Abstruse Goose: At the Bench


One sympathizes.  Being a writer, mad or not, isn’t as much fun as in the movies either. It’s just one word after another, the right words in the right order in sentences; and one sentence after another, the right sentences in the right order in paragraphs; and one paragraph after another, the right paragraphs in the right order; and before you know it, you’ve finished a first draft which is nevertheless all wrong and you have to rewrite the whole bloody thing.



The Last Word

tambako:8354136751July 13 – 17, 2015

Brian Vastag is disabled by a disease the National Institutes of Health finds unconvincing, or maybe just unimportant. He writes a letter to the director. (67 comments later, the director responds.)

Alcohol-fueled projectile weapons. Smoking volcanos. The latest summer blockbuster? No- it’s the middle school science fair, and Jessa is a judge.

Maybe you know about military war games exercises. But you probably haven’t heard of astronomy war games. Ann shows you how astronomers battle test their predictions.

Did you know that there are trees with their own email accounts? Michelle has some questions for them.

Christie says stop getting swivel-eyed from scrolling aimlessly around the Internet. Sit in a chair and watch as the world goes by.

A day at the science fair

science fairOn twenty minutes’ notice, I was recruited as a judge for this year’s middle school science and heritage fair. The numbered displays were set up in rows in the gym, where model volcanoes smoked near replicas of Sir John Franklin’s ships. We judges chose score sheets affixed to a clipboard and roamed the aisles looking for our assigned children.

Some read haltingly from cue cards. Others looked us in the eye and lectured with confidence. One boy took me out to the playground to demonstrate his alcohol-fueled projectile weapon. Continue reading

Go Occupy Those Forlorn Chairs

It’s summer, and I’ve been thinking of what poet Billy Collins called those, “forlorn chairs/though at one time it must have seemed/a good place to stop and do nothing for a while.” Even situated, as they usually are, to take in the view, it’s hard for those chairs to compete with the attention-grabbing distractions found on our glowing screens.

If you’re not careful, you can spend hours looking at moving pictures and not reading things on your magical device. You start on a favorite news site, clicking through the headlines. Maybe you even open a story or two and read a couple of paragraphs. Then you leave those open tabs to visit a social media site, which sends you on another long string of click and skim. And these on-screen attractions are merely a distraction from your work and there are also the chores of daily life, and before you know it, the day is done and the chairs have sat empty once again.

If ever there’s a season to occupy those lonely chairs, this is it, and here at our farm, my husband and I (and our near-constant stream of summer visitors) are doing our part. Compared to all the shiny things beckoning from our screens, sitting on our front porch and watching the sun move across the sky might seem a little boring. Sure, we’ve got spectacular views of jagged mountains and deep canyons. But sunsets unfold slowly, and sitting still and paying attention requires a kind of patience that’s rarely called upon in the digital age. Which is why it feels so important to practice the art of just being — savoring the moment, for its ephemeral quality.

A few weeks ago, I went mountain biking with a friend along a high ridge near Aspen. Near the end of the ride, just before we dropped back down into the valley, we paused to take in the view. My friend pointed to some massive houses perched along the hillside below us. “I did landscaping work at some of those mansions one summer,” he told me. Continue reading

I Have A Few Questions For These Trees

15523740261_bb27d03bcb_zLast week, in a charming story for the Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance reported that the citizens of Melbourne, Australia, have been sending fan mail to their trees. Yes, people are emailing trees—and once in a while, the trees are emailing back. (“Hello,” wrote one willow peppermint, “I am not a Mr. or a Mrs., as I have what’s called perfect flowers that include both genders in my flower structure.”)

There’s nothing magical about Melbourne’s interspecies correspondence: it’s the unexpected result of a city project that assigned email addresses to individual trees so that citizens could report safety hazards. But it made me wonder. What if trees really did have inboxes?

Continue reading

Dear Dr. Collins: I’m Disabled. Can the N.I.H. Spare a Few Dimes?

Three years ago, a sudden fever struck veteran science writer Brian Vastag on a blue-sky Wisconsin morning. He’s been sick ever since. Now cognitively and physically disabled, he lives on the island of Kauai. On Brian’s third “illiversary,” he presents an opportunity to National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins. 

Dear Dr. Collins,

You might recall the last time we spoke. It was January 2013, and I was working as a science reporter at The Washington Post. Your people arranged an early call for you to announce that the N.I.H. had decided to retire most of its research chimpanzees. We spoke for about 20 minutes, and I typed up a 600-word story. It wasn’t very good.

I was working from home that gray day because I had little choice. I was mostly bedbound then, seven months after a sudden fever had knocked me prostrate. My legs were so weak that climbing the stairs to my home office required pulling myself up the railing hand-over-hand. My brain was so sluggish I asked few questions of you. The ones I managed to croak out were poor, no doubt. Continue reading

Mocking Tricks

4315761217_4ab22fc17d_bCaveat: I’m possibly having something like a Cassie-Willyard-Hubble-Moment here – in this case, I learn something new, don’t quite understand it but get all excited about it, and it’s, you know, wrong.  Never mind because I’m all excited anyway because science has found a new way of being confident that what you know is right.  Ok, confident enough that what you know is right enough.

I was reading about a defense department war game that took place completely inside a computer.  Individual virtual terrorists worked together on an attack; the defense department had to catch them first and needed to find the method that would work best.   So put the terrorists’ behaviors and tactics into a virtual world along with the defenders’ methods, and see whether a given method was any good at finding terrorists.  No? you missed some terrorists and got blown up?  Try another method until you find one that works.

I don’t think this war game was ever actually created but what do I know.  Nor do I know whether this is actually an accurate description of the war game, nor whether it’s actually as similar to a game astronomers play as I think it is. Continue reading

The Last Word


Leash burn


July 6 – 10, 2015

That about wraps up our Snark Week 2015, but don’t worry, there are plenty of other seemingly adorable animals that want to tear you limb from limb, and we’ll tell you about them next year (if you survive to read about them).

To recap this year’s horror show, we begin with the duck-billed platypus which, according to Erik, is not only venomous but also poisonous — and implicated in all the most intriguing assassinations in history.

Jennifer is intimately familiar with the darkest side of sand fleas — the side that sounds like popcorn and feels like a kid poking you from the next booth at Pizza Hut.

Many of us understand that farming is a hazardous industry, what with all the heavy machinery involved, but Christie reveals the second leading cause of farm injury: The Ferocious Bovine Menace.

A bull in a china shop is nothing compared with the destructive power of a dog in a family home, as Cassie can tell you first hand. Joyous leaping can be just as injurious to bystanders as an intentional attack.

It’s no coincidence that sloth is listed among the deadly sins. Once they were elephant sized, and now all that ruthlessness is condensed into a stealthy mammalian package that doesn’t look at all right.

Image: Jennifer’s nasty case of leash burn.