Brad&DadPod001: Midsouthcon, Steampunk, and Lycanthropy

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This is the first part of an interview with my father where he asks me about what I did at Midsouthcon, a science fiction convention held in Memphis, Tennessee. This is from March 2014 so the information isn’t entirely current, but the talk could just as easily be about any science fiction convention. We also talk about the phenomenon of steampunk in literature. Finally we discuss werewolves and related lycanthropic characters in fiction, partly due to the short story I recently had published. Dad has a way of asking questions that start out seeming basic, but end up being rather deep. It makes for some interesting conversations, and I think this one qualifies. Hope you enjoy.

 

New Story published in Luna’s Children!

doubleThe anthology Luna’s Children is now out in kindle and a print version is coming out soon. This is an anthology of werewolf stories edited by D. Alan Lewis. There are actually two volumes: Stranger Worlds and Full Moon Mayhem. My short story, “Always Hungry” is in Stranger Worlds.

So what’s in my short story? The story bends several of the rules of the anthology. For one thing it’s not really about a werewolf per se. The main character is a coyote who is altered by the tears of a young woman into…something else. Something not quite human, but not of nature either. It’s an intense horror story, though there are some lighter moments in it. Like many horror stories it deals with humanity coming into conflict with darker natures and the supernatural.

Read it and tell me what you think!

Switchblade Pisces Pt. 17

switchbladepisces

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Chapter 17

~~~~~*~~~~~

On one side of the large parking lot outside the main entrance of the clinic Delacroix, two FBI agents, four local police cars, and a SWAT van sit there looking mean. On the other side there’s Eklund, Janis, Jazz, a few doctors in lab coats carrying tasers and me. Things don’t look that good. I’m betting on a number of things that might not be true, but at this point my plan is the only thing that makes sense. A hail mary pass, that just might get us all killed. Fun.

Eklund walks across the no-man’s land of the parking lot. Janis follows him. Delacroix joins him in the center of the space with the two agents to back him up.

“What’s it going to be, doc? The hard way, or the really hard way?”

Eklund looks older than I’ve ever seen him. He wipes sweat off of his brow and glances at me. I nod at him, even though I’m not sure about this either. Then he clears his throat and speaks. “What is will power, Agent Delacroix?” he asks.

“That sounds like a question, doc. I’m looking for an answer.”

“True, but you see, your reasons for attacking us seem to be contingent on whether or not the agent we took from the hospital wanted to be saved or not. But he was unconscious, how can we know what he wanted?”

“Your Pisces there put him in the hospital, I don’t think he’d be running to join her again.” Delacroix walks closer to Eklund using his height to intimidate the smaller, older man.

“You don’t think, but you don’t know,” Eklund points out.

“Sure, fine. Why don’t we wake him up and ask him? Oh, that’s right, we can’t, because he’s in a fucking coma.”

“Janis?” Eklund turned toward Janis, who’s rubbing her wrists in discomfort.

Delacroix and the two agents tense up, expecting an attack.

“Go to Delacroix. Do whatever he asks.”

Janis’s eyes go wide, but she follows the order, walking over to Delacroix.

“Go ahead. Give her an order,” Eklund prods.

“Stand on one foot,” Delacroix asks, and Janis does so. “Jump up and down.” Janis still follows the order. Delacroix’s face hardens into a scowl. “Kill yourself.”

The blade snaps out of Janis’s wrist, but she doesn’t raise it to her neck or any other part of her body. She wavers still on one foot. Then, slowly, her raised foot comes down.

“Kill yourself!” Delacroix yells, but now Janis’s blade retracts back into her wrist. She walks, slowly at first and then with more determination, back to Eklund’s side.

Eklund smiles. “She has a computer in her brain. It has a very simple program. Follow every order. A couple of days ago, she would have followed your order. But she has gained a will of her own. She has learned how to ignore her programming.”

“Am I supposed to be impressed? One of your robots is malfunctioning, how does that change anything?”

“Janis, if you could go back, would you rather I hadn’t helped you out? Would you rather I had left you in a coma?”

Janis swallows and shifts her weight. “Sometimes…sometimes I think I feel that way. But not right now. I don’t want to die, and I don’t want to be in a coma again either. I’m sorry if I’m not supposed to say that!”

“It’s okay, Janis. You’re a human being, now, not a robot at all. You’ve made me very proud.” Eklund pats Janis on the shoulder and turns to Delacroix. “You say Agent Fox wouldn’t want to be here. I say at the moment he has no will of his own. I say that anyone with an ounce of willpower would rather they have a will than not, and the only way we can give Agent Fox any semblance of will, would be to let us help him. Afterwards, he can decide if it’s worth it or not, but until then, let us do what we can.”

“How do I know you didn’t just program her to act this way? She’s your robot, you could tell her whatever you wanted.”

“I’m not a robot!” Janis says suddenly, her blades out of her wrists. She seems a little startled by her own outburst, but then she slowly smiles. “I’m not a robot,” she says again. “I have a will of my own.”

“Oh yeah? How do you know that? How can you be sure?”

Janis steps in front of Eklund, powerfully, resolutely. She is her own woman. “I know I’ve got it,” she says, “Because it makes me feel good.”

