Atheists Talk–Bora Zivkovic

Science is moving onto the internet. Collection of data, collaboration between researchers, communication and critique of results, teaching and learning–all are increasingly being done online. ScienceOnline, held January 16 – 18 in 2009, is a conference dedicated to discussing the intersection of science and online technologies. Bora Zivkovic, one of the founders and organizers of ScienceOnline will join Atheists Talk Sunday, February 1, to talk about the purpose of the conference, the results of this year’s sessions, and why it’s important to meet your online colleagues in person.

Produced by Minnesota Atheists. Directed and hosted by Mike Haubrich. Interview by Stephanie Zvan.

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Atheists Talk–Bora Zivkovic

The Joy of Editing

Every once in a while, I’ll come across someone who writes well enough (and whom I know well enough) that I offer to edit their stuff. This could be copy editing or something much more substantial. The usual reaction is, “You’re a writer. Why would you want to edit something instead?”

The answer is that I like editing. In fact, I might just like it more than writing. Writing is exhilarating, don’t get me wrong, particularly when it all just flows, but editing is something special. Editing is making a piece of writing all it can and should be.

When I’m editing a piece, I’m doing everything I do as a writer (except facing down the blank page) and more. I’m anticipating where each sentence, each paragraph, the work as a whole is going. In a sense, I’m writing the story as I read it and comparing the two versions in my head, word by word, scene by scene, argument by argument, to decide which is better.

When I’m editing, I’m looking at every letter and punctuation mark while, at the same time, keeping track of how all the pieces fit together and support each other to make a whole. I’m watching how long everything takes to make sure it doesn’t lag while still checking that each word fits the voice of the narrator. I’m listening to the rhythm of the writing while building a picture of the action to confirm that nothing moves in impossible ways. I’m striving to maximize clarity of language and grammar while preserving the idiosyncrasies that identify the writer. I’m working to make the piece conform to both reader expectations and the writer’s intent.

Reading back over all that, I feel as though editing should be impossible, a classic caterpillar’s dilemma, but when I’m doing it, it all just works.

Does that make me the world’s best editor? Uh, no. But it does make me a pretty good one, and that means that I make a difference by editing. I make the world a little better, or at least a little more readable.

I’m very happy to say that I have a new editing project in the works, something that will let me make more people’s writing just that little bit better. We’re not quite ready to announce, but it’s been a long day and I needed something to cheer me up, so I’m letting myself anticipate. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to it.

Yes, looking forward to editing.

The Joy of Editing

ScienceOnline’09–The Conference

Is it remotely necessary to state at this point that I am no liveblogger?

If the day and a half before the conference was for running around and meeting people I’d only talked to online, the conference itself was all about cramming my head full of ideas it will take me the next year (or more) to fully unpack.

Well, actually, it started with meeting more people. We had breakfast with Jean-Claude Bradley, whom I hadn’t met even online and who probably thinks I’m the dullest conversationalist in the world. This is only true when I’m working on a mere four hours of sleep, due, in this case, to a combination of overstimulation and husbandly snoring. I was more concerned with getting coffee in me than anything else, I’m afraid.

I did, however, manage to catch Glendon Mellow on his way out of the restaurant long enough to say, “Hi,” and promise to talk later. From that point until the start of my session, I remember only a very few things: scandalizing the shuttle driver, who disapproved of the bare legs below my skirt (“That’s how you get a cold, young lady.”); packing very snuggly into the shuttle; finding more coffee but not being willing to wait for the espresso; Anton starting the conference with a toot on some kind of plastic instrument; discovering that I’m too short for a podium, which I fully expected; discovering that the podium had no place for my coffee, which I didn’t expect at all.

Then it was time for Science Fiction on Science Blogs. I’ll write more about this later, because I think where we ended up deserves its own post. I wasn’t surprised to hear people talking about being afraid to be considered “lightweight” for talking about SF, but the idea that developed about using SF as a signifier of shared geekiness was kind of cool.

Plenty of others who attended have also written about the session. Ryan Somma has a good overview, and Chris Clouser has another. Henry Gee was somewhat disappointed, although he’s not very specific about what he was looking for out of the session. Glendon captured the two most original thoughts to come out of the session. John Dupuis and Acmegirl both noted that certain items must be discussed any time the subject comes up.

