named "(New) Sure Shot" in the US and "AF35M II" in Europe - is an inexpensive point and shoot camera from the early 80s. Like so many products from that time it sports an angular, futuristic design that would have been quite at home in an episode of Space 1999. It has a pleasantly wide 38mm f/2.8 lens. Not a speed demon, but not bad.

Automation was all the rage by this time, and the Autoboy is fully, almost aggressively automatic. Stick the film in and it will load the film on its own, and set the right ISO based on the marks on the film canister. When you turn it on the lens cover opens automatically (and noisily), and it will set both exposure and distance as you take the picture, with no feedback needed (or wanted) from you.

Stairwell. Daimaru department store in Shinsaibashi, Osaka. The building is wonderful, but while they seem to accept shots like this — especially from someone that seems to be a tourist — photography is generally prohibited. I wish you'd be explicitly allowed to; perhaps they could have a photographers evening some night after closing time?

I don't have a manual for the camera (can't find one online), but it seems you can't control it manually at all. So, no pushing or pulling the film; no exposure compensation; no scale focusing. You can apparently prefocus it by pressing the shutter halfway, but that doesn't work very well as you have no indication where you've focused in the first place. This is not an instrument for precise control. Point and shoot and there's your picture, with minimal fuss but plenty of buzz.

Buzz? This is a noisy camera. It's an inexpensive design and probably uses geared motors throughout. The lens cover opens with a loud whack, the lens whirrs and wheezes as it focuses, the film advance almost screeches, and the shutter has a hard plastic-and-metal burst of rattles that's as noticeable as the mirror and shutter as my Pentax 67. This is not a camera for candid photography.

Hipster, Osaka style. Horie, Osaka.

With its plastic body and noisy mechanism it sounds and feels cheap. I've seen used units — in worse condition than mine but fully functional — in shops for as little as 5000 yen. That's actually a little unfair, I think. The body seems quite solid, and while the camera is noisy the mechanics seem reliable enough.

What about the results? Good. Really good. The images I took (using Ilford Delta 400) have plenty of contrast and good detail, and overall distortion and corner performance seem fine to me. The autofocus and autoexposure systems do a good job; the lens and autoexposure even manage heavily backlit subjects without getting excessive flare and underexposure.

A student works on a Roomba-Kinect frankenrobot. NAIST, Ikoma. Heavy backlighting from the doors in the background, and yet exposure is good enough to make a decent shot. The lens also manages fine without excessive veiling glare. Many cameras would do much worse in a situation like this.

The camera takes normal 1.5v penlight batteries and they seem to last forever, so you'll never be stranded from being out of power. It seems decently solid, better than my first impressions, and the body is sleek with few protrusions. And with the current basement-low prices for a used unit this could be an excellent bag-camera — a camera you load and stick in your bag just in case you ever suddenly need a film camera. It can ride along for months, none the worse for wear. And if something does happen, if it gets drenched in a rainfall or something, well, it's just a few thousand yen for a new one. If you're looking for an inexpensive way to start with film you could do much worse than this.

Escalate Your Fashion
Down escalator in the new JR Umeda station, Osaka. Fireworks festival the same evening so lots of people around wearing traditional summer dress. I'm a bit envious; summer yukata (or samue) are cool and easy to move in when it's hot, but it looks vaguely ridiculous on a westerner.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

That Science Communication Thing


We scientists mostly suck at communicating with the public. Many of us don't even try to do any real outreach to the non-science public. We communicate our results by publishing papers or giving conference talks squarely aimed at other scientists.

This is not great. People — like Christie Wilcox here — have been calling for scientists to open up and share directly with the public. It's a nice idea. It is important that science gets reported, and it's important that people from all walks of life participate in public discourse.

Of course it's not quite that easy. Steven Hamblin brings up some important good reasons why scientists aren't communicating directly with the public, and why doing so would not have such large effect. He focuses on the skills needed for good communication. Doing it well is hard, and many, even most scientists don't have those skills.

I'd like to offer another reason: good communication takes a lot of time. This is time we in general do not have. There is no time set aside for science communication; few or no writing classes offered for faculty specifically for communicating science to the general public; no support or funds for dealing with any ethical and other issues that may arise. The scientists that do communicate directly do so on their own free time, as a hobby and elect to do it instead of watching TV, talking with their family, playing an instrument, catching up on sleep or whatever you do for fun. It is laudable that people like Scicurious does this, of course, but it is strictly voluntary.
And it takes real time to do it well. I only post about 2-3 times a week on my blog here, mostly not science-related, and the rate drops whenever I get busy with work. A simple off-the-top-of-my-head opinion post like this one takes me about an hour to put together (there goes my lunch). An actual sciency post like the recent one on the history of violence can take several hours, what with finding and reading sources, writing, making illustrations and so on.

Some people claim an effective blog needs to post one big piece and a couple of fillers every day. That's too much for a science blog, but even at my current rate of three posts a week I'd need an extra hour every working day. That hour comes from my work time or it will have to come from my Japanese language studies, from reading, from photography, from spending time with Ritsuko. In short, from enjoying my time away from work.

If you want scientists in general to spend time on communication then you have to pay for it — pay by adding it into the job description; pay by setting aside time for doing so; pay by offering support and guidelines; and pay by offering training for those who aren't naturally good at or interested in social media or non-specialist writing. Understand that it would be quite doable; you could make part of your yearly teaching load for instance. It is teaching of a sort, after all, not just in a lecture format and not to a small, captive audience. It would mean somewhat less other teaching, or less research. That is unavoidable.

But do we really want to force all scientists to communicate directly? We don't require every public servant to communicate with the public in other fields, do we? It's rare for actual policemen, physicians, soldiers or firemen to communicate directly with the public, for instance. National administrators and bureaucrats don't tweet about new regulations all by themselves. They go through their public relations department and a dedicated press spokesperson.

Communication is hard — hard enough that public communication, journalism and outreach is an acknowledged group of professions. Why do we have this idea that every single scientist needs to do this by themselves? And, may I add, without the training, interest or time you'd need to make a decent job of it. Having stressed PI's dutifully dump their unedited abstracts onto Google+ or Facebook, or tweet the paywalled link to their latest paper, then ignore any questions and feedback would hurt science communication, not help it.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Oneiric On The Way

A quick note, on this beautiful, finally cool Monday morning: Oneiric Ocelot is coming!


"Huh?" What it means is, Ubuntu Linux, the operating system I've been using for a number of years now, is due to release a new version. This is not a particularly rare occurrence as they release every six months, on the dot. It's a fairly rapid pace, but that's OK; they keep supporting older versions so I usually don't bother upgrading every time. It's a good system, with pretty much anything I need for work and play.

If I never mention this here, why do I mention it this time? Well, I am upgrading (reinstalling, actually — good to clean house now and again) this time, but mostly because I find the countdown banner above kind of cute.

Oh, "Oneiric": Each version has a simple version number like Year.Month, so this one is 11.10 for the release of October 2011. But they also always have a semi-nonsensical code name during development, going alphabetically over time, with a pattern of "Adjective Animal". This coming release is Oneiric Ocelot. The current release is Natty Narwhal, and the one before (that I currently use) is Maveric Meerkat. If you're curious you can find the whole list here.