~~~~~*~~~~~

There was a flurry of decisions that had to be made, most of which I couldn’t quite follow. Eklund and his clinic were allowed to continue under stringent government surveillance. He was no longer classed as a terrorist threat, but was required to pay a fine and work a few hundred hours of community service for the injuries the two agents sustained.

As for me, I have a job now, working for Eklund. As to what that job actually is, that’s difficult to say. I can usually pick things up pretty quick and passing the tests for certification in different areas hasn’t been a problem. Sometimes I work in the operating room, assisting one of the doctors, sometimes I’m fixing some electrical problem. Eklund understands how bored I get doing the same thing and lets me work on whatever needs doing. It’s perfect for me and I get paid more than I would ever make doing something else.

Janis visited her mother again recently. I think they bonded a little. There was mutual crying. I asked her out on an official date, and we’ve gone on a few of them since. That’s going pretty well. Janis still can be a little too accommodating at times. I don’t think we’re going to stay together. I think she’s still learning who she is, and at some point she’s going to have to see other people just to make sure I haven’t influenced her too much.

I think I’m okay with that. I think I love her, and I think I’ll be a little jealous of whomever she’s with, but I think I’ll be able to deal with it. I’m still learning who I am too after all. Maybe we’ll find each other again. Maybe we’ll drift apart, but whatever happens, it will be because of our own decisions. Our own will.

When Agent Fox wakes up the first time, I’m there in the room with Dr. Eklund and Dr. Gardener. He opens his eyes and blinks a few times. “Don’t worry, Fox” I tell him, “We aren’t going to hurt you.” The fans on his prosthetic cortex whir. “I’m Ethan Yates. I’m a friend. These two helped you out of your coma, their names are Dr. Eklund and Dr. Gardener. For a while, you’re going to have to do whatever we say, but eventually, you’ll be able to make your own decisions. Nod if you understand.” Fox nods slowly, and I know he’s going to be okay.

I love my job.

