The problem with Popular Science

At least he didn't use a red and white color scheme. That's even worse than academic dishonesty.

At least he didn’t use a red and white color scheme. That’s even worse than academic dishonesty.

Malcolm Gladwell, popular author of collections of counter-intuitive factoids, recently published a new book, and it’s catching a lot of flack. As the AV Club puts it:

Malcolm Gladwell has made a mint taking true-life stories and statistics, then wrapping them up together into an easily digestible whole. Like the writers of Freakonomics, he trades in counter-intuitive arguments, showing how conventional wisdom is, more often than not, wrong. It’s a good hook, and he’s been successful with it over and over again. But every hook can become overused, and Gladwell’s latest, David And Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, And The Art Of Battling Giants, fails to recognize that rather obvious lesson.

Wall Street Journal reviewer Christopher Chabris has even harsher words:

To make his point about the general benefits of difficulty, Mr. Gladwell refers to a 2007 experiment in which people were given three mathematical reasoning problems to solve. One group was randomly assigned to read the problems in a clear typeface like the one you are reading now; the other had to read them in a more difficult light-gray italic print. The latter group scored 29% higher, suggesting that making things harder improves cognitive performance. It’s an impressive result on the surface, but less so if you dig a bit deeper.

First, the study involved just 40 people, or 20 per typeface—a fact Mr. Gladwell fails to mention. That’s a very small sample on which to hang a big argument. Second, they were all Princeton University students, an elite group of problem-solvers. Such matters wouldn’t matter if the experiment had been repeated with larger samples that are more representative of the general public and had yielded the same results. But Mr. Gladwell doesn’t tell readers that when other researchers tried just that, testing nearly 300 people at a Canadian public university, they could not replicate the original effect. Perhaps he didn’t know about this, but anyone who has followed recent developments in social science should know that small studies with startling effects must be viewed skeptically until their results are verified on a broader scale. They might hold up, but there is a good chance they will turn out to be spurious.

This flaw permeates Mr. Gladwell’s writings: He excels at telling just-so stories and cherry-picking science to back them.

Gladwell is probably figuring out the same thing Jonah Lehrer did: it’s tough to come up with entertaining articles, and counter-intuitive facts can quickly run out. There isn’t a good solution.

Popular science articles need plenty of elements to truly become popular — catchy titles; punchy analogies; a fast pace; evocative descriptors; a high concept topic; a fetish-level focus on facts or otherwise seemingly quantifiable accomplishments; and, most importantly, the subversive topic, which must confront the audience with a conclusion that seems to contradict commonly-accepted sense but it shown, through fact and analogy, not to.

Not that that isn't a good name, too.

They’re called test tubes, not crazy theory tubes.

The act of subversion is subversive. No, that’s not a tautological statement; rather, it should be obvious. If expectations are around to be subverted, than there must be a reason behind their existence. This reason, as decreed by Occam’s Razor, is typically because the expectation is a decent reflection of reality. As a result, academic articles live an arcadian existence, eking out the occasional 2000 words of fodder from among the cracks between reality and an audience’s expectations of reality. The struggle for an innovative topic, understandably, drives authors to ever more tenuous tricks.

One of the questionable methods of capitalizing on a breakthrough is to jump on one before it’s been properly confirmed. Academia skillfully sidesteps this problem, allowing less refined news services to spew click-bait about the latest particle to exceed the speed of light. Still, articles try to have their cake and consume it too, reporting on speculation while reminding the audience that speculation is all it is. Scientific studies are a grey area sensational enough to be acceptable: the implications of a study proving ______ is proportional to _____ are free to run wild as long as the requisite chestnut that “correlation isn’t causation” gets tossed in there somewhere. Accuracy might not be upheld with both hands, but darned if the topic isn’t entertaining.

Personally, I’ve found a different solution to the problem: I write fiction.

The Rhetorical Emmett

As one of my final exercises for my Advanced Composition college course, I need to type out examples of various rhetorical devices. True to form, I didn’t budget much time to do this one, but I ended up happy with the results. I picked a theme to make the job easier: Emmett, the character in a series of short stories I’ve written and am publishing as a series of dramatized podcasts in December. For now, you can have a snapshot of Emmett’s personality, in the form of a series of rhetorical examples. Enjoy.

