Some thoughts on the Mack/Dorigo Twitter exchange, and Zivkovic, Feyerabend, etc.

This exchange made me squirm:

(In case Dorigo deletes his tweets, screenshots here, here and here.)

If you didn’t know: Katherine Mack is a theoretical astrophysicist at Melbourne University and Tommaso Dorigo is an Italian particle physicist working at CERN. Mack’s Twitter feed is one of the best places to learn about astrophysics, and Dorigo’s blog is one of my preferred sources of information and analysis of LHC results. I consider them both very knowledgeable people. At least, I used to – until this short exchange on Twitter disabused me of the notion that they might be equally knowledgeable.

As my friend put it, Dorigo’s comment “makes it sound like being bi is a privilege” – especially since Mack goes on to detail the non-privileges being bisexual comes with. While I’m familiar with the issues surrounding gender and sexuality, I’m not entirely conversant with them, and yet even I know that Dorigo is being facile and refusing to engage substantively with the topic at hand. His response to Mack’s sharing the link is proof enough, conflating two attributes in a way that makes no sense:

I’m inclined to call this “Dorigo’s fall from my graces”. Some would argue that we ought to separate his technical expertise with his views on topics that seem to not directly relate to what made me pay attention to him in the first place. But I’m becoming increasingly wary of this line, particularly since allegations of sexual harassment were visited upon Woody Allen in 2014. While many hold that an appreciation of his films doesn’t require one to be okay what kind of a person he is, I disagree because the separation of professional achievements and personal conduct overlooks how one might enable the other, and together help establish structures of power and authority.

My example of choice with which to illustrate this is Bora Zivkovic, the former ‘All Father’ of Scientific American‘s famous network of blogs. His leadership as well as abilities as a communicator made young and aspiring writers flock to him for advice and favours. However, a string of allegations (of harassment and impropriety) emerged in 2013 that put paid to his job and, at least temporarily, his career. It was obvious at the time the scandal broke out that Zivkovic had abused his position of power to take advantage of trustful women and solicit crass things from them. When I first heard the news, I was devastated.

Now, science – rather, STEM – and science journalism already have a problem retaining women in their ranks. When they do, sexual abuse, harassment and sexism are rampant, often ensconced within organisational structures that struggle to remain cognisant of these issues. So when you embed men like Zivkovic and Dorigo – and, of course, Geoff Marcy – into these structures, you automatically infuse the structures with insensitivity, ignorance, etc., as well as increase the risk of women running into such men. And by paying attention to Dorigo – even when he’s talking about hadron-hadron collisions – I feel like I will be feeding his sense of relevance and legitimising his persistence as a scholar of note.

(Caveat: I’m keenly aware that mine could be a precarious position because it could displace a very large number of people from my self-aggrandising graces, but I choose to believe that there are still very many people who are good, who are aware, sensible and sensitive, who are not abusive. Katherine Mack is a living example; Dorigo would’ve been, too, if he’d had the good sense to apologise and back off.)

So where does Paul Feyerabend fit in?

From his Against Method (fourth edition, 2010; p. 169-170):

I have much sympathy with the view, formulated clearly and elegantly by Whorf (and anticipated by Bacon), that languages and the reaction patterns they involve are not merely instruments for describing events (facts, states of affairs), but that they are also shapers of events (facts, states of affairs), that their ‘grammar’ contains a cosmology, a comprehensive view of the world, of society, of the situation of man which influences thought, behaviour, perception. … Covert classifications (which, because of their subterranean nature, are ‘sensed rather than comprehended – awareness of [them] has an intuitive quality – which ‘are quite apt to be more rational than over ones’ and which may be very ‘subtle’ and not connected ‘with any grand dichotomy’) create ‘patterned resistances to widely divergent points of view’.

(Emphases in the original.) Our language influences the weltanschauung we build together. While Feyerabend may have written his words in relation to his idea of incommensurability in the philosophy of science, their implications are evident in many spheres of human endeavour. For example, consider product advertisement: a brand identity is an intangible thing, an emotion trapped within a cage of words, yet it is built and projected through tangible things like design and marketing all embodying that emotion.

Similarly, involving this or that scientist in a conversation is to include a certain point of view that – even in the presence of robust safeguards – suggests not an endorsement but definitely a willingness to ignore something that may not always be ignorable.