THE END

~~~~~*~~~~~

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How to Study Using PowerPoint

If you’re studying biology, chemistry, art, a pictographic language or any visual subject, you may have to memorize not only words and definitions but also pictures, diagrams, and symbols. Depending on how good you are at drawing, you may be able to use index cards here, but this is time consuming and can be frustrating. We live in a modern age though, and there is a better way.

Everyone has different backgrounds. I was amazed to discover that many  university students I’ve run into haven’t learned how to do this stuff, but isn’t always taught as early as it should be, possibly never in some schools, and besides I’m not sure where exactly I picked it up.  So I’ll start with a very basic introduction to PowerPoint for those who haven’t  used it before.  Then I’ll explain how you can use the program to study complex pictures  in the second section. This might be too complicated for some, too simple for others, but I’m hoping this helps somebody.

Disclaimers: I should note that I use the 2007  version of Microsoft PowerPoint, but I learned these techniques on earlier versions of the software and so you should be able to find the same options on whatever version you have if you hunt for them. There are other presentation software programs out there, but Powerpoint is the one I'm most familiar with and probably the most popular. I'm not going to use the little copyright symbols next to every instance of the word Powerpoint, because that would be annoying, but PowerPoint is the copyright of Microsoft Corporation and that should be understood throughout this post. I believe I am operating under fair use here, but I will take down the page if I get any official looking cease and desist letter. 

Introduction

On most modern PC and mac computers, there is a program called PowerPoint. If you’ve taken a class anywhere in the last decade, you’re probably encountered it . You might even hate it. It certainly has its critics, but you don’t need to worry about any of that. Basically PowerPoint makes slide shows. The reason why it’s useful is that it combines word processing, image editing, and even a little movie making into one lovable Frankenstein program.

Basically you start out with a screen like this:

newppt

 

You can type in words or copy pictures into the slide and view your finished product by clicking the slideshow symbol (on the bottom to the left of the 52% in the picture). Once you’ve made one slide you can create new ones until you have an entire sequence of slides that you can use for a presentation at a meeting, or for your own benefit. Even if all you do is type text into the various slides, Powerpoint is helpful in a meeting to keep you on track, or as a way of outlining a narrative for a story or talk.

Studying with PowerPoint

You might already see one way to use PowerPoint to study. In the first slide, you might type a word, say, and then in the second slide you can have both the word and the definition. Instant flash card! And its not as difficult to keep from cheating. You could also use a word that describes a diagram that you have to learn to draw, and in the next slide you could have the diagram, which lets you check yourself against somethings that’s probably a little larger, more accurate, and more readable than what you can hurriedly scratch out on an index card.

This does the job in some cases, but in many cases what you have to study is just too complicated for a single slide. Take this picture for example:

appic

 

If you had to memorize the names and locations of all those organs, it would take a whole stack of index cards . But there’s a trick you can do in Powerpoint that makes studying this stuff a hundred times easier.

First copy-paste or insert the picture into the Powerpoint file (right-click on picture->copy->right click on powerpoint-> paste or Insert->picture symbol-> browse-> enter filename)  Once you do this you can move the picture around if you click on the center of the picture and drag, and you can resize the picture by clicking on one of the dots in the corner and dragging out or in.

So far so boring. Okay, now on the top of the screen there’s the word “home”. If you click on this, it should look something like this:appres2

There should be an area that says “Shapes.” If you click on this button, you’ll get a selection of various shapes you can use. It’s easiest just to use rectangles so just click on the rectangle shape, which should be near the top of the popup menu.appres3

 

Once you click on the rectangle you can click anywhere on the slide and drag out to create a box however big you want it, and move it over one of the terms you need to know.

appres4

 

Okay. Now you can’t see the word. That doesn’t do you much good on its own. You want to be able to remove the block on command. Go to “Animations” and click on “custom animation.” This will create a panel on the right side of the screen which will let you assign animations to the rectangle.

appres5

 

You want to have the box disappear when you left click. To do this, in the custom animation pane, click on “Add Effect,” then select “exit.” You are given a list of options, but it doesn’t really matter which one you select, they will all cause the box to disappear when you left-click your mouse or hit a cursor key in slide show mode.

appres6

 

Once you select one of the options, powerpoint will show you what the animation will look like. and then an entry will show up in the box toward the center of the pane. This box lists all the different things that have animations in your slide, as well as some options for the animations. You don’t have to worry about those now, but you can play with them to create different effects.

What we’ve done so far is create a box that goes away when you click a button. You can go into slide show mode and confirm that this works. But we could do this by making a new slide without a box in it. So what’s the point? Well, remember copying and pasting? You can do that to the rectangle you’ve just made, duplicating it as many times as you want. And each time you duplicate it, you duplicate the animation as well.

appres7

 

Now, when you go into slide show mode, each time you click your mouse, a block will disappear, allowing you to study not only the names of the organs, but also their locations.

This is incredibly useful for subjects like anatomy and physiology, but it works for anything large and complicated that you need to learn all the elements to. And of course you can use simpler methods for the simpler things you need to know, making powerpoint an excellent tool for review.

Switchblade Pisces: Pt 16

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Chapter 16

~~~~~*~~~~~

Sleep comes like a ninja from behind, and I fall, vanquished like a random lackey from a rival clan, into the bed.

In my dreams I’m running through stacks of old computer towers, their fans whirring searing hot air onto my calves and shins. I am naked and I can’t figure out where I’m supposed to go. And then I find a surge protector with many cords plugged in. I start to follow the cord for that and I start running following it because somehow I know that getting to the source is important. I run and I run, servers and computer towers spitting hot air at me as they rise higher and higher around me. Finally I come to a circular clearing and I see Janis on the ground at its center. The cord runs into her chest, between her breasts into her heart.

For some reason, in the dream, I pull the cord.

Janis screams.