One thing I noted at the session that I will repeat here: it’s obvious that many scientists are fans of science fiction. What should also be obvious is that many SF writers are fans of science. If you’re a scientist who wants to have some impact on the science in SF, Google your favorite (living) writers. These days, many to most of them have blogs. Start participating in the comments, and tell the writer that s/he has fans who are scientists. Then just see how quickly you get used as a resource when the writer is working on something in your field.

Oh, yeah, and I’m hugely flattered that a certain blogger who claims to have ADHD sat through the entire session.

I skipped out on the next set of sessions to decompress from mine. Yes, it went fine, but that never stops me from being a stress monkey. I made sure that Lou met the two people on the top of his list, PalMD and Bob O’Hara, which I did by turning around at the end of the coffee line and saying, “See those two people about six feet away? Yeah, that’s them.” Then I hung out with him and Bob. Eva Amsen joined us, and we talked some more about the SF session and her work as a science fiction fact checker.

Everybody else tried to get online to blog about what they were doing. We were a bit much for Sigma Xi’s wireless, and it kept kicking people off. I was perfectly happy to have left my laptop at the hotel. I just kicked back and drank my coffee. Well, I probably mocked something in there too, but that’s reflexive.

Then it was off to Rhetoric of Science: Print vs. Web. There was some good stuff about the role of editors and about not abandoning things like the methods and results sections of scientific papers that are structured to communicate the greatest amount of information between scientists in the shortest possible space (yes, that was Bora with the conservative position). Still, the use of language as a gatekeeping mechanism, both to keep science from nonscientists and to determine who gets to be a scientist, was prominent.

Lunch exposed the greatest weakness of the Sigma Xi center–the lack of conversational-sized social spaces. There are much larger spaces, but those tend to also be traffic paths. I grabbed a chair back in the conference room I’d just come out of and ended up having lunch with Lou and Pal. We chatted a bit about pseudonymity and coming out, and I noted with amusement that one can tell when a blogger has set up shop under a new pseudonym to talk about something different. No blogger starts from scratch knowing how to do some of these things.

Done with food, I wandered around a bit. I ran into Glendon again, and we chatted about how strange it felt to have everyone talking about pseudonymity when the point of an artist being online is self-promotion. We also talked about making money from free content without advertising. People are doing it, but it’s hard to get a handle on how many–and on how many a market can handle.

I apologized for being distracted, explaining that I was still expecting to see Betül but wasn’t quite sure that we’d recognize each other. I’d been watching for her all morning in the milling crowds without luck. I had, however, noticed someone badge-sniff me and disdain to recognize my presence, which was totally worth seeing.

Anton called us all to attention again to give a very secular thanks for our lunch. I was going to catch up with Greg to find out how the life transitions and gender in science sessions had gone (the sessions I thought I could be pretty sure would be covered on blogs galore), but he and Acmegirl were deep in a discussion of the same, so I just sat back and listened. Not too surprisingly, someone had taken the discussion as an opportunity to talk about what he’d do if he found out “his” students/employees/prized possessions were blogging under pseudonyms. I don’t remember what I’d originally intended to attend after lunch, but this discussion was too interesting to walk away from.

There wasn’t much contention in the race and science panel, but it did start out by covering what felt like some very basic ground. It got more interesting after a bit, when people focused less on the need to treat the subject seriously, which I felt everyone understood, and focused more on what worked. I thought the two most interesting points came from the moderators. Acmegirl noted that while mentors are good, people shouldn’t expect to have all their needs me
t by one mentor. Multiple mentors can offer perspectives on all your complex issues. Danielle Lee talked about working with kids who were in trouble and pointed out that science offer them a chance to succeed without having to fit in with all the other kids. Science as subversive activity–love it.

Then it was time for the art and science session, moderated by Glendon. Now, Glendon had been on an art-as-parasitical-on-science kick for a couple of months, probably feeling a little bit of impostor syndrome at being a non-scientist moderating sessions at a science conference (I know I was). He was disabused of the idea quite quickly. The more interesting ideas to come out of this session for me were that scientists make artistic choices frequently in determining how to represent data and that they frequently borrow the symbolism used in art to convey their points. Glendon is still collecting examples of art that has inspired science, so if you have one for him, let him know.

