By Grant Jacobs 09/11/2019


Some days I sit and think, “what will I write…?” What do you say when you get to 1000 posts? Maybe you just start where you are, diverge to where this all began, then offer a collection of reader’s favourite posts, and a few of your own? (And throw in a few pictures.)

Slow to fall

This piece started a long time ago at a café table in Melaka, the laptop in front of me with a sweet kopi susu[1] carefully placed to one side.

The book is, Biopunk dystopias: genetic engineering, society, and science fiction, by Lars Schmeink. Who can resist a title like that? This photo is from Kuching (not Melaka), taken from outside the cafe, looking out over the lake. It’s a favourite place for me in this town. ©Grant Jacobs, 2019-.
The book is, Biopunk dystopias: genetic engineering, society, and science fiction, by Lars Schmeink. Who can resist a title like that? This photo is from Kuching (not Melaka), taken from outside the cafe, looking out over the lake. It’s a favourite place for me in this town. ©Grant Jacobs, 2019-.

I ponder my next move, watching a guard patrolling the entrance of the building. He reaches up and waves both hands at the birds sitting on an arch above the entrance. Plucky, stubborn or daft, one refuses to go.

It’s an avian-human standoff. The guard looks up at the bird, and bird down at the guard. It shuffles its feet, then settles. I imagine later he’ll poop on the forecourt. The bird, not the guard. Pigeon’s revenge. Or whatever it is to a dinosaurian mind.

Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public domain). This has nothing to do with anything, I just like ancient marginalia![2]

Birds are evolutionary remnants of the dinosaurs. My mind wanders and I imagine them holding subconscious existential angst at that they were once (mostly) giants when our ancestors were insignificant little nocturnal rodents. Maybe a few modern birds sit there and think, “I’m higher up than you”

The recalcitrant pigeon prompts memories of Guillermo Mordillo’s sweet, thoughtful takes on life. Gentle stubbornness was one of his themes. His posters muffled the bland walls of my graduate student bedsit.[3] One poster I liked, but never bought, featured a gardener standing next to pile of leaves and a large tree. The gardener is clutching a rake and, like the guard, he looks up. High in the branches a solitary leaf clings on, defying the gardener from completing his task.

Writing, interrupted

Attacks on two mosques in Christchurch brought early attempts at this post to a stop. It didn’t feel right to write about something trivial so I didn’t. This state persisted while I travelled and tended to other things.

By then I was in Kuching, Sarawak. All around me were Muslims, alongside Sarawak’s wider ensemble of ethnic groups: Iban, Chinese, Hindi, and others.

Sarawakians are a cheerful and friendly lot. At Pustaka Negri Sarawak—the base for their state library—a lovely café looks over the lake in front of the building. In the early morning light joggers tread the paths that circumnavigate the shores. Late in the afternoon the pumping throb of dance aerobics fills the atrium adjacent to the café. They’re an enthusiastic bunch, dressed in a wide range of garb: loose-fitting or tights, hijab[4] or not.[5] They wave hello as you pass by.

It was upsetting to imagine anyone wanting to hurt them.

Evening aerobics in the Sarawak State library atrium. ©Grant Jacobs, 2019-.
Evening aerobics in the Sarawak State library atrium. ©Grant Jacobs, 2019-.

The average person is just someone living under a different code for life,[6] mostly doing the things we all do. Jogging, moving to the beat of music, driving to work, getting through the day.

Late afternoon, Sarawak State library, looking back towards the atrium. ©Grant Jacobs, 2019-.
Late afternoon, Sarawak State library, looking back towards the atrium. ©Grant Jacobs, 2019-.

One thing not getting done as much as I wanted was writing. I began writing Code for life ten years ago. It hasn’t—yet—lead to what I would it like to.[7] Still, I’m still here and maybe one day it’ll fall into place.

Sciblogs and blogging: beginnings

My blogging started before Sciblogs from Alison holding up one of my essay-length comments and inviting me to write it as a guest post. Alison was part of the group that started Sciblogs. I was invited as one of the founding writers.

