Category Archives: Uncategorized

Playing Video Games with My Kid

Modern parents have a fraught relationship with video games. The popular view, at least among many parents I’ve talked to, is that these games are harmful and that we’re supposed to feel guilty about letting our children play them. High-profile violent titles like the Grand Theft Auto series feed this perception, even though those games are clearly identified as being for adults only.

Not everyone subscribes to the “video games are a barely tolerable evil” view, though. A lot of us grew up gaming and somehow managed to turn out okay, so we think there’s probably no harm in letting our kids do the same. As someone who was getting chased by grues and swinging across quicksand while still in middle school, I certainly fall into that camp. The scientific evidence also seems to lean that way. Various studies have found that at worst, video games are no worse than TV, and at best they may even boost intelligence.

Nonetheless, I took a multi-decade break from video games after high school, and was only vaguely aware of what was happening with console and computer entertainment during most of the industry’s development.

My daughter dragged me back into it, initially through repeated requests for game-related gifts. She wanted a Nintendo DS. Or a Wii. Or a PlayStation. Or an iPod or iPad. Or pretty much any device (besides the computer) that could be used to play video games. When it finally became clear that “all of my friends have them” was not, in fact, an exaggeration, we decided to give in just a little bit. Last Christmas, we loaded my wife’s old iPod Touch with a few games, repackaged it, and gave it to Sophie. Looking around at iPod games beforehand, I saw a gaming platform I could easily understand. Indeed, one of the top games on iOS is strikingly similar to a classic I played decades ago.

Then came Skylanders. This massively successful game-plus-figurine-collecting system became all the rage for the elementary-age set last year, and we quickly got drawn into it. Yes, I did mean to use the collective pronoun there – Sophie and I both love it. Unlike the iOS games, Skylanders is a proper modern game – more of an interactive movie than a test of reflexes. A Nintendo Wii U soon appeared in our living room, the first dedicated game console I’d used since the Atari 2600 era.

One of the great features of Skylanders is a two-player cooperative mode, so my daughter and I could battle enemies and solve puzzles in the story together. It reminded me of evenings long ago spent with my own parents, sitting around the glowing green monitor of our Apple ][ and working our way through the Scott Adams adventures. The graphics, design, and hardware have changed radically, but interactive fiction is still interactive fiction.

Sophie and I have since continued our shared gaming in the astonishingly beautiful world of Pikmin 3. This was marketed as a kids’ game, and while its action is certainly G-rated, the dark underlying themes and somewhat complex strategy and mechanics make it quite challenging. The characters are adorable, the zoomed-in scale makes everything initialy seem less threatening, and the scenery is stunningly rendered in high-definition. But underneath this thin veneer of adorability lies a story of starvation, conquest, ecological exploitation, and duplicity.

This led to some interesting parenting moments. As a real-time strategy game, Pikmin 3 calls for a combination of long-term planning and quick decision-making. It also demands some emotional fortitude. Once you’ve grown your army of tiny Pikmin, you start throwing them on much larger enemies that sometimes eat them. Whenever a Pikmin dies, it lets out a plaintive little moan and sends up a tiny ghost. Once you’ve defeated an enemy creature, it doesn’t just politely vanish like the enemies in Skylanders. Instead, your Pikmin gather around and haul its lifeless corpse back to their ship, which devours it to make more Pikmin. This is “nature, red in tooth and claw,” and it caused some real tears around here.

While anti-gaming prudes often complain about desensitizing kids to violence, this game actually seems to have the opposite effect. And someone could probably write – heck, someone probably is writing – a cultural studies thesis on the layers of meaning in the final boss fight.

So yes, I let my kid play video games, and I play them with her. If you’re not doing the same with yours, perhaps you should give it a try.

Wanna Wesort?

Now that I’ve become the world’s clearinghouse for information on Wesort sailboats (see earlier posts for background), it seems I might need to set up a classified ad section on the site. At least, I will if I get many more notes like this one from Kathy D.:

I have an old Wesort that I may give away. We have rebuilt it twice. It needs some work. I have the tiller, and drop down dagger board, the mast and all the sails are in great shape. The boat needs to be redone again. I don’t know what to do with it. I just bought a 1980 seidelmen 30T sailboat. I live in Virginia Beach Va. Do you know of anyone that might want it?

