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About Stephen

The LOLTrek guy. Science lecturer, robotics researcher, award-winning interactive fiction author, Disasterpiece Theatre and WhatTheCast podcaster, and occasional programmer. My Google Profile+

Themes From Science Online 2013

I’d never been to a Science Online conference before this year. When I began concentrating more on science outreach I asked some of my friends if there were conferences I could go to to help me communicate more good. They all pointed me to Science Online, so I dutifully registered and attended the conference last week.

It did not disappoint.

Scio13 attendees
Attendees at Scio13. Pic by Russ Creech.
What makes Science Online such a great conference is its attendees. They come from many different communities, but they’re all interested in science communication. You’ve got scientists who blog talking to science journalists. You have video creators and science artists swapping tips on communicating visually. You’ve got teachers and book authors everywhere. And because Scio is organized as an unconference, the attendees help create the agenda and most of the sessions are discussions rather than lectures or panels.

Even with this disparate group of people and many different discussion topics, I kept hearing the same themes echo through the sessions and conversations, leitmotifs of science communication that cut across disciplines. So I did what any good attendee would do: wrote them down so I could blog about them. These are the themes that summarized a lot of my experience at Scio13.

Science is a process and a perspective. The common perception of science is that it’s a collection of facts, a repository of knowledge that we use to answer questions like “why does the moon look so big when it’s near the horizon?” and “is eating eggs really bad for me?” But science isn’t just made of facts piled up like grains of sand. Science is a way of thinking about the world and figuring out how it works. In communicating science, we want to help people understand the scientific way of thinking. We want them to know that science doesn’t stop. There’s always more to know, and what we learn changes old theories. Science is jazz, with new songs riffing on what’s come before.

In addition, science is a human activity. There is no emotionless machine turning grant money into knowledge. There’s just a bunch of people trying to figure out how the universe works. Sometimes they agree; sometimes they disagree. There are arguments and academic slap-fights, and that’s to be expected! People don’t agree perfectly in any other activity. Why should science be different?

If we want to communicate the process of science and make people care about it as a human activity, it helps to ground science in history and in people. Talking about the history of a scientific idea shows how science develops and undercuts the impression that it produces static knowledge. Talking about the people doing science help humanize it. We’re a bunch of hairless apes who’re wired to be social animals. We tend to be more interested in people than in abstractions. It’s why I loved how people responded to the #overlyhonestmethods hashtag: it’s showing a more human side of scientists and lab-work.

NOT THE FACTS!!!!!
This is Nicolas Cage on the deficit model.
The deficit model isn’t the best way to think about science communication. The information deficit model is a common belief about science communication. People are skeptical about science? It’s because they don’t understand enough about science, so fill their heads with facts bestowed from on high. They’re still skeptical? Add more facts! This approach seldom works. In fact, people often dig in when confronted with facts that conflict with what they believe. I hadn’t heard the term “deficit model” before this conference, but the concept nicely captures something I need to take into account when talking about science.

As Perl taught me, there’s more than one way to do it. It’s tempting to think that there is one true and blessed way to tackle whatever science communication problem we’re facing, but that’s not true. There isn’t a single style of communication that’s best for everyone. It’s why we benefit from having as many people involved with science communication as possible. Having artists, bloggers, journalists, scientists, speakers, teachers, video producers, and more means we’ll have a lot of viewpoints and approaches.

Scientists are bad at communication, and why aren’t they communicating more? This is an extreme characterization of some conversations at Science Online, but there was a definite undercurrent of frustration with how often and how well scientists communicate. I was excited to see that Science Online attendees were tackling this problem from both sides. People like me from the science side of the divide were wanting to learn how to communicate better, while those from the communication and journalism side were interested in how better to work with scientists.

Performance, Feedback, Revision. That’s the title of a song by Baba Brinkman from his show The Rap Guide to Evolution. When he performed it at the conference, I realized that it was one of the conference’s theme. It’s both a nifty metaphor for how evolution works and a great guide to how you get better at communicating science.

Respect the audience you’re engaging with. “Respect” doesn’t mean that you agree with them, but that you’re willing to meet them where they are. Preaching from on high may give you a hit off of the pipe of righteous knowledge, but it’ll turn off the very people you’re trying to reach. You climbed up on your pedestal somehow; now climb back down so you can be alongside the folks you’re talking to. Emily Willingham had a great post about how doing so can change minds.

I went into Scio13 with a nebulous cloud of thoughts about how I communicate science. The conference sharpened my thinking and made concrete a lot of what had been abstract about my process. I’m excited to see how the themes I’ve highlighted will make me better at talking science.

How I’d Moderate a Discussion Session at a Conference

A little over a week ago I went to Science Online 2013, a yearly conference for people interested in communicating science, especially online. (Yes, I get the irony in having a conference about online science that took place face-to-face. If it makes you feel any better, it was also filled with printed books.) It’s the first unconference I’d been to. Attendees put the agenda together on a wiki ahead of time, and most of the sessions I went to involved moderators leading a discussion instead of panelists talking amongst themselves. The discussion sessions reminded me of a cross between a fan panel at a science fiction convention and a discussion class at school.