Coming out of this session, I heard my name called. I shouldn’t have worried. Betül is Betül, and there is no mistaking her for anyone else. Nor would it have been possible to miss her. She and Karen Ventii had driven up together and gotten to the conference a bit late. I have no idea what Betül and I actually said to each other. It was just cool to finally meet. I did catch up with what Karen’s been up to since she quit blogging. No plans to resume any time soon, unfortunately.

The last session I attended for the day was on social networks for scientists. No, I’m not likely ever to use one, but I do have an interest in what facilitates the formation and maintenance of communities. The session ended up being largely about what not to do to create a social network, namely just try to get people to show up and hope they’ll connect with each other. Specialized social networks that do work (Flickr for photographers, Ravelry for knitters) are organized around content. The Nature Network seems to be the closest comparable site for scientists, but it’s hampered by some very clunky technology that was not meant to do what it’s been doing.

Then the sessions were over for the day. Back at the hotel, I got to check out some very cool photos from Ben’s shoot for the day before it was time for the big dinner. I finally got a chance to introduce myself to Abel Pharmboy on our way in. After that, though, well, there weren’t many spots at the big tables left, so I felt a little unsocial as Ben, Greg, Lou and I grabbed a table together. It’s ironic, of course, because the conference was the first time I’d met Lou, but it’s not as though we don’t know each other.

Luckily, the buffet line wandered right past our table. We chatted with Tom Levenson about a Darwin project he was working on. We talked a little more with Betül and Karen. I took forever to flag down a server to ask for water instead of sweet tea. I ran into Scicurious getting seconds (and feel a little better about her not starving any time soon). Our food got cold as she told me about a project that she wants to take on and that I can’t wait to see. (Somewhere during the weekend, she also told me the secret of getting DrugMonkey to buy your drinks, although I don’t think it’ll work for me.)

Four hours of sleep caught up with me somewhere in the middle of dinner, and I pumpkined shortly thereafter, whereupon I discovered the fatal flaw of a confernce like SO09. My brain would not shut off. Between that and the hard drive noise that I thought was Ben’s photos uploading to the server at home, I only added another five hours of sleep to my total for the weekend.

The morning brought the unwelcome news that the noisy hard drive was not Ben’s, but mine, which should have been idle all night. Getting the machine to shut down was a pain. Getting it to restart took two tries. Then I shut it back down, packed, loaded the car and went to breakfast.

Yes, the conference did serve fruit and pastries and muffins, but it was nice to start the day with a slow, sit-down meal. Breakfast discussion on Sunday was of natural and man-made climate change, with Jean-Claude and Greg again and joined by James Hrynyshyn. Then back to Sigma Xi.

Ben had come along that day, since he didn’t have a shoot and because I thought he’d be helpful to Glendon in his blog images session. I didn’t feel there were any sessions at 9 that I really needed to attend, so I showed Ben the conference center.

We were out there for about 10 minutes when someone came out of the impact factor session. She needed a break (already) and more coffee and looked to be on the verge of tears. “I want to support open access, but if I don’t publish in a journal with an impact factor of X, I won’t have a job. My advisor won’t get tenure. What am I supposed to do?”

That was the statement that really crystalized the conference for me. So many of the conclusions in so many of the sessions were really, “This needs to be changed/recognized as irrelevant/valued more,” but they weren’t being uttered by people who were in a position to change the policies we were all talking about. How many people at the conference were on search committees or tenure committees? How many review for journals?

The attendees at this conference were, on average, young and early in their careers. At least three-quarters of them were younger than I am. They’re not in a position to make most of the changes we discussed. They will be in a few years, but should the changes wait that long? If not, how does everyone get the buy-in of the people who are able to make the changes? Do people need to start dragging their older peers, their PIs and department chairs and deans to ScienceOnline? And how do they balance the need to make changes with the preservation of their own careers? I don’t have any answers.

It was in a considerably more thoughtful mood that I ducked into what was left of Pal’s Blogging 101 session. Oh, the joy of trying to run a live demo on intermittent wireless. Still, he is every bit as entertaining in person as on the blog and PalCast, and the session finally provided some incentive for me to fix a gaping hole in my sidebar.