I wake up.

~~~~~*~~~~~

I can sense the urgency as soon as I open my eyes. Outside my room, I can hear quick footsteps going back and forth. I slept in my clothes so after checking myself for any embarrassments, I open the door to see what’s going on. No one is paying me much attention, just rushing toward some area of the building. I decide to follow the general flow and find myself in the back of a small crowd of people both in and out of lab coats gathered around the doorway of a large office. A man with an impeccable hair cut and a laid back charisma is talking in the lazy drawl of a southern gentleman to Dr. Ecklund through a large flat screen display.

“…Oh I’m well aware of the work you’re doing, Dr. Eklund. I know all about your little mad science projects, and while I’ve wanted to take you down for years, the government—” The man says the word “government” with the same palpable contempt with which he said Dr. Eklund’s name “—felt a wait-and-see approach was more ‘prudent.’”

“My research could be of great benefit to the American people and the military I assure you, Mr. Delacroix.” Eklund speaks in a somewhat flabbergasted tone, as if someone suggested borrowing his underwear without warning.

“We can take your research, Dr. Eklund, and we will. You see you have kidnapped a federal agent, and that is a big no no.”

“We’re saving his life!” Eklund protests.

“It doesn’t matter what you’re doing to him, doctor, it ain’t done with his permission, and it ain’t done with the the permission of the American government. Now I’ve got this friend, Sal. He’s in charge of the local SWAT division? Way I see it you got two choices. You can either come peacefully and let us ransack your little establishment and take what we find useful. Or you can get your switchblade pisces, I’ll get my guns from Sal, and we can have ourselves an altercation.”

“I have rights! My patients have rights!”

Delacroix gives Eklund a condescending look. “Dr. Eklund, that was before you committed a federal crime! You came into this yard looking for a cock fight. Don’t you stop struttin’ now.”

The display goes dark. Everyone is silent for a moment. One of men next to asks, “What are we going to do?”

Strangely enough, I think I have an answer.

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How Much Does Clutter Cost?

How much does clutter cost?

I’ve been asking myself this lately because over the last year or so I’ve been going to yard sales, and as a result, I have begun to accumulate stuff. There are some odds and ends, but most of this stuff consists of books. Turns out you can get books very cheaply at yard sales. Furthermore I frequent a used bookstore  that has a free bin. As in FREE.

For the most part, this is awesome, but while I’ve been able to pick up books on all sorts of topics ranging from Native American folk remedies to a book on cop slang, I’ve also lost a lot of space in my room as a result.

But how can I pass up a free book? I have a fairly good idea of the benefit of a book, but how can I determine the cost? What am I really paying for a free book?

I’m going to concentrate on books, because that’s my main problem, but I think I could generalize to other things pretty easy.  I figure, based on the various apartments I’ve had, that, discounting some initial costs, a square foot of living space is worth roughly 1 dollar per month. Bearing in mind that most rooms are around 10 feet tall, this means that 1 cubic foot of living space is worth about 10 cents per month. Most books are about a fifth of a foot thick, a half foot wide, and a foot tall, so 0.1 cubic feet. This means that by bringing in a free book, I’m paying about a penny each month that book is in my room.  That’s 12 cents a year, $1.20 a decade.

So worst case scenario, the book sits in my house for a couple decades and it costs me a few bucks, big deal. At the same time, surely I can’t just keep that up. Eventually I’ll run out of space and I’ll either have to buy more space or purge my book collection. All these books that I’m getting might not cost me much individually, but in aggregate, well there’s going to be an effect on my personal well-being after awhile. How can I factor this in as a cost?

Does this coffee table define me as a person?

This is tricky. I have to find a way to quantify my well-being as it relates to furniture.

Looking at extremes can sometimes be helpful. The worst case scenario would be for there to be literally no space. In this case I would have to find somewhere else to live, which would most likely double my current living expenses (I would still have to pay for where the books live). The other extreme would be for there to be no books. This wouldn’t be so bad really, because this would just mean reading books outside of my living space instead of storing them where I live. However, by not storing physical books, I would have to purchase more e-books, or purchase space to store my books . So in that extreme too, I would probably end up increasing my expenses. These extremes seem to indicate there is an ideal amount of books and that straying too far in either direction would end up costing money.

Well, at my current rate of about 1 physical book read every two months, the most amount of physical books I will be able to read in a 100 years would be 600. It’s also nice to have options when I’m ready to read a book. And really that’s the reason I keep getting books. I’d like to read them someday when I feel like it, and I want to be able to pick up the book when I feel the urge. The time it takes me to browse through a shelf of books is roughly a minute per shelf if I’m being thorough, and the most amount of time I’m going to want to spend deciding what book to read is maybe thirty minutes. So that equates to 600 books again at twenty books a shelf.  600 books is the ideal amount it seems.

600 books might work as an ideal number, but that doesn’t tell me what the maximum number is. If I have a more or less square room that is 625 square feet, then the perimeter of the room would be 100 feet or 500 book thicknesses. If the room is 10 feet tall, this would allow an absolute maximum of 5000 books.

I spent way too much time on this.

So let’s say that the cost of storing books is R*|x-600|/4400 where R is the amount of money per month spent to live in the space. For a typical low-rent apartment then…the expression would be 625*|x-600|/4400 or (.14)*|x-600| This translates to about 14 cents per book per month. That’s $1.70 for a year. If I expect to live for a hundred more years, then each book I get now and never read will cost me 170 dollars. Of course this still isn’t that much, really, and this graph probably has little to do with reality, but maybe it will help to know I’m not just picking up a free book, I’m committing to a data plan.

Switchblade Pisces: pt 15

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Chapter 15