If anyone is interested in this free fixer-upper, you can drop a line through the “Contact” link above and I’ll forward your information to Kathy.

Two Rare QSLs in One Mailbox

I just received ham radio QSL cards (postcards providing written confirmation of a radio contact) from two rare entities. This is part of a sub-hobby of ham radio called DXing, in which one tries to establish and confirm two-way contact with as many different parts of the world as possible. It’s like stamp collecting combined with social networking, in the nerdiest imaginable way. There’s no money in it, but one can win all sorts of nifty certificates and trophies to display, and of course bragging rights. I’m up to 118 countries, which puts me at about the intermediate level of DXing.

Most DXing conversations, if you can call them that, consist of exchanging just the bare minimum of information for the contact to count: the callsigns of the two stations, plus one additional piece of information, usually a number indicating the quality of the signal each operator is receiving. It doesn’t count for award purposes until you confirm it in writing, though, and that’s where QSL cards come in. These little postcards make hams some of the last good customers of the world’s postal services.

The two cards I just got are from Clipperton Island and Ecuador.

QSLs for TX5K and HC2/RC5A.

QSLs for TX5K and HC2/RC5A.

No, Clipperton Island isn’t technically a country, but for DXing purposes it counts as one. It’s far enough away from its official government (France) that contacting Clipperton is a different technical challenge from contacting the parent country. What makes Clipperton a rare radio contact is that nobody lives there. It’s a little speck of sand in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The only way to contact it is to wait until someone with the appropriate gear and licenses visits, in this case a group of hams who went there for precisely that purpose. They spent thousands of dollars to fly to the nearest airport, charter a boat and crew, and land all of their camping and radio gear on the island, all so they could spend a couple of weeks holed up in sweltering tents contacting other hobbyists around the world. Of course they also had to jump through an epic series of bureaucratic hoops just to be allowed to go there. This delightfully eccentric type of adventure travel is actually quite common – it’s called a DXpedition. I contacted Clipperton on two different frequency bands (17 meters and 15 meters, if you’re curious).

Ecuador is a regular country of course, and isn’t at all hard to reach by radio from here. I’ve contacted Ecuadorian hams several times. What makes HC2/RC5A’s card unusual is the mode and the operator. Elena is a Russian woman who was visiting Ecuador, and she was using Morse code on the air. Women are a rarity in ham radio, and since knowing Morse code hasn’t been a licensing requirement in any country for several years, only a small percentage of hams remain proficient in it. The overlap of those two groups is almost nonexistent. Nonetheless, Elena’s code was excellent and I worked her twice, on two different frequency bands (30 meters and 15 meters). Now I also have the card to prove it.

What’s in a (Domain) Name?

Just over three years ago, I deleted my Facebook account and promised my friends (and “friends”) that I’d keep posting the same sorts of updates here, on the flagship vanity domain for my name. Meanwhile, I would put my work-related postings on a separate blog on my old dovdox.com domain, for people who only wanted to read my science blogging.

I failed.

The problem was my old domain name, dovdox.com. I’d originally bought it as a site for both me (Alan Dove, Ph.D.) and my wife (Laura Dove, M.D.). The Dove Docs. Get it? It was a great domain for that imagined purpose, but it turned out that Laura didn’t really have a use for her own site, and besides testing the occasional bit of server software my only real use for it was blogging. Dovdox makes a lot less sense as a science blog title. I eventually redirected incoming dovdox.com traffic here, and this became my only blog.

That didn’t really work either. People who want to read my science writing are interested in science, not what I get up to in my spare time. Friends and family members want more pictures of my kid. I need two separate sites, each designed from the domain up for a specific audience.

So here’s the new arrangement. This site is now my personal page. It’s about me, my rambling thoughts, my family, my friends, and the things we do – at least the parts I feel like publishing. A feed from my new science blog will also provide links to whatever I post there, so this site will have the whole stream of my online output. It’s my version of a Facebook wall. Incidentally, if everyone had a personal blog, we could all just subscribe to each others’ RSS feeds and watch Facebook die. Think about it.