Stephen Granade talking at Scio13
I didn’t moderate, but I did talk at Scio13.
One of the side-effects of attending those sessions was that each one spawned two or three ideas for related sessions, which I’ve put on the wiki for Scio14. That means that I may end up moderating a session. It’s been years since I taught a discussion class, and most of my science panels at science fiction conventions are more lecture than group discussion. I spent a fair amount of Scio13 taking notes on how I’d moderate a session based on the great work the moderators were doing. I ended up with ten guidelines.

Plan with my co-moderators ahead of time. The best discussion sessions had moderators who were comfortable with each other and had worked out ahead of time how they were going to approach the session.

Set a session goal and communicate it. What’s the purpose of the session? Is it a conversation among people working in a field, like the session on being a freelancer? Is it to talk about what techniques do and don’t work for communicating science, like the science deficit model session? Is it to let people vent their frustration before working towards something constructive, like the Chemophobia panel? There can be multiple purposes, and the session goal can change based on audience feedback. In some cases the moderators explicitly developed the session’s goal with the audience, which was great! It helped that those moderators then summarized what we’d collectively decided the session was going to be about.

Have a structure, but be prepared to abandon it. The first Scio13 panel I went to was DeLene Beeland’s and David Dobbs’s on narrative. They had three major topics that they used to give the session a beginning, middle, and end. In a session on chemophobia, Dr. Rubidium and Carmen Drahl made sure that the last 15 minutes were spent on constructive ways to deal with people’s fear of chemicals. But a structure isn’t a straight-jacket. It’s not a Play-Doh Fun Factory for me to shove conversation through to make it a certain shape. It’s meant to guide and enrich the conversation.

Go for a round room setup. Most of the session rooms were set up like a traditional classroom, which meant I spent a lot of time craning my neck and turning around to see someone behind me who was talking. One of the session rooms had the chairs in a circle, and I found that a lot more conducive to conversation. It can’t have been easy for the moderators, and I’m sure such an arrangement would make me more uncomfortable than a traditional room layout, but the benefit for conversation would be worth it to me.

Talk some at the beginning, and then shut up. If it’s a true discussion session, then my job as a moderator is to keep the conversation going and help direct it, not hold forth at length. In the session on talking about what we don’t know, Maggie Koerth-Baker and Maryn McKenna talked for a bit about what they wanted from the session and then let the audience do most of the talking.

Summarize conversation points on a white board or poster board. Some sessions were lucky enough to have Perrin Ireland drawing the major discussion points. In the Outreach in Unusual Places session, Bug Girl and Emily Finke jotted down suggested outreach allies and places to do science outreach on a whiteboard. Doing so helped me keep track of the conversation and is something I’d want to have in all sessions.

Have questions prepared ahead of time. A lot of the sessions I was in started slowly until enough conversation had happened that people were fully engaged and had Definite Opinions to share. Having an open-ended question or two can help jump-start the conversation. And they have to be open-ended. Yes/no questions or ones with a right answer don’t spark an on-going dialog as well as open-ended questions do.

When someone asks the group a question, seek follow-up questions. Discussion groups are many conversations that have to happen linearly, since only one person can talk at a time. That means that comments queue up as more and more people raise their hand to talk. It’s easy to ask a question and then have it go unanswered as the next three people comment on what was talked about five minutes before your question. Some moderators made it a point to say, “Does anyone have a response to so-and-so’s question?”, which helped get those questions answered.

Have a volunteer monitoring the session’s Twitter stream. Space at Scio13 was limited, and a lot of the people interested in the conversation weren’t there. Every Scio13 session had its own hashtag, which meant that non-attendees could comment on the session based on a session livestream or the flood of tweets coming out of the session. Some sessions had a person in the room monitoring the hashtag and relaying incisive comments or questions to the attendees, which added to the conversation.

Watch for people who are working through thoughts, especially dissenting ones. When I taught, I learned to look for people who were disagreeing with what I was saying. You get crossed arms, mutters, head shakes, and the like. In a discussion session, asking dissenters if they’d like to comment can keep the session from being just a group of people who all agree with each other.

Call on people I don’t know. This was a hard teaching lesson for me. I knew who my most engaged students were and felt most comfortable calling on them. Almost half of the Scio13 attendees were there for the first time, including me, which meant that there were a lot of new faces in the crowd. Now that I’ve been for a year, if I go to Scio14 and moderate, I know I’d fall back into old patterns of calling on people I knew and would have to fight that instinct.

Know who in my audience you can go to for a good comment or summary of what’s being discussed. When I’ve run discussion classes, I’ve had to strike a balance between including as many voices as possible and keeping the conversation productive. Having people in the audience whom you know can help steer the conversation can be a life-saver. I’ve gone so far as to seed talking points or questions with attendees before.

I’m hopeful that these guidelines would make for a good discussion session, and I’d love to hear from previous moderators who tried any of these guidelines about how well they worked.

Science and “Science”

Since the new year began I’ve been busy with two projects. The first is attending the ScienceOnline2013 conference this week. ScienceOnline is a non-profit organization that’s all about communicating science over the web. So of course part of that is having a face-to-face meeting! We really are primates with a veneer of civilization. It’s my first time attending, so I’ll let you know how it goes! All I know is that any organization that uses the Impact font in its logo is all about the web.