~~~~~*~~~~~

The feeling of elation lasts for about thirty seconds before I turn around to see if the old guy is alright. I’m not sure what I’m hoping for—for him to be okay or out cold—but regardless I can’t just do the cool guy thing and keep walking away without looking back.

As it turns out, Eklund’s got a bloody nose, but seems okay otherwise. Fine. Now I can get back to…

Jazz is in front of me. Or I should say Jazz’s chest is. He’s a big guy. He puts a heavy hand on my shoulder. “You ordered me to protect you, Baxter, but this person does not seem to be a threat any longer. How do you wish me to proceed?”

Eklund takes some time to walk up to me before he responds. “It’s okay, Jazz,” he says, holding his nose gingerly to keep blood from dripping, “He was just reacting to a little test I gave hib.”

Jazz reaches into his trouser pocket to pull out a handkerchief. He gives it to Eklund.

“Thank you, Jazz. Drat it. No batter how buch I dow I’b dot supposed to tilt my head back, I still want to.”

“A test?” I glance between the two men, still halfway wanting to find my way to Janis and the drama going on around the gurney that’s steadily retreating down the hall.

“That was very ibpulsive of you, hitting be like that.” Eklund frowns regarding the bloody handkerchief for moment before rephrasing.“Very willful.”

I shrug. “You pissed me off. I reacted. I’m starting to think that might be what will is all about. Just acting on emotions.”

“Is that it?” Eklund asks, “Or is it the codtroll, of your ebo…of your feelings, that indicates will?”

I’m a little confused at this point. Too many things going on at once. “Look, I’m not one of your experiments, okay? I want to see what’s going on with the FBI guy.”

“That’s true, I suppose. I’d have to have a lot bore test subjects before you could be part of ad experibent. You’re really a case study. The data I get frob you is strictly anecdotal. Still, it’s a starting point.”

I swallow, remembering that Eklund brought me here to experiment on me. I am literally his test subject. Or at least potentially one. When does a test subject start actually being a test subject?

I’m trying to tease this apart when Eklund continues “I was also hoping that by interacting with you, Jazz and Janis would learn to think on their own. Develop their own will.”

I look back at Jazz, just in time to see his face relax from a twitch that looked a lot like a sneer of contempt.

“Did you see it?” Eklund sounded joyful. “He still doesn’t realize he has opinions.”

Jazz’s cortex fans start whirring as he frowns.

“Just let it go, Jazz. Don’t overheat yourself.”

“Yes, Baxter.” Jazz says, relaxing.

“As for you, Mr. Yates, you should let Jazz take you to your quarters. You’ve had a lot of excitement recently and you aren’t going to be buch help to anybody for the dext few hours. I’ll just leave you with this small paradox: can a person choose to ignore his or her own will?”

“Of course they can!” I said, “Otherwise…”

Otherwise they wouldn’t have free will, only they are supposed to be ignoring their free will… Crap.

“Get some sleep, Mr. Yates. Things will likely get very interesting this afternoon.”

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Update 6/10/12

Rattlesnake root?

Here’s a hodge podge of me news from the last few months or so.

First of all, I took a biology course at Austin Peay to make myself more marketable to graduate schools. It was an introductory course, but an intense one. It took place over three weeks and covered topics such as respiration, photosynthesis, mitosis, genetics and evolution. From the courses I took at Vanderbilt I had actually learned quite a lot of the information covered in the class, but the class put it all together in a neater arrangement, and there were a few things I hadn’t run into before that I was able to learn about.