My new science blog is The Turbid Plaque. It’ll be about science, science journalism, and science policy. If you’re here for the science – or you’re just curious about how I arrived at that title – pop on over there.

A Few Small Changes

Both regular visitors to this site may have noticed a couple of minor changes recently. In the menu bar at the top, there’s a new “Feed Reader” option. Hover over it and you’ll get a drop-down menu of different RSS feeds. Click any one of them to read a bunch of news under that topic, or click the main Feed Reader heading to get a selection of news from all of the sites I’ve connected to it.

I added this feature mainly for myself, after my preferred in-browser RSS reader (Brief) quit working just a week after Google Reader closed up shop. Many Reader refugees have fled to other “free” services, but I’m not convinced those companies will stay afloat, so I’m using my own self-hosted site as a feed reader now. The WordPress plugin RSS Multi-Importer makes this possible. I’ll probably be tweaking it a bit, but so far it seems like a workable solution. A minor side benefit is that it allows anyone visiting my site to read the same news feeds I’m reading.

I’ve also resumed posting links to each TWiV episode I’m on.

There are a few bigger changes in the works too, so if you were annoyed by the lengthening gaps between blog posts, you may be pleasantly surprised. Conversely, if you liked hearing less from me you may be disappointed.

On “Leaving Science”

I follow news about the science job market pretty closely, but perhaps the most reliable indicator I have of it isn’t in my RSS folder or Twitter feed. It’s my inbox. When graduate students and postdocs start to think their future is especially bleak, I start getting more notes from them asking about my choice of an “alternative” career. Many scientists have the naive impression that anyone with a PhD and a laptop can just take up science writing and make a decent living freelancing. I hope my previous two posts have disabused them of that notion.

Now I’d like to back up a bit and address a broader theme that comes up in these discussions: what’s it like to “leave science”? No matter how the question is phrased, the implicit assumption is that a career in basic research is the only valid purpose for earning a PhD in science. Choosing anything else carries a whiff of failure.

It’s not hard to see where this attitude comes from. In any worthwhile PhD program, students and postdocs are surrounded by principal investigators (PIs) who’ve made basic research their life’s work. Of course these people consider science the primary point of the training they provide their underlings – if they thought otherwise, they wouldn’t be where they are. Society has granted the PIs the extraordinary privilege of pursuing their own curiosity for a living. How could anyone want to do anything else?

What most PIs don’t see is that this privilege has costs, and those costs have skyrocketed in recent years. Jordan Weissmann recently provided an excellent and graphic summary of the situation, based on data from the National Science Foundation. According to those data, a biological science PhD graduating in 1973 had a better than 50% chance of becoming a tenure-track faculty member within five to six years. Those are today’s department chairs and deans. They grew up with that reality, and they have a hard time imagining that things have changed much. But things have changed, and radically; a PhD graduating today has less than a 15% chance of becoming a tenure-track faculty member over that time period, and that percentage is still declining. Basic research is now the “alternative” career. Most PhDs will do something else.

This isn’t a recent trend, and it’s not going to go away even if the idiots in Washington manage to fix the current budget clusterfuck. When I was nearing the end of my doctoral work at Columbia in the mid-1990s, the job market was already pretty tough. Many of my colleagues were brilliant and incredibly dedicated scientists, and some of these hard-core folks were heading for second postdocs, having spent more than a decade in “training” positions already. For those who couldn’t imagine themselves doing anything else, the prospect of becoming a PI was worth nearly any sacrifice. Like aspiring actors or artists, they were perfectly willing to forgo both free time and decent pay indefinitely, and dedicate their lives to pursuing their dream.

That wasn’t me.

I loved science and thoroughly enjoyed doing it. Had I graduated in 1973 I most likely would’ve pursued it as a career, but in a labor market that apparently had many more scientists than it needed, I could easily imagine doing something else. I rejected the outdated notion that a non-PI career track would constitute failure. The PhD was supposed to expand my options, not restrict them.

With longstanding interests in public policy and communication, I started looking around for jobs that would combine my scientific training with one of those fields. It didn’t take long to settle on science journalism. When I switched careers, though, I did not “leave science.”