The second is Fake Science Facts, a collection of the finest facts about science that aren’t actually facts. If Twitter’s not your speed, there’s a Tumblr version of it. I promise to only provide the most entertaining non-informative information about science.

Personal Reflections on Dr. Martin Luther King’s Legacy

My dad, Ray Granade, is a history professor. Back in 2011, he spoke at the start of school about his experiences growing up in rural Alabama during the Civil Rights era. I’m sharing it as I did with Johnny Wink’s similar talk because it captures a time and place that is at once far removed from today and yet not far enough removed.


At year end, the world’s last processor of Kodachrome film, Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, processed its last rolls. If, like me, you considered Kodachrome 25 the world’s color film standard, you probably noticed.

I was born in the Cradle of the Confederacy in the Heart of Dixie and reared in a small south-Alabama county-seat town of three thousand with a racial divide about 55-45 white. I married a native. My father grew up an hour above Mobile. My mother’s parents lived in Montgomery until their deaths in 1989; that city of just over 100,000 with its roughly 60-40 white racial divide was my second home.

Until the mid-1950s, my father occasionally preached at Evergreen’s black Baptist church; black pastors never preached in ours. Sundays were strictly segregated, like all other formal social settings. Our movie theater had an outside entrance to the balcony, where blacks sat after buying tickets in the alleyway. Whites had two schools along town’s main highway; blacks had two newer ones in “the black section.” Black businesses occupied three storefronts—Gant’s grocery, a barbershop/beauty salon, and a windowless pool hall—where Cary Street left town’s block-long business district. The black undertaker embalmed at the white funeral home but conducted wakes at the deceased’s.

Only in retrospect did I recognize this as a halftone world, where everything appeared only in black or white. Soil was black, cotton white, milk white, Coke and coffee black. Few things, like automobiles and people, came in both black and white. Everything also carried moral weight, a message I absorbed at every Sunday service, Wednesday night prayer meeting, and Saturday matinee. Cowboys’ white or black hats denoted whether they were good or bad. That halftone depiction simplified relationships in a complex reality becoming ever moreso. Things simply were what they were and, despite flaws, were fine as they were. That was not true in my grandparents’ hometown.

Dexter Avenue ascended six blocks of Goat Hill from fountain square east to state capitol. Six blocks south from the fountain, along Perry Street, sat the Governor’s Mansion; my grandparents lived around the corner toward town. My younger cousin, Jimmy, and I roamed Montgomery at will, playing at Perry Street Park or following Perry past First Baptist Church to the Carnegie Library or Dexter’s stores. Three and a half blocks uphill from that intersection, a block and a half below the capitol, sat Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

When I was nine, twenty-five-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. became that church’s new pastor. At the end of 1955, he began a year-long boycott of segregated Montgomery buses, occasioned by the arrest of Montgomery seamstress and NAACP secretary Rosa Parks. My grandmother employed no domestic, so the boycott lacked direct personal impact. But Montgomery’s atmosphere changed. Jimmy and I discovered that King’s church did not want young white boys inside its doors; we also found our freedom of movement severely curtailed. Suddenly I learned what it meant to have my comings and goings closely watched and to render an accounting of my time whenever required.

Simultaneously with the boycott, blacks won a legal battle to prohibit the University of Alabama from rejecting an applicant on the basis of race. Autherine Lucy became the first black to enroll. She and the boycott prompted my first thoughts about race relations.

Two years later, in 1958, liberal, NAACP-endorsed Alabama Circuit Judge George Wallace opposed Ku Klux Klan-endorsed John Patterson for Governor and lost decisively. That year’s blockbuster, “South Pacific,” had us singing “Some Enchanted Evening” but not “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”—unless we focused on “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid/Of people whose eyes are oddly made,” and ignored “And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade.” Alabamians didn’t protest the movie; its message didn’t even register, despite King’s efforts to sensitize us.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott made King’s name a household one, but not in an Evergreen caught up in the Civil War Centennial after 1960. I discovered independently what I would later read from a Southerner’s pen: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Evergreen’s elaborate pageant depicted brave youth leaving for that war after chalking their names on a chimney in the former county seat’s pre-eminent home. My character inscribed his name first.

A year later, Alabama elected demagogue George Wallace as Governor. When asked why he started using race, Wallace replied, “You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened.” He took the oath of office in January, 1963, standing on the bronze star marking where Jefferson Davis became Confederate President. Everyone remembered Wallace’s last inaugural line: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” As a senior, I played a bass drum in his inaugural parade.

I attended college in the north Alabama city reputed to be one of the nation’s most segregated. Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth vainly addressed Birmingham inequities, but it lived up to its nickname “Bombingham.” During my lifetime, it had averaged three racially connected dynamite blasts annually. Recent ones had targeted Shuttlesworth’s home, twice, and church.

King joined Shuttlesworth’s Birmingham efforts the spring before I began college, scant months after Wallace’s inauguration. He planned marches to elicit over-reaction from Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor. Connor obliged, turning firehoses and police dogs on marchers and bystanders alike. Marchers dwindled as jails filled. King recruited students into what would be dubbed “The Children’s Crusade.” National media, attracted by King’s presence, celebrated children’s courage as they faced firehoses, dogs, and jail with other marchers and King. May and the crisis ended together, but King’s non-violent message had broken down in Birmingham.

