It’s AGU abstract submission day, and I’ve just submitted one to a fascinating track organised by John Cook, entitled “Social Media and Blogging as a Communication Tool for Scientists”. The session looks like it will be interesting, as there are submissions from several prominent climate bloggers. I decided to submit an abstract on moderation policies for climate blogs:

Don’t Feed the Trolls: An analysis of strategies for moderating discussions on climate blogs
A perennial problem in any online discussion is the tendency for discussions to get swamped with non-constructive (and sometimes abusive) comments. Many bloggers use some form of moderation policy to filter these out, to improve the signal to noise ratio in the discussion, and to encourage constructive participation. Unfortunately, moderation policies have disadvantages too: they are time-consuming to implement, introduce a delay in posting contributions, and can lead to accusations of censorship and anger from people whose comments are removed.

In climate blogging, the problem is particularly acute because of the politicization of the discourse. The nature of comments on climate blogs vary widely. For example, on a blog focussed on the physical science of climate, comments on posts might include personal abuse, accusations of misconduct and conspiracy, repetition of political talking points, dogged pursuit of obscure technical points (whether related or not to the original post), naive questions, concern trolling (negative reactions posing as naive questions), polemics, talk of impending doom and catastrophe, as well as some honest and constructive questions about the scientific topic being discussed. How does one decide which of these comments to allow? And if some comments are to be removed, what should be done with them?

In this presentation, I will survey a number of different moderation strategies used on climate blogs (along with a few notable examples from other kinds of blogs), and identify the advantages and disadvantages of each. The nature of the moderation strategy has an impact on the size and kind of audience a blog attracts. Hence, the choice of moderation strategy should depend on the overall goals for the blog, the nature of the intended audience, and the resources (particularly time) available to implement the strategy.

This is really last week’s news, but I practice slow science. A new web magazine has launched:

The aim is to cover more in-depth analysis of climate change & sustainability, to get away from the usual false dichotomy between “deniers” and “activists”, and more into the question of what kind of future we’d like, and how we get there. Constructive, science-based discussions are welcome, and will be moderated to ensure the discussion threads are worth reading. The site also features a “best of the blogs” feed, and we’re experimenting with models for open peer-review for the more in-depth articles. And as an experimental collaborative project, there’s an ongoing discussion on how to build a community portal.

I’m proud to serve on the scientific review panel, and delighted that my essay on leverage points has been the main featured article this week.

Go check out the site and join in the discussions!

19. July 2011 · 5 comments · Categories: blogging

One of the favourite jokes amongst my kids right now is the one about Youtube, Twitter and Facebook all merging to make a new service called YouTwitFace:

And now, just as I was getting used to Twitter (I finally signed up in April), along comes Google+.

But I haven’t yet figured out how to connect up Twitter with my WordPress blog and my Facebook page. Facebook seems like a good way to keep in touch with people, except some of my “friends” keep polluting the news stream with stuff about their fantasy lives on virtual farms and stuff, and the whole thing seems overburdened with unnecessary features. Twitter seems to have a much better signal-to-noise ratio (although maybe that’s because I’m only following a bunch of workaholics, or at least people who keep their personal lives separate).

Now what I really want isn’t another competitor. I want an automated blend of the best aspects of the existing services. I want to combine my facebook newsfeed and my twitter feed, while filtering out the farmville crap. I want to automatically include the RSS feeds from blogs that I follow, but filter out duplicates for those people who also tweet and/or link their blog posts in facebook. I want my blog to create automatic tweets when I post (I’ve now tried several different WordPress plugins for this, and none of them work). And for tweets announcing new blog posts, I want more than Twitter offers – I at least want to know which blog it is. Twitter tends to give me just the title/subject of the post and a cryptic URL. I actually like Facebook’s approach best here, where you get a brief excerpt from the blog post in the feed.

And now if I start using Google+, I have another feed to blend in. Blending the feeds ought to be easy, from a technical point of view. But if it’s easy, why aren’t there simple pushbutton solutions already? Do I really have to write my own scripts for this? Does everyone?

It’s enough to make me sign up for the Slow Science Movement:

We are scientists. We don’t blog. We don’t twitter. We take our time.