Featured image credit: coldbrook/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

A conqueror extraordinaire among bugs

Credit: https://peerj.com/articles/3296/
Credit: https://peerj.com/articles/3296/

This map represents a fascinating thing I learnt today: as of June 2015, the harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) had been found in 59 countries outside of its native range (11 countries more than the last time anyone checked, which was in 2011). That’s a lot of new ground for a bug to have expanded into naturally, including landmasses separated by oceans.

Obviously, it had help. According to this study, whose authors also produced the map, humans either accidentally imported the bug from different locations (e.g. with foodstuff) or deliberately introduced it into certain ecosystems so the bug could invade them and displace other nuisance-bugs. But come 2016, and the harlequin ladyird has itself become a nuisance-bug – mostly to native Coccinellidae (the same family as all ladybugs) and particularly to the two-spot ladybug. According to a study published in 2000,

Ironically, many biotic invasions are apparently facilitated by cultivation and husbandry, unintentional actions that foster immigrant populations until they are self-perpetuating and uncontrollable. Whatever the cause, biotic invaders can in many cases inflict enormous environmental damage: (1) Animal invaders can cause extinctions of vulnerable native species through predation, grazing, competition, and habitat alteration. (2) Plant invaders can completely alter the fire regime, nutrient cycling, hydrology, and energy budgets in a native ecosystem and can greatly diminish the abundance or survival of native species. (3) In agriculture, the principal pests of temperate crops are nonindigenous, and the combined expenses of pest control and crop losses constitute an onerous “tax” on food, fiber, and forage production. (4) The global cost of virulent plant and animal diseases caused by parasites transported to new ranges and presented with susceptible new hosts is currently incalculable.

In May 2013, Ed Yong had written for Nature about how the harlequin ladybird gets to be so deadly:

Some scientists had previously thought that the harlequin owed its success to harmonine, a toxic antibacterial chemical found in its blood (or haemolymph). Harmonine allows the harlequin to resist certain diseases and to poison native ladybirds that eat its eggs. However, Vilcinskas and his team found that high concentrations of harmonine do not kill seven-spot ladybirds — but a dose of the harlequin’s haemolymph does. When Vilcinskas and his colleagues looked at the harlequin’s haemolymph under a microscope, they found the culprit: a microsporidian parasite. These exist in the eggs and larvae of all harlequin ladybirds, but in a dormant and apparently harmless state.

Per another study published in 2007, in six locations sampled within a 40-hectare area at the North Florida Research and Education Center, Monticello, the number of predator-bugs had reduced from sixteen to two in nine years. Researchers attributed this dramatic decline exclusively to the fact that the harlequin ladybird had been introduced in these areas at the start of the period. They wrote:

Following its arrival, H. axyridis appears to have become the dominant predator and populations of the [yellow pecan aphid complex] and native predator species were dramatically reduced. No native coccinellids, syrphids, mirids or anthocorids were detected in these “after” samples. Brown or green lacewing larvae or adults were rarely recorded in pecan. Only spiders and reduviids, some species of which likely engage in intraguild predation on H. axyridis, were present in any detectable numbers.

Introducing one species to displace another from the latter’s native range makes the former a bio-control agent. Such agents are considered ‘classical’ if they are natural enemies of the target species (but not necessarily in all environments). Ecologists are generally favourable towards the use of classical agents, especially if they are selected and introduced carefully. There have been many success stories wherein bio-control agents have been used to suppress target populations so humans continue to have access to natural resources they consider valuable. However, as the authors of the 2000 study have acknowledged, the “prevention of invasions is much less costly than post-entry control”, such as when an agent is introduced that doesn’t specifically suppress one other species but goes after a large number of them. The finest example of this is Australia’s cane-toad experiment. Even CRISPR/Cas9 offers no easy way out.

Featured image: A harlequin ladybird. Credit: spacebirdy/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Overview of science journalism in India, for WiD

Wissenschaft im Dialog is hosting “a special series about the role of science communication and science journalism in various countries”. At their request, and thrilled for the opportunity, I wrote the India edition, available to read here. The initial limit was 1,000 words but the version that got published has around 1,400 words. For allowing this spillover – i.e. letting me go on and on – but more so for helping me compose and edit the thing, I owe thanks to Esther Kähler and Arwen Cross.

