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.

A Year Later, Remembering My Grandfather

A year ago, I lost my grandfather.

There is a story of how he died and there is a story of how he lived.

The story of how he died clouds my memories. The few times I’ve dreamed of him since he passed, it is of the older him, pushing a walker.

The short version of his death is this: Steadily progressing Parkinson’s and a badly shifting ratio of bad days to good. Leg pain that demanded surgical treatment he could not withstand. We didn’t know it at the time, but his stomach was bleeding. He began to faint. After the last episode, he refused to go back to a hospital and I stood up for his right to do so to a team of well-meaning EMTs. He passed out again and vomited blood on the couch. I called the EMTs back and caught up with him at the hospital. We talked about treatment. He told me, “I want to die” with the clarity and conviction of a man who means exactly that. His blood pressure dropped, he crashed, he thrashed, he tore at an oxygen mask. Finally, the doctors gave us a choice: surgery and life support, which he did not want, or easing his suffering.

The last thing I helped him with was a small piece of bandage stuck to his finger. In a sedated haze, he was still trying to take it off — to fix it. I removed it and he relaxed. That piece of bandage sits wrapped in a plastic bag on a shelf in my home, a totem of his battle with a thief of a disease.

So there is that and it is brutal and ugly because death is brutal and ugly. And it’s hard not to focus on his last years. I can’t forget these things. They’re a part of our story and I’m glad I was with him when he succumbed and that his children and grandchildren and their spouses were with him as he breathed his last. He gave us the gift of being clear — abundantly and ceaselessly clear — about his wishes.

A year later, I want to do a better job remembering how he lived.

The Dodge Aries I inherited from my great aunt had failed for the hundredth time. A new radiator might do the trick, Ewell suggested. We were still in the driveway working on the car as the sun set. I suddenly understood why my grandfather was always late to dinner. We were so close to having the thing connected; the meatloaf could wait. Nevertheless, I suggested that we might finish it later with headlamps so the dinner his wife cooked wouldn’t go cold.

Alas, the Aries had deeper problems. I was ready for a new car. We handed it over to the Toyota dealership as part of a misleading deal. A few weeks later, I got a letter in the mail from the Hagerstown police saying the Aries had been left abandoned on the side of the road and I was the last registered owner. Somebody must have bought it at auction and squeezed a few more miles out of it. I shrugged it off, but Ewell was filled with regret. “We should have held onto that car,” he said. “We could have fixed it.” He named one of my cousins, who was about to come of driving age, and suggested it could have been passed to him.

Ewell never gave up on a car.

He could argue, complain, and be stubborn with the best of them, but he always stated his case without embellishment or obfuscation. Everything he argued was the product of reasoning, much of it moral. His instructions, too, were moral. His story of drinking too much at a card game, stopping back by his office, uncertain of his ability to drive. Looking at himself in the mirror, washing his face, trying to sober up and saying out loud to himself, “You fool! You fool!”

His casual moments of tenderness with my grandmother, practiced for more than fifty years. Holding hands, dancing in the kitchen, the occasional peck on the lips and pat on the butt.

Many mornings while living there, I’d awake early for work and he’d be up already. Sometimes, he’d be standing in his underwear, whistling and making breakfast. When I came downstairs, sometimes in a shirt and tie, sometimes also in my underwear, he’d ask, “Want some scrapple, son?” I’m sure I always said yes.

His practical advice, grounded in experience. “Work’s not fun,” he told me when I was younger and complaining about nine-to-five life. “It’s just something you do.”

His great joy in fixing things. As an engineer, he knew everything could break. Thus, he was always fixing things, even things that didn’t seem like they needed fixing. He worked patiently and methodically, measuring twice and cutting once. He taught me a greater degree of patience.

He never stopped till the job was done. He taught me persistence.

He helped keep a roof over my head when I was a child. When it was time to sell my mother’s house in New Jersey, he spent weeks fixing things there. He enjoyed the tasks immensely, but eventually we cajoled him into going home. His wife missed him and he’d been away for quite a while. There was plenty to fix back home, too.

The mix of surprise, gratitude and pride on his face when I gave him a check for the money he floated me in college to keep the insurance on the Aries. He marked the promissory note he’d carefully updated over those years “Paid in Full” along with the date. He retrieved the note from his “Aaron” file, one of many files in two tall cabinets in the office. Files for cars, children, grandchildren, the mortgage, the broker, his wife, dogs living and dogs gone, old bills, strange correspondence.

His occasional whimsy:

The new dog we insisted upon, on his wife’s behalf, after the old one died. We call him “Scout,” but on his registration, Ewell named him “Just Because.”

Going to the bank so he could withdraw a significant amount of cash ahead of my mother’s wedding. “Are we going to Atlantic City or something?” I asked him, skeptically eyeing the wad of hundreds. He grinned, impish and boy-like. “I like cash,” he said, drawing out the last “shhh” with high-rolling largesse.

The money was intended, in part, to pay the officiant at the wedding. My mother married a Navy veteran. After the ceremony Ewell greeted him with a hearty, “Welcome aboard!”

“God bless Obama!” his punctuation to a Thanksgiving blessing, shouted among a family with diverse, divergent and diametrically opposed political views.

His corny humor:

“How are you?”
“40 cents.”
“What’s that mean?”
“That’s the fare-to-Midland.”

“‘Balls!’ cried the king, because he had to.”

The way he played poker. Conservatively and with an eye toward snapping off his opponents’ errant bluffs.

Ewell driving his truck to my new apartment and helping me fix the place up. He installed new locks there, the same ones from our old house in New Jersey, which, of course, he had saved, because there’s no reason to throw out a good lock.