Acmegirl stopped me after the session to ask my advice on a blogging project a friend of hers wants to start. She was actually the second person to seek me out for advice at the conference. It was very weird. Cool, but weird. Extra cool because they were both such interesting projects that I’m tickled to get to play even a tiny part in them.

Then it was on to “Hey, you can’t say that!” This session was about blogging coming into conflict with employers. There were some very interesting stories to come out of this, but I did feel that we spent too much time treating blogging as something totally new, rather than another form of public speech. There are precedents for how public speech can and cannot affect your employment (without a contract to specify otherwise). Running some of this down is one of the things I added to my to do list after the conference. You’ll see it here when I put the information together.

The final session I attended was on blogging networks. I can’t sum this session up any better than Eva did, so I won’t even try.

Then i
t was all over but for lunch and travel. Mmm, baklava. I chatted some more with Glendon and Blake. Funny how the artists and the writers end up converging. Betül and Karen stopped by on their way out, and Betül gave me a nazar, so I now have my own “superstition hanging from a chain.” At this point, I completely lost track of whom I said “Hi” and “Good-bye” to.

Having tons of time left before our flight, we grabbed Greg and headed over to Red Hat so Ben could have his picture taken out front. Yes, we’re geeks.

This time in the airport, it was Greg and I geeking about blogging while Ben followed along politely. We compared notes on the sessions we’d both been to and filled each other in on the ones we’d seen separately. We also chatted about the things we each wanted to follow up on from the various sessions.

We parted ways before security, since Greg ended up on a different flight than we did coming back. I’d warned him coming out that Ben and I were a pain to go through security with, since Ben traveled with photo gear and a bunch of electronics. Ironically, I was the only one who got held up in security. My boarding pass got the random code printed on it that meant I got patted down and some poor, overworked TSA guard got to swab down two laptops, one backpack, one purse, my shoes, and my coat. She didn’t look happy. Adding to the irony was the fact that no one blinked at Ben’s bag o’ stuff, so he had to wait for me.

The flight back was uneventful. I finished my first readthrough on my friend’s beta draft of his novel and made some notes on my dying hard drive about the conference. The train ride from the airport was much more interesting, as a group of young women held an earnest discussion of what types of tattoos and piercings were “okay” and what kind made a girl a skank. “They do that in Dallas.” “Yeah, but Minneapolis is no Dallas.” Hee. I wish I could have recorded it.

Then, finally, we were back home. The conference was over, except for digesting all the ideas to come out of it–and appeasing the cats after our absence.

I’m so going again next year.

ScienceOnline’09–The Conference

The Widget Code

Okay, there seems to be some demand for this, so here’s the code for the recent comments widget.

Updated to make copying easier and to fix a bug with anonymous commenters: In the end of the script, replace my URL with your own. Then all you have to do is add an HTML/Javascript widget to your sidebar and paste in the text.

You may not see comments right away, as my widget started by reading the comment feed prospectively only, but as people leave more comments, the widget should fill itself out.


<!– // hide from browsers
//Recent Comments Widget originally by Blogger Templates and updated by Blogger Buster then edited by Ben Zvan for simplicity
function showrecentcomments(json){
for(var i=0;i<show_number;i++){
var feed_raw=json.feed.entry[i];
var comment_link_raw;
for(var k=0;k<feed_raw.link.length;k++) {
if(feed_raw.link[k].rel==’alternate’) {
var comment_link=comment_link_raw.split(“#”);
var comment_link=comment_link.replace(/u003d/,”=”);
var post_link=comment_link.split(“/”);
var post_link=post_link.replace(/-/g,” “);
var author_name
var author_link;
var author_out;
// Output phase

document.write(”+author_out+’ on ‘+post_out+’

// –>

var show_number=10;

The Widget Code

The Comments Widget


I would just like to take this opportunity to thank PalMD, in whose Blogging 101 session I declared Recent Comments to be the single most important widget a blogger can have, and Lou, who sent me a widget that turned out not to work with my template, for getting me off my ass to find a widget I could use. Thanks also to Ben, who tracked down why a simple change in the (unformatted) Javascript to customize said widget made it stop working.