In June, Wallace briefly “stood in the schoolhouse door” at the University of Alabama to deny admittance to Vivian Malone and James Hood. That August, King led the “March in Washington for Jobs and Freedom” and delivered what would become his most famous speech, one line from which struck me: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

I began school that fall with more than the usual trepidation. In Birmingham, I saw my first mixed-race couple. Birmingham public schools began integrating. Violence continued. Civil rights lawyer Arthur Shores’ home was bombed a week before King spoke his dreams in Washington, then again a week after King’s speech. The third September Sunday, two weeks after King’s speech, another bomb obliterated much of the 16th Street Baptist Church, headquarters of and main staging/rendezvous point for the recently-completed campaign. Four young girls died. For the only time in my life, I felt the need to go, and went, armed.

Two months after the church bombing, I learned from students huddled around a transistor radio at the library’s front desk that Oswald had shot Kennedy in Dallas. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the summer after my freshman year, the Justice Department made my favorite Birmingham barbecue place, Ollie’s, its test case. Ollie’s closed.

I joined the Male Chorus, the only musical ensemble which required no audition. My sophomore spring, three of us—Ted Stephens, Larry Draper, and Owen Lay—were among the 2,000 Alabama National Guardsmen federalized to help guard the fifty miles from Selma to Montgomery. King talked again of equity and equality. Ted, Larry, and Owen told stories from the march route. More importantly, I read about and watched local police and state troopers use billy clubs and tear gas to repel marchers at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on the cold March day known as “Bloody Sunday.”

My junior year, a sociology teacher warned our class that King’s tactics had brought down a government, implying that ours was endangered. A John Birch Society billboard, sporting the legend “Martin Luther King, Jr. in a Communist training camp in Cuba,” obscured the view as one drove from my school past Vulcan’s statue and descended Red Mountain to the city proper.

When I left for graduate school in 1967, most of my authority figures had labeled King a Communist and “outside agitator.” I had heard stories about the private lives of public figures. I had more questions than answers. But I had lived through the emotional and political high water mark of the civil rights movement on the ground where much of it took place during one of America’s most confrontational, polarized, and paranoid eras. My experience changed my worldview from halftone to grayscale. No longer were things cut-and-dried, no longer “just the way they were.” And that line from King’s speech kept nagging at me.

By my first graduate school spring, the 1968 Presidential race was fully underway. George Wallace ran for the American Independent Party; Bobby Kennedy sought the Democratic nomination. Martin Luther King, Jr. promoted the cause of Memphis sanitation workers. On my birthday, a man who shared my uncle’s name shot King. In the widespread riots following King’s assassination, someone firebombed the corner grocery by FSU’s married student housing. The embers were barely cold before the owner nailed a big “Wallace for President” poster to a charred doorpost. Two months later, Bobby Kennedy was shot. Two months after that, antiwar protesters disrupted the Democratic Convention in Chicago. In November, Richard Nixon became a minority President as Wallace carried Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Florida State English History teacher Michael B. Pulman introduced me to racial colorblindness.

In the next few years in Arkadelphia, I would hear Bill Terry’s stories of marching with King in Alabama and Johnny Ware’s about a black teen’s Vietnam experience. I would first hear Paul Simon’s song “Kodachrome.” I would see Wallace shot in Maryland as he ran again for President. And I would later hear him announce that he was a born-again Christian, apologize to black civil rights leaders for his earlier segregationist views (saying that he had once sought power and glory but now realized that he needed to seek love and forgiveness) and admit, fifteen years after his stand in the schoolhouse door, “I was wrong. Those days are over and they ought to be over.”

Racism is a differentiating mechanism, one of many that we all use daily to make sense of our world. “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” warns that teachings “before you are six, or seven, or eight,” remain with you forever. Just as recovering alcoholics count the time since their last drink, so recovering racists count the time since their last reaction. Martin Luther King Jr.’s was one of many voices that helped me discover an antidote to racism, something that doesn’t cure but counteracts its poison. King’s legacy, for me, lies in that one line that so struck my ear, though it meant something only in retrospect, and only in chorus with others of similar import. A grayscale worldview has its advantages. But God wishes for us, I believe, a Kodachrome worldview. He wants us to see “those nice bright colors,” to borrow Paul Simon’s phrase, to recognize and celebrate “red and yellow, black and white.” It is not a matter of training, but of choice. We can eschew the racist default, the prejudice of that particular differentiating mechanism. We can choose, to use King’s line, to judge by the content of one’s character rather than by the color of one’s skin.

Now This is Science

While I’ve been away doing science things like working on a robot that can read your fingerprints from 10 feet away, Eli and Liza decided to get in on the science action.

Yesterday afternoon they were making popcorn for their afternoon snack. “Can you pop an unpopped piece of corn?” Eli asked. “Let’s do an experiment!” Very soon Eli and Misty were putting an unpopped popcorn kernel in the microwave and re-heating it for a few minutes at a time to see what happened.