I remember how the hugs became more frequent, how he stopped trying to stick his hand out for a shake when I went in for one. How he reacted less and less awkwardly to me telling him I loved him over the years until he finally just accepted it.

His simple grace: “Blessed be this food we are about to receive in your holy name. Amen.”

I remember a strong, proud, direct man. A tough man who screwed up and made mistakes, for sure. A product of his generation and upbringing like the rest of us, for better and worse. But a man who gave constantly to his children and grandchildren: his sweat, his patience, his time, his morals and his considerable expertise. A man who loved us and whom we loved back, through joy and difficulty and time and pain. Pain that stings and fades and must fade for the sake of the rest of him, and the rest of his life, which we loved so dearly.

Top Five Communications Tips for Climate Scientists

Most public relations and media advice is the same: know your message and control the interview. But as I was telling an old professor’s class, the challenge for communications professionals is to adapt that advice to their audience. In my case, it’s scientists: people who care very much about the truth, getting things right and being heard accurately. And very often, my work has been with climate scientists. They have the special challenge of working in a contentious media and political environment.

So here’s my top five pieces of communication advice for scientists, especially ones who work on climate:

1. Know your audience.

Scientist Katharine Hayhoe is one of our country’s best climate communicators and she often works with fellow evangelicals on climate education. If she is doing a presentation about the history of the Earth’s climate to a secular audience, she might show graphs that cover hundreds of thousands of years of solar activity, carbon dioxide and temperature trends. When talking to evangelicals, Hayhoe sometimes shows just the past 8,000 years or so of climate history. All the information is still accurate, but in both cases it’s accurate in a way the audience can hear.

More practically, scientists should know what their audience is interested in. A lay audience attending a climate lecture will probably want to know what they can do to reduce their emissions. Similarly, scientists should familiarize themselves with the regional effects of climate change near where they work and communicate, even if their research is focused on the ocean or the Arctic.

2. Lead with what you know.

I can’t find the source, but a journalist once pointed out that scientific papers and news articles are written in almost the exact opposite way. Scientific papers start with basic principles then march through a few pages of dense prose and methodology before presenting their conclusions. News articles, of course, lead with the conclusion and then add more detail. When talking to a reporter or doing a public presentation, scientists would be well-served by leading with their conclusions and what they know.

Randy Olsen has talked about how even scientists can become frustrated with the “methods first / conclusion later” way of presenting information. Oncologists, he told me, are always on pins and needles at their conferences, waiting for presenters to get through their methods before telling them if a cancer treatment worked or not.

Finally, scientists can get in trouble when they’re asked misleading or badly premised questions or questions that pertain to areas where there’s a lot of misinformation floating around in the public discourse. They can ultimately answer the question, of course, but they should lead with what they know. Phil Jones, for instance, directly answered a very-badly premised question about temperature trends for the BBC. He even said the question was bad, but he led by directly answering it. Climate contrarians were able to smear him in the press as a result. Scientists also get asked a lot about climate change and extreme weather. Some of it’s linked, some isn’t and although scientists know that climate change is affecting all weather, they’re still working to figure out exactly how, where and to what degree. So I tell them they’re probably best off leading with the idea that the state of knowledge on extremes and climate change is on a spectrum, from heat waves (definitely linked) to tornadoes (we don’t know yet).

3. Define your jargon.

A lot of people will tell scientists not to use jargon. I actually think that’s really hard for scientists. They use jargon because it’s precise and it facilitates communication with their colleagues. It’s difficult for scientists to turn off the “talking to my colleagues” part of their brain and turn on the “talking to the public” part. So every once in a while, they’re going to let an “anthropogenic” slip when they should have said “human-caused.” No big deal. If they catch themselves using the jargon, they can simply say, “And by X, I mean…”

There are lots of good examples of “trap” jargon words that Susan Hassol and Richard Somerville have identified (see table). My favorite is “positive feedback.” For most people, that sounds like something nice they receive at school or work. For scientists, it’s the “amplification” of warming that occurs, for instance, when we lose sunlight-reflecting Arctic sea ice.

4. Rely on your friends and colleagues.

When scientists aren’t happy with their media coverage, it’s sometimes because they got pulled off track by an off-topic question or one outside their area of expertise. In those cases, it’s best not to guess or speculate or even say “I have no idea” (I know at least one scientist who was quoted saying that) but to say, “That’s not my field, but if it’s an important question for you, I can take some time to refer you to someone.”

Similarly, scientists get questions all the time about climate and energy policy. A lot of them aren’t comfortable talking about that. In that case, when giving a public presentation, they should buddy up with an economist, NGO, local official or someone else who does feel comfortable answering those questions.

5. Brush off the haters.

No matter what climate scientists do, there will be people who don’t want to accept their findings. They’ll send hate mail, leave nasty comments on blogs and articles, and otherwise be a nuisance. Unfortunately, scientists’ highly developed BS-detectors and BS-fly swatters often cause them to focus on the haters too much, sometimes to the detriment of attention they could be paying to audiences they CAN reach. It’s best to ignore the haters, especially online, though it’s worth bearing in mind that when politicians or media figures attack scientists, it is worth taking notice. Their actions are against the public interest and it’s important for scientists to speak out against them.

Bonus tip: Have fun!

Scientists are often trepid about communication work. They hate the idea of a journalist getting something wrong about their research and their colleagues thinking less of them as a result. Yes, that might happen. But what will happen more often is that a scientist will get a chance to tell lots of people about what they found and, in doing so, will demonstrate the immense value science provides to us as well the universal values of curiosity and exploration at the heart of the scientific enterprise. And, after a while, media work and public engagement can actually be deeply rewarding and sometimes even FUN.

Did I miss any tips you think are crucial? Are these the right basic priorities for scientists?