Scientists and Journalists Aren’t on the Same Side, But They’re Often Heading in the Same Direction

What you’re getting into: about 3500 words, a 12-18 minute read

Scientists often assume that journalists are on their side when it comes to educating the public about scientific topics. That’s true for a lot of basic science, like, say, when journalists write about the discovery of a new exoplanet or explain the work of a scientist who just won a major prize. Those typically aren’t controversial topics, so scientists and journalists alike are simply trying their best to explain some cool science.

The second we start talking about anything perceived as controversial outside the lab, though, the rules of engagement can dramatically shift. It’s incredibly easy for scientists, science communicators and journalists to talk past one other when we’re dealing with topics like climate change, vaccines, evolution and genetic engineering, as well as science funding. And it can happen when journalists hold scientists and scientific institutions accountable, too.

The good news, I think, is that we can do better. And doing so requires being clearer about when we’re talking about science and when we’re talking about competing values and how science fits into societal debates.

Below, I offer a story, some observations and suggestions. I‘d love to hear more.

Policy, politics and cultural coverage isn’t pure science coverage

I talked past a reporter pretty badly back in 2011. Members of Congress had invited several scientists to testify about whether or not the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to reduce heat-trapping emissions were justified. One member — a lawyer by training — used his time to pepper scientists with loaded questions while demanding simple yes or no answers, a standard tactic at such hearings. Of course, that’s anathema to any scientist.

Here’s how a major news outlet ended an article about the hearing:

Mr. Griffith also wanted to know why the ice caps on Mars were melting and why he had been taught 40 years ago in middle school that Earth was entering a cooling period.

“What is the optimum temperature for man?” he asked. “Have we looked at that? These are questions that, believe it or not, I lay awake at night trying to figure out.”

The scientists promised to provide written answers.

Like a lot of folks working on climate science communication at the time, I thought this was a problematic ending. To a reader unfamiliar with these issues, it could sound like these were mysterious questions for which science had no good answers. (Briefly, here are answers on Mars, 1970s climate science, and why rates of change are more worrisome than absolute temperature.)

I fired off an email to the reporter, arguing — quite well I thought — that his reporting was unfair to the scientists who testified and detrimental to public understanding of science.

He told me, in so many words, that edifying the public about Martian climate variance wasn’t the point of his article.

First of all, I hadn’t been the first person to contact him, so he felt like he was getting pressured (reporters hate that) and his reporting on the hearing was accurate. That was, in fact, what happened at the hearing and an informed reader, he argued, would know exactly where the politicians and scientists stood in relation to one another. Further, his story also focused on an exchange in which a representative made it clear that climate science — and risks from industrially driven climate change — were well-established in the scientific literature.

I realized that in his mind, my complaint wasn’t really about science; my complaint was that he hadn’t beaten up a member of Congress for giving scientists a hard time. 

Source: House Science Committee. Text added by author.

We also had different audiences in mind. My complaint was based on the assumption that the article’s audience would be otherwise uninformed about climate science or policy. He assumed that readers would be well-armed enough to draw their own conclusions.

Maybe I was right, but that and $3.25 will get you a Chai Latte at Starbucks. The point is that I was telling him to do science communication and he was reminding me that he was doing political reporting. In the ensuing years, I think journalists have done a better job reminding readers where climate science stands when politicians challenge or reject the evidence, but the exchange taught me a broader lesson: just because a story has a lot of science in it doesn’t mean it’s going to get treated like a science story.

Journalists and scientists are both committed to accuracy

Journalists and scientists do both care deeply about accuracy and credibility. It’s tempting to say that it’s because the noble ideals of both professions rest on uncovering the truth and boldly going where the facts lead, regardless of one’s beliefs or biases. And, yeah, okay that’s true, but the day-to-day is a lot more brass tacks: in both professions, credibility is currency and too many errors over time can sink a career.

Real errors are a problem, of course. And scientists and journalists are both sometimes guilty of intransigence when people point out errors in their work. Regardless, both professions benefit from the self-correcting nature of the larger enterprises around them. A bad story will get factchecked by other outlets in ways that are similar to how a bunktastic scientific paper will fail replication by other scientists.

The problem I’m writing about isn’t really about factual errors, though; it’s about what happens when science-related stories move out of the lab, into the world, and yes, into the political arena. We need to be careful about how we think and talk about accuracy in that context, because it’s easy to talk past each other based on assumptions about what audiences know and what role journalism is playing in a given debate.

This is important to get right because science is still the best tool we have for learning about the world and journalism is still the best tool we have for informing the public about what those scientific tools have uncovered.

Journalists and scientists have different audiences and jobs

Scientists care deeply about what policymakers and the public think about their fields, especially on issues that are perceived as controversial. When politicians and interest groups seek to highlight, inflate and manufacture controversies, scientists’ desire for accuracy often puts them in the position of wanting journalists to downplay or actively challenge those outside attempts at influencing the public and focus on what is well-established among scientists.

But when those same outside interests groups focus on controversies, it’s journalists’ job to report on them. Their commitment to fairness means bringing in all the stakeholders in a debate and reporting what they believe and why, even when it cuts against the science.

So sometimes, when scientists are demanding accurate reporting, what they’re really asking is for journalists to critically assess inaccurate views from outside the scientific community. Journalists can’t always do that, especially on deadline when they’re covering noisy policy fights. I‘d argue that this often puts the onus — rightly or wrongly — on scientists to repeatedly make their views clear to journalists and media outlets. That means consistently reminding journalists what scientists have to say about these topics and why prevalent misinformation is wrong.

Arguing about science and whose side science is really on has gotten so popular that launched SciCheck in January 2015.

Arguing about science and whose side science is really on has gotten so popular that launched SciCheck in January 2015.

Of course, journalists have a responsibility, too. They can’t pass on inaccurate information simply because there are quote marks around it. Journalism professor Jay Rosen, for instance, describes several ways reporters can handle political disputes about established climate science ranging from explaining the ideological roots of rejecting climate science to simply noting what the science does say in their own journalistic voice. Additionally, media outlets have a special responsibility to report on industry attempts to influence the public and policymaking, whether on climate change or toxic chemicals.

The bottom line is that scientists and science communicators shouldn’t conflate their disappointment with some media reporting with their deeper disappointment in a society that is often simply out of step with scientists on a host of topics. It’s journalists’ job to report on science-related societal controversies accurately, but it’s not journalists’ job to actively push the public toward established science. That also means that science communicators and scientists need to think more about how they can help journalists do effective, accurate reporting around contentious societal debates.

Journalists aren’t here to help anyone’s cause, including scientists’

There’s another type of complaint scientists often have with reporting on and around science: the story is going to be abused by people who want to attack the broader scientific field.

For instance, scientists understandably gripe about the “Darwin was wrong” trope that regularly pops up in biology reporting. In 2009, New Scientist even used it as the title for a cover story. Scientists bemoaned the choice, noting that creationists quickly hopped on the article as “evidence” that mainstream biology was in shambles.

Of course, anyone motivated enough to pick up a copy of New Scientist probably already has their mind made up about the theory of evolution, but scientists rightfully worry about how groups outside the scientific mainstream will use — and more often, abuse — reporting on scientific topics. It can happen with any scientific finding, even seemingly routine ones, on vaccination, industrial agriculture, dietary and nutrition choices, and anything anyone wants to pick a fight about for reasons that usually have nothing at all to do with actual science. Because scientists enjoy so much public trust, advocates always want to have science on their side, so they’ll comb through literature, trade reports, and science-related press releases and media coverage hunting for anything they can use (and dismissing what they can’t).

Ideally, media outlets should anticipate this sort of thing.

Here’s that New Scientist cover.

Not really, but okay!

And here’s how National Geographic arguably handled it better with a clear message for people who bothered to crack the magazine open.


Of course, science communicators and scientists would probably much rather see something like this.


To which a science journalist might say: love the Warhol thing, but where’s the conflict for a good story?

Ice, Ice, Maybe

Scientists and journalists had to artfully deal with a rather odd combination of substance and perception recently when a NASA-sponsored study — by accounts, an outlier — found that Antarctica is gaining ice mass overall even as the West Antarctic ice sheet continues to melt, as sea levels continue to rise, and as global warming goes on broadly in line with what scientists have been saying about it for decades.