It's a rough sketch, done by my DeviantArt pal Nimphaiwe.

It’s a rough sketch, done by my DeviantArt pal Nimphaiwe.

Parallelism: Emmett was unconventional. His geometry was non-Euclidian, his liquids non-Newtonian, and his attitude about the whole thing disturbingly nonchalant.

Antithesis: Emmett was scientifically smart but social stupid.

Anastrophe: Finesse. Finesse was what Emmett lacked.

Parenthesis: Emmett jogged – his memory, as well as his body – but could never bring himself to work out with weights.

Apposition: Emmett Barclay, the college’s resident mad scientist, surveyed his domain.

Ellipsis: His geometry was non-Euclidian, his liquids non-Newtonian.

Asyndeton: Emmett keeps long hours in the science lab, he creates the eighth wonder of the world, he uses me as a guinea pig, something goes wrong, it all works out fine. That was the way of the world.

Alliteration: The momentous Coke-and-Mentos explosion of ’09 had many morbid moments.

Assonance: Emmett’s Ill-gotten gall and additional attributes couldn’t stop lime liniment.

Anaphora: Never let Emmett invent things. Never let Emmett control small children. And never let Emmett invent a giant catapult specifically for small children.

Epistrophe: I was hard-hearted. He was soft-hearted. Together, we were half-hearted.

Epanalepsis: Relationships only work out with smart girls, and if you were smart, you’d know we wouldn’t work out.

Anadiplosis: Invention led to triumph, triumph led to quirky mishaps, mishaps led to failure, failure led to the status quo, and the status quo, for Emmett, was invention.

Climax: Emmett ignored state, federal, and scientific laws whenever possible.

Antimetabole: For someone with a mind that makes up everything, you can’t seem to make up your mind.

Chiasmus: I enjoyed Emmett; Emmett was hated by many.

Polyptoton: Innovating inventions innovates everything.

Metaphor: Emmett was a bulldog. He latched on to every idea that came his way, hanging on until he’d reduced it to a conclusion.

Simile: Emmett’s hair was like crab-grass. Especially after he accidentally dyed it green during a chemical experiment.

Metonymy: We all offered services: I lent a hand and Emmett lent a potato cannon.

Puns: The only table manners Emmett honored were the periodical ones.

Paronomasia: Emmett gave a peony to his pony peon.

Syllepsis: Emmett pulled a muscle trying to pull my foot.

Anathimera: Emmett Googled the solution.

Periphrasis: He was no Stephan Hawking, but he knew his way around a psychosomatic schematic.

Personification: The tumor glared balefully at me.

Hyperbole: Chemical explosions imprinted on Emmett, and constantly followed him around.

Litotes: I wasn’t very pleased when my left hand tried to kill me.

Irony: Irony is sooo very different from sarcasm.

Onomatopeia: Emmett squeaked, scrabbling for the sky scraper model’s remote.

Oxymoron: Emmett owned one dull sharpie.

Paradox: Only those willing to sound stupid can become smart.

Daily Notes

morguefile.com

via morguefile

I keep a Google Doc of notes. It’s bookmarked, and easy to open in a few seconds. As I’m browsing the internet and reading, mulling over, and considering various bits of knowledge, I’ll copy and paste a few interesting things into my document, or I’ll type out something interesting that I thought of. The idea is that I’ll be able to remember my random thoughts and return at a time when I can use them. Sometimes stories come out of reading past thoughts that I’ve had.

I’ve kept a series of documents, starting in freshman year of college — my current one is titled “Notes 4.” They’re each a full year long, and about 60 printed pages each. It’s like a moleskine for the internet traveler.

Here’s an example of what one day notes might look like. It’s a little more than normal, but not too rare.

8/3/13

The mold on this sauce pan has started developing a democratic society.

That’s just a random joke I thought of… I’ll probably stick it in an Emmett story. I always try to fit a lot of one-liners into them.

 

I like the phrase “get a grip” a lot. Fun to say, good advice… I should make it a theme in a story or something.