Anybody who wants a recent comments widget that works with the layout function in Blogger templates, just let me know.

The Comments Widget

What Type Am I?

Do I need to say anything more about my opinion of personality tests than to say that on this measure:

Agreeableness is the tendency to be sympathetic and cooperative towards others. People who score high on agreeableness strive for social harmony and value getting along with others. Disagreeable people tend to be more suspicious and hostile towards others.

I scored at the 14th percentile and Comrade PhysioProf scored at the 55th?

Well, probably. For now, I’ll just note that this isn’t a dig at CPP (I tend to think our behavior is pretty on par in this respect) and that how one perceives one’s own views (i.e., suspicious) is not necessarily a good predictor of how one acts.

What Type Am I?

Athiests Talk–Todd Allen Gates

Okay, we’re trying this one again tomorrow. Third time’s the charm?

It has been said that an atheist is a person who disbelieves in one more god than everyone else does. Our guest this Sunday, Todd Allen Gates, explored that idea in his book, Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer.

The author’s description from Amazon:

Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer is a Socratic dialogue between a skeptic and a Christian apologist. The skeptic does not address atheism, but accepts the premises–for argument’s sake–that there IS a Creator of sorts, that this said-Creator has made some sort of communication effort with mankind, and that the fundamentalists are correct in their assessment that “one religion is from God, the rest are man-made.” The two characters then discuss non-Christian religions, and reach agreements on specific reasons why such faiths fall into the “made-by-man” category: (a) they’re pieced together from pre-existing religions, (b) their holy laws are often based on irrational prejudices and erroneous conclusions about cause and effect, and (c) their stories contain inaccurate and earth-bound descriptions of the universe. The discussion then turns to examining the Christian religion in the same light as the non-Christian. Their conversation remains a respectful exchange of ideas, but is no longer harmonious.

The book’s two themes:

(1) “If you understand why you reject all the other religions, you’ll understand why I reject yours.”

(2) A marveling at humans’ handiwork in the creation of the world’s religions: the stunning range of creativity, cruelty, compassion, ingenuity, and absurdity. Included are scriptural passages from Bahaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism; as well as mythology and folklore from the Aztecs, the Babylonians, Egypt, Greece, Japan, Kenya, the Native Americans, Nigeria, the Pygmies, the Sumerians, the Vikings, and more.

Programming Note: Todd was our guest in November (show #045), and we have invited him back.

Produced by Minnesota Atheists. Directed by Mike Haubrich. Hosted by Stephanie Zvan.


Podcast Coming Soon!
Write a review of Atheists Talk

Listen to AM 950 KTNF on Sunday at 9AM Central to hear Atheists Talk produced by Minnesota Atheists. Stream live online. Call the studio at 952-946-6205 or email us at [email protected].

Athiests Talk–Todd Allen Gates

ScienceOnline’09–The Pre-Show

It was about fifteen below (Fahrenheit) when we got on the plane. They warned us that we’d want our coats on the jetway. They were right. We giggled a little bit at the “cold weather” warnings that everyone in NC was posting.

This was Thursday, as we traveled to ScienceOnline’09, and we meant me, my husband and Greg. I was half expecting PZ to be on the same flight, as there’s only one direct afternoon flight between Minneapolis and Raleigh. We didn’t find out until Friday that he wasn’t coming.

Greg and Ben had geeked out about open source software over lunch, as fully expected, but we weren’t seated together on the plane, so I got about half of a beta draft of a novel read for a friend. It would have been more, but the toddler on the lap next to mine protested being told to take a nap by banging his head into my arm. C’est la vie.

We could tell we were at a blogging conference as soon as we unpacked and headed down to the hotel bar. GrrlScientist was sitting at a table across from Bob O’Hara and Blake Stacey. The number of laptops out varied but was never less than one. Once we got drinks started and dinner ordered, everybody introduced themselves (except Blake, who had wandered away) and chatted for a bit.

The contingent who’d shown up early enough to attend the early bird dinner got back about the time we finished our food. Bora acted as the official greeter by telling us about his multi-stage Facebook research project. Even if you haven’t met him yet, I’m sure you’ll be unsurprised to know that he isn’t quite so much human as a force of nature. (A very charming force of nature.)