Excerpt:

There are many reasons for [science stories of a certain type being popular today] – but two of them in particular dominate. The first is that, like everywhere else in the world, Indian journalism outlets are making a painful transition from print to the web. However, the business of journalism is tougher in India because the purchasing power is lower while the costs remain high. As a result, tested models of money-making such as online subscriptions and paywalls developed for the West can’t be adopted in India. Second – and again, like everywhere else in the world – political nationalism is on the rise. (Even if Emmanuel Macron received 65% of the French vote, it is startling that Marine Le Pen secured 35%.) One consequence of this has been that right-wing ideologues, politicians and supporters are becoming less tolerant towards journalism that criticises homegrown innovations. Instead they want stories that amplify national pride by glorifying ’successes‘ that, in most contexts, would simply be seen as low-hanging fruit.

Keep reading.

Featured image credit: mdhondt/pixabay.

The raison d'être of a science journalist, courtesy Hobsbawm

For someone who reads very slowly (a 300-page book usually takes a week), Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes offered an astonishingly enjoyable experience*. A week after I picked it up at a secondhand books store, I’m 534 pages in and keep going back to it. While Hobsbawm’s celebrated breadth of knowledge intimidated me enough to get writer’s block, the book exhibits just the right level of topical fluency, insightfulness and, fortunately, snark.

My only grouse is that Hobsbawm had to have a separate section on the natural sciences in the book’s last chapter. As a result, it is as if he acknowledges that the unique traits of 20th century science don’t quite fit into the stories of anything else that happened in 1914-1991 – which is disappointing. It requires the reader to assimilate advances in quantum mechanics, relativity, semiconductor electronics and ICT by themselves and not together with how the 77 years panned out politically, economically and socially. Of course, Hobsbawm tries every now and then (in the natural sciences section) to contextualise scientific and technological advancements in issues and narratives of societal development, but this doesn’t quite click.

Nonetheless, Age of Extremes is highly recommended, doubly so because, even if the science section seems like an afterthought, it still offers a carefully considered picture of modern science and its philosophical roots. (While some sections seemed facile, this may have been because I regularly read on these topics.) One paragraph in particular (p. 530) caught my eye: Hobsbawm argues that anti-science beliefs took root in the world because its subjects were becoming increasingly specialised, abstracted, and whose contents were becoming removed further from both common sense and sense experience – and, ultimately, from the common man. He then offers the following:

The suspicion and fear of science was fuelled by four feelings: that science was incomprehensible; that both its practical and moral consequences were unpredictable and probably catastrophic; and that it underlined the helplessness of the individual, and undermined authority. Nor should we overlook the sentiment that, to the extent that science interfered with the natural order of things, it was inherently dangerous.

In these lines, I see the perfect raison d’être of the science journalist. It is the task of the science journalist to dispel the pall of inaccessibility and incomprehensibility surrounding science, to lay out its practical and moral consequences, to inspire confidence in those who would doubt its effects, to invite them to participate in it, and to expose its processes so scientists cannot claim authority over the ignorant. And if Authority perceives a threat to itself emerging from science, it is likelier than not that it is advocating for a scientific idea that is of Authority’s own making and that it is not a ‘natural entity’. In this case, the exposition of the processes of science can be used to challenge Authority.

*I’m sorry Jahnavi, I’ll come to your book next.

Featured image: Eric Hobsbawm. Source: YouTube.

The Oedipal intrigues of Indian cinema and if they undermine hope

British film critic Nicholas Barber has a fantastic insight in this review in The Economist. The gist is that increasingly more productions, especially from the West, have plots that ‘evolve’ to until they become some sort of a family dispute. Barber cites famous examples: Star Wars, Jason Bourne, Sherlock (by extension, Elementary), Goldfinger, Spectre, etc. Some plausible reasons he offers:

It’s not too hard to see why such universe-shrinking appeals to screenwriters. Drama is fuelled by revelations, and there aren’t many revelations more momentous – or easier to write – than, “I am your father/sister/brother!” Giving the protagonist a personal involvement in the plot is also a simple way of raising the emotional stakes, as well as making him or her more sympathetic to the viewer. Most of us will never be lucky enough to blow up a moon-sized space station, as Luke Skywalker did, but we all know what it’s like to be angry at a parent or resentful of a sibling.