Liza, meanwhile, had wandered off to draw on the erasable board that she and Eli use for studying, or so Misty thought. As the kernel was being microwaved a third time, she asked Liza, “What are you doing?”

Liza shows off the results of the popcorn experiment

“This is science. You need a record.” She was busy noting down their results.

To translate, she wrote:

Raoond 1 nufing.
Raoond 2 nufing.
Raoond 3 nufing.

She then proceeded to sign the record as a witness and get Eli to check off his name. Also the smiley face takes away the sting of them not being able to make the kernel explode.

Now I get to explain that they proved their null hypothesis!

Liza’s Awesome Shark Cake

One thing I didn’t talk about in my letter to Liza was her awesome cake. Our friend Renèe has made some awesome birthday cakes, including Eli’s robot cake and his World of Goo cake. She wanted to make Liza a cake, so Misty asked Liza what she’d want. We were expecting My Little Pony or Hello Kitty. Instead, Liza said, “I want a shark cake. With a shark.”

Shark Cake!Renèe totally delivered a shark cake. Look at that happy shark, rising from the cake and inviting kids to pet it so that it can sink its teeth into their tender flesh and drag them below the icing. The shark head was made of shaped Rice Krispy treat, and all of the kids had to take a bite of it. Take that, predator of the deep!

So, yeah, shark cake. I can only assume next year Liza will want a jellyfish cake. If she does, I have no doubt Renèe can make it, and that its tentacles will sting your mouth with their sweetness.

To Liza on Her Fifth Birthday

Liza grins excitedlyYou are another year older, another year taller, and another year obsessed with bugs and spiders. The other day you found a wolf spider outside our garage that had given birth to a gazillion little babies. “Aww!” you said. “Look! Baby spiders!” You paused. “Don’t kill them yet, Dad, I want to watch them some more.” Because you’re so interested in insects and spiders, you’re well aware of how the circle of life works. You killed a fly one time and then promptly put it on a web outside so that a spider would have something to eat, like you were some kind of Sonic car-hop who served fly smoothies instead of cherry limeades. Another time, when a ladybug landed on you, you excitedly shrieked, “Ladybug likes me because I’m salty!” After a pause, you added, “Ladybug pooped on me because I’m salty!”

Liza holds up her Big Book of BugsYou’re not as tolerant of all bug processes. When you discovered that flies vomit on things they’re going to eat you became distraught. Eli helped you face your fears, though. As he explained to us later, “I helped her not be afraid of flies. I told her that when they vomit, they suck it right back up so it goes away.” You’re also not quite clear on when a bug is dead or not. You picked a black beetle up once and put it in your bug catcher, showing it around proudly. “Honey,” your mom told you, “I’m afraid he’s dead.” “Nuh uh!” you yelled. You paused and then shook the bug catcher violently. “See? He’s moving!”

Liza lies beside our corgidor (corgi/lab mix) AnwynYour real obsession, though, has been our dog Anwyn. You’ve been asking us to get a dog since you were two, which means we’ve been listening to your pleas for 21 dog years. You had elaborate plans about the dog we were going to get. A bit before your birthday you announced that we were going to get a dog and that your mom and I would wrap it up and give it to you on your birthday and then you’d be surprised. Instead of going the fake surprise route, we visited a bunch of local shelters, finally adopting a young corgi-yellow lab mix that we named Anwyn. She is young and energetic and some twenty feet long. We thought that her being a lab/corgi mix was an accident of breeding, leading to much speculation about whether a step stool had been involved, but it turns out that lab/corgi mixes are a thing that some breeders are doing. They call the hybrid breed “corgidors,” which is totally fun to say. As a friend of mine said, “Beware the corgidor, my son! The eyes that plead, the legs that creep!”

Liza peers out from under a giant pile of stuffed animalsWe thought having a dog would make you less dog-obsessed, or at least focus your dog obsession. It hasn’t. You’re still able to spot dogs with frightening acumen. It may be in part because you have a love-hate relationship with our corgidor. Anwyn appears to think of you as another young dog. She plays with you by mouthing you and putting her teeth on your ankle to herd you, or by leaping up and knocking you down since she’s only fifteen pounds lighter than you and about as long as you are tall. You are very not crazy about this behavior, and it sometimes sends you into tears. But then Anwyn will calm down and you lie down beside her, hugging and petting ehr and occasionally wanting to play with her ears in a way that would lead to you being called Liza of the Nine Fingers if Anwyn weren’t so patient. I’m sure the two of you were made for each other, though: Anwyn also loves bugs, having a great time nosing them about and snapping at them so that they’ll scuttle away and she can chase them.

Liza and Eli look at a cicadaYour relationship with Anwyn is reminiscent of your relationship with Eli. You and he get along great until suddenly you don’t. You can’t stand to be around each other and then you can’t be separated. Eli has had a sentimental streak for you since you were born, but you’re starting to have one for him. In September you and he got into the habit of collecting acorns from the trees by our church and bringing them home to rot quietly on tables and counters. Eventually we outlawed more acorns coming into the house. He and you decided to plant the acorns instead so you could have as many acorns as the resulting tree would produce. “That’ll take a while,” I warned you two. “You may not have acorns until Eli is in college.” Eli looked so sad that you had to comfort him. “It’s okay, Eli, you’ll be in college and I’ll be in school but we’ll still love acorns!”