I can’t leave science. It’s part of who I am. A scientist doesn’t punch the clock in the morning, think scientifically all day, then punch out and suddenly think some other way. It’s the same for writers; I didn’t suddenly become one the day I got my first byline. Writing, like science, is a way of thinking, and for most of us in this business it’s part of the way we’ve always thought. I’m a chimera, a scientist-writer currently employed as a science writer.

Of course one doesn’t need a doctoral degree to write science news, but I don’t think my half-decade in graduate school was wasted. Indeed, that training has helped me spot angles, carve out niches, and write stories that I doubt a nonscientist writer could’ve found. I frequently conduct 15-minute interviews that would take an English major an hour to get through, because the source and I share a common, high-throughput language. Even on stories I haven’t covered before, I can often cut a direct path to the background and sources I need to get up to speed. That’s not to say I’m better than non-PhD journalists, just on a different beat. I get jobs they probably couldn’t do and wouldn’t want, and vice-versa. There’s room for all of us.

If there ever stops being room for me, though, I won’t hesitate to change careers again. Doing research at the bench suited me when I was in graduate school, and reporting and writing stories as a freelancer suits me now. As I discussed in the previous post, business hasn’t been stellar lately, but that hasn’t been a major problem. If it becomes one I’ll move on. I won’t, however, stop being a scientist. Or a writer.

How to Make $75,000/Year Writing (And Hate It)

I’ve gotten some good feedback on the previous post, in which I disclosed my science writing income from the past decade and a half and explained where those numbers come from. Now it’s time to delve a little more deeply into it. Here’s the graph again , this time prettified with a line over the bars:

Profit from science writing, 1998-2012.

Profit from science writing, 1998-2012.

The first thing a business-minded person will notice is that all of the numbers are positive. Unlike most ventures, my sole proprietorship has run in the black every year of its existence. That’s less a credit to my financial acumen than it is to the low entry barriers in this field; anyone with a computer and a phone can hang out a shingle as a science writer, and the checks from just a few articles will cover the office costs.

The second thing everyone will notice is the year 2005. Yes, I made about $75,000 from science writing that year. It was the last year my income exceeded my wife’s. That brings me to an important digression.

Laura and I started dating in 1995 and married in 2000, a few days after she’d graduated from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Contrary to popular belief, doctors do not step straight out of medical school and onto the gravy train. In fact, these days many of them never encounter anything remotely resembling a gravy train. We moved to Philadelphia that summer for her to start residency, which is to medicine what postdoctoral training is to science: an extended period of overwork and underpay, as part of a population of indentured servants without whom the rest of the enterprise could not function. We both made about the same amount for the next several years, but she worked much harder and had vastly more responsibility than I. My income stayed relatively consistent in those years, because I had a good assortment of regular clients providing regular work. Some years were a bit better, some a bit worse, but the average was adequate.

In 2003 Laura changed residency programs, so we moved back to New York. Two years later we started the lengthy, intrusive, and costly process of an international adoption. We were also paying off Laura’s student loans and of course living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Our debts started piling up. Her income wasn’t negotiable, but it seemed that mine might be. I turned my job into a game, and decided to see how much I could make as a freelancer if I focused on nothing but money. The answer was $75,000.

In 2005, I was raking in more than I’d ever made before. And I was miserable. I pitched stories to any editor who would return my emails. I accepted assignments on any topic, no matter how dull or annoying I found it. I didn’t do anything outright unethical, but I came close. I spent most of my days hammering out text I didn’t care about. Even the fun, interesting stories for my regular clients started to annoy me. I became that guy – the one who hates his job but loves his paycheck. In the evenings, I drank.

After a year at that pace, I started to question my worth as a writer and even as a person. I had gone into this field because I thought the world needed better explanations of science. How does writing another stringer about intellectual property legislation for a throwaway trade rag feed that goal?

Midway through 2006, I was burned out. Fortunately, I also had an ideal excuse for turning away the editors who were now calling me every week: our adoption finally came through. In November Laura and I flew to China and brought home an amazing little girl. As children do, she dismantled our lives completely and reassembled them into something entirely different, and in most ways superior to anything that had come before. Those throwaway stringers may not have helped anyone understand science any better, but by making this possible they were worth every second I had spent on them.