At first blush, the study’s findings are a head-turner that runs counter to the simple main message the public has heard from scientists for decades: global warming melts ice and raises sea levels pretty much everywhere. Of course, there are a lot of nuances under that statement, which scientists have talked about repeatedly, especially when it comes to the rate of melting and the geographic differences between places like Greenland and Antarctica, but at the headline level or broad public awareness, this was surprising news.

AntarcticaPredictably, ideological media outlets that routinely criticize mainstream climate science used the study to try to throw cold water on climate science. Here’s an opinion writer taking a fat, sloppy swing at it in the UK’s Express:


Nothing like ALL CAPS to make the CREDIBILITY OF YOUR ARGUMENT clear.

Some mainstream outlets jumped on it as a surprising study. From their perspective, it wasn’t their main job to beat the public over the head with the basic science on global warming and melting ice sheets or to correct what those ideological sources have said: it was their main job to report on a new and interesting “man bites dog” science story.

USA Today, with its incredibly broad audience, probably captured that reaction best:USAToday

Other journalists and outlets, notably Chris Mooney at the Washington Post went out of their way to put the study in deep scientific and policy context. They and their editors even used valuable headline space to address potential misinformation about the study, something that almost never happens when outlier studies get big coverage.


Andrew Freedman at Mashable took a similar approach in his reporting, while the headline took on the inaccurate narrative about the study directly.

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 6.10.16 PMOf course, Mooney and Freedman are well-versed beat reporters with arguably more engaged audiences. That’s the exception, not the norm, and the onus is still on scientists and scientific institutions to anticipate inaccurate takes on new research and plan their communications accordingly.

For it’s part, NASA’s social media account tried to squeeze as much nuance as it could into 140 characters:

Still the agency’s press release might have done more to emphasize what is known about long-term ice loss and sea-level rise globally. Interestingly, the study’s lead author was pretty blunt about how people outside the scientific community would misrepresent his research in an interview with Nature.

“I know some of the climate deniers will jump on this, and say this means we don’t have to worry as much as some people have been making out,” he says. “It should not take away from the concern about climate warming.” As global temperatures rise, Antarctica is expected to contribute more to sea-level rise, though when exactly that effect will kick in, and to what extent, remains unclear.

Such awareness is common among scientists working in controversial fields and they should be open about it, just as public health researchers devote plenty of time and thought to how their own studies are received. It’s all about helping audiences — and reporters — enjoy an accurate view of the science.

Journalists also have to hold scientists and institutions accountable

Buzzfeed’s Brooke Borel recently wrote about controversies surrounding biologist Kevin Folta and communications work he did related to GMOs, some of which was done in coordination with biotech companies running anti-labeling campaigns. Naturally, pro-and-anti GMO forces attempted to assign ideological positions to Borel’s article, but there was another thread of more interesting criticism (at least for me). Some scientists complained that the article would 1) provide more ammo for anti-GMO groups attacking Folta and other scientists and 2) discourage other researchers from doing science communication.

Borel’s response was straightforward and sensible. In a series of Twitter messages she wrote: “As science writers/journalists/etc, we hold a strange position sometimes. I love science. I admire scientists. But it’s also my job to think about both critically. My job as a science journalist is not to advocate for science and scientists at all times, no matter what.”

Indeed, scientists are often public figures who can and should face public criticism from time to time: many enjoy taxpayer support and they are often trusted, powerful figures in society. So even while scientists and science communicators rightfully condemn politicized attacks on researchers, they should also expect and even welcome journalistic scrutiny. Another journalist, Rose Eveleth, put it well, too:

When scientists get involved — or unwillingly find themselves involved — in public communication on controversial science-related issues, we’re not in the world of pure science reporting any more. In these debates, scientists are just one of many actors pushing for their voices to be heard above the democratic din.

Even science education and science funding choices aren’t purely about science. As climate scientist Gavin Schmidt has argued, any societal debate that involves science also involves value judgments.  

Science gets inserted into these debates in perfectly accurate as well as questionable ways all the time. It can be tough for journalists and scientists to figure out how to best respond. But I think we can all do better.

A series of hopefully helpful, but not exhaustive suggestions

Far be it from me to pontificate about a host of complex problems without at least suggesting some solutions. Here are a few ideas for how scientists, journalists and media outlets, as well as press officers at scientific institutions can help address these issues. (I’d love to hear feedback and talk about additional ideas.)

For scientists

  • Anticipate misunderstanding of your work — both intentional and not — and insist that public information officers and reporters anticipate it, too.
  • Demand accuracy, but understand when journalists aren’t just reporting on the science.
  • If you have a problem with a story, be direct, clear and forthright about it. Journalists are used to criticism and it’s easy for them to write you off as a hater if you come across as griping. (With exceptions for hacks and fabulists, of course.)
  • If you think a piece was missing context, but wasn’t expressly inaccurate, ask for an update, a chance to do a guest post (if possible, depending on the outlet), or just blog about it on your own.
  • If a reporter won’t correct a real error and you think it’s important enough, you can go over their heads to an editor or, if that doesn’t work, call them out online, but before you do that, ask someone with an outside perspective, preferably a press officer at your institution or a fellow scientist with lots of media experience, how strong your case really is. Ask them to think about it purely on the merits — as if they were reading about it online instead of chatting with someone they known and respect.

For journalists (and media outlets)

  • Build and link to explainers on controversial topics so audiences who are new to an issue or need a refresher can go back to that content when something new breaks. You have no idea how much scientists would love to see this and well-done explainers are often evergreen traffic sources. It’s also a great way to not have to reinvent the wheel when a new controversy erupts.
  • Understand the prevalent misinformation around a scientific topic and anticipate how scientists will see work as feeding into or pushing back against it. If you’re relatively new to a topic, ask scientists you’re interviewing what sort of inaccuracies they would want you to avoid in reporting. They’ll have plenty to share, believe me.
  • If you a know a piece will be received as controversial, take a look at how Brooke Borel quickly, openly and non-defensively responded to such criticism. Do that. Your storytelling is incomplete without responding to your audience.
  • Be open with scientists about what you’re looking for and where their work fits in, especially if it’s a controversial topic. Scientists worry a lot about their media coverage and much of that anxiety can come from unnecessarily fearing the worst.
  • If a scientist perceives missing context outside of pure scientific facts as a type of error, explain the distinctions as you see them and consider offering to update the story with more commentary from the scientist or about the science. It’s painless and can enhance the story.
  • You can and will tick off scientists even if your work is accurate. The mere act of not using jargon and keeping things short can create explanatory gaps from a scientist’s perspective. Give them a break. If you get a critical email from a scientist, use it as an excuse to help them understand your work. If they’re still grumpy, offer to buy them a coffee or beer.
  • Similarly, if an editor tells you to oversimplify some cool, complex topic you discussed with a scientist, stand up to that editor and stand up for your audience. I’m a big believer that people who are wiling to read entire stories are also wiling to understand and think about them, too. (Yeah, I know, I’m an optimist.)

For institutions and press officers

  • Don’t over-hype outlier findings, especially on controversial topics. Yeah, I know, this is tough one, but that’s why it’s important to give scientists the last-right-of-review on press materials. A university press officer looking to get attention for a study will often present it as “overturning” mainstream findings, for instance, and everyone involved should know that that usually leads to inaccurate reporting.
  • If a scientist seems worried about how some of their work will be received, listen. Pause. Tell your boss that the story is complex and needs to be handled carefully. Meet with the researchers and talk through some if-then scenarios you might run into when you release their new study.
  • If a scientist produces an outlier finding, point back to the mainstream science in the headline, subheadline and first paragraph of a press release. It’s hard to mistakenly overemphasize what is well-established. Figure out the 140-character version of the accurate takeaway for social media, too.
  • Non-jerkishly, but aggressively follow up on scientists’ behalf to correct inaccuracies. You’re allowed to be the bad cop sometimes. As Randy Olson has argued, if science communicators were 10 percent as aggressive as Hollywood publicists, mainstream reporting on scientific topics would be a lot more accurate.

