On science blogs: Aggregating and thinking since 2009

HOW TO WRITE A SCIENCE BLOG POST IN AN HOUR. Catching up with Colin Schultz describing how his journalistic blog posts for Smithsonian usually take him no more than an hour. Not as outrageous as it first appears, and in fact most other competent science writers could do it too — provided they adopt his rules.

  1. The posts he's talking about are short, two or three grafs.
  2. He Googles for background, historical context, and ideas for approaches.
  3. And here's, for me, the key to writing short: He doesn't do interviews.

With those limits, it's a workable strategy for super-efficient posting and even efficient news writing — so long as you're producing copy just for your own blog, or for an editor who has no objection to single-source stories. These less demanding bosses may be thicker on the ground than they used to be, given what the web has done to reshape traditional ideas about how to do good journalism.

It's the interviews that are time sucks. Even for a short news story you must find sources, minimum two or three. You must get in touch and wait for a reply. A phone interview often takes me at least half an hour, usually more, in part because permitting the source to meander is what leads to the great quote, the idea that you hadn't considered, the new angle, the nuggets of future stories. And then there's the agony of transcribing a recorded interview, about which the less said the better — except that putting yourself through this misery can also lead to the great quote, the idea that you hadn't considered, the new angle, the nuggets of future stories. Email "interviews" are big time-savers, but usually lose the virtues of serendipity and the chance for follow-up questions.

Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn considers Schultz's approach, pointing out that it dispenses with a crucial feature of much science writing, which is thinking time. Absolutely. What's more, for me this preliminary thinking should be spread out, ideally over days. Another time suck. But it, too, generates the idea that you hadn't considered, the new angle, the nuggets of future stories.

Paul goes on to consider NovaNext, the newish online science news site. NovaNext does some longer bylined original pieces, but mixes them with shorter items drawn from elsewhere on the Web. Originally, Paul says, he didn't like the site's approach of aggregation and curation of material appearing elsewhere. But he has become a convert thanks to comments from NovaNext's editor, Tim de Chant. For entirely self-promoting reasons I am quoting from de Chant's remarks:

Rather than rewriting what other people have written—providing no incentive to click through to the original piece — we're pulling out interesting bits from the originals, placing them in block quotes, and adding commentary, additional links, or video where appropriate.

Ahem. No video here because of technical limitations. But otherwise, for nearly 4 years, this is exactly what I've been doing in hundreds of posts here at On Science Blogs.

ON SCIENCE BLOGS: Aggregating and curating and thinking since 2009.

THE SORRY STATE OF U.S. HEALTH. You will not be surprised to learn that health in the U.S. is not good. Life expectancy has increased by three years in the last two decades, but that's in large part because our collective ailments now tend to be not so much life-threatening as they are inconvenient, disabling, and painful. This from a new JAMA report described very briefly at Journal Watch. Find free links to the report there. See Kaiser Health News for links to a few news stories about the report.

Incidental Economist Aaron Carroll isn't surprised either. But he's angry, in part because the U.S. has its health priorities all wrong. There's society-wide panic about breast and prostate cancer, he points out, although both are way down on the list of what ails us. Meanwhile there's much less attention to the top causes of death: Heart disease and strokes, lung disorders, suicide and traffic accidents.

Best in the world, my ass. Some of you will feel the urge to blame this on the racial or ethnic makeup of the U.S. I encourage you to look at the variety of causes of years of life lost. They don’t favor just one group. They’re all over the place. And we do pretty badly in most of them.

ALMOST-PERFECT WEAPON, IMPERFECT MURDERS. It's a near-perfect poisonous murder weapon: tasteless, odorless, tailor-made to mix into a drink bestowed on the unsuspecting victim. What it is not, however, is the fabled undetectable poison beloved of Olde Tyme mystery fans. Thallium is easy to detect in the body once there's a reason to look for it.

Deborah Blum relays another of her gruesomely engrossing chemical tales — along with brief histories of a string of thallium murders — at her Wired blog Elemental. Since the government restricted its uses in the 1970s, thallium is today to be found mostly in chemistry labs. Which is why, in the most recent thallium murder case two years ago, detectives quickly zeroed in on the victim's estranged wife. A chemist.


TRANSCRANIAL BRAIN STIMULATION FOR EVERYBODY. Steven Novella has an alarmed and alarming post at Science-Based Medicine about Foc.us, a device for providing transcranial direct current stimulation to the brain.

For gamers. ("Overclock your brain!" "Make your synapses fire faster. Faster Processor, Faster Graphics, Faster Brain!")

With Bluetooth. For iOS. Android on the way.

$249. Plus shipping.


The FDA, which has jurisdiction over medical devices, has declined to oversee this one. That's because, Novella says, the agency has decreed that Foc.us isn't a medical device; it's being marketed as a performance enhancer.

Novella notes:

tDCS is an interesting and potentially very useful treatment designed to alter brain activity, with potential applications to depression, motor function, cognitive function, and pain. Its application is complex, however, and researchers are still working out the effects of numerous parameters … In my opinion, tDCS is not ready for the over-the-counter market, nor the DIY community … While generally safe (although more safety data is needed), we still do not have enough information about the net effects of using this technology in various conditions for a long period of time.

Nature has a recent editorial viewing the potential development of DIY brain stimulation, appropriately, with alarm. The piece is not open source, of course, but at MindBlog, Deric Bownds quotes generously.

Foc.us has also been touted on geek blogs, which seem, oddly, to accept without question the unsubstantiated claim that the device improves gaming performance. No skepticism, no safety concerns, no demand for data. In fact, at Ubergizmo, Edwin Kee seems worried only that Foc.us would put non-users at a competitive disadvantage. So we can look forward to a time when Foc.us is the, uh, focus of a novel performance-enhancer scandal analogous to drug use in sports.

At Engadget, Nicole Lee is slightly less credulous than Kee; she also got to try out the device briefly and reports on her 8-minute experience, which included burning and tingling sensations.

We didn't really feel our powers of concentration improve that much afterward, but it's hard to say after such a limited time.