For my new undergrad course, we’ve started a course blog. We’ll be using it to discuss the course material, and also for assignments – the first assignment (due today!) is to write a post for the blog. Actually, what they’ve been asked to do is publish a draft blog post by today, so we can give them feedback on it, and the final, polished version is due next Friday. So, head on over, see what the students have been writing, and give them some feedback:

A wonderful little news story spread quickly around a number of contrarian climate blogs earlier this week, and of course was then picked up by several major news aggregators: a 4th grader in Beeville, Texas had won the National Science Fair competition with a project entitled “Disproving Global Warming”. Denialists rubbed their hands in glee. Even more deliciously, the panel of judges included Al Gore.

Wait, what? Surely that can’t be right? Now, anyone who considers herself a skeptic would have been immediately, well, skeptical. But apparently that word no longer means what it used to mean. It took a real scientist to ask the critical questions, and investigate the source of the story: Michael Tobis took the time to drive to Beeville to investigate, as the story made no sense. And sure enough, there’s a letter that’s clearly on fake National Science Foundation letterhead, with no signature, and sure enough, the NSF have no knowledge of it. Oh, and of course, a quick google search shows that there is no such thing as a national science fair. Someone faked the whole thing (and the good folks at Reddit then dug up plenty of evidence about who).

So, huge kudos to MT for doing what journalists are supposed to do. And kudos to Sarah Taylor, the journalist who wrote the original story, for doing a full followup, once she found out it was a hoax. But this story just begs the question: how come, now that we live in such an information rich age, so few people can be bothered to check out the evidence about anything any more? Traditional investigative journalism is almost completely dead. The steady erosion of revenue from print journalism means most newspapers do little more than reprint press releases – most of them no longer retain science correspondents at all. And if traditional journalism isn’t doing investigative reporting any more, who will? Bloggers? Many bloggers like to think of themselves as “citizen journalists”. But few bloggers do anything more than repeat stuff they found on the internet, along with strident opinion on it. As Balbulican puts it: Are You A “Citizen Journalist”, or Just An Asshole?

Oh, and paging all climate denialists. Go take some science courses and learn what skepticism really means.

Kate asked the question last week “How do you stay sane” (while fighting the misinformation campaigns and worrying about our prospects for averting dangerous climate change). Kate’s post reminded me of a post I did last year on climate trauma, and specifically the essay by Gillian Caldwell, in which she compares the emotional burnout that many of us feel when dealing with climate change with other types of psychological trauma. I originally read this at a time when I was overdoing it, working late into the evenings, going to bed exhausted, and then finding myself unable to sleep because my head was buzzing with everything I’d just been working on. Gillian’s essay struck a chord.

I took on board many of the climate trauma survival tips, and in particular, I started avoiding climate related work in the evenings. My blogging rate went down and I started sleeping and exercising properly again. But good habits can be hard to maintain, and I realise in the last few months I was overdoing it again. As it was March break last week, we took a snap decision to take some time off, and took the kids skiing in Quebec. We even managed to fit in trips to Ottawa and Montreal en route, as the kids hadn’t been to either city.

The trip was great, but wasn’t 100% effective as a complete break. I was reminded of climate change throughout: I didn’t need a coat in Ottawa (in March!!) and we picnicked outdoors in Montreal (in March!!). There’s no snow left in the Laurentides (except on the ski slopes); and we found ourselves skiing in hot sunshine (which meant by mid-afternoon the slopes were covered in piles of wet slush). The ski operators told us they normally stay open through mid-April, but that looks extremely unlikely this year. And sure enough, I return to the news that Canada has experienced the warmest winter ever recorded, and we’re on course for the hottest year ever. It can’t be good news for the ski industry.

And it’s not good news for me  because I’m now back to blogging late into the evening again…

I like playing with data. One of my favourite tools is Gapminder, which allows you to plot graphs with any of a large number of country-by-country indicators, and even animate the graphs to see how they change over time. For example, looking at their CO2 emissions data, I could plot CO2 emissions against population (notice the yellow and red dots at the top: the US and China respectively – both with similar total annual emissions, but the US much worse on emissions per person). Press the ‘play’ button to see everyone’s emissions grow year-by-year, and play around with different indicators.

Gapminder looks good, but it’s lacking a narrative – these various graphs are only really interesting when used to tell a story. You get some sense of how to add narrative with the videos of presentations based on Gapminder, for example, this gapcast, which creates a narrative around the CO2 emissions data for the US and China.