A few additional thoughts based on some feedback from Lexi Shultz, director of public affairs at the American Geophysical Union (and a former colleague):

  • For scientists: Don’t disengage and don’t let the fear of being misunderstood prevent you from trying to communicate. The long-term benefits of working with the media outweigh any drawbacks you might see over the course of your career. I’d add that it’s up to scientists to tell their own stories, otherwise other people will tell those stories without them.
  • Scientific societies are also a great resource for members interested in sharing their work. For it’s part, AGU has launched a whole new “Sharing Science” initiative well worth checking out, especially if you’re into the geosciences.
  • Is that really a melting Martian ice cap? And, seriously, can I still eat bacon? Societies are also a solid resource for journalists who want to connect with independent scientific experts on literally every scientific topic.

On climate specifically, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research curated a lot of great resources as part of their Climate Voices initiative. If you’re interested in helping audiences sort through how their values relate to scientific findings, I strongly recommend this presentation by Jeff Kiehl, who not only has degrees in natural science, but who is also a licensed analyst. (Pretty cool, huh!)

Sleep Paralysis: Science, History and How I Learned to Make Sleep Paralysis Feel Less Freaky

Earlier this week, I guest-hosted a Halloween-themed Nerd Nite here in DC. I’m not big on the supernatural or spiritual, but I had some thoughts to share about sleep paralysis, a phenomenon I started experiencing – and was lucky enough to learn about – at a pretty young age.

What the heck is sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis can occur for a variety of reasons. I think mine is related to my sleep apnea. Occasionally, while I’m sleeping, I’ll shift around in such a way that my airway gets cut off. This results in snoring and a bunch of loud snoring-like sounds. It also results in my body waking me up so I can start breathing again.


If my body wakes me up during so-called “REM” sleep, that can result in a sleep paralysis episode. During REM sleep, our bodies shut down our muscles. When we experience sleep paralysis, we are conscious or semi-conscious while our muscles are shut down. We can’t move. And often, we can’t breathe either.

My sleep paralysis

I first experienced this around 11 or 12. I remember waking up, seeing my bedroom and not being able to move a muscle. When I tried to move, it felt like I was caught in molasses. I couldn’t breathe. As I ran out of air, my body finally snapped awake and I could breathe again. I remember trying to call out for my mother during an episode, too, and all that came out was a weak groan.

I’m lucky. My sleep paralysis is pretty mild and at the time, I just dismissed these episodes as bad dreams. A few years later, I learned what was actually happening to me when I picked up a copy of The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan, which remains my favorite book. In his guide to science-based skepticism, Sagan touches on how sleep paralysis can result in people seeing shadowy figures in the room with them and other dream-like hallucinations. Indeed, some people’s personal recollections of sleep paralysis sound quite terrifying.

Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare probably depicts sleep paralysis. The imp is sitting on the woman's chest restricting her breathing and the shadowy figure in the background is depicted here as a freaky, googly-eyed horse. Source: via Wikipedia.

Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare probably depicts sleep paralysis. The imp is sitting on the woman’s chest restricting her breathing and the shadowy figure in the background is depicted here as a freaky, googly-eyed horse. Source: via Wikipedia.

Sleep paralysis in folklore and history

Sagan and other skeptical thinkers, including Susan Blackmore, have detailed how sleep paralysis crops up in folklore all around the world. There’s the “Old Hag” of Newfoundland, who sits on your chest, there are demons and incubi, jinns, and other supernatural figures, including ones that tie you down with iron chains.

Sleep paralysis also crops up in the Salem Witch Trials. According to Cotton Mather’s second-hand accounts, in 1692:

Bernard Peach, gave ‘evidence’, testifying that “he heard a scrabbling at the window, whereat he then saw Susanna Martin come in, and jump down upon the floor. She took hold of this deponent’s feet, and drawing his body up into an heap, she lay upon him near two hours; in all which time he could neither speak nor stir.” When the paralysis began to wear off he bit Martin’s fingers and she “went from the chamber, down the stairs, out at the door.”

That certainly sounds like sleep paralysis. And it’s easy to imagine someone really believing that Susanna Martin did this to him. It’s a scary experience and if you’re living in colonial society during a witch craze, that may seem like a totally plausible explanation.

Shadowy alien figures looming over a paralyzed dreamer? Screengrab from "Unsealed Alien Files," ably made fun of by BJ White at Adventures in Poor Taste.

Shadowy alien figures looming over a paralyzed dreamer? Screengrab from “Unsealed Alien Files,” ably made fun of by BJ White at Adventures in Poor Taste.

Similarly, Susan Blackmore argues that sleep-paralysis-like symptoms crop up in modern-day alien abduction stories. Indeed, she writes, one study found that nighttime abduction stories were more likely to include paralysis than daytime ones.

Snapping out of it and not getting freaked out

Speaking for myself, learning more about sleep paralysis made these experiences so much less distressing or freaky. I remember having a few episodes – again, as a kid – and just concentrating on what it felt like to very slowly move my fingers or to concentrate on how much breath I had left as I counted down to snapping awake. This was by no means pleasant, of course, but it became more of an interesting experience than a scary one.

I was also interested to learn that in Latvian folklore, sleep paralysis sufferers are similarly advised to wiggle their toes to ward off the supernatural forces that are pestering them.

Still, this can be scary stuff

A new documentary is making the rounds in the United Kingdom called The Nightmare, which focuses on sleep paralysis and folks who have suffered mightily from it. Their experiences really do sound terrible and the psychological distress people can experience as a result of sleep paralysis is quite real.

Indeed, some doctors think that Hmong people who came to the United States as refugees from Laos during the Vietnam War suffered mightily from sleep paralysis. According to Alexis Madrigal, writing in The Atlantic, the Hmong believed that properly honoring one’s ancestors could ward off the supernatural forces that caused sleep paralysis. But after being displaced, many felt they were unable to do so. Shockingly, more than 100 otherwise healthy Hmong men died in their sleep following their displacement from Laos, perhaps as a result, Madrigal writes, of genetic heart problems combined with feeling helplessly attacked by supernatural forces during the night.

Our Summer Vacation – Five Nights in Shenandoah Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Nothing beats getting out of the city for vacation. From our nation’s capital, that usually means heading east to the beach or west to the mountains.

This year, I wanted to go a step beyond car-camping and overnight hiking and try a longer wilderness adventure. After reading a few too many trail journals and far, far too many posts about ultra-light backpacking, I asked Tori how she would feel about attempting to hike the Shenandoah National Park portion of the Appalachian Trail. She was enthusiastic, as well as reasonably skeptical about my ambitious plans to emulate thru-hikers who had been on the trail for weeks by clocking 15-plus-mile days on the trail.

We decided that we’d go big, but stay flexible. The portion of the AT that runs through Shenandoah has many “escape hatches” for the beleaguered hiker, including campgrounds, lodges and Skyline Drive, where it’s easy to hitch.


Southern portion of Shenandoah National Park. Red line is Skyline Drive. Dashed green line is the AT. Source: National Park Service.

Our friends Ben and Ariel followed us to the park and we all drove south together after dropping off our Corolla at Compton Gap, the northern-most point in Shenandoah where the AT and Skyline Drive intersect.

Ultimately, we walked about half the park, saw a couple bears, met a few bad-ass through hikers, had a great time and – speaking for myself – worked harder than I ever have before.

No, seriously, let me tell you about my pack weight

Since we were attempting a long hike, I wanted to make sure we cut down on pack weight as much as possible. While I’m embarrassed to say how much time I spent thinking about pack weight, it was probably worth it. My base weight – everything except food and water – clocked in under 20 lbs. Tori sported less than 15. This was largely due to an investment in a relatively light 4 lb. tent and a commitment to making solid tradeoffs between the weight on our backs and our comfort in camp. Neither of us ever felt burdened by our bags in the park, even as we loaded them up with meals, snacks and many liters of water.

Our friends Adam and Susanna, who had hiked most of the Appalachian Trail a few years ago, also urged us to get hiking poles. I’m glad Adam mentioned this to me twice – I needed to hear it. The poles saved my butt a few times, preventing little twists and stumbles and greatly reducing the amount of stress I was placing on my legs.