Scilblogs, 23-May-2010, taken from the Wayback Machine. Sciblogs started in October 2009.

We were an interactive lot, trading notes on the backchannel, commenting on each other’s blogs and generally solving the world’s problems. Or at least those touching on science communication.

Not all of our chatting was about science. Topical issues were fair game and we aired some of our concerns about pretty much anything. SMC staff, especially Peter Griffin, asked our opinion on science communication matters. Pioneers of a new venture, we were finding our way forward.

In one of the early years I set out to write every day, and did. It’s a bigger effort than many might think; around 2–4 hours a day, every day. Around that time I asked a couple of New Zealand editors about writing for their outlets and was was advised to not bother. They wanted ‘New Zealand only’ stories or zip. Long-form science writing was something they took from syndicated international feeds at the price of a one-off cost per year. Science-writers in NZ? Yeah, nah.

Part of Goodread’s list of science communication books. These are ones I have not read. At ~$150 I won’t be buying the Oxford Handbook any time soon.

On top of reading ‘the literature’ (scientific research), I studied science writing, also touching on journalism and editing.[8] Scientists are by nature self-learners. When we want to learn something new, we just get on with it. Alongside the reading a big influence for me was ScienceOnline, then a very active forum of scientists, editors, writers and everything in between. They were open to honest criticism to do better.[9] Their community offered a path towards paid long-form science writing for the few keen to move in that direction. The idea of running science writing alongside my scientific consultancy appealed. Unfortunately the organisation fell apart as I felt doors were starting to open.

Back on Sciblogs

On Sciblogs correspondence was vigorous too. Some threads covered over a hundred replies. Thoughts ranged from useful to a few who wrote directly to the authors that their intention was to harass. (They did that too.)

Topics covered a wide range and some of our articles were featured at the NZ Herald. The list of these near the end of a Nature Soapbox article I wrote gives a bit of a feel for the range of topics at the time, and who was writing then –

(You’ll need to use the article to link to the pieces.)

A feature of blogs is readers have more-or-less direct access to the writer and in the case of science blogs, to people with specialist knowledge. It can be a mixed blessing for contentious topics, but it lets readers ask questions of people with a background in the area, something that’s not common online.

I haven’t lived in this village for a long time now, but have never found time to change the banner. The three topic themes are still mostly true, though.

Code for life mostly draws from genetics and molecular biology. It’s also mostly for general readers, so it doesn’t feature much computational biology (my field) these days. My work starts from genetics and molecular biology, but the hands-on stuff is computational, drawing from theoretical biology. It’s hard to relate that to non-scientists. It cuts a bit: like most scientists there’s a lot I’d say about my own lot.

Occasionally I offer criticism of efforts to present science to a general audience.[9] (Expect more of that.) Conveying risk, for example, might seem a dry topic at first, but it’s body and soul to a lot of science writing. There’s the use of language, too. Metaphors for example. They’re widely used and encouraged, but I often prefer something closer to direct explanation.

Speaking of language, finding the featured image was interesting. Searching for images of ‘monk writing’ you get a lot of writing by monks, rather than monks, writing.

Like software mangling parsing language, people misread your words too. Some seem determined to find ‘other’ meanings – especially those with committed views on contentious topics. Some of it will just be ordinary rushed reading, but even so at times it’s as if your words are being filtered and morphed into something they wish were there. That, too, is a mixed blessing. It can be quite unsettling to read alien ‘re-interpretations’ of what you’ve written.

A peek inside a cell. Molecular model of E. coli cytoplasm. Source: PLoS Computational Biology; image credits: Elcock. I’ve wrote about this simulation in Friday picture: molecular modelling of the cytoplasm.

I’ve covered a lot of contentious topics, mostly out of a perhaps misplaced sense of duty. There’s satisfaction in helping, and a need for better coverage of some topics. I enjoy exploring corners of genetics and molecular life more. A hidden world inside our cells is being visualised. There are some fantastic practical applications. It’s the same fascination that carried me into my corner of science after all, and I get to share a little of it with others. That’s a privilege, although at times I think one more easily held by those with a salaried income.