But narrative on its own isn’t enough. We also need a way to challenge such narratives. For example, the gapcast above makes it clear that China’s gross annual emissions caught up with the US in the last couple of years, largely because of China’s reliance on coal as a cheap source of electricity. But what it doesn’t tell you is that a significant chunk (one fifth) of China’s emissions are due to carbon outsourcing: creation of goods and services exported to the west. In other words, one fifth of China’s emissions really ought to be counted as belonging to the US and Europe, because it’s our desire for cheap stuff that leads to all that coal being burnt. Without this information, the Gapminder graphs are misleading.

The only tool I’ve come across so far for challenging narratives in this way is: the blog. Many of my favourite blog posts are written as reactions (challenges) to someone else’s narrative. Which leads me to suggest that the primary value of a blog isn’t so much the contents per se, but the way each post creates new links between existing chunks of information, and adds commentary to those links. Now if only I had a tool for visualizing those links, so I could get an overview of who’s commenting on what, without having to read through thousands of blog posts…

08. March 2010 · 3 comments · Categories: blogging

Over the weekend, this blog quietly celebrated its first birthday. It was a nice moment to reflect on Serendipity’s first few words, back in March 2009:

Oh, and of course, Serendipity got a few birthday presents: a new “popular posts” page (see the menu bar at the top), a great new look on the iPhone, a new page navigation bar, and a live blogroll.

I’m delighted to announce that my student, Jonathan Lung has started a blog. Jonathan’s PhD is on how we reduce energy consumption in computing. Unlike much work on green IT, he’s decided to focus on the human behavioural aspects of this, rather than hardware optimization. His first two posts are fascinating:

  • How to calculate if you should print something out or read it on the screen. Since he first did these calculations, we’ve been discussing how you turn this kind of analysis into an open, shared, visual representation, that others can poke and prod, to test the assumptions, customize them to their own context, and discuss. We’ll share more of our design ideas for such a tool in due course.
  • An analysis of whether the iPad is as green as Apple’s marketing claims. Which is, in effect, a special case of the more general calculation of print vs. screen. Oh, and his analysis also makes me feel okay about my desire to own an iPad…

As Jorge points out, this almost completes my set of grad student bloggers. We’ve been experimenting with blogging as a way of structuring research – a kind of open notebook science. Personally, I find it extremely helpful as a way of forcing me to write down ideas (rather than just thinking them), and for furthering discussion of ideas through the comments. And, just as importantly, it’s a way of letting other researchers know about what you’re working on – grad students’ future careers depend on them making a name for themselves in their chosen research community.

Of course, there’s a downside: grad students tend to worry about being “scooped”, by having someone else take their ideas, do the studies, and publish them first. My stock response is something along the lines of “research is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration” – the ideas themselves, while important, are only a tiny part of doing research. It’s the investigation of the background literature and the implementation (design an empirical study, build a tool, develop a new theory, …etc) that matters. Give the same idea to a bunch of different grad students, and they will all do very different things with it, all of which (if the students are any good) ought to be publishable.

On balance, I think the benefits of blogging your way through grad school vastly outweigh the risks. Now if only my students updated their blogs more regularly… (hint, hint).

I’m still only halfway through getting my notes from the AGU meeting turned into blog posts. But the Christmas vacation intervened. I’m hoping to get the second half of the conference blogged over the next week or so, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share these tidbits:

  1. A kid’s-eye view of the AGU. My kids (well, 2/3 of them) accompanied me to the AGU meeting and had great fun interviewing climate scientists. The interviews they videoed were great, but unfortunately the sound quality sucks (you know what noisy conference venues are like). I’ll see if we can edit them into something usable…
  2. I’m a geoblogger! On the Wednesday lunchtime, the AGU hosted a lunch for “geobloggers“, complete with a show-and-tell by each blogger. There’s a nice write up on the AGU blog of the lunch, including a snippet of Julie’s graphical summary with Serendipity right at the centre:

geoblogging lunch

25. October 2009 · 1 comment · Categories: blogging

I’ve reached an interesting milestone – this is my 100th post on the blog. When I started the blog in March, I never expected to be able to post regularly. And there have been patches of very few posts (not much in the last month I’m afraid, as I’ve been teaching and writing research proposals). But overall, by treating the blog as part of my research, I’ve managed to blog far more often than I expected.