I did well in the course and got an A. I signed up for a human anatomy and physiology class in the Fall, because that course isn’t offered in the Spring and the other courses filled up or I needed prerequisites for them. I need to figure out what prerequisites I need and sign up for another class. I also probably need to start applying for graduate schools again and maybe sign up for the biology GRE. I didn’t show up last time for the BioGRE because two years ago I couldn’t find the will to wake up early in the morning. Now I’m a more responsible person and I have a better sleep schedule, so I should be able to do it.

I’m still trying to look up some of the plants around my parents’ property without much luck. The professor of my biology class recommended I talk to somebody at Austin Peay, but I still haven’t made contact due to my not wanting to waste anybody’s time. I found one plant that’s about 6 ft tall with hastate leaves in an alternate arrangement and with a circular stem about an inch in diameter. I’ve narrowed it down to family asteraceae and it looks like it might be in genus prenanthes, as it looks a lot like the pictures of the purple waldlattich in the prenanthes link, only that plant is supposed to only go to 150 cm and this one was as big as I am. Also, I haven’t seen any flowers on it yet. Every plant identification site seems to only care about the flowers. It’s a bit frustrating.

On a musical note, I’ve started to practice playing the piano, which has been surprisingly entertaining. Right now I’m trying to play the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven. I can almost get through the first two lines before madness sets in.

Author Attribution

In a scientific paper, the area under the title where the authors are listed is more important than you might think. Obviously, each person listed as an author has (probably) contributed to the paper in some way. There are also often asterisks and other symbols leading to footnotes at the bottom of the first page that tell you which university each author is from. That much you could probably figure out on your own. But there’s a whole snarl of politics involved in how the authors arrange their names. The first name on the paper is usually the person who did the most work on it. This person is typically a graduate student or a post doc (short for post-doctoral, a post doc is someone who has gotten their PhD, but is not yet in charge of a lab).

The first author is not always the most important author in the list, however. By this I mean that if you google their name, (or use a service that lets you search through scientific journals, such as Pubmed)  you might not find much. The head honcho working on the paper is actually more likely to be the last author listed. Google the last author’s name, and you can probably find the website of the lab that worked on the paper fairly quickly.

The head of a lab is often called a PI for principal investigator. You might think of them as a boss, but it might be more accurate to think of a PI as a manager or agent who has his or her fingers in everything, trying to get it to work. A PI can have a lot of power, depending on how much money his or her lab can generate, but they rarely have the power of a CEO. Even in the case of labs that work in the private sector, CEOs don’t have the time to write scientific papers and PIs don’t have the time to take care of high level corporate decisions.

A PI has to keep track of all the scientists he or she is in charge of and find resources to ensure that the lab can continue operating.  Finding resources means writing innumerable grant proposals and promoting research by submitting posters and giving talks at conventions. PIs don’t generally get to do the actual experiments much at all, but they have to know everything that’s going on, and the work couldn’t be done without them. So to make a gardening analogy, the last name is usually the one responsible for providing the soil and seed for the paper, while the first name is the one who waters it and makes sure it’s healthy.

The other names in the author area may be of varying importance. In papers written by an extensive team of scientists there may be hundreds of names in the author area, some of which might not even have had anything to do with the work published. This is because by being part of a team the scientists agree amongst themselves to share credit for any discoveries that the team makes. Which sounds nice, but it is important not to make the mistake of thinking that everyone listed agrees 100% with what’s in the article.

You might also have people listed as authors who might not have even met the other authors. This can happen in situations where someone gathers data, but leaves the organization before anything can be done with it.

There is also sometimes space in a paper for people who have helped, but may not have done enough to warrant being a full author.  Unfortunately because of the large egos involved in science, sometimes someone who really deserves to be a full author gets shoved into this space. You might imagine a beleaguered graduate student, passionate for his subject, yet perhaps socially inept, toiling away at his experiments until he finally has enough data to reach a conclusion. He writes the paper, following all the guidelines and diligently proofreading for grammar mistakes. He gives his paper, his baby, to his PI, thinking now, finally, he will get the recognition he deserves. Only instead of being the first author, the PI puts his friend in as the first author, puts his name as the last author and gives the grad student an honorable mention. The movie Dark Matter is a chilling depiction of this scenario.