Liza slides down a slide in her Halloween outfitOf all of us, you’re the most athletic and the most pain resistant. You’ve taken up swimming, though saying like that doesn’t convey the intensity with which you swim. You leap into the water and paddle furiously. You’ve been taking swim lessons and can just about swim the length of the pool at the Y, and have developed a tiny six-pack and swimmer shoulders. That’s also helped you master the monkey bars, where you swing across them before dropping down from them like a blond-haired ninja from on high. You love riding your scooter and your bike, showing bike trick after bike trick that boil down to two basics: ride really fast, and then slam on the brakes so that you stop really quickly. When I was your age I rode a Big Wheel down the hill at break-neck speed until turning into the driveway and pulling the brake and spinning out, so I understand your love of moving fast and stopping suddenly.

Liza models one of Misty's hats in the sunlightDid I mention your tolerance for pain? In July you had minor stomach surgery. Eli wanted to comfort you and talked about how his anesthesiologist had told him that the anesthesia mask smelled like a monkey’s butt. “No,” you replied, “I want mine to smell of puppies and rainbows.” The surgery went fine. Your doctor told us that you’d need to take it easy for a few days until everything healed and it didn’t hurt to move. Two days later you were tearing around the house like crazy. I asked if it hurt. “Yeah. But I don’t care.”

Liza in a crocheted owl hat and coat brandishes a Nerf gunYour true love is reserved for crafting. You draw. You color. You glue things onto other things. When you stay with me in my office, you color on my whiteboard. “See? This is a sea serpent. Here are the fish in the sea under it.” You give your creations names, like UNOST. You can’t read, though you desperately want to be able to, but you’ve figured out the rhythm of consonants and vowels that let you string together letters in word-like ways. Just last week you turned to me and mom and announced, “God made me to make art,” at which point the sky opened up and your mom went up in a whirlwind into heaven, her earthly work complete.

Liza displays her fingerIf I’m not careful, it’s easy to make Eli the child of firsts and you the child of lasts. Eli has ushered us into various stages of parenting, while you have heralded the end of those stages. That’s not fair to you, though, and minimizes your own firsts and the ways in which you’re carving your own trail through childhood. You are very much your own person, and I celebrate that every day.

Liza gets ready to snag tickets in the Chuck E. Cheese ticket tubeYou requested a birthday celebration at Chuck E. Cheese again this year, and so it came to pass that Mumsy, your mom and I spent another birthday watching children bounce around and ride rides and play video games and vibrate with excitement. Chuck E. Cheese had added something to their birthday repertoire: a ticket-blowing machine. After you had eaten your fill of cake and pizza and also more cake, one of the employees led you into a large, clear cylinder filled with tickets and with an attached air compressor. The employee tucked your shirt in and gave you glasses to protect your eyes from the wind and the flying cardboard slips. She then put one of the tickets that was worth a thousand regular, lesser tickets onto the floor and slid your shoe over it. “When the fan starts,” she murmured, “grab it and stuff it in your clothes.” She then wedged another high-value ticket into a seam in the tube and pointed to it. “And pick that one up as well.” Then she closed the door, the air compressor kicked on, and cardboard went flying. With a nonchalance that made it look like you did this every day, you picked up the two high-value tickets and then plucked a few others from the air for good measure.

Liza enjoys batter licked off of a beaterLife in our house has swirled around like the air in that cylinder. Every day you’re buffeted by new emotions and new experiences. It’s not going to get any slower. Next year you start kindergarten, and you’ll have to learn how to deal with a new group of people while adjusting to an amount of homework that gives me pause. As with Eli, I see the future in front of you and am both excited and afraid for you. But I see you in that rush of life moving past you, carefully and thoughtfully picking up opportunities as they move past, and I know you’ll do great.

Liza and Stephen as Liza swings on the monkey bars

My 2012 Balticon Schedule

Hi! How’ve you been?

It’s been a busy couple of months. I keep meaning to write, honest.

Look, it’s not you, it’s me.

Oh, never mind. Here’s where I’ll be speaking at the Balticon convention this year. If you’re in Baltimore, or near Baltimore, or anywhere on the east coast, swing by!

Multi-Creatives. Saturday, 12:00 noon, Derby.
The demands of multiple artistic pursuits, Learning to do it all without losing your mind.

I’m really only on this one to say, “YOU FOOLS! YOU CANNOT DO IT ALL WITHOUT LOSING YOUR MIND!”

A Conversation with Physicist Bill Phillips. Saturday, 5:00 pm, Garden Room.
Interviewers John Ashmead and Stephen Granade speak with Science Guest of Honor Bill Phillips.

I am going to do my best not to go all fanboy over a man who’s a Nobel Prize winner for work that led directly to my PhD thesis. Come see if I succeed!

Comedy Improv. Saturday, 6:00 pm, Chesapeake.
Watch the nimblest minds of new media compete for glory (because we have no trophy) as they try their hardest to make you laugh.

I have no idea what this panel is really about, but I assume I’ll do my usual thing: turn off my filters, let my brain start spinning freely, and then say whatever random thing I think is funny. If this requires actual improv acting, all the better.