Someone recently suggested my decision to start blogging was an experiment in constructivist learning. I think that’s accurate, and certainly reflects my own philosophy about learning (and, serendipitously, the google search for a good link on constructivist learning gave me an opportunity to refresh my memory about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory, both of which I learned about many years ago when I was at Sussex). Clearly, I need to write a longer post on this, as ZPD is a useful concept to guide communication about climate change – understanding what each audience is ready to grasp is important for ensuring we get through. But anyway…

By becoming a blogger, I’ve learned many things. One is that there’s a huge gulf of incomprehension between the vast majority of (academic) researchers who don’t blog, and those who do. I was struck by this at a conference last week. I arrived a few minutes late to the opening keynote address, which was by Fred Brooks. I opened my laptop, and started taking notes, thinking I would liveblog the talk. Within a few minutes, the conference chair came to me and asked me to close my laptop. It seems that before the talk started, Fred had asked everyone to close their laptops so they could pay attention to the talk, and the conference chair felt that Fred is a sufficiently distinguished that his suggestion should be enforced rigorously. So, having recently gotten used to meetings where a significant segment of the audience is blogging, twittering and friendfeeding as the talk progresses, here was a conference where none of these things were even permissible. I was stunned – this was old-fashioned stodgy academic conferencing at its worst.

One of the things that I love about liveblogging a keynote talk is that it forces me to pay careful attention to the talk. I’m generally taking notes, crosschecking web references, and trying to distill the essence of the talk in realtime, and it’s exhilarating. Without that activity to focus me, I just daydream. So I missed large chunks of Fred Brooks’ talk. I think he said some interesting things about coherence in the design process, but I missed a lot. I thought about taking handwritten notes, but decided  that was useless as (based on past experience) I’d never look at them again. And anyway, the simultaneous googling of ideas in the talk is much of the fun. Liveblogging has spoiled me. And the non-bloggers probably have no idea what I’m talking about.

Something else: before I started blogging, I speculated that most academics don’t blog because they already have a strong online presence, as represented by their papers, books, webpages, etc. I guess I thought that blogging just a way for validating your existence if you don’t already have a body of published work. But as I blog, and come to know other people through their blogs, I realise that it’s a much better way to communicate research. Published papers represent only a fraction of the ideas a researcher is working on – and usually by the time the publication appears, they’re old ideas. The blog gets across the current set of ideas a person is working on. It offers a much better awareness of what people are up to, and is great for starting conversations at conferences (you don’t have to go through the whole “what are you working on these days?” process). So now I think the reason most academics don’t blog is because they’ve been trained not to by an academic system that places value only on peer-reviewed papers, where anything else is seen as a distraction.

Which brings me to one more point: I had naively thought that my blog posts would form the basis of papers I would write, and that I could construct a paper by stringing together several existing posts. Well that never happened, and other people have confirmed that it doesn’t work that way for them either. So I’ve ended up writing fewer papers, but feel I’m getting much more research done. Which will be a very uncomfortable situation for many academics, especially those without tenure yet. But I’m a tenured professor, and quite frankly, I don’t give a damn. There are already too many published papers out there anyway.

15. June 2009 · 1 comment · Categories: blogging · Tags:

Ever since I passed about 20 posts, I’ve been wishing for a contents listing for the blog. I think one of the weakest parts of blogging software is poor navigability. The dominant mode of access for most blogs is the (reverse) chronology. Which is fine, because that matches the dominant design metaphor. But it’s implemented badly in most blogging tools – by default you can go backwards one page full of posts at a time, with no ability to get a preview of what’s further back. Some people choose to add shortcuts of various kinds to their blogs: a calendar (actually a month-based index), a list of popular/favourite/recent posts, a list of recent comments, a tag cloud, etc. And of course, you can always search for keywords. These all help to address the navigability problem a little, but none of them really provide the missing synoptic view of past contents.

I think the net result is that blogs have an enforced ephemeral nature – once a post has scrolled off the bottom of the first page, it will probably never be seen by the casual visitor to the site – the only likely paths to it are hardlinks from other blog posts, or google hits.