Science communication is also an opportunity for writers to explore corners away from their immediate research interests. It gives them a chance to tackle topical issues in a way they can’t easily within an academic setting. For those of us at it for a long time, it sometimes feels like a saga, one where the hero battles their way through thickets, past strange new beasts and lands, sharing with the reader their exploration of new places.

Reader’s favourites

With this little rumination this I’ve landed my 1000th post. A milestone of some sort that has been in no hurry to drop. Hopefully it’s more a colourful autumn leaf than damp splat of milky excrement. The gardener can get on with his next job – the guard can call in the cleaner! (Or get the mop out himself.)

Participants in a science competition in Sarawak. ©Grant Jacobs, 2019-.
Participants in a science competition in Sarawak. ©Grant Jacobs, 2019-.

Looking back some articles were read by more people than others. My favourites are not necessarily these.

How many people have visited a post is a clumsy proxy for how much readers liked it, but it’ll have to do. I’m also a bit wary of the statistics. Although they’re nominally visits from 2009, what ranks high feels closer to, or skewed to, what I’d expect for visits since Sciblogs shifted to using Google Stats. (Earlier we used StatCounter. For example, none of the Christchurch earthquake posts rank well but I recall them being very well-followed.)

Popularity counts can reflect where the articles are shared. The most popular two at least, I think, draw in reader through being shared on very popular sites. Here are the ‘top’ three –

How to spot a badly drawn DNA helix (July 2013). A guide for artists to artists to get them right. It’s amazing how many are badly wrong for something so iconic. (This issue has recently recurred with a prominent research journal featuring a left-handed DNA helix on their cover.)

The world’s largest bacteria (November 2011). The largest, smallest, longest, etc. factoids are often popular.

The Impossible burger is not genetically engineered (July 2018). This was put up to counter local media fuss.

Vaccine-related posts regularly draw a fair number of readers:

Science writing is a topic I’ve covered quite a bit – we all like to think about that thing we do:

A few a miscellaneous pieces fared well, too –

GMOs and glyphosate are topics I’ll return to –

Thankfully at least a few are articles exploring corners of biology in the top 30 or so –

Festival in the old town, Kuching. ©Grant Jacobs, 2019-.
Festival in the old town, Kuching. ©Grant Jacobs, 2019-.

A few favourites

My favourites are those I enjoyed writing or researching. They’re not examples of my “best writing”! Besides, it’s impossible to please everyone; each reader’s tastes differs. Some might prefer pseudoscience smack-downs over quirky corners of genetics.

Then there’s that I can’t even review all 1000 of my posts.

(For some older posts the formatting is less than ideal. These have been affected by updates to WordPress or Sciblogs. It’s too much work to fix these without access to the server.)

General stuff

Genetics

Let’s finish with a few more recent efforts –

Upcoming

Before I tell you these, a confession: I don’t want to hold myself to these! Things change. By the time I get to them, other news might want attention. That said, in my notes I have stuff on:

  • a letter by young scientists calling out the Green Party for the GMO policy. (I have a post on this in draft.)
  • the recent TVNZ report on the Christchurch City Council struggling to implement their ‘ban’ on glyphosate
  • Science journalism, especially ‘critique not criticism’
  • gene drives
  • vaccines for parents (yes this is an on-going thing, unfortunately)
  • gene therapies (lots of great stuff to cover)
  • human gene editing
  • a random collection of biology-related things that just interest me, and might interest others

There’s a long backlog of ideas. The list above barely scratches what there is. (More are list in a blogimmuniqué from the close of last year.)

Evolution is a tinkerer,[9] maybe I’ll tweak the form a little too.

Maybe I should explain this one day – a cover illustration showing prediction of functional (DNA-binding) residues from my PhD student research. Way back in 1992! What was top-end molecular graphics then is ordinary now. The picture shows looking straight down the DNA, as if we’d chopped it like a salami. Or a cucumber, if you’re a vegetarian. (Copyright, EMBO J.)