But I suspect that there is more to this trend than narrative expedience. The new spate of universe-shrinking, of plots driven by personal animus, could well be a sign of how narcissistic our culture has become, and how desperate film and television studios are to please fans who are obsessed by their favourite characters. But it’s also a symptom of globalisation: now that studios are so reliant on overseas sales, they don’t want to risk offending foreign markets. It’s safer to be personal than political.

I disagree with Barber’s larger point because I think he might be projecting. Numerous episodes of Sherlock are concerned with family but only if that’s what you choose to take away. Instead, Barber appears to be picking on themes and in the process betraying a personal dislike for them. He may also be cherry-picking his examples; his review itself in The Economist has been prompted by one episode of one TV show.

Obviously this made me think of Indian cinema and if it’s been guilty of the same tactics. Of course it has and there are innumerable examples across eras. One that most ground at me was (spoiler alert) the very-recent Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru. But then the occasion also merits some introspection about the place of the Indian family and its sensibilities. Barber thinks more western creators are resorting to, as one comment points out, “Oedipal intrigues” because producers expect them to find more favour with western audiences. Similarly, what kind of “Oedipal intrigues” does the Indian audience like? A tangential take on this line of thought: what possibilities do “Oedipal intrigues” violate? For example, Barber explains how Luke Skywalker’s humble origins – which the audience may have been able to connect better with – are outwindowed when you realise he’s the brother of a famous princess and the son of the series’s greatest villain. Similarly, what possibilities offered by Indian cinema have been undermined by its own “Oedipal intrigues”?

The only thing that comes to mind is its treatment of women. Perhaps you can think of something else as well.

Featured image: A still from the film Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru.

Bollywood, Kollywood, etc.

Southern India is fertile territory for film-makers. Its 260m inhabitants are richer than the national average, and prefer content in regional languages to Hindi, Bollywood’s lingua franca. Ageing cinemas bulge to breaking-point: audiences turn into cheering spectators and drown out the dialogues. Living superstars have temples named after them; fans bathe huge garlanded cut-outs of actors with milk to pray for their film’s success. Pre-screening rituals include burning camphor inside a sliced pumpkin before smashing it near the big screen to bring good luck. It is unsurprising that five of Tamil Nadu’s eight chief ministers have been film stars or scriptwriters.

This is from an article in The Economist that touches upon a point highlighted most recently by Kabali but not as much as I’d have liked, although this line of thought would’ve been a digression. The article remarks that Bollywood has been in a bit of a “funk” of late, having “recycled” the same stars repeatedly. It’s not just that. Notwithstanding the vacuous rituals, South Indian cinema, at least Tamil cinema, has also been more comfortable taking on touchy topics, and plumbing depths that are both sensitive and nuanced (as opposed to dealing with full-blown controversies), a sort of privilege afforded no doubt by an audience able to appreciate it. This isn’t to say Tamil cinema doesn’t have any problems – it has its share – as much as to point out that it has been able to touch upon societal ills more often and better than Bollywood has been able. For further reading, I recommend Karthikeyan Damodaran’s assessment of Kabali (which includes an instructive review of the caste-focused hits of Kollywood). If you have more time, Vaasanthi’s wonderful book Cut-Outs, Caste and Cine Stars: The World of Tamil Politics is a must-read. It takes great pains to document the seeding of political power in the aspirations of Tamil cinema. A short excerpt:

Once the country attained freedom and the Congress came to power in Tamil Nadu as well, puritans like [C. Rajagopalachari] and Kamaraj who were at the helm of affairs, completely disowned the contribution of cinema to the movement. Rajaji’s rival Satyamurthy, a Congressman of great imagination and vision as far as the visual media’s impact was concerned, had in fact built up a very powerful group of artists. With the rapid electrification of rural areas under Congress rule, cinema halls and films became accessible to the rural population. Thanks to touring cinemas, even the most remote villages could soon be reached by this medium.