We did an overnight in Shenandoah about a year ago. Now we’re a few pounds wiser. Smaller pack, less gear, no big-ass camera. Source: My big ass camera, Tori’s much lighter smartphone.

Animals distract us from animals

This is the most objectively exciting thing that happened to us on our hike:

On our third day, we stopped for a snack in a parking lot. Two women and a young man were getting dropped off by another young man. As they departed, the fellow doing the dropping off told us they had been joking with one another about who would break down and run away from the group first. Tori and I passed them, said hello, and figured they were bound to have as much of an adventure as we were.

A few minutes later, I spied a score of yellow jacket wasps in the middle of the trail hovering around what was either a desiccated animal skull or a pile of scat. All I know is it was grey and there were a lot of wasps. I stopped and surveyed my surroundings, wondering if I was witnessing the aftermath of some minor wildlife act of violence.

Perhaps I was – I looked up and saw two bear cubs and what I assume was their mother.

“BEAR,” I shouted – the same way I heralded the arrival of the first one I’d seen in the wild a bit less than a year ago in the same park. Tori and I backed up, still facing the trail and the bears, so we could warn the folks behind us. One of the bear cubs scaled a tree and looked at me. I have to admit he was pretty cute, but that did nothing to reduce my anxiety given his inability to vouch for his older relatives.

Black Bear Cub - Shenandoah National Park

Representative black bear photo. We did not stop to take our own picture. Source: Larry W. Brown on Flickr.

We told the folks behind us that there were some bears ahead. We quickly learned that this was their first hike in the woods in several years. One of the women, a self-described Air Force wife, had packed a taser in case of bear attack – something I’d not seen before – and she brandished it and made sure it was working – a lightning bolt jumping between coils.

After chatting for a few minutes, we decided to proceed – LOUDLY – down the trail.

Remember the yellow jackets? Yeah, me neither. While I had mentioned them to everyone, we had all unfortunately forgotten about them by the time we decided to hike past the bears. In a complete failure of outdoor leadership, I stepped on them, resulting in one sting for me, zero for Tori and several for the three folks behind us.

Naturally, this improved both the group’s LOUDNESS and speed. One of the women called out that she had packed an EpiPen given her allergy to bees. I searched my mind for any distinguishing characteristics between bees and wasps with regard to human allergies and came up embarrassingly empty.

We rounded a turn or two and informed the folks behind us that we were stopping. I felt terrible about forgetting the wasps – I suppose we all did! – and apologized profusely as we offered up a half-tube of Cortisone Tori had wisely taken from Ariel.

Thankfully, everyone was fine. For three people who had just spent their first hour seriously backpacking – one of them for the first time in 25 years – they took it in remarkable stride. As one of the women put it, ‘Well, I guess I learned I can run with this much weight on my back!’ We ran into them again late in the day and they seemed simultaneously exhausted and committed to their hike.

We saw no more bears that day – and we would see just one more cub on our last day on the trail.

Regardless, as Tori noted, things can turn on a dime when you’re in nature. The serenity we were feeling on our snack break was completely shattered in minutes, replaced by a mix of adrenaline and absurdity.

Still, going into the wilderness, especially a well-developed and mapped tract of wilderness, is less dangerous than driving or hundreds of other activities we take for granted. Indeed, we ran into a family early on our third day – a mother and two young children who described themselves as “flatlanders” from the Carolinas, who had internalized this sentiment completely. The mother said her friends sometimes admonished her for taking her children on long hikes. ‘You don’t know who you might run into out there.’ Well, sure, but you run into a lot less of them. And every single person we did run into on the trail was unfailingly kind.

Hydration and unlocking “full mammal” mode

We made our Shenandoah hike attempt in July, which in retrospect was a bit of a gamble. When we hit the trail with Ben and Ariel, the heat index was surely in the “caution” zone if not the “extreme caution” zone in sunny areas. And we were hiking up mountainsides. In fact, some of those mountainsides even had the audacity to face east and bake in the sun all morning. Suffice it to say, I’m glad we had a bunch of water bags on us, including an extra Ben and Ariel left us with after they hiked back to their car on day 2.

It’s also worth mentioning that July is the end of mating season for black bears, so park employees made a special effort to emphasize the need to hang bear bags and watch out for bears on the trails.

Hiking in the heat and humidity was much more taxing than we expected. We stuck it out for the second and third days, hiking about 13 miles to Blackrock Hut and then 12 miles to Ivy Creek overlook, respectively, but our spirits were flagging. Two long uphills on each of those days left me guessing as to how much pain we’d be in by the time we made it to the next camp. Even the joy of stopping by a Shenandoah “wayside” to get a burger and a milkshake was tempered by walking up a mountain in the afternoon sun to get back to the AT.

By day three, we’d been quaffing and retaining massive amounts of water, pushing our calves and feet hard, and sweating through our clothes. When we ate, we did so knowing we had to, not realizing we were hungry until a few bites into our snacks or dinner. Setting up and breaking down camp – and hanging bear bags – felt more like thankless labor instead of a simple chore.

We had unlocked what we came to call “full mammal” mode, reverting back to fairly basic senses involving thirst, hunger, aches and – in my case – significant body stank. Indeed, I felt about as gross as I ever have in my adult life. My muscles and joints felt more taxed than they ever have weightlifting or running, and I was less than 100% on-point mentally as a result.

At Ivy Creek overlook, we enjoyed the sunset and debated the merits of taking an easy day or pushing ahead for what we had planned as our biggest day yet – nearly 20 miles to Lewis Mountain. After a semi-restful night’s sleep, a cup of coffee each and our layperson’s guess at how the rest of the day’s heat and humidity would shape up, we decided to hitch rather than hike.

To her credit, Tori was in far better shape than I was. She actually started the morning by telling me she was up for 20 if I was. I couldn’t even imagine it.


Gas station style donuts make us think we are momentarily invincible. I think we ate these in about 20 seconds. Our mammal senses told us they were the greatest donuts ever made.

After just 15 minutes, we caught a ride with a north-bound liquor store manager who took us all the way to Big Meadows, where we toured the visitors’ center and treated ourselves to a lodge stay.

The visitors’ center is darn good; the Park Service presents Shenandoah’s history relatively objectively, including a fair-minded focus on how the feds dispossessed Appalachian people of their homes and heritage as they cleared residents from the land that became the park. They also highlight some frank correspondence from the post-war period when the park’s picnic grounds were finally desegregated. (I honestly hadn’t thought about this before…it used to be federal policy to segregate nature.)

Rest is nice, hiking with a great partner is even nicer

A rainstorm blew over the park after we hitched to Big Meadows and we counted ourselves doubly lucky. Attempting 20 miles in the rain would have been even worse than we had anticipated.

We definitely needed the rest. We also needed the calories. I made quick work of a pulled pork sandwich and we chased dinner with a large ice cream sundae. It certainly beat the mac and cheese and instant potatoes we had purchased the day before at a camp store.

We used a plastic trash bin in our room as a wash basin for our gnarliest items of clothing and draped everything to dry around the room.

We took some time in the lodge’s Great Room to reconnect with the world via wifi. After three days away from the Internet my inbox looked more like a burden than an information hub. How much time do I really spend on email, I wondered, since I probably check it 100 times a day? I sent two emails that seemed pressing at the time, but weren’t, and let Ben know we were at the lodge. He wrote back immediately and forcefully urged me to get off email.


Great Room at Big Meadows Lodge, which we preferred to Skyland Resort. Source: Tori.

The next day was perhaps the nicest on the trail, We had 10 hours of deep sleep under our belts and we were excited that we had “just” 8 miles to go between Big Meadows and Skyland, where we had reserved a lodge stay many months ago. We were sore, but refreshed, taxed but not exhausted, caffeinated, but not dehydrated. It was a perfect day of hiking. The subtle drop in temperature and humidity made a huge difference. We leisurely sipped a little more than a liter of water each over the day’s hike, a stark contrast to previous days on the trail, during which we had to chug to keep up with our overactive sweat glands.

Our spirits were buoyed and we happily chatted our way through the woods.