There are several organizations, including the Office of Research Integrity (ORI started in June 1992), that are in charge of confronting false author attribution as well as several other forms of misconduct. This is good, but on the downside the very fact such organizations are necessary speaks to how prevalent the problem is. A survey conducted by Eastwood, S et al (referenced here) , where postdocs and new PIs were asked to self-report their conduct showed that 41% said they would list someone as an author for being a friend or for funding them in the future. And the ORI reports that the number of reported cases of general misconduct (of which author mis-attribution is a part)  has been rising, albeit with several large peaks and valleys from 159 in 1996 to 286 in 2010.

Does this mean that all scientists are crooks? No. Does this mean science can’t be trusted? Well, to an extent, yes. But science shouldn’t be trusted. Any information a paper relates should be tested and retested independently not just because sometimes scientists misbehave, but because the information may be incomplete or inaccurate.

If popular media could understand this a little better, I think there would be a lot less confusion about the various studies that come out. Next time you see a news report that reads “Scientists say…” you should ask “Which scientists?”

Switchblade Pisces: pt 14

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Chapter 14

~~~~~*~~~~~

It’s morning when we reach the facility. Once Janis calmed down a little, she was able to act as my navigator, calling out directions from the back. I only had to turn around twice. Sometimes I asked her to give me directions just to make sure she was still okay. The last direction she gave me was to make sure to go into the ambulance entrance, which is to the right of the main entrance with all the windows.

There’s a sort of awning, similar to what some hotels have for arriving guests. It’s still going to be pretty obvious that something is up since we’re not wearing uniforms or anything, but the structure of the receiving area will block the view for most of the normal visitors to the clinic.

When I get out of the ambulance, Baxter Eklund and a doctor with an extremely short and well-kept beard are there to greet us. I’m guessing the bearded doctor is the one Janis said she knew from the clinic. I’m also guessing she doesn’t know him quite as much as she may have thought.

“Hey there,” I say, “We’ve got a federal agent in the back. He’s got a head injury. Possible brain damage. You folks want to take a look at him, see what you think?”

The bearded guy does not look amused. “How could you do something so reckless?”

Eklund doesn’t look angry, just sad and defeated. “They already suspect us of being a terrorist organization. What will they think now?”

“Right. Well, there’s that.” I grab the handle to the back of the ambulance and open the doors. “Look, we’re trying to do the right thing here. You want to help or not?”

The bearded doctor grimaces as he approaches the ambulance. “When you had Janis call, you were already on your way here. We were the closest medical facility.” He pauses as he climbs into the back. “It’s bad enough you’ve made us accomplices to kidnapping. We don’t want that to change to murder.” He grabs one side of Agent Fox’s gurney. “Give me the breather, Janis”

Janis complies readily. She rubs her wrists. I realize suddenly that repeatedly squeezing a plastic air bottle for half an hour might be especially taxing for a woman with switchblades in her forearms. “It was my idea to go, Dr. Gardener” she says. Her fans are starting to whir a little.

Dr. Gardener, whose beard now reminds me of a topiary bush, turns slowly to me, squeezing the breather more tightly than is strictly necessary . “What kind of sick bastard are you? Why would you coach her to say something like that?”

“I…I didn’t.” I’m a little confused and cowed by Gardener’s anger.

“She doesn’t have a will of her own. The only way she could have done something like this is if someone ordered her to.” Dr. Gardener uses the loud clack of the gurney wheels hitting the pavement as they unfold to punctuate his statement.

I have a sickening thought. What if someone else had ordered her to accost me in the hallway and lead me on this crazy quest? It doesn’t seem right, but I can’t completely rule it out.

“You might as well come inside, Ethan.” Eklund tells me, apparently catching the lost look on my face. “I have to make a few phone calls. See if I can’t salvage something from all this. I guess I can’t completely blame you though. Having someone who will follow your every order can get to your head, and it’s something you aren’t used to.” I follow Eklund into the building after Gardener and Janis go in with the gurney. Eklund speaks more softly once we’re inside. “Just in case things got..interesting? You don’t need to worry. She’s been sterilized.”

I’ve never punched anyone in the face before. It sort of hurts and feels good at the same time. The thought hits me as Eklund holds his bloody, broken nose, with that shocked, angry expression in his eyes surrounded by wrinkles, that he’s an old man, and that he might not heal as fast. Strangely, right now, I don’t really care.

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