Which is why I’ve always wanted a contents listing. A page with the titles (&links) to all the past blog posts, arranged in some convenient order. So that casual visitors to the blog can see what they’ve missed. And get a sense of what the blog is all about – a bit like wondering up and down the shelves in a library, except that nobody does that anymore.

Today, I found a tool that does most of what I want. It creates an automated sitemap, for human consumption (as opposed to the machine oriented sitemaps that Google feeds on). It makes use of the category labels, and I think it might take some time for me to figure out how to use the category headings for best effect. But I like it so far. See for yourself

04. May 2009 · 3 comments · Categories: blogging · Tags: ,

After that massive burst of liveblogging at the EGU, I took a week off from blogging. Which gave me time to reflect on the whole blogging experience, and what I want this blog to be. Some thoughts:

  • When I started this blog, I set myself the goal of writing something every (work) day. It’s been very good discipline: the act of writing stuff down on the blog helps me firm up my thinking, and means I have something to show at the end of each day – even if it’s just a couple of paragraphs. I wish I’d had this when I did my PhD.
  • I’m also using the blog to keep track of web links and published papers that I find interesting. For this alone, the blog is worth its weight in gold. (I used to write notes down on paper, but I found I would never look at them again!). I’m also find I’m keeping a long list of unpublished posts around for this too – I start a post when I find an interesting link, and a few weeks later when I have something interesting to say about it, I finish it off and post it. Sometimes, I save it until I have other related stuff to make a post on a cluster of related items (usually involving a serendipitous relationship!). And some things seem to stay in my “unpublished post” stack forever, but at least I know where they are if I ever need them.
  • The blog turns out to be a great way of capturing and sharing ideas at conferences. I especially like it when people I talk to then go on to blog about some of the ideas later – it opens up the discussion in ways that otherwise aren’t possible.
  • I also like it when my students blog about their research ideas, especially when they’re not so sure about something. It helps me to get a good sense of where they’re at, and where I might be able to help with advice.
  • Liveblogging a conference was brilliant and crazy. It kept me focussed during talks, but perhaps too much so – after all the main point of a conference is really the face-to-face discussions between talks. Finishing off my posts into the start of the coffee break definitely gets in the way of this. I need to find a better balance, but I do like the record I now have of all the ideas & links I encountered.

But there’s a bunch of stuff I don’t like, mainly to do with the linear structure of a blog. I miss having traditional navigation tools like an index and a contents list. The categories and tags are nice, but don’t really help me find the older material easily. If I want the posts to be accessible as an archive, I’ll need to impose some more organization on them. Many bloggers set up their blogs with no clear indication of who they are, and no easy way to browse their blogs other than scrolling through the linear sequence. And I still find it laborious to put weblinks into a blog post (drag’n’drop would be nice).

Finally, blogging is time consuming. Several people have told me this is why they don’t blog. But actually, this doesn’t seem to be an issue for me – each blog post represents a small chunk of research that I would do anyway – the only difference is that now I’m sharing my notes in the blog, rather than keeping them to myself. One of the hardest parts of doing research is that its very easy to let the “playing with ideas” part get endlessly encroached by things that have short term deadlines. The discipline of blogging daily means I then don’t let this happen.

We had a discussion today with the grad students taking my class on empirical research methods, on the role of blogging by researchers. Some students thought that it was a bad idea to post their research ideas on their blogs, because other people might steal them. This is, of course, a perennial fear amongst grad students – that someone else will do the same research and publish it first. I argued strongly that it doesn’t happen, for two reasons:

  1. the idea is only a tiny part of the research – it’s what you do with the idea that really matters. Bill Buxton has a whole talk on this, the summary of which is:  The worst thing in the world is a precious idea; The worst person to have on your team is someone who thinks his idea is precious; Good ideas are cheap, they are not precious; The key is not to come up with ideas but to cultivate the adoption of ideas.
  2. even if someone else works on the same idea, they will approach it in different way, and both projects will be a contribution to knowledge (and therefore be worthy of publication).

After the class, Simon sent me a pointer to Michael Nielsen’s blog post on the importance of scientists sharing their ideas via blogs. It’s great reading.

Note: I’m particularly chuffed about the relevance of Neilsen’s post to climate science, as the Navier-Stokes equations he mentions in his example lie at the heart of climate simulation models.