This is the most subjectively exciting thing that happened to us on the hike: we realized that after more than a year of dating, we’ve become best friends. Tori is my partner, my confidant and my constant supporter. That was nowhere more evident than on the trail when she helpfully reminded me to eat when I got pale, take it easy when I was trying to stomp a mountain under my feet and sit back and enjoy the sun-dappled arboreal canopy unfolding above and below us. Apparently, I’m pretty okay, too, in her estimation.

If there is a time and a spot where I think I realized this, it was around Franklin Cliffs.


Thru hikers

If the AT were dotted with places like Big Meadows and Skyland every 8 miles, I’m sure I could do it at a breezy clip and at significant expense. It ain’t – and thus all the more admiration for thru hikers.

On night one, we camped at Calf Mountain shelter, the first AT hut in the park. We met Voldemort and Roxy, a hiker and an incredibly well-behaved pup, who were making big, big tracks in the park, looking to do a flip-flop thru-hike as fall closed in on Mt. Katahdin in Maine. (“Trail names” are big out on the AT.)

They were up and out of camp long before we woke up, surely trying to beat the heat. We read a note from Voldemort at the next hut where we arrived late in the evening. She had gotten there before lunch.

We also ran into Grey Ghost, a retiree who was completing a thru-hike he had put on hiatus after breaking his sternum from a fall on the trail.

The last thru hiker we met – we were too exhausted to catch his trail name – had trimmed his pack down to the bare essentials, including a tarp tent, which gave me some mega ultra-light jealousy. The last time we saw him, we was hiking past our tent as we groggily woke up to the fourth day of our hike.

The trail wins

I had Grey Ghost in mind on Day 6 as my stride began to falter. We were doing “just 11 miles” between Skyland and Pass Mountain Hut, with a small detour for Stony Man, the 2nd-highest point in the park. The view was breathtaking, perhaps so much so that the rest of the trail started to seem monotonous. I got tired of looking at rocks, probably because they were beating the hell out of my feet. We had opted to hike in trail runners to cut down on weight and while they were holding up okay for Tori, my left foot felt like it was getting clobbered.

I was getting mad at the trail – and at the rocks, in particular – especially when I had to catch myself with my hiking poles. I wasn’t feeling great and I let Tori know. We assessed ourselves at Thornton Gap, where Skyline intersects U.S. Route 211, and I didn’t feel safe clambering over more rocks that day. I also wasn’t sure how recovered I’d be for making it another 20 miles over two days back to our car.

I was picturing pizza and Miller High Life, too, and it was tempting to know that they were just three hours away. Thru-hikers, of course, don’t have the luxury of quickly shuttling themselves home.

We decided to bag it and hitched back to the Corolla. This time, finding a ride took about an hour, a slightly frustrating experience since we’d been so spoiled with our first hitch attempt a few days before.

Passing through the park’s Northern District in the trunk of a minivan with some local Virginians and their gregarious Texas relatives, I noted the many points at which the AT intersects Skyline Drive – points we wouldn’t be walking through. I felt a little remorse, but my foot was thanking me.


Key stats:

Miles hiked: 48.3
Calories consumed: thousands!
Best camp food surprise: pepperoni sticks as an addition to rice and beans

Main gear:

  • MSR Hubba Hubba NX tent
  • Osprey packs: Exos 58 (no top pouch) and Aura 50
  • Big Agnes sleeping bags and pads
  • Sawyer filter and several bags
  • Snowpeak titanium cook pot
  • Trangia spirit burner stove w/ denatured alcohol fuel
  • Smartwater bottles and Tupperware
  • Luxury items: Kindle, headphones and smartphones, Starbucks Via packets
  • Hugs and fist bumps

Quitting Smoking with Vaping and E-Cigarettes: The Dilution Method to Wean Myself Off Nicotine

I tried to quit smoking cigarettes many times, either by going cold turkey, gnawing gum or popping lozenges. Those methods never worked for me. At root, I was addicted to nicotine, regardless of its form. What did work for me was switching to an e-cigarette and slowly diluting the amount of nicotine I was vaporizing before finally quitting all forms of nicotine.

While the scientific jury is still out on whether or not e-cigarettes can be used as an effective tool for quitting, I wonder if it may have advantages specifically because it’s easier to manipulate the amount of nicotine in an e-cig. Importantly, quitting in this fashion did not produce any significant withdrawal symptoms for me, which I found to be quite a relief.

I’m not looking for congratulations here: I never should have started smoking in the first place. But I do want to share what did and didn’t work for me in the hope that it might help others quit.

Smoking is stupid; at best, vaping may be slightly less stupid

Let me be clear before I dive in: switching to vaping by itself is not “quitting smoking,” in my mind, as many claim. It’s simply getting nicotine by vaporizing fluid in one’s mouth instead of inhaling burning tobacco into one’s lungs.

That said, vaping has a few things going for it: it doesn’t make you, your clothes, your car and your home stink, you can stealth vape in movie theaters, at bars and in airplanes, and, fundamentally, you don’t have to set plant material on fire to get your nicotine fix. At least for right now, it’s also cheaper than smoking for most users.

Good old Mr. Nick O. Teen, in his many-appendaged, Cthulhu-like glory. via Wikipedia.

Still, nicotine addiction is nicotine addiction. It remains costly: I was spending about a grand a year on vape stuff. And despite the rhetoric and sincerely held beliefs of many e-cig marketers, I’d be shocked if vaping turned out to be consequence-free as more scientific studies are completed. To be sure, it may have society-wide harm mitigation benefits compared to smoking tobacco, but doctors are right to urge individual vapers to quit.

A brief review of my failed quit attempts

I’ve tried quitting nicotine many times. The longest I went was a few months when I was dating someone who insisted on it. Absent that incentive, quitting felt incredibly tough, despite the fact that I very much wanted to quit and, in fact, felt guilty about being such a chimney. As workplace smoking bans and smoking in bars shut down, it became increasingly isolating to be a regular tobacco smoker.

I tried going cold turkey a few times, which was hilariously ineffective. I would break down, buy a pack, smoke a cig, throw out the pack, then break down again and buy another pack. As someone who values frugality and efficiency, this felt doubly self-defeating. And like a lot of people who have attempted to quit, I’ll admit that I’ve rooted through a trash can looking for a pack of smokes I threw out just a few minutes beforehand. It was pathetic, not to mention unsanitary.

In college, I tried occasionally smoking a hookah instead of keeping up my pack-a-day habit. That was particularly dumb and unworkable, since hookahs involve setting wads of molasses-soaked tobacco on fire with charcoal. Hitting one of those things twice a day is not recommended, especially if you like climbing stairs.

You said it, man.

Gums and lozenges were of little help. I just stayed addicted to the nicotine in the gum and lozenges. I think the main problem was that the recommended quitting methods involved extending the period of time between doses. That hurt. And I wound up immediately sweating the clock. The recommended jumps struck me as far too ambitious: I was supposed to go 2 hours between my nicotine fix one week and then double that to 4 hours the next week? What am I, the golden god of white-knuckle willpower? Please.

The gum and lozenges are also kind of shitty. The gum is generally tough and as a committed nicotine addict, I was willing to undergo a jaw workout to extract the last precious infinitesimal bits of the drug. The lozenges tend to have a medicinal flavor and can be rough on one’s gums, too.

Finally, it’s somewhat difficult and imprecise to try to “dilute” gum or lozenges by cutting them into halves and quarters, though I tried doing that, too. Thankfully – at least for me – vaping opened up a more precise and gradual avenue for weaning myself off nicotine.

Dilute like you mean it

I started with a 12mg / ml solution, which the company I was buying fluid from marketed as “medium.” I bought a big old batch of 0 mg fluid for $90, which felt silly at the time – why pay for something that doesn’t have the precious nicotine? – but I obviously needed it to seriously dilute the fluid. I also found it useful to pick up a small funnel to transfer fluid into the 30 ml bottles I carried around to fill my vape.