The Dravida Kazhagam activists, many of whom were talented playwrights, recognised cinema’s potential and very deftly used it for their purpose. At first they were scriptwriters working for producers and had no control over the medium. But they could project their ‘reformist’ ideas and insert dialogues critiquing Brahmins, religious hypocrisy, untouchability and other controversial subjects. They rode on the popularity they earned from cinema as scriptwriters and saw in the medium potential to spread their message. [R.M. Veerappan] recalls that Annadurai thought ‘the revolutionary ideas of Periyar should be told through plays. And decided to write. He as an actor himself and expressed great affinity towards fellow artistes and supported and praised them in public. The Congress, on the other hand, only made use of the artists like K.B. Sundarambal, Viswanath Das and others, but their status was not enhanced. All theatre artistes including S.G. Kittappa, who was a Brahmin, were looked down upon and were not respected.’

Featured image credit: Unsplash/pixabay.

Elementary P v. NP

“What’re you currently binge-watching?” is a great conversation-starter, I think. One well-suited for this age and carrying enough insights into the person you’re trying to strike up a conversation with.

I’m currently binge-watching Elementary, an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes whose mysteries may not be as well-roundedly gripping as they are in Sherlock but whose narrative spares me the melodrama of Benedict Cumberbatch and whose reality is neither as ambitious nor paranoid. I also like the idea of a male-female pair in the lead that doesn’t have sex from the get-go.

But in its simplicity, Elementary sometimes get ahead of itself. The most common symptom of this is that, in a few episodes, there is some information that is revealed in the second-half, to which the viewer has had no previous access and so to whom the resolution veritably arises from the blue. As a once-avid quizzer, this is a buzzkill because it offers no opportunity for the viewer to attempt to solve the puzzle before Holmes does (which isn’t impossible). It also makes a lesser ‘deductionist’ of Holmes because, in the viewer’s eyes, it robs him of the ability to piece together a solution to a puzzle using pieces the viewer knows exist.

But in some other episodes, another kind of problem arises. In them, Elementary ventures into fantasy. Often it has the good sense to explain some conundrums away with the suffix “… if we had a really well-equipped lab and billions of dollars”. At other times, it assumes the viewers ignorant. And at even other times, it clubs the two.

An example of the last variety is season 2, episode 2: ‘Solve for X’. In this episode, two mathematicians are killed while they’re both working on a solution to the P versus NP problem. The problem, first formally presented by a computer scientist named Stephen Cook in 1971, asks whether P equals NP. P stands for the set of all problems that can be solved in a reasonable amount of time (relative to their complexity). NP stands for the set of all problems that cannot be solved in a reasonable amount of time but that can be verified in a reasonable amount of time.

(John Pavlus had the perfect metaphor for NP back in 2010: “Imagine a jigsaw puzzle: finding the right arrangement of pieces is difficult, but you can tell when the puzzle is finished correctly just by looking at it”.)

Though a solution to the problem has evaded the most skilled mathematicians for many decades, most of them intuitively believe that P ≠ NP. Solving the problem fetches a $1 million cash prize from the Clay Mathematics Institute (CMI), New York – setting up the motive in ‘Solve for X’. However, the episode is also careful to note the fact that most of modern cryptography is problem-solving and that a solution to the P v. NP problem would be worth hundreds of millions to digital security companies.

This is a line that was bandied about just last month when a group of physicists announced that they were a step closer to resolving the Riemann hypothesis, another mathematical problem that carries a $1 million reward from the CMI. Resolving the hypothesis has some beautiful implications for the incidence of prime numbers on the number line and for prime factorisation, both integral components of the RSA encryption algorithm. However, it says little about how a problem itself could be solved – a notion that is also applicable to the pop culture surrounding the P v. NP problem.

In ‘Solve for X’, a third mathematician solves the problem and then uses it to hack emails and into CCTV footage.

Proving that P equals NP does not mean programmers immediately have insights into where the solutions for a given problem may lay. They only know that, technically, the problem has a solution in polynomial time. For example, consider the RSA algorithm itself. It is effective because it relies on prime factorisation, the process of finding two large prime numbers whose product is being used as a key to cracking the security the algorithm affords. A single-core 2.2-GHz CPU is supposed to take “almost 2,000 years” to factorise a number with 768 bits. Numbers with 2,048 bits or higher are thought to be unfactorisable in a single human lifetime. At the same time, given two prime numbers, their product can be quickly computed and a proposed solution rapidly verified.