We also met Danica Radovanovic about then, as well as the cutest overlords ever. We pulled another table up to the sprawl that was now half the bar and chatted with Grrl, Bob, Henry Gee and Alex Ley until it was time for bed.

I finally met Blake the next morning at the breakfast buffet and can attest, after having seen him eat, that he is indeed a grad student. Most of the people there on Friday headed out to the coffee cupping, but Ben and I had a project of indeterminate length to complete that day, so we hadn’t signed up for anything.

While waiting for Lou, who was a necessary part of the project, Greg, Blake and I competed for title of former geekiest high school student. I’m not sure who won, but I know I lost. gg wandered by during the competition and introduced himself.

The project deserves its own post when it comes to fruition, so I’ll only say that Lou was held up by traffic, that there are stories that will never be blogged by me (having next to nothing to do with us, just with the people we were working next to), and that we accomplished it in record time. Oh, and that I was reminded how simultaneously cool and strange it is to meet someone in person who you know pretty well, but only electronically. Particularly so under the circumstances.

Unsurprisingly (we were at a conference), getting back to the hotel meant heading back to the bar. Lou couldn’t stay for the evening, but he wanted to say hi to a few people. We walked into the tail end of the Sblings pizza party.

The guard was changing as people prepared to go to the wine tasting, so we got waved over and sat down across from Zuska. I introduced myself to Dave Munger, trying to keep the fangirl suppressed. He asked, “Are you the same Stephanie who comments a lot on Greg’s blog?”

“I…uh….yeah.” I may have blushed. Zuska can probably tell you.

James Hrynyshyn held out his hand next. As I said my name again, someone on my left shouted an echo, which is how I met Scicurious. She…I’m not sure how to describe her, except to say that trying to keep up with her would probably tire Bora out and she’s positively fabulous.

Somewhere in the middle of passing pizza around and getting drinks, ScienceWoman joined the party. When the subject of where we were from came up, she said, “You look like you’re from Minnesota.” I had no real good idea what that meant until she said, “I’m from [town in the region big enough for me to have heard of it],” and I thought, Yeah, okay. She looks like she’s from the upper Midwest too.

More shuffling of seats ensued as more people headed toward the wine tasting and others got back from other errands. PalMD came in after a failed nap attempt and admitted that no, he doesn’t sleep. Life is just too interesting. We talked for a little bit about high-maintenance people managing to attract each other and quitting the internet as a form of blood pressure medication.

Zuska and I chatted for a little bit after the wine tasters all left. We compared notes on getting used to the idea that other people were interested in the things we wanted to blog about and on finding readers in completely unexpected places. Talking about lurkers brought us to the concept of the paralysis of good intentions (although I didn’t use the term until talking to Greg about a tangentially related topic later that night). I suspect some of it was a bit of dry run for her thoughts on the subject of allies.

Then we lost more people to the WISE event, and I got to listen in on a cool conversation between Greg and Greta Munger on the evolution of cognition. I can’t do it justice, so I won’t try to reproduce any of it here.

We did attend one organized event on Friday, since Dave recruited us to fill out their reservation for dinner at Serena. The place came highly recommended and didn’t disappoint, although they were out of a few items. The conversation was even better. I kept bouncing back and forth between a conversation with Josh Rosenau and Salman Hameed and talking to Tom Levenson. The part I remember most clearly was discussing Bora’s shock value post with Tom. We both felt it was two posts in one and each agreed with him fairly strongly on one point and disagreed with him slightly on the other–Tom and I each championing a different point–but I think we agreed with each other almost entirely. I haven’t figured out the math on that one.

I had just ordered a second tall beer at the hotel when Dave insisted we come along. I’d finished it quickly and found a microbrew on the menu at Serena that I’d never seen at home, so I was not entirely sober by the end of dinner. I was back at the hotel at the bar, winding down and sobering up while talking to Greg when the squid and the lobster entered. Shortly thereafter, the sea shanties started.

That seemed a little weird, which told me I was tired. I’ve seen much, much stranger things. So I said good night and headed to bed. I had a nine a.m. session to run, so it seemed like the wis
e thing to do.

After all, the conference hadn’t even started yet.

ScienceOnline’09–The Pre-Show