Over the course of ten weeks, here’s how I brought the concentration down:

  • Week 1: 9 mg (25% drop)
  • Week 2: 7 mg (22% drop)
  • Week 3: 5.5 mg (21% drop)
  • Week 4: 4.3 mg (22% drop)
  • Week 5: 2.8 mg (35% drop)
  • Week 6: 1.4 mg (50% drop)
  • Week 7: 0.7 mg (50% drop)
  • Week 8: 0.36 mg (50% drop)
  • Week 9: 0.27 mg (25% drop)
  • Week 10: Stopped vaping (100% drop)

It was haphazard, but I never felt like I was going without nicotine at any point in the process. During the first two rounds of dilution, I puffed on the vape more often, but I didn’t miss those few milligrams of nicotine. After I got down to around 1.4 mg of fluid, I wasn’t catching much of a buzz off vaping, but I also didn’t seem to mind. Perhaps that’s around where my addiction threshold lies? Or perhaps it was just a function of taking a slightly bigger drop at that point? It’s hard to say.

My dumb mammal brain having a sweet, sweet nicotine party.

By the end, I felt like I was just vaping out of habit. I’m sure my brain’s well-worn nicotine receptors were still getting a little something out of it, but I was getting closer and closer to smoking the 0 mg fluid on its own. And as my supply of 0 mg fluid dwindled, I knew I’d naturally reach a quit date: there was no way I was going to lay down good money on yet another batch of 0 mg fluid. (And I had also committed to not hauling along my e-cig bullshit on my first summer hike, especially since it weighed more than a pound and there are no wall outlets in the backcountry.)

Sticking to flavorless fluid probably helped

I used to roll my own cigs for a while and I’ll never forget the rich taste of London Export tobacco. That was some good stuff. Even as a teenager, my tastes ran more in the direction of Lucky Strikes as opposed to Camels, Marlboroughs or Newports. When I started vaping, I found the “tobacco” flavored fluids to be pretty gross – I assume it’s hard to simulate tobacco’s complex flavors – so I eventually switched to flavorless fluid – it’s just kind of sweet – and never looked back. I felt like that returned my sense of taste and smell to normal before I even tried to quit. Functionally, it also removed a variable that often bothered me during previous quit attempts.

Non-smokers might not be able to relate to this, but it’s unsettling to become aware of what your own mouth tastes like without tobacco. That happened to a much lesser degree when I quit vaping flavorless fluid. Popping a piece of gum felt like it negated that odd feeling rather than merely masking it.

Throwing out my vape shit felt awesome

One of the pain-in-the-ass things about quitting smoking is that we’re constantly surrounded by cigarettes. Every bodega, convenience store and most pharmacies have them behind the counter. They also stock a lot of disposable e-cigs nowadays, too.

As I threw my vape shit out – several batteries, 2 charger cords, leftover cartomizers, a container of unused fluid, and a beat up, nicotine-stained glasses case I kept most of that shit in – I felt free. And I knew I’d feel like a pathetic dumbass if I walked into a vape shop and purchased nearly $100 worth of start-up vape equipment again. And, thankfully, the disposable vapes at 7-11 lost their appeal to me a while ago, mostly because they taste like crap. Now, buying one of those would feel like climbing all the way back up that 10-week vape dilution ladder I had just descended. No thanks.

Two weeks without

My mom said something that stuck with me when she quit smoking her ultra-thin Capri Menthols: she was sick of looking for her cigs, worrying about how many she had around, where her lighter was, etc. Indeed, addiction is loud background music. In the same way that puffing on a vape or a cig can be an idle fallback, it’s also a burden.

This is what it feels like to not constantly indulge a nicotine addiction: I stopped reflexively reaching into my pocket to grab my dumb vape stick. I stopped eyeballing rooms I walked into for a charger. I stopped carrying around an eyeglass case with more than a pound of vape gear in it. I stopped spilling little drops of nicotine fluid on my clothes. I stopped sneaking vape drags in professional settings. I stopped looking like some bounty hunter from the future.

I stopped thinking about vaping dozens of times a day. And shit, that may mean a premature end to my career as a competitive vaper, but I think that’s A-okay.

I can’t believe this, but I’m even starting to enjoy beer and coffee in isolation. It’s weird! But this is what it’s like for most people who aren’t nicotine addicts. They actually enjoy these things in isolation!

Anyway, it’s been a relief. I hope I keep it up. After 16 years of addiction, I want to look back on this as the year I finally quit nicotine in all its pernicious forms.

I’ll close this with an old song, one my grandfather sang from time to time, including a few instances in which he conveyed unheeded warnings to his grandson about the pitfalls of taking up smoking:

Hacking Mint to Account for the Unexpected; What I Learned from a Year of Spending and Saving

I like Mint. Truly, I do. There’s something empowering about knowing all of your transactions live in one place. But in trying to be all things to all people, Mint tends to overwhelm users with a daunting number of categories and sub-categories. Additionally, Mint’s basic set-up makes it difficult to account for irregular or unexpected expenses, whether it’s a busted taillight, a friend’s spur-of-moment-birthday getaway or coming to the realization that you no longer fit in some of your dress pants.

For me, those expenses are the most stressful ones to bear: What should I cut back on to pay for that car repair? Can I really afford this trip? Why do I feel bad about spending more than $50 on a pair of dress pants even though I literally don’t have any dress pants that fit?

Thankfully, Mint’s categories can be tamed. And using rollover budgets can help users account for unexpected expenses. I took a deep dive on a year of my spending data and took advantage of some Mint tools I had been neglecting. This allowed me to finally see how my real-world spending choices were stacking up against my carefully calibrated — and theoretical — personal budget.

1. Keeping categories simple and meaningful

I doubt many people need to know how much they spend on “Amusement” versus “Movies and DVDs.” Similarly, I’m sure most people would be happy to know how much they spend on their pet without breaking it down into pet grooming and pet food. I assume that Mint uses such oddly precise subcategories to help target advertisements to its users. More power to them — and I’m not one to complain about free products supported by ads — but it doesn’t work for me.

My main problem with Mint’s default categories is that they conflate needs and wants. For instance, paying my mortgage is not an option, but buying a new piece of furniture or a painting for the wall certainly is. Never the less, Mint defaults to categorizing all those expenses under the “Home” category.

In looking at all of my spending, I realized there were just a few truly major categories under which all of my spending fit: home, food, transportation, bills and utilities, health, and, finally, “shopping,” a catch-all category for all the “optional” expenses in my life.


Caption: Mmm…pie chart. The “other” category above is where I track transactions related to the coffee club I help run at work. I suppose “caffeine addiction” could be its own category, too!

2. Using “goals” to account for savings

The second big issue I had to tackle was that I had never set up my saving goals in Mint, so my budget looked like I was running a huge cash surplus and presumably stuffing Benjamins under my mattress. Mint’s defaults are good at tracking spending, but you have to take some time to play around with the “goals” section to account for retirement and other savings. Obviously, it’s important to “pay yourself first” and save a significant portion of your income. I wish Mint prioritized this a bit more over tracking spending, but working through all the “goals” ensured that my monthly budget was in balance.

3. Putting all the “wants” in one big bucket

It took me a while to figure out how I wanted to deal with all those “want” expenses. I wound up shoving them all under the “Shopping” category and created a bunch of sub-categories that might be worth tracking over time. For instance, I spent a surprising amount of money on backpacking gear this year, so I don’t want to spend any more on gear for a while. Similarly, I bought a lot of new dress clothes, so I should be good on that for many months if not a full year or longer. Other major sub-categories included home improvement, charitable giving, and, finally, vacations and other trips.

OH MY GOSH IT’S MADE OF TITANIUM Shut up and take my money. (Source: Wikipedia)

Grappling with the spending choices I’ve made over the past year made me realize that my wants fluctuate a lot throughout the year and are hard to plan for. Throwing them all into a “shopping” category makes it easier to separate the money I “have to” spend to live from the money I “get to” spend on things I want and things I want to do.

I also included a lot of stuff in this category most people probably wouldn’t consider “wants” at first blush, including random Amazon purchases like oven cleaner, sunglasses, chapstick and gum. In thinking through how I wanted to categorize all those old purchases, I realized that, yes, I could live without oven cleaner; it’s simply a convenience I pay for to more easily clean my oven. Same goes for chewing gum and chapstick — I’m not going to suffer too much without them. Even sunglasses are not necessary for a full and happy life. Pants that actually fit might arguably be a different matter, of course, but ultimately, updating one’s wardrobe is also a “want.” (Mr. Money Moustache has a lot more to say — perhaps in more challenging terms — about the culture of convenience and what we perceive as wants vs. needs in life.)