Yes I should. People like stories with themes. Themes are good. What a useful thought.

 

“The last time a girl stared at me like that, she was a cardboard shampoo display.”

Another random joke. This one’s inspired by reddit.com, where someone posted about mistaking the shampoo display for a real girl. I like the thought.

 

Emmett – the dog and the dinosaur

Dinosaurs are, according to science, related to birds by a distant common ancestor. It only makes sense that if someone decapitates a dinosaur like a chicken, it would keep running around just like a chicken. In this 2700-word story, three college friends chase after a missing link that is a lot more ‘missing’ than they’d like.

This is a blurb that I wrote for a magazine submission that I made today. I’m trying to some of my Emmett stories in magazines before I self-publish them. Once the first publication rights are gone, it’s a lot less likely that magazines will want to print my stories. And the more exposure the better. Anyway, this paragraph served as a quick cover letter, but it describes the hook of the story pretty well, so I’m keeping it. Maybe once I release this episode as a podcast, I can describe it in the blog post with this bit of copy. 

 

Emmett note: Reference the [REDACTED] as being responsible for the [REDACTED].

Hmm, sorry about that… I thought I could share all of my notes for the day, but this one’s kinda sensitive. My Emmett stories are a little serialized, and this might explain something cool about the ending that I just realized I can do. Anyway, I’ll fully explain this sometime in 2014. Heh. Anywayyy.

 

More sources for 70s scifi art: I only got through numbers 1-16. There’s ssooo much.

http://scifiartgreats.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/vincent-di-fate-art/

This is information for my tumblr account on 70s Sci-Fi Art. I found a sweet source for art by Vincent Di Fate, and I don’t want to forget it. I can return to it whenever I need to find some quick art to post. Almost to 500 followers! I’m excited.

 

 

Narrow interests on tumblrs

Matthews_Rodney_088_Obsidian_Castle

I have two separate tumblr accounts. The first is called Unboxed, and is a general account for me. The second one is called 70s Sci-Fi Art, and is for 70s sci-fi art. The first is lucky to get ten notes a day, and usually gets none. I’ve had it for over a year. The second has just passed 300 follows, gets hundreds of notes a day, and it picking up popularity constantly. I’ve had it around four months now. Why is the first twiddling it’s thumbs while the other takes off? Part of it is consistency: I have my queue set to publish a post a day minimum on the sci-fi art blog, while my main account can go silent for days or even a week at a time. But the main reason is the depth and breadth of my subject matter.

Continue reading

Summer 2013

Warning: this one’s a slightly dry post… mechanics of my mission, ect. Blah blah blah. Skip down to the cool round photos if you want the highlights.

I have big plans for this summer. I’ll be starting my final year of college in the fall, and I have a squarely three-month time span between now and then. In that time, I hope to accomplish two things. I want to get this blog onto a firm every-other-day posting schedule, while hopefully stocking up enough spare posts to keep it going strong during the school year, a task that I’ve found is pretty darn difficult. Second, I want to explore ebook self-publishing. I’ve already done some research into this, and I have a few options to follow up on. I have two or three novels that are okay enough to publish. Sadly, I probably don’t have the time needed to write more this summer, but you never know.

My blog plan means I’ll have to write seven posts every two weeks. To get that done, I hope to publish posts elsewhere on the internet, and then reposting them on my blog. By setting up this site as a hub, I can keep my audience up-to-date, while still pulling in interested people from other sites. I’ve already started posting, as you might have noticed. Here are the categories that I’ll be using to keep me churning out the insightful commentary that all you fans love so much.

Sci-Fi Essays

I’ve got a kinja blog over here, where I post science-fiction related information for the Io9 crowd, like this recent post about Steven Moffat’s plotting misadventures.

Book Reviews

books

I’ve got this account at GoodReads, where I post book reviews. I’m hoping to expound on my favorite genre, the wacky shenanigans genre, which I coincidentally also came up with. In future posts here, expect a deep study of the genre. For now, you’ll have to settle for this recent review of the Henry Reed books.

