The Awl Died

The Awl died. Or will die, in a couple of weeks. It was/is a website with the usual internet attitude – an awl, dear children, is a sharp pointed instrument for punching holes — but not the usual internet manners.  My Twitter feed is full of writers who were young a few years ago, who are sad for the death of The Awl and grateful for the chance it gave them to say what they needed to and in the way they needed to say it.  And they’re right, it was like a party in there, full of people with smart mouths and sharp eyes, funny and charming and sometimes boring and sometimes too revealing and you worried a little some might be self-destructive; but defying all human social tendencies, the party was friendly.  It was intelligent, idiosyncratic, and inclusive.

And when I say “inclusive,” I mean that they were, for a website that wasn’t a science website, open to including posts on science.  I wrote for them for a bit, early on.  I’d just written my third and fourth books back to back, had been underground for years, and when I came up for sunlight the whole publishing business had changed.  It was 2010 and staff writers were fallling out of the sky, freelancers’ print markets were going out of business, and nobody knew how to make money on the internet.  I stood there blinking in the sunlight, no ideas for another book, no ideas for stories even if I knew where to send them any more, wondering what to do next, and thoroughly sick of my own voice.  At that moment, Heather Pringle called and asked if I’d like to start a science blog, and I said “Sure.  What’s a blog?”  So I started reading blogs and websites and found a lot of resourceful people saying mean things in a clever way — but don’t read the comments, I did and dear God, are these people even house-broken?

That’s how I found The Awl.  It was run by Alex Balk and Choire Sicha, and though neither of them have run it for years now, I think they set up The Awl’s one-off combination of civility, humanity, and interestingness.

I dealt only with Choire.  Here’s Choire, and I’m cut-and-pasting sections from his emails without his permission:

Me:  Choire, do you want a post updating the post about Hanny’s Voorweerp?

Choire: DARLING!
Hello from my underwater fish tank lair.
First order of business; who wouldn’t want this?
Second order of business: in the next few days things start calming
down and I want to talk to you!!!

Me: (later)  Here you go, Choire.

Choire: OH!

The Awl-mourners on Twitter talk about their favorite posts and the ones I remember best is a series of posts by excellent, generous, and sadly late, Dave Bry, apologizing in detail to every person he’d ever neglected or been rude to.  The series was brilliant and so sweetly written and earnest that you felt you’d just apologized to all the people you’d been rude to.

The mourners also mention the comments section. The Awl commenters were not only civil, they were a sort of 4th Estate; you got the impression that the commenters were there to complement the writers, that The Awl was commenters + writers. That is, The Awl was what a blog ought to be, which is what writing ought to be: a conversation between two entities, neither of whom is expendable. I wrote a post once on physicists’ ways of estimating certainty and I don’t link to it now because even though I still like the post, the commenters’ riffs on estimates of certainty made it whole; and for some reason, The Awl has removed all comments.

In 2010, we’d just started The Last Word on Nothing, some of us knew more or less what we were doing, and 200 viewers was a spectacularly good day.  One post suddenly headed due north, straight up and when I went to morning-read The Awl, I saw that Choire had linked to the LWON post the day before.  I wrote to thank him.

Choire: I actually sat down and made a routine for myself, a sort of jogging
path through the Internet, to ensure that I was going to cover the
things I wanted to this fall, and you were on it. Whee *jogs jogs

Me:  If you will, please keep us on your jogging path — my
co-bloggers are writing emails titled HOLY SHIT.  And thank you again.

Choire:   Hmm you guys have SUCH A QUALITY WEBSITE, and I’m afraid the people who would read you just don’t know you well enough yet!

Me:   Tell me what to do, Choire, and I’ll do it

Choire:  Hmm well we’ll just INSINUATE YOU. That’ll be step one.

And so he did.  He insinuated not only us but other websites and especially other writers, hundreds of them, especially young writers.  Who does this?  Somebody who knows in his bones how to make a community out of people who don’t know each other, who won’t ever meet, who now feel like the family home just got bulldozed, which is too bad but it’s still the family home.

Nobody still knows how to make money on the internet, except through foundation grants and salesmen; I remember when The Awl hired its first salesman and started paying writers, but apparently it wasn’t enough to last.

Me:  Dear Choire, thank you, thank you, thank you.  Our numbers are up.  Thank you.