But proving P equals NP doesn’t make any of this easier. Knowing that there is a solution out there is not the same as knowing what it could be, particularly in situations where scientists are concerned with practical applications.

R.J. Lipton, an expert on the problem, probably has the most meaningful take on this: that succeeding in solving the problem is about making a psychological impact. If P ≠ NP, then your conception of the world isn’t shaken much: some problems that you thought were hard are going to remain hard. But if P = NP, then it means there are a whole bunch of problems that you thought were hard but are actually easy, and that you – and thousands of mathematicians over the years – have missed out on simpler answers. However, it wouldn’t have anything to say about where this ease arises from.

… unless there is either something encoded in the solution of the P v. NP problem itself or it’s the case that a unified solution emerges to crack all NP problems. I felt that ‘Solve for X’ takes such encoding for granted, that it significantly overestimates the confidence boost accorded by knowing that a problem is solvable or that it significantly underestimates the gap between P = NP and being able to hack into everything. In other words, if P equalled NP, I would still be aghast if someone hacked into Google’s servers.

Any which way, it goes a step too far, evident when you see Tanya Barrett and her programmer friend go from solving the problem to hacking into CCTV footage within a day. It makes a fool of a viewer by saying that this is what the P v. NP problem immediately helps accomplish – and it also makes savants of Barrett and the programmer in order to be able to make such rapid progress but whose savantism doesn’t manifest in any other way.

SPOILERS END

I also think Elementary may have missed a great opportunity to explore a wider, wilder world in which P = NP.

As with my criticism of Spectral, my taking on of Elementary happened because it was an interesting intersection of science and popular culture and that doesn’t happen often. And while Elementary may not have perfectly depicted the consequences of solving a famous mathematical problem – just the way Spectral took some liberties with depicting an esoteric physical phenomenon – I’m glad that it ventured in that direction at all.

Finally, if you’re interested in reading more about the P v. NP problem, I highly recommend Scott Aaronson’s and Lipton’s blogs. Both can get quite technical but they also have some posts that discuss the problem very well, by which I mean not just simple language but also with insights that might allow you to glimpse the underlying principles. Here are two posts – here and here – to get started with.

Featured image credit: Pexels/pixabay.

GM crops, etc.

There’s been a flurry of stories in my inbox since India’s GEAC cleared a variety of GM mustard, developed by Monsanto, for commercial utilisation in India. It’s an important step, bringing a potentially valuable – as well as potentially damaging – crop closer to being introduced in the market. However, thanks to disasters associated with previous GM foodcrop introductions like Bt cotton and Bt brinjal, the introduction of GM mustard isn’t going to go down smoothly. Then again, if a writer doesn’t want GM mustard to be introduced, then the burden of proof is on her to convince me, or any reader for that matter, either that GM mustard is bound to fail as a crop or that it is being introduced in a manner that’s become typical of the Indian government: through half-measures and seldom in a way that suggests the state is ready to face all possible consequences, especially the adverse ones.

On the other hand, how does it make sense to grate against Bt cotton and Bt brinjal in order to discourage the introduction of GM mustard? Doing so suggests an immensely pessimistic determinism, an assumption that we will never produce the perfect genetically modified crop. Notwithstanding Monsanto’s transgressions in the past, I do think that GM is the future – it has to be to keep feeding a planet of more than 7,000,000,000. And apart from optimising food storage and transportation, the demand for food is bound to grow with more people coming out of poverty. To insist at this point to switch to organic farming, which involves methods that may be locally sustainable but doesn’t have the mass-production capacity of conventional agriculture that this world has become addicted to, en masse and abandon GM options is nothing but foolish.

Yes, we make mistakes, and yes, we’re faced with some very difficult choices, but let’s start making decisions that go beyond the local ecology and local impact – not by abdicating local economies and people but by doing all of this in a way that no one loses out. Again, not going to be easy. I’m not sure anything in this sphere can be. Finally, yes, I’m aware that I’m speaking from a position of privilege; I stand by my comments. Oh, one more thing: The Wire‘s science section has also imposed a moratorium on non-reported GM pieces. I’m really keen on taking the conversation forward, not drowning a platform with The Wire‘s import in volleys exchanged between pro- and anti-GM camps.

Featured image credit: PublicDomainPictures/pixabay.

If Nautilus is so good, why is it doing so bad?