I could touch a little on computing. (As a computational biologist, I have a ‘tech reporter’ side too.) I may trial short posts offering very brief takes on recent research. Short takes aren’t suited to critical coverage, but they’ll let me get something out, and you get something to read. I don’t like not offering critique—to me it’s a central part of science writing—but doing that can take a substantial amount of time. In the same vein, I may explore a molecule or mutation (or allele) of the week.

Away from the blog I explore other writing styles and genres. Blogs favour the writer’s voice, something usually avoided in mainstream media or longer form work. Similarly, a fair bit of what I write here is pitched at slightly geekier level than I would for, say, a magazine. (There’s more of my thinking, and fewer ‘story’ pieces.) As a result most of what I write here doesn’t resemble what I’d offer editors. I may tinker around that space, too.

Last thoughts

I hope you can forgive a little doggerel, milestone pieces are excuses for this sort of thing… (my apologies to Tolkien & Finn),

I’ve started on this little journey. Where the road leads, I do not know. I go where it takes me, to revel in unfamiliar places. Do I dare to live each moment free from the last? I’ve come a long way, but I’m not yet done. I look around each corner, hoping there may wait a new road or a secret gate.[10]

I’ll be continuing on, obviously. The story’s hero has more places to explore.

Speaking of roads I’ve been out in the world a bit. Four months cycling through north Germany, Denmark, Sweden (including Gotland), Estonia, Lativa and down to Austria. Then London, Cyprus, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and more recently Malaysia (especially Sarawak, Borneo). There will be more of those roads, too, but also exploring new lines of writing.

Sunset near Kuching footbridge. ©Grant Jacobs, 2019-
Sunset near Kuching footbridge. Sunsets are often impressive here – so are the lightning storms! ©Grant Jacobs, 2019-.

Acknowledgements

I’d like to thank those who gave me an opportunity to write at Sciblogs. Forgive me for not naming everyone! Alison deserves especial thanks for the getting me onto this science writing thing.

Thanks to Sarah-Jane, the current Sciblogs editor, for statistics of my blog (unfortunately I still can’t access my Google Stats!)

Footnotes

Lest anyone be misled, this post only touches on the writing part of what I do, not the science.

1. A very sweet Malaysian coffee. Roughly, it’s perhaps 1cm of condensed sweetened milk with coffee poured on top. When served it usually has a layered appearance—deep brown coffee sitting on off-white condensed milk until you stir the milk in. (Pro travel tip: kopi susu can be a very effective laxative if needed!)

2. I’ve no idea if the illustrated marginalia were executed by the scriveners themselves or added later by artists. They’re easily found online, but one sampler of more bizarre examples might be this article at i09.

3. There’s a commercial website of Mordillo’s present-day stuff. Click and drag to move the sky around (up, down, sideway). It’s excellent, a lovely website. If you click on each topic (at the bottom), the sky will move! Don’t miss the mini-golf asteroid or the man in space bubble. Or the flag planting on the balloon moon. And, oddly, a flying space super-cow, complete with bell. (Some of the pages aren’t loading as I write; this might be browser-specific.)

Mordillo died in late June this year. Some of the obits point at his postcards (I have a few), but he did much more.

4. I’m writing hijab as it’s a generic term, and one most people will be familiar with. Locally the covering is called a tudong (or kerudong). I’m hardly an expert on woman’s head coverings, but there are many different styles. These two women dressed for an engagement party are on the more elaborate end of the scale, but it’ll give you some idea. You’ll commonly see something similar to this photograph of a schoolgirl wearing an al-Amira. It’s uncommon to see nijab, and rare to see burqa or similar. (In the latter case, I suspect they may be visitors from the Arabic states.)

5. How prevalent Muslims are depends on where you. They’re more noticeable near the library, I suspect because the state mosque is just across the way and many visitors are students. In upmarket malls, the dress code swings more Western. The Muslim dress code is varied, and you get the clear impression that hiding the “form” of the body is optional. Classically Muslim dress covers both the skin and hides ones body shape. One young woman—teenage rebel and all—who occasionally comes to the library wears heels, skin-tight jeans, a lingerie-style top, push-up bra (common in Asia), all topped with a hijab.[4] It’s not exactly modest. The other extreme are what I take to be visitors from Saudi Arabia covered from head to toe bar a viewing slit for the eyes. By contrast modest for Sarakawians would be relaxed clothes with an al-Amira-style head covering. Even then many can’t help but wear bright colours. It’s a much more relaxed feel than, say, Northern Pakistan when I visited there around year 2000.