College Advice

I’m a freelancer at HackCollege.com, and I’ve blogged lists of the posts I’ve written for them in the past. I’ll be continuing that practice in the future.

Film Reviews

Sadly, I’m no longer in my cinema class, which is what forced me to post a 300-500 word review here every week. Now I just need to rely on my own initiative, and I always tend to watch more TV than film when I’m given the chance. I certainly wouldn’t check out such admitted classics as Citizen Kane or On the Waterfront.

Trailer Reviews

This one won’t be regular, either. The trailer reviews were commissioned by my college newspaper’s website. They’ve only posted one so far, and they’re on hiatus for the summer, but they want around five reviews for the next year. I might easily do more on here.

Miscellaneous

I’ll post links to my guest posts, and I might even post the guest posts that have failed to find hosts. Heh, post hosts. Anyway. I’ll also add old articles I’ve written for my college newspaper’s print version, and past blog posts I’ve squirreled away. Also, I might expound on some notes that I’ve written for myself: I have a ton of old thoughts that can easily make fun blog posts. For example, nicotine patch gym shorts. “Get addicted to exercise!” Genius.

Projects

Last and greatest: my various projects. I’ll try to keep you updated on:

Emmett

EmmettMy planned podcast is The Academic Emmett, a dramatized series of short fiction stories airing around December 2013. It stars Emmett, who’s basically Sherlock Holmes if he were a college student and a mad scientist instead of a detective. I’ll have my own website for it, and I’m in charge of writing, recording, some voice acting, rounding up all the other voice actors, editing, adding music and sound effects, designing the site, and advertising for the whole thing once it’s done.

I still need to finish 13 stories this summer, but I just wrote one this weekend, so it shouldn’t be too tough to complete those on time. I’ll have a total of 4 seasons, each about 11 episodes long and covering a year of Emmett’s academic career. This is my favorite one… I’m excited.

Flux | Flow

fluxflowThis is the TV show I’ll be acting in. Most of the work will be done over the fall semester, but I may be writing a future episode ahead of time, which will be a great way to flex my screenwriting muscle. I’ve been studying the art via reading Story, by Robert McKee, which I’ve been enjoying.

More about the show here.

NoiARRRRR

I’m writing, producing, and co-starring in a genre mash-up that I’m calling NoiARRRRR. That’s right, five Rs. It’ll be a buddy cop film starring a film noir detective (that’s me!) and a pirate. They’ll have to learn to work together in order to stop a group of smugglers. Expect plenty of terrible puns and great genre references.

Stalker

I’m planning to get started on a film spec script. The plot? The stalker of a B-level actress is the only one with enough information to save her when she’s kidnapped. We’ll see how this one progresses…

Untitled Young Adult novel

That’s right, I’ve got one more writing project planned. More information to come on it. Can I possibly finish these all? No. But you won’t be able to find out which I complete and which I don’t until August. Follow along. It’ll be fun, I promise.

As drawn by me, that is.

Emmett: a fictional podcast

I’m planning to enter a severely underrepresented form of media: the area of the fictional podcast. There are plenty of podcasts out there, of course. But they tend to take two basic formats: the educational type, like Writing Excuses, or the music celebration type, like the Irish and Celtic Music Podcast. But that’s all non-fiction. When it comes to fiction, your best bet is the amusingly titled audio book podcast site Podiobooks. But even that site is not well-known, and it doesn’t deal in short stories, just serialized novels.

I think the world is ripe for a fiction podcast. After all, attention spans have been slipping since the advent of the internet, which bombards us with so much information that a short attention span has become useful in processing it all. And in audio format, a short story is easier to slip into a packed schedule: a twenty-minute story is perfect for a daily commute.

My stories center on Emmett, a mad scientist college student whose escapades and misadventures are recorded Watson-style by his best friend and confidante Ken. Each story features a new invention or concept that Emmett uses to wreak havok by treading on the toes of reality itself.

I’ve got fifteen stories written so far, and I’ll be recording them complete with sound effects and theme music, in preperation for a January 2013 debut, after which I’ll keep up a steady story-a-week schedule. I’m also busy with a film, though, so the date is tenetive. Check this blog for excerpts and updates on the podcast.