CUT! Perfect! Print it! Saturday, 8:00 pm, Parlor 3041.
For the last ten years, Dragon*ConTV has been filming short comedy skits to entertain SF convention-goers. One of its principals talks about teaching himself filmmaking over a decade, what he learned from his mistakes, the tricks he wishes he’d known at the start, and the challenges of zero-budget filming.

I started out knowing nothing, and now I know more than nothing. In just 50 minutes I’ll teach you how to make videos the ED WOOD WAY!

Disasterpiece Theatre Live. Sunday, 1:00 pm, Chesapeake.
Balticon The Movie. This week, Alex and Stephen tackle the country’s oldest science-fiction and fantasy convention in an effort to turn it into a Hollywood blockbuster. Bring your best pitches and let our producers give you notes!

We’ve not had a chance to record a live Disasterpiece Theatre episode, so this should be fun and possibly train-wrecky. Either way, everyone wins!

Science of the Whedonuniverse. Sunday, 10:00 pm, Salon A.

This is a solo version of the panel I was part of at Dragon*Con back in 2010. I’ll talk brain scanning, personality transfers, terraforming, and more.

Whew. That seems like enough stuff for one convention.

To Eli on His Eighth Birthday

Your birthday celebration started on February 4th with a trip to the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga and will end some time around Christmas. The Tuesday after your birthday trip our friend Renèe gave you an awesome World of Goo-themed cake, undeterred by your reaction to the robot cake she made for your sixth birthday. May and Pop sent you presents, and the weekend after that, Mumsy came to visit. Pop Don and Nana Linda sent you presents after that. This is the longest your birthday fun has lasted, and if this trend continues, by 2018 you’ll still be celebrating your 2016 birthday.

Eli and his World of Goo Cake

The goo balls on your cake were appropriate, as you’re obsessed with video games. Every night you ask what video games we’re going to play (the current answer: Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP). A while back you volunteered your own money to buy Angry Birds Rio for mom’s iPad so you could play it. The greatest day of your life was when we gave you your mom’s old iPod touch. You filled it with games and play it whenever you can. When you realized that it would play music too you looked at it as if to say, “If you could also create chicken nuggets I wouldn’t need those two adults to take care of me any more.”

You actually like games of all sorts. A month ago you went through a two-week obsession with chess. I have a set that your uncle Andrew and aunt Joy gave me years ago that sits in our bedroom collecting dust because chess is not nearly as fun as shooting zombies in the head. You’d occasionally asked to “play chess” before, but this time you were deadly serious. We pulled the chess set down and I explained how to play and why I was making the moves I was making. I won, of course. Even though I’m a terrible chess player, I’m still better than an eight-year-old who’s never played before, and there’s no enjoyment quite like beating such a worthy foe so completely. But you kept wanting to play more, and with every game we played you got better. We checked chess books out of the library to help you improve and found online versions so you could practice when I wasn’t home. Then, as quickly as your storm of excitement arose, it dissipated, thankfully before you got good enough to beat me.

Eli shakes hands with a Tusken Raider

Then there are board games. We’ve spent many nights playing Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne (“Meeples! Let’s play Meeples!”), and especially Forbidden Island, which uncle Andrew and aunt Joy got you. Forbidden Island is especially great because it’s a cooperative game, and let me tell you, cooperative games are so much better than the ones around when I was a child. Forbidden Island is a lot like Pandemic except that, if you lose the game, you don’t feel as if you’ve doomed the entire planet to death or, worse, to playing bit parts in a Stephen Soderbergh movie.

It echoes when I played board game with my dad. I remember being ferociously upset with him when he kept beating me at Monopoly, a game that is designed to grind down all players but the winner. May was in the kitchen and, hearing my weeping, called out to Pop: “You need to let him win!” “No!” Pop replied. “That’s giving him a false victory. It won’t encourage him to do better.” Now I’m in his position, playing chess against you and teaching you how to play while walking the narrow path between giving you false victories and crushing your desire to play.

Eli dressed as a ninja for Halloween

In many ways you’re a typical eight-year-old boy. Your taste in food is terrible. You’re still on the “no carb left behind” diet, eating all of the bread and chips you can find, but you also eat chicken nuggets and peanut-butter-and-Nutella sandwitches and not much else. I have to remind myself that I survived my 9th-grade year lunch diet of peanut butter, baloney, cheese, and raisin sandwiches, and if I’m going to throw stones at your eating habits I’ll shatter the glass Jif jar I lived in.

You also like a lot of things that your friends like. You dressed up as a ninja for Halloween, just like your friend Josh and one of his friends. Even your cousin Sam dressed up as a ninja in Kansas City. We spent all Halloween night desperately trying to keep track of you in your black costume. At one point we discovered that we’d somehow added another ninja we didn’t know about to our herd of kids, as if there is some law of attraction involving ninjas that’s reminiscent of how political opinions on Facebook attract arguments.

Eli's ginormous chicken finger and cheese biscuit sandwich

In other ways you’re very much your own person. You, your mom and Liza recently wrote on our giant bathroom mirror with dry erase markers. Your mom wrote a Bible verse that’s related to her new ministry. Liza drew a dog and wrote “UNOST” underneath it, for reasons known only to her. But you? You wrote “BLOODY MARY” three times on the mirror right where I look when I shave in the mornings.