From UndarkAward-winning Nautilus enters rough waters

For all the good news and accolades, however, murmurings within the science writing community suggest that not all is well at Nautilus. Rumors of delayed or entirely absent payments to the magazine’s fleet of freelance contributors have reached a crescendo, as have complaints that editorial staff continue to solicit work knowing that the publication may not be able to make good on promised fees. One Nautilus freelancer, who asked to remain anonymous because thousands of dollars in fees are still pending, received a note a few months ago directly from the magazine’s publisher and editorial director, John Steele, offering assurances that the funds — which were for a feature that the magazine published last year — would be on their way by the end of January. That deadline came and went without payment, the freelancer said, and follow-up emails to Nautilus have not changed things.

How translatable are Nautilus‘s troubles to the theatre of Indian journalism? By itself, Nautilus is one of the best science magazines out there. While many have gushed about its awesome content, I like their pieces best when they stick to the science. When they wander into culture and philosophy, I find they lack the kind of depth common to writing published by 3 Quarks Daily, The Baffler and Jacobin. Its illustrations however are undeniably wonderful. Multiple reports have suggested that Nautilus’s online traffic is booming and that its print editions have been well-received. So what happened?

In some ways, Nautilus‘s origins are reminiscent of The Wire‘s. The former’s launch was enabled by a $5 million grant (over three years) from the Templeton foundation. The latter launched on its own steam –  with $10,000 (Rs 6 lakh) and bucketloads of goodwill – but a $600,000 grant (i.e. Rs 3.95 crore, over one year) from the Independent and Public Spirited Media Foundation (IPSMF) in its second year has allowed it to scale up considerably.

While grants to media start-ups are definitely awesome, they are likely to be accompanied by expectations of growth that the grant alone won’t be able to ensure. In such cases, a majority of the grant can’t be used to fuel growth as much as to keep the company alive long enough for it to conceive and implement an alternate business model that will then fuel growth. If the Templeton foundation set such targets for Nautilus, then I suspect the magazine screwed up here somewhere.

Second: by Undark‘s own estimates, Nautilus has burned through over $10 million in three years. That’s a lot of money and it makes me wonder if it took on too much too soon. Again, I don’t know how far off the mark I am here because I don’t know what the agreement between Nautilus and Templeton was. But if it had anything to do with Nautilus being unable to sustain growth, I wouldn’t be surprised. While the magazine comes across as a great idea, some things are possible only beyond a certain scale. For example, it’s possible that Nautilus would be better off if it had 140,000 people paying it $15 a month to read the print editions; that’s $2.1 million a year. And the profits can be maximised – and reinvested to solicit more, better writing – if, for the first one or two years, they cut back on the illustrations. It’s always more important to pay for what you’ve used*. It helps build long-lasting relationships.

The cutting-down-on-illustrations bit wouldn’t be so bad because, as we’ve learnt from The Wire, if the writing is good and the reporting and analysis substantial, a publication will do well even without bells and whistles. But if the writing lacks depth, then no amount of tinkering with anything else on the site will help. I agree that Nautilus was going for something more than what most science writing outlets had to offer, but my sense is that the magazine wanted to offer more from day one when it might not have been possible.

Additionally, staying above water for long enough to have a sustainable, over-the-horizon business model of your liking has another important implication: independence.

I’m not privy to the grant agreement between Templeton and Nautilus. The one between The Wire and IPSMF does not contain any requirement, specification or clause that prevents The Wire from publishing anything that it deems appropriate. On the other hand, notwithstanding the terms of Nautilus‘s relationship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which is apparently in talks to ‘absorb’ the magazine, the magazine has not found a way to become completely independent yet. To be sure, it’s not that Nautilus and AAAS won’t get along, or that Nautilus‘s content will become untrustworthy, but that nothing beats a journalistic publication being fully independent. To perfectly comprehend the benefits of this model, I recommend reading the story of De Correspondent.

This is also The Wire‘s aspiration: not paywalls as much as a reader-contributes model in which we produce what our readers allow us to and trust us to.