6. If you think there’s irony with the name of this blog, it’s actually one of the reasons for the name.

7. I try track where at least some of my pieces get to using an occasional hunt online. It’s gratifying to see the number of places that have linked to my efforts, and people seem to like carefully thought-out discussions of a topic, but it’s hard to put in the sort of effort these pieces take without some sort of return. Some of the sites linking to my pieces draw a lot traffic. A few pieces sit next to media reports (e.g. at the Evening Report and elsewhere.)

I miss the ClustrMaps that showed a world map with red dots representing where my readers were from.

8. Editing is something I’ve looked into before. Many years ago I applied for and got offered a job as an editor at university press, but ended up declining as the same week I was offered a research position.

9. There’s an essay I could write on this. TL;DR version: in my opinion if you’re involved in specialist writing, you ought to be open to criticism. It’s a hard line, perhaps, but to me you ought to be able to hold up to what you’ve presented, and how you presented it. I’m a fan of the idea that, given opportunity, science writers should stick to the broad field they understand.

Like a novelist breaking down other’s work to understand better what works (and what doesn’t!), I find critiquing science pieces and author’s approaches instructive. Likewise you can try to understand and critique “the system” (editors, publishing outlets, etc), too!

9. A very famous science quote from a near-namesake, Francois Jacob, is “evolution is a tinkerer, not an engineer.” Life evolves with continual (random) tinkering on existing life forms. His biography is excellent, but the one lecture I heard of his was disappointing.

10. For those not familiar with The Lord of the Rings, my lines borrow, merge (and mangle) a few of the poems in Tolkien’s novel, and the Finns’ All I Ask. Hey, what can a guy do?

Some readers wish wish there fewer less poetry and songs in LOTR, but The road goes ever on expresses an over-arching theme. You can’t leave that out! (It’s a novel, not a trilogy – a very large book of six parts, not to mention several appendices, published in three volumes.)

An aside: a few years ago I came up with a fun idea for a short science(ish!)-based LOTR sequel, and toyed with the idea as a writing exercise. A little research lead to the LOTR fan fiction archive. It currently has over 57,000 stories…… Yeah, you read that right. 57,000. Rightfully or wrongly that put me off. How do you even compete with that? Why bother? Also: how does one zealous fan read even a fraction of all of that?! (I’m not that kind of fan, either. A bit of a problem for writing what would basically be fan fiction as you’re unlikely to succeed unless you know the score inside and out.)

There’s some discussion about the poems at Wikipedia, and more that you could read on the many fan sites, but here are parts of I’m playing off –

The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,

Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.

Also:

Still round the corner there may wait

A new road or a secret gate,

And though we pass them by today,

Tomorrow we may come this way

And take the hidden paths that run

Towards the Moon or to the Sun.

Images and copyright

Hanging in the margins is a cropped version of a public domain illustration featured in this Atlas Obscura article. All photographs are from the author’s collection (copyright, with all rights reserved). The EMBO J cover illustration is copyright EMBO J. (I have my own collection of variations on the basic theme, but it’d be an effort to relocate them.) The screenshots are, of course, public domain.

Editors and writers, please note my blog contents are copyrighted. I’m available for writing or editing work; feel free to ask. (While writing this, I found yet another website that has ‘scraped’ a copy of one of my stories. I’m happy to help where it’s reasonable to, but please don’t just take my work!)

Featured image

This image is a favourite of mine that I have used before. I love old art work with details of working tools or daily life. Call it a different form of travelling if you like.

It’s a portrait of Jean Miélot,“secretary, copyist and translator to Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy”, which Wikimedia adds, “NOTE: NOT IN FACT A MONK AT ALL, though a canon of Lille Cathedral.” Ha. He cut it both ways. What you get for being a favourite of the Duke, perhaps?