4. Setting up Rollover Budgets to Adjust as You Go to Account for Unexpected Expenses

Mint is great at tracking monthly expenses, but it’s pretty awful at tracking infrequent expenses. For instance, whenever I paid my car insurance, I’d get an alert from Mint telling me that my spending on “Auto and Transport” was high this month. It’s like, “Mint — dude — I know. Chill out.”

Thankfully, there’s a work around. When you set up budgets, you can check off the box that says “S

All good, right? Of course not! Life happens. Just this past week, I got a parking ticket and had to pay to get my car out of a tow lot. A few days later, I got a speeding ticket. I’m generally a pretty careful driver, so this was a rare double-whammy. Naturally, I felt a bit stupid and shook my head at the prospect of being $300 “in the hole” on unexpected car-related expenses. But thanks to how I set up my budgets, I can take that $300, divide it by 12 and adjust my transportation expenses up by $25  a month.

But here’s the thing — now that $25 has to come from somewhere else. Given how I set up my budgets, it can’t come from any of my needs — man’s gotta eat and that roof over my head is pretty cool — so it must come from the “shopping” budget where I shoved all my “wants.”

parking sign

Caption: In retrospect, I should not have missed this no parking sign in Hyattsville, MD.

Alternatively, I could jack up the transportation budget $300 this month and drop other budgets by $300. Then I could return to “normal” next month. Either way works as long as one doesn’t blow up multiple budgets in a given month and, hey, that’s what emergency funds are supposed to be for, right?

I can imagine doing the same thing with other unexpected expenses, especially healthcare since it’s hard to plan on getting sick. On the flip side, if I get lucky with lower transportation expenses than expected or my utility bill plummets for a few months in a row, I’ll be able to see that “surplus” in my budget and can put it to work as more savings or funding more “wants.”

5. Clarifying Choices and Tradeoffs

Playing around with that big “want” category was also an interesting exercise in thinking about tradeoffs. For instance, this is a big year for friends getting married while last year was quieter on that front. That’s incredibly exciting and it also means that I’m probably going to count those weddings as trips or vacations under my catch-all “shopping” category for the purposes of budgeting. (Mint doesn’t let users create new root categories.)

It’s also useful to think about what I really want to do to my home. Are new kitchen cabinets and appliances worth it? Maybe. My dishwasher sounds like a wounded marine mammal, but replacing it costs just as much as a weekend getaway. Which expense should wait: the dishwasher or the trip? When I think about it in those terms, the dishwasher is fine and I feel better about getting another (noisy) year of use out of it.

Personal finance is just that — personal — and a reflection of all our weird idiosyncrasies. I’m glad I finally sat down and “tamed” Mint for my purposes.

I hope folks find this helpful!

Lessons from joining the 1,000 pound club

I finally hit the 1,000 pound club, a minor, but respectable achievement in powerlifting.

I’ve tried a lot of different exercises over the years, but plugging away at my three main lifts has been motivating enough to stick with. I can’t say the same for running, P90x or even distance cycling, all of which I’ve found slightly mind-numbing.

Importantly, lifting has also been efficient. It takes just as long to squat 200 pounds as it does to squat 300 pounds. I worked out, on average, 3 to 4 times a week and each session was between 45 and 90 minutes. All told, I’d guess I devoted about 400 hours of time over two years.

  • Starting body weight: 180
  • Ending body weight: 180
  • Squat: 180 to 370
  • Deadlift: 245 to 405
  • Bench: 135 to 225

Here’s what I learned:

1. Consistency is crucial

I prioritized my workouts. On some occasions, I traded — or delayed — happy hours for workouts. I sought out a gym with weight racks while traveling for work or vacation. Finally, I installed a rack and weights (from Craigslist) in my home. That quickly paid for itself in avoided gym fees. It was also so easy to come home, make dinner, then work out while catching up on reading or laying waste to my inbox between sets.

2. You can’t learn everything on the Internet

Most of my knowledge about lifting came from Starting Strength and posts on, which proudly avoids cat pictures and memes. But the most valuable advice was from paying for a session with a seasoned coach. It also made the time I spent studying online more valuable since I could relate articles, cues and videos back to the coaching.

3. Small wins mattered

If I set a new PR 2.5 pounds heavier than my previous record, I felt great. If I hit a new rep max, I felt about as great. Eventually, I started programming lifts around hitting new rep maxes, leading up to a new 1RM PR. That made me work harder, look forward to my workouts more and — I believe, but can not prove — let me hit this long-term goal after plateauing for a while. That said, I still overshot on a lot of workouts and wasted time trying to get PRs that were out of my reach that day. (John Phung has some good stuff on this, too. Also, buying 2” washers that weight 1.25 pounds each is a lot cheaper than buying microplates.)

4. Programs are outlines, not prescriptions

I spent 80 percent of my time following a program: Starting Strength, Madcow, Texas Method, 5/3/1, GZCL, etc. Eventually, I learned that programs aren’t that different at their core. While Texas Method and GZCL taxed me too hard, 5/3/1 felt easy and didn’t produce significant gains. Eventually, I started setting goals for each workout depending on how my warmups felt. A good day meant hitting two or three new PRs at different rep ranges. A bad day meant squeezing out one or at least going to failure. That solution won’t work for everyone and from what I’ve read, any lifter has to eventually figure out what works for them based on their genetics and recovery abilities. Hopefully, I’ve found my sweet spot for a while.


Besides form, these were the only other two factors that seemed to affect my performance. I’m sure fish oil and creatine can be helpful, but it’s hard for me to imagine that many people need a lot of supplementation unless they’re looking to compete or simply perform at a much higher level.

6. Disrupting homeostasis

One phrase from Starting Strength resonated: “disrupting homeostasis.” You can’t expect any physiological or health changes unless you stimulate your body enough to cause an adaptation. You have to increase the duration, intensity or volume of work you’re doing to improve. That was a fun lesson to learn in lifting and it probably applies to other areas of life, too.

I’m not quite sure what my next goal is, but I’m really happy I achieved this one.

“Accepting” vs. “Believing” When It Comes to Science

I don’t believe in human-induced climate change. I accept it. I’m not a scientist, but I have a deep appreciation for the knowledge the scientific process – and the scientists who use it – collectively produce. I also accept evolution by natural selection, the health benefits of vaccines, and the link between smoking and lung disease.

But when we talk about evolution, climate change, vaccines or other “controversial” issues – as the smoking link used to be — we often talk about them as matters of “belief.” This is misleading, especially on basic, settled, scientific questions. As Neil Degrasse Tyson put it, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

All too often, in news articles, Congressional floor speeches, opinion pieces and even in public polling, we express belief or disbelief in science rather than acceptance or rejection of the overwhelming scientific evidence.

Here’s why that’s wrong:

Beliefs are for politics, not for science.

Some people believe the Affordable Care Act will save millions of lives. Others believe it is cripplingly expensive. Rarely, will any one person express both these beliefs simultaneously. There’s another phrase for beliefs in this context: political opinions. More aptly, they are political talking points.

Science is not an opinion or a set of talking points. It’s evidence carefully culled over time. When we talk about science as if it’s another thing we can choose to believe in or not, we frame it as a political issue rather than a reality issue.

Our beliefs lead us to accept and reject science

There’s a wealth of evidence from social science that our ideology and political beliefs affect how we view scientific evidence on “controversial” issues. Dan Kahan’s experiment-based research remains my favorite: If you favor individual freedom more than community responsibility, you’re probably going to be more skeptical about the scientific evidence showing that mandatory vaccinations are effective. If you’re happy with the distribution of wealth and power in society, you’re more likely to be skeptical about the scientific conclusion that large fossil fuel companies – and the successful people who run them – are warming our climate.

In sum, our beliefs can determine whether or not we accept or reject science, but our acceptance or rejection of science is not a belief in and of itself.

Science journalist Chris Mooney, in particular, recommends, that reporters become more conversant in the forces that lead political actors to accept and reject science.

Established science doesn’t change, beliefs do

At the most basic level, beliefs can be ephemeral and temporary. Scientific conclusions – the rock solid, replicated, triple-checked kind – are not. Our individual and collective beliefs about whether or not or how to deal with climate change will surely change over time. The fact that it’s happening and is largely due to human activities will not.