Your music tastes run to ’80s-style rock, bands in the genre that your mom dismissively calls “chicks with guitars”, and electronic dance music. You’ve discovered the Tron: Legacy soundtrack and can’t stop listening to it. One day you were supposed to go to school dressed as your favorite rock star. Your mom and I couldn’t figure out how to make you look like either Daft or Punk.

Eli mugs for the camera

You’re still a big ham, completely unlike me. Whenever we pull out a camera you begin mugging for it. You have your quiet, contemplative moments, but when you know you’re being observed you tend to put on a show. Part of this grows out of your interest in people and your desire to entertain them. Like me, you’re a people-pleaser at heart. You want everyone to like you and are puzzled when they don’t. I hope you don’t lose that love of people as you grow older and have to deal with more of them who don’t care for you for whatever reason.

Eli shows off his Christmas gift of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

School continues to load you down with homework. You have words you have to learn how to spell, practice sentences you have to write, books to read, Accelerated Reader tests you have to take on the books you’ve read, math homework, and short stories that you must read as quickly as possible before answering comprehension questions about it. Thankfully you still love reading. Books have been my constant companion. Just now I looked through the list of Newbery medal winners and had a rush of nostalgia about many of the books I read when I was your age. I hope you have a love of reading and books that survives your schooling. Fortunately you realize the real purpose of school: to pick up all kinds of random thrown-away or lost detritus, like hair clips and pennies, and proudly show them off when you get home. Every day I ask, “How was school today?” and you tell me about the things you found on the ground and the games you played in P.E.

Eli and Liza and the giant frogs

When you’re not at school or doing homework you’re playing with Liza. The two of you continue to feed off of one another, at once simultaneously unable to do without the other and unable to stand the sight of the other. You’re adept at pushing her buttons, making her angry when she doesn’t do what you want, but you also watch out for her and protect her. And you are often lost without her. Liza occasionally creeps into your mom’s and my bed early in the morning to snuggle, something you can’t do because sleeping with you is like sleeping with an angry messenger bike running at full tilt. One morning when she was sleeping with us you wandered into our room, plaintively calling, “Liza? Where are you?” When she’s not around you mope.

Your independence is growing in leaps and bounds. You had your first sleep-over the night before Liza had early-morning surgery. Shortly after your seventh birthday we were eating at a restaurant with friends. I realized with a start that you were getting back in your seat after having gotten up, gone to the bathroom, and returned. This sounds mundane and stupid, I know, but it was a glimpse into the future when you will no longer need my day-to-day care. I no longer drive you to school; instead, you ride the bus. Some mornings you run out to wait for it without remembering to tell any of us goodbye.

Eli's wonderful smile

The challenge for me now is to let you grow into your own person while providing guidance to shape the person you’ll become. I see a lot of myself in you, and I wish I could save you from the mistakes you’re going to make. You, like me, find a lot of things easy to do, so you don’t want to do things you’re not good at the first time. Talent is fine and necessary, but work and perseverance are far more important in the long run. You rush through your schoolwork to get to play time faster, making silly mistakes in the process. You’re going to have to learn the hard way that, while success involves a lot of luck, it also requires a lot of time spent honing your skills. You’ll also have to learn that a lot of what’s worth doing requires you to push past discouragement and pain.

You’re getting there, though. You love the ocean; when we go to the beach for Thanksgiving you’d spend the entire time in the Gulf if possible. I’ve had to nearly drag you from the water, your lips blue and limbs trembling from the cold. This Thanksgiving you tangled with a jellyfish. Its tendrils wrapped around your arm, leaving welts that stung terribly. As we ran from the beach to the house tears streamed down your face. “I’m never going to get in the ocean again,” you sobbed. But thirty minutes later you told me, “You know, I think I’ll be okay, even if another jellyfish stings me.” The next day you waded fearlessly back out into the water.

Eli's jellyfish stings on his left arm

For me now, parenting is like being part of a convoy as it drives through fog. I can’t see the road ahead and I have only hazy memories of the miles we’ve traveled, and sometimes I can’t see everyone who’s on this journey with us. It’s part of why I write these letters. I am a lepidopterist of memories, capturing them and preserving them carefully in words and sentences and paragraphs. We are the stories we tell ourselves and each other. I want your stories to be as true as they can be, and for you to know who you were when you were still learning yourself.

Eli and Stephen and the Easter peeps

Talking Science at Balticon 2012

This year I decided to focus more on science outreach, especially giving science talks to general audiences. As part of that, I’ll be attending Balticon, the long-standing SFF convention in Baltimore. I’m especially excited because I’m getting to interview Bill Phillips. In 1997 Dr. Phillips won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on using lasers to cool and trap neutral atoms. That work was fundamental to my thesis research that led to my paper in Science. Without Dr. Phillips’s work, my professional life wouldn’t be what it is today.

So, yeah, I’m excited.

I’ll also be talking about podcasting and filmmaking along with science. If you’re going to be in Baltimore on Memorial Day weekend, stop by and say hi.