Choire: Well you know. There’s people we have to take with us!

Let me say that again:  there’s people we have to take with us.


Photo of an awl:  Krissy and Dennis, via Flickr






Hidden in this picture

a woman with a secret
She’s got a secret

When the ancient Greeks wanted to get something done, they really committed. In 499 B.C., in a bid to get out of an unpleasant job assignment, Histaeus, the leader of Miletus, plotted a rebellion against the Persian king Darius the Great. Elaborately coded missives sent to co-conspirators would only rouse suspicion. He needed something much sneakier. So Histaeus shaved his favorite slave’s head, tattooed the message on his scalp, and then waited for the hair to grow back. When the tattoo was sufficiently covered up, he sent the slave to visit his co-conspirator, who knew where to find the goods. 

This bit of stealth – not just sending a secret message but doing it in such a way that obscures any communication has taken place at all – is called steganography. In the 2500 years since Histaeus started his revolution, technology has helped steganography evolve, yielding methods from invisible ink to microdots, to secret bits stowed inside digital photos. But while this kind of thing makes for entertaining cocktail party chat, it has never borne much direct relevance to most people’s lives.

That’s about to change. Continue reading

The Great Polar Bear Debate

Last month, biologist and National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen shot a video of an ailing polar bear. He shared it online to bring attention to seasonal starvation that is aggravated by climate change. The story got my attention: More than a decade ago, in my first real job as a journalist for a magazine about Northern Canada, I had written a profile of Nicklen. He was raised in Kimmirut–a tiny, remote community of Inuit on Baffin Island. Since then his speciality as a photographer has been polar wildlife. The man knows his polar bears.

Nevertheless, the moment the video went viral, everybody had an opinion about how dumb the videographers must have been. They all had a better explanation for this bear’s predicament. You would think they had talked to the bear themselves. A monitor in Arviat, Nunavut, insisted the bears he saw were healthy and thriving. He didn’t lose an opportunity to scoff at the stupidity of the southerners he assumed took the video. “Since I’m from the North, I wouldn’t really fall for the video,” he said.

I’m no bear expert, but my money is on Nicklen when it comes to how screwed the Arctic is right now. And the issue around whether the polar bear population is thriving or tanking is more negotiable than one might think. Over millions of square kilometres, counting is not a simple matter. Here is a post of mine from 2012 when the same issue was already being debated, along with sightings of “grolar pizzlies” — hybrids between polar bears and grizzlies. If we’ve learned anything from the last couple of decades of climate change, it’s that people will keep on denying that anything is wrong until the problem is too far gone to solve. We need to stop waiting for a consensus, and move.

Image: Wikimedia Commons


Last week Michelle wrote that, given the speed of change in the reality under the science, climatology needed some new words, and she proposed a beauty: “antevernal,” meaning “daffodils blooming in February.”  To back her word-making, she quoted a naturalist:  “If the language we use to speak of the natural world is not innovative and engaging, then is it any wonder that few young people get excited about nature?” I agree with Michelle’s argument, I think the naturalist’s sentence is delightful, and I’ll add that astronomers have been doing this all along.

With significant exceptions.  Continue reading

It Turns Out There Are Some Downsides to the Magical Box

A good proportion of science fiction can be summed up like this: scientists invent a black box that does a magical thing. Hooray! Oh no… wait… that magical thing has some kinks. Oh dear, oh my, look what has happened, it turns out that there are some downsides to the magical box.

The thing is, that it’s not just science fiction that works this way, it’s also how a lot of today’s technologies and and startups go. Look you can share links with your friends and families instantly via Twitter or Facebook! Hooray! Oh no… wait… the Nazis have taken over.

I recently wrote a piece for TOPIC about another one of these magical black boxes: virtual reality. In particular, virtual reality as the “ultimate empathy machine.” The conceit here is this: the best way to understand someone else is to step into their shoes and experience their lives. Virtual reality allows that, whether by way of computer generated graphics or through 360 degree documentary films. And because virtual reality can allow this kind of digital body swapping, it therefore must be the very best possible way to foster empathy. The piece I wrote for TOPIC detailed a few of the ways that these experiences can backfire, based on the available psychological research.

But there was one thing that I didn’t have space to talk about in that story, so I’m going to expand on the piece here.