What De Correspondent‘s trajectory highlights is the development of a way to more efficiently translate emotional appreciation to material appreciation. Evidently, De Correspondent‘s model requires its readers to have a measure of trust in its production sense, ethics and values. If its readers paid $X, then $X worth of content will be produced (assuming overheads don’t increase as a consequence); if its readers paid $2X, then it will scale up accordingly. And it is this trust that Nautilus could have built if it had gone slower in the first few years and then bloomed. But with AAAS, or anyone else, acquiring Nautilus, and there being no word of the magazine planning to do things differently, it’s either going to be more of the same or it expects to secure a large funding boost.

And it is for all these reasons that I can connect with Paul Raeburn’s comment on the Undark article:

Nautilus has burned through … some $10 million in foundation grants in five years. But that’s just the foundation funding. Nautilus is also, in effect, being subsidized by writers and illustrators who work for it without pay. We can only guess, but it seems likely that the pay that never went to contributors amounts to tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in subsidies for Nautilus. It’s time we recognized that many online publications – Undark not among them – are being subsidized by writers. And we should stop subsidizing them.

(Paul Raeburn and Charlie Petit founded the erstwhile Knight Science Journalism Tracker, now subsumed by Undark. Also, and of no relevance whatsoever, Petit once quoted my blog on the pages of KSJT.)

Such persistent subsidies will only postpone the finding of a good solution or the meeting of a tragic end, neither of which is good for anyone publishing stories worth reading. At the same time, writers should be understanding of the fact that independent media initiatives are in their infancy – on top of operating in a region with its own economic and professional troubles (I can’t emphasise this enough). This doesn’t mean they should be okay with not being paid; on the contrary. They should expect to be paid for all services provided but they should expect reasonable amounts. One freelancer I’d once sounded out for a story asked for $1 a word. This might be okay in the US and in the UK/Europe, but Rs 64 a word in India has no bearing to ground realities. Of course, I do laud the freelancer for having been able to secure such rates in the past (in other countries) as well as for valuing his own work so highly.

The Wire publishes about 300 original articles a month (excluding in-house content). The average length of each article is around 1,500 words. Some of our contributors write for us pro bono because they recognise the value of what we are trying to do and our constraints – and because the response they receive is gratifying. But assuming we had to pay for everything we ran, this means commissioning costs Rs 22.5 lakh a month if we pay Rs 5 a word and Rs 90 lakh a month if we pay Rs 20 a word. Excluding these numbers, The Wire needs X readers to pay Rs Y each a year to cover its running costs (with X estimated as conservatively and Y as liberally as possible). Including these numbers, The Wire will need 1.45X to 42X readers (for Rs 5 to Rs 20 a word) to pay Rs Y each a year. Now, IPSMF + donations from readers has allowed us to expand our audience to up to about 8.5X. But do you see how far afield we will have to go to be able to pay Rs 20 a word and break even (let alone turn a profit)?

In fact, not just us: this applies to all news publishers in India considering a reader-pays model, whether the start-up funds come from philanthropy or angel investors. This is the essential conflict that manifests itself in different garbs, forcing publishers to display crappy advertisements and/or publish ‘trending’ dumpsterfire. As the search for the holy grail of sustainable, high-quality journalism continues, the bottom line seems to be: Pay better, get better in return.

*Except when writers insist on waiving the fees because they can afford to.

Reneging on an old promise

This morning, I activated a feature that would display ads on my blog. I’m given to understand the bulk of my most loyal readers get their dose of Gaplogs edmx via email. However, I still get a reasonable number of hits on the blog itself, and I activated WordAds to capitalise on it and help pay for an upgrade that I think my blog deserves.

Eight years ago, when I launched this blog, I’d promised my readers that this blog would always be a labour of love, free to read and free of ads. The first two still hold. Being able to make money off of my writing doesn’t change what or how I write. Some of my friends can tell you how I complain every once in a while about how unreasonably difficult it is to be read widely and to be considered valuable in an industry as a science writer. But this hasn’t kept from continuing to be a science writer because it’s what I love to do.

The same goes for this blog. It will always be a labour of love and my writing here will always be honest and independent of any financial or other material interests. Case in point: I’m reluctant at the moment to say this blog will always be free to read as well. Who knows, if someday this blog becomes really popular and if it becomes feasible to install a paywall, I will. 😉 The best I can promise is that edmx will always be free to read for the existing clutch of ~2,900 followers.

Featured image credit: andibreit/pixabay.