The next couple of years were just about ideal. I still did a few of the crap jobs out of a sense of loyalty to the clients who’d been sending me that work, but by then Laura had finally finished her residency and fellowship and taken a position as an attending physician here in western Massachusetts. I didn’t have to do unpleasant gigs just to make ends meet anymore. My income shrank, but so did my liquor bill.

2008 brought the Great Recession and the simultaneous (though largely unrelated) death throes of much of the print media industry. Newspapers had been hemorrhaging money and staff for a few years already, but now the ax started to fall at magazines, even some of the niche publications I worked for. Meanwhile, nonprofits saw donations plummet, which put one of my biggest clients on the brink of bankruptcy. Freelance budgets are very easy to cut.

Those problems hurt my bottom line, but not my lifestyle. The cost of living here on the unfashionable side of Massachusetts is low, and with a wife who’s now well-employed and a daughter needing frequent attention, I’ve felt little urgency to return to the salt mine. These days, I focus on jobs that genuinely interest me. That leaves me enough free time to provide all of the services of a stay-home spouse, while still bringing home some of the bacon.

As I hope this story illustrates, “making a living as a freelance science writer” has as many definitions as there are freelancers. A handful of writers will hit the jackpot, perhaps in the lottery system we call book publishing, but most of us will bump along from article to article, making very modest profits while suffering the slings and arrows of an outrageous business model. With a lot of effort – and too much Scotch – you might be able to beat the average in this game. I don’t recommend trying.

15 Years of Income as a Freelance Science Journalist

I’ve been pondering – no – obsessing over this post for longer than I’d care to admit. On the one hand, I think it would be very useful for people considering a career in science journalism to get a direct view of the field’s financial realities. Income is the elephant in the room whenever I talk to aspiring writers. Of course anyone can simply Google “average income science writer,” and find a set of figures, but are those numbers really correct? Do they apply to freelancers as well as staff writers? How much does it vary from year to year? Has the death of newspapers and decline of magazines changed it? The simplest way to answer all of those questions and more would be to open my own books. I’m a sample of one, but I can provide very detailed data for that one, and I consider myself pretty average in most respects.

On the other hand, I’m an American man. My culture has programmed me since birth to believe that my net worth is the primary, if not the only, determinant of my value as a human being. That message was filtered through the upbringing of a Southern gentleman, through which I also learned that it is impolite to discuss one’s income, or for that matter anything to do with money, in public. If you’re rich you’ll make people feel uncomfortable, and if you’re poor it’ll sound like you’re begging. Where I come from a man disclosing his income is in the same position as a woman posing nude; it’s only appropriate in very private settings. Yes, of course I know that’s all wrong. Valuing men for their money and women for their bodies are constructs of an oppressive patriarchy, and as an enlightened 21st century feminist moderate Democrat I should reject that paradigm … yadda yadda yadda.

But it still gives me the creeps, okay?

As a result, I usually answer questions about my income with vague comparisons or outright evasions: “Last year I made about as much as a public school teacher,” or “You can make a living at it, but don’t go into it for the money.”

Lately, though, I’ve decided that disclosing this information would probably benefit others more than it would harm me. So here are the data.

Inflation-adjusted profit from freelance science writing, 1998-2012.

Inflation-adjusted profit from freelance science writing, 1998-2012.

You’ll notice that I labeled the graph “adjusted profit,” not “income.” That’s because I run a business, and the appropriate way to think about business income is in terms of profit and loss. The “adjusted” part is adjusting for inflation. These figures are in 2013 dollars. I used the handy online calculator from the Bureau of Labor Statistics because I’m in the US, but analogous tools are available for other currencies.

Side note to all journalists: always adjust for inflation when comparing money figures over time. Otherwise you may crank out idiotic stories saying “Prices for X are at all time highs!” when in fact the price of everything is almost always at an all-time high.

Even after adjusting for inflation, the profit figures aren’t exactly comparable to income you might get from a regular paycheck. Every expense that’s directly related to my work is a business cost. If you’re on a salary and you buy a new home computer, your income doesn’t change. When I buy a new computer, it’s a business expense that reduces my total profit for the year by that amount. My Internet bill, a portion of my mortgage and home expenses (because my office is in my house), and other items also count against profit. That said, profit from my sole proprietorship is the closest analogue to income in the regular paycheck-based world.