Continue reading

The Last Word

Desert-landscape-cactusJanuary 8-12, 2018

Michelle reduxes a post about a word she made up to describe daffodils that bloom during false springs—and wonders what other words the world needs these days. Honestly, all the Snowpocalypses and Snowzillas of recent years are starting to run together. If we’re going to keep naming nature in the Anthropocene, we need to branch out.

Erik snorkels on a beautiful reef in Cozumel and worries about sponges. With something as vast as the ocean, it’s hard to overstate just how little we know. So little that we can’t tell how many of its most iconic fish are left in it. So little that we don’t even know what lives in much of it. So little that we can’t say for certain if sponges are disappearing or taking over.

Cassie reports on a cellular immunologist who contemplates unusual measures to help her ailing dog. How dumb is it,” she asked her Facebook friends, “to consider giving her a brief helminth infection?” In other words, should she deliberately infect her dog with parasitic worms?

Becky writes from the desert, where she listens to ghost stories. Don Emilio was hanged, four times, on May 7, 1904. The bandits who came for his gold were apparently unskilled with the noose and he didn’t die, at least not that night. Instead he died four years later, of complications from the hanging(s). His ghost might come to visit sometimes.

Craig would be a good person to sit next to on a bumpy plane ride. Maybe. I’m not insensitive to the needs of fellow passengers. I just love the world and its storms. The sky is a cabinet of swirling, perilous curiosities. You think you have all your variables nailed down, then you step outside. . . These forces have us at their mercy, and make for the easiest small talk to share with strangers. We all have to face the weather head on.

We’ll face the weather head on with you next week.


Photo by Rebecca Boyle

The Philosophy of Weather

Last Friday night the Boston runway looked like an Arctic landing, bits of tarmac barely visible through sheets of blowing snow. I had a good view of the runway with the plane tipping like a seesaw, coming in on the tail of an explosive cyclogenesis, or bombogenesis, media-shortened to a bomb cyclone. This unusual storm had just devoured the East Coast and was starting to clear out, the airport only recently re-opened while still experiencing severe winds, the bay casting bergs of ice into city streets. One of the highest tides on record had flooded a Boston subway station.

I’d rather have taken the storm in its teeth and arrived a day earlier because I do enjoy turbulence. Assuming we could have landed. The horrible bouncing and shudders, stomach acids in your throat, then in your feet. I like it when people around me scream, bonus if the passenger next to me grabs my arm, not wanting to die alone. Planes don’t tend to crash in storms. Weather is a factor in about a quarter of all air crashes, often only one component in a cascade of other predicaments. Planes tend to stay together, they tend to land, and most people go on happily with their lives. The roller coaster ride comes with no additional charge.

The woman next to me on the flight was pale with impending mortality. She told me she’d finally met the partner of her dreams, they were getting a house together. After a lifetime of relationship calamity, it was all finally working out, and she has a book to write. She said it helped to talk as we bucked and rolled for our landing.

I’d rather die on impact, I told her. I didn’t want to drown in an aluminum tube with 200 other people just shy of the runway. She said she didn’t care, keep talking. Continue reading

A Ghost Story From the Desert


There are certain places in our country that are known for storytelling, the cowboy poet said to us. From New Orleans Cajun country to Lake Wobegon, a few small, distinctive regions — not New York, and definitely not Washington — have become known for their storytelling styles, and for their stories.

“Western stories are the most intimate stories I can think of,” he said.

Western stories are the most spiritual stories I can think of, I thought.

Spirituality is different from religiosity, at least the Western European forms of religion I grew up with and know. Western spirituality is nature spirituality, maybe some elements of Native American spirituality. It’s deeper meaning derived from the place itself, and not dictated by some imported ancient rules or scriptural strictures. It’s spirituality that is simultaneously rooted in the real.

I am on a dude ranch in Arizona for a week. The first night we were here, our waiter told us a ghost story after dinner. It was not a stereotypical Western ghost story, in that it was not told around a campfire with smoke and s’mores and dirt on your pants. It did feature all of those things, but this was not the setting in which the story was told. Instead, our server Todd told the story while standing in the well-lit ranch dining room, holding a silver pitcher of water, and gesticulating. He talked like a busy waiter in a city restaurant, his words clipped and emphatic. “There are so many spirits here,” he said. Continue reading