Let’s drop this “belief” business

More politicians should espouse their “acceptance” of science and their trust in the scientific method. Fewer politicians should affirm their “belief” in science in the same way they talk about their “belief” in a strong middle class or the genius of the Founding Fathers.

Journalists should write about politicians and ideologues who “reject” scientific conclusions rather than strike a note of false equivalence between competing camps of “belief” when it comes to science.

Finally, it would be interesting to see social scientists test this out a bit when they do polling. What happens when they ask people if they “accept” or “reject” scientific evidence rather than query them about their “beliefs” when it comes to these issues? Granted, it might be unfair to do this regularly, but I bet you’d find that more people would align themselves with reality when the question is posed this way.

There’s No Reason for Scientists to Debate Established Climate Science

Scientists shouldn’t participate in media debates that focus on whether or not established climate science is real. More importantly, media outlets shouldn’t host such debates. Many may be tempted to do, but political disagreements over climate policy shouldn’t be confused with misleading arguments over whether or not to accept the crystalline scientific evidence that human activities are causing disruptive climate change.

Here’s why and here’s what scientists and producers should consider doing instead:

1. Media debates don’t have winners and losers

Broadcast debates usually aren’t about resolving issues. In practice, they’re an arena in which partisans exchange conflicting points of view before returning to their corners. That’s fine for arguing about policy, but it’s not the way established science should be communicated to the public. When media programs host these debates, they send a misleading message to their audiences that basic, established science is still in question.

2. Media debates aren’t built for science education

In competitive scholastic debates, students are coached to respond to all of their opponent’s arguments. It’s great training for lawyers, who do the same thing when they file legal briefs, but it’s a terrible way to communicate established science, especially since the “opponent’s arguments” in this case are already known to be wrong.

Further, while competitive debates might last for hours, television and radio interviews usually last a few minutes. There’s never enough time for a scientist to shoot down all the bad arguments from a contrarian.

Science educator Bill Nye is a great explainer when he’s given time to do his own presentation, but check out this debate he did with a climate contrarian. The contrarian does a “Gish Gallop” of misinformation and there’s no way Nye could get in responses to all those arguments, even with the friendly host moderating.

 Gavin Schmidt, who is one of the world’s best climate communicators, is one of the rare scientists who can do well in a media debate, but even then, the format still works so hard against public education.

 3. Other scientists have stopped debating established science in other fields

 Biologists don’t debate whether or not evolution is real. Epidemiologists and pediatricians don’t debate anti-vaccine advocates. Climate scientists shouldn’t debate contrarians. TV and radio producers are good at booking guests. If they hear “I don’t want to debate” from 10 scientists but “Sure, I’ll give it a whirl,” from an eleventh, they still get to have a bad debate. The only way to stop these misleading debates is for scientists to send a universal message that they’re not doing them because they fundamentally mislead the public.

 4. We deserve better debates about policy

In an ideal world, scientists would be able to steer producers and programs toward doing more educational pieces on climate science or interviews with a panel of scientists who work on different aspects of climate change. But often, producers really just want a debate because conflict is interesting. In that case, producers should look toward advocacy groups that have different views on climate and energy policy. Instead of a misleading science debate, it would be great to see the Sierra Club go toe-to-toe with the National Association of Manufacturers or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce square off with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Science might be part of those debates, but it would mostly be a debate about how each side perceives the risks of climate change vs. the risks of government intervention.

It would also be great if producers had folks like Bob Inglis and the R Street Institute on more often. They have fresh perspectives on free-market approaches to addressing climate change that add to the national conversation.

 5. The exceptions where a debate makes sense are narrow and rare

If a scientist has an opportunity to do a one-on-one interview with a contrarian host, it might be worth doing, but the scientist should already be a seasoned communicator. He or she would need to be ready to quickly respond to misleading arguments and help the host see how their political beliefs and values don’t have to conflict with science. Scientists should also be wary of “trap” interviews, where hosts just want to have them on to question their credibility. Google is a scientist’s best friend for figuring out how a host has approached the issue in the past.

It’s also appropriate to debate emerging science. How rapidly are the glaciers melting? How is climate change affecting the jet stream? But nobody should be debating the established science: climate change is happening, it’s largely human-caused and it’s already disrupting the climate.

What do you think? Have you seen debates that actually went well? Are there other formats outside the media where a scientist should consider a debate?

Photo Safari — 10/20/13 — Aquia Creek, VA

Aquia Creek, VA is home to Government Island, a spit of land with a lot of sandstone. George Washington and Pierre L’Enfant bought almost all of the island so that stonemasons and slaves could extract the sandstone for use in constructing several buildings in Washington, DC, including the Capitol.

Stafford Township, VA has turned the island into a truly excellent park, with tons of delicious infoplacards that can embed knowledge in one’s gray matter as surely as a master mason can embed a chisel in supple sandstone.

The trail:

A tree that fell, but didn’t die. Check the shoots popping out of the fallen trunk. Good job, tree!

From a distance, the chiseling work on this sandstone was clearly visible. There also seemed to be some areas where boreholes had been introduced to the rock. There was evidence of animals having used the holes for nesting.

Here’s a closeup of the chisel work. It gave me chills. This was 200 year-old evidence of human contact with the stone and there’s no way of knowing if these marks were made by a slave, a paid worker or a trained mason.

To extract the stone, workers would dig 20 inch channels around the block they wanted to move. Then they’d pulley it onto some sliding carts and down to the water.


Lens flare shot from inside one of the channels.

The channels were easily walkable, if a bit tight. I imagined trying to hoist a hammer and chisel to work the rock. I had to conclude that workers and slaves were easily injured on the job. I can’t imagine what their elbows and wrists felt like at the end of the day.

Here’s some human scale for the channels, courtesy of friend and interdisciplinary technologist Mr. Aaron DeNu. It was really impressive. Even in its modern state, one feels dwarfed by the rocks:


This guy got in before the feds and carved his initials in four blocks that outlined the acre of land he owned on the island:


An enclosed pit, use unknown. I like to imagine they made the oxen sit here. Either that or I walked around in a two-hundred-year-old latrine.


I believe, but cannot prove that this is what remains of the stone pier they used for loading ships:


We went off-trail and were rewarded with the discovery of recent human occupation of the site, including a fire ring and beer can tabs, a tool humans use to open small, pressed metal canisters containing light lager, a relaxant and intoxicant.


The site was among one of the tallest on the island. From that vantage point, I tried to place myself geographically then suddenly remembered how damn fun geocaching is. I checked my phone and, yes, we were super-duper still within range of 4G, so I pulled up a live geocache map. There was one on our way back. Sweet!

We wended our way toward it and found that the cache was located on the wooden bridge connecting us back to the mainland. I’m embarrassed to say that despite the fact that the geocache was titled “Troll” it took me a good two minutes to look under the damn bridge. Lo and behold, there was the cache – a reusable bottle with a strap attached to its screw-on top, dangling from a bolt under the bridge.

Thankfully, the family taking pictures and doing wholesome stuff above us was familiar with geocaching, so they didn’t think I was actually trolling them from under a bridge. The mud was really wet down there and I was wearing Chucks, so I’m also lucky I didn’t ass-plant myself in the mud. All in all, a worthy detour!

PopSci drops comments — a victory for science communication?

Popular Science is nixing comments on its articles. Is this a good move?

I think so. As the publication notes, off-topic and mean-spirited comments can actually undermine people’s understanding of the main articles they’re reading. Unless news outlets are willing to invest in moderating those comment sections, they probably shouldn’t be bothering with them. Unfortunately, most outlets treat comment sections like a Wild West. While free speech is great, it can come with drawbacks when readers use anonymity and a lack of consequences to spew vitriol. That’s why some bloggers move off-topic and abusive comments to other sections of their site. People aren’t prevented from speaking out, but they’re rewarded for speaking out in a way that actually makes sense and benefits the audience.

Popular Science also notes that they have plenty of other good ways to interact with their readers, including their Facebook page and Twitter feed. That’s smart. Those outlets are built for slightly better conversations than classic comment sections on news sites.