I also rounded the figures to the nearest $10 to make it impossible to back-calculate my exact income to the dollar from this graph. If you’re planning to post similar data I suggest you do the same, as one’s income for prior years sometimes pops up as a “security question” for tax and banking purposes.

Having established where the numbers come from, what do they mean? What the hell happened in 2005, for example, and what about 2010? How does one adapt to an income that can swing up and down so wildly? What about health insurance and retirement savings? I’ll delve into those questions in a later post. Right now, I need to go put on some more clothes.

The DSM-5: What’s Your Alternative?

Last week, Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) made an announcement that set science bloggers and medicine-watchers atwitter:

In a few weeks, the American Psychiatric Association will release its new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This volume will tweak several current diagnostic categories, from autism spectrum disorders to mood disorders. While many of these changes have been contentious, the final product involves mostly modest alterations of the previous edition, based on new insights emerging from research since 1990 when DSM-IV was published. Sometimes this research recommended new categories (e.g., mood dysregulation disorder) or that previous categories could be dropped (e.g., Asperger’s syndrome).

The goal of this new manual, as with all previous editions, is to provide a common language for describing psychopathology. While DSM has been described as a “Bible” for the field, it is, at best, a dictionary, creating a set of labels and defining each. The strength of each of the editions of DSM has been “reliability” – each edition has ensured that clinicians use the same terms in the same ways. The weakness is its lack of validity. Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure. In the rest of medicine, this would be equivalent to creating diagnostic systems based on the nature of chest pain or the quality of fever. Indeed, symptom-based diagnosis, once common in other areas of medicine, has been largely replaced in the past half century as we have understood that symptoms alone rarely indicate the best choice of treatment.

As a result of the DSM’s shortcomings, Insel says that NIMH will be abandoning this classic manual of psychiatry, in favor of something he calls “Research Domain Criteria.” Under this plan, future psychiatric research will focus on characterizing and treating diseases on the basis of their underlying biology, rather than the DSM’s symptomology.

This drew loud cheers from longtime critics of psychiatry, who are legion. Here at last was a high-profile statement affirming their belief that the field’s “Bible” – and by inference the entire field – is bogus. Many news articles picked up the same angle, but that view vastly overstates what’s actually going on here. In fact, what we’re seeing is just the normal progression of medical science, in a way that should surprise exactly nobody.

Almost every field of medicine has had transitions like this. Two hundred years ago, the germ theory of infectious disease was widely considered absurd. Now we know it is fact, and infectious disease is the most definitive of medical specialties. That doesn’t mean the old knowledge was entirely useless, though; Edward Jenner developed a highly effective vaccine against smallpox without ever understanding its underlying mechanisms.

The DSM catalogues mental disorders the way an early 19th century doctor would’ve catalogued rashes. It’s probably right, and in some cases very right, about a few of them. It’s probably wrong about many more. Psychiatrists I’ve met (and the one I married) generally regard the DSM categories as a necessary evil, not a definitive reference. The “Bible” moniker is a straw man. Nobody likes the DSM, but it serves a purpose and has no obvious alternatives.

And that’s the rub. The NIMH’s brief is research, so they can reject or adopt whatever categories they like for their studies. Nobody shows up there for routine treatment of schizophrenia, or major depression, or bipolar disorder. NIMH should be using the latest neuroscience. The latest neuroscience, though, can’t tell us much about the vast majority of mental disorders, and some of the things it can tell us may turn out to be wrong. We might someday have a blood test for depression, or we might not. We can say with certainty that we don’t have one right now.

Insel’s alternative framework is nowhere near ready for prime time. Until it is, what should we do about the guy who’s running out into traffic to tell people he’s the Messiah, or the woman who is in perfect physical health, but catatonic, or the elementary-age child who can only communicate in screams?

It’s telling that some of the people calling for the death of the DSM-5 are remarkably reticent when it comes to offering alternatives. Perhaps that’s because the more you ponder the problem the trickier it gets. Tell patients with no medical training that the field’s diagnoses are largely theoretical and expect them to appreciate the nuances? Let all of the world’s con-men sell them snake oil? Tell them to come back in a few decades? Or use a deeply flawed framework that at least has a chance of being partly correct?