Creating the ideal science magazine

Everybody has a different idea of an ideal science magazine but how close could we get to something that satisfied a core group of science magazine enthusiasts by starting from scratch and reinventing what people do.

I might have a chance to execute on a plan and would love help in designing what a science magazine for a modern world with modern technology would look like. So far, we are seeing plenty more of the same being ported to new devices but no real rethinking from scratch. Or at least no implementation of those ideas.

This could be a good topic for a weeklong science writers’ retreat that a few of us have discussed. Or perhaps we can just crowdsource it on a wiki. I’m keen to chat with people who might like to dig deep in the process of designing a new magazine.

Barcamp + hackday combo?

Thinking about the science design barcamp idea, would it be a good idea to run on consecutive weekends a barcamp and then a hackday?

The barcamp would be great for talking about issues and identifying problems and the hackday would provide a venue to start tackling some of them? Does anybody else use this format already?

Particle Wind Chime next generation

After our successful hacking of a particle wind chime at Science Hack Day SF 2010, it’s time to see if I can build a standalone Web-enabled version. I plan to build a hardware module that will connect to a wireless network, download events, and play them. I still need to work out what settings to have in hardware and what to run from software, but that depends on how bulky it gets. The bonus is that the hardware version can automatically include the light show version of the wind chime very easily!

Basic idea: Arduino + XBee + MIDIvox + blinkM connecting to a web server that will feed the events in the correct format. (Update: an XBee won’t work of course for wifi so I’m looking for a good cheap wifi module. It looks like there are some good ones but I welcome recommendations!)

Do the setting of pitch, duration, volume, instrument to various particle properties via rotary BCD switches. (Poll via 5 digital pins, setting one to select channel and send power high while listening on the four output pins which are all in parallel between all channels.)

Also be able to select a known event (via two BCD wheels)–good for testing channel allocations–or request a random new event from a live stream.

Science and design barcamp

Basic idea: Bring scientists and designers together for a weekend to see how design can make science more effective, efficient, or enjoyable.

– Physical stuff: Equipment (glassware, tools, etc.)/labeling, recording devices, lab notebooks
– Shared space planning: corridors, shared spaces, public spaces
– Intrascience communication: Conference posters, advertising/event spaces, conference booths, conference forms
– Interscience communication: Colloquia, conference booths, etc.
– Outreach: publications, visitor centers, handouts, schwag, new forms, web
– Personal space planning: Office arrangements, lab space
– Behavioral: Travel, visiting/remote office, two-body problem
– Sociological: Team dynamics, group meetings, work sharing, collaboration tools/techniques, recognition of contributions (esp. in collaboration)
– Administrative: Paper preparation, grant preparation, whereami?
– Community: equivs of arxiv, SPIRES, blog networks, conference ARGs, etc.
– Innovation drivers: Sharing, meeting, cross-fertilization
– Play: Games, ARGS, quizzes, activities, ice-breakers

Designers: Questions, observations, offerings
Scientists: Problems, annoyances, common behaviors, norms, time allocation
Have a set of questions to answer to find problem areas. e.g.
– What do you waste most time on? (Specifically)
– What do you feel like should be easier?
– What items do you use most on while at your desk? In your lab?
– What action do you repeat most often in a day?
– What rule do you find most constraining?
– How do you travel to/from work?
– What times do you usually go to/from work?
– What is the most enjoyable part of a typical day?
– What is the most annoying part of a typical day?
– What behavior did you need to learn for your job?

Big Qs for us as planners:
What’s the incentive for designers to attend?
– possible contracts/projects/portfolio pieces
What’s in it for scientists?
– possible solutions

Experimental science writing publication

So much science writing comes in a certain set of forms. News, features, briefs, profiles, etc.

Why aren’t there more creative types of science writing? There is a movement of creative non-fiction, although that seems to have a fairly narrow view in itself. Why not an experimental science writing?

It probably doesn’t exist because there is no outlet for it. Nobody would publish such a thing, partly by definition because it’s experimental and there is not necessarily an audience for it.

So I’ll make an experimental science writing publication.

First a few key aspects of it.

1. What is experimental science writing?
It’s really any kind of story telling about science that uses unusual forms.

2. Does it have to be text?
Not at all! For a publication, it needs to be capturable in some way, such as text. But photographs would work fine. A recipe/algorithm for how to do something would also be fine.

3. What medium would the publication be in?
To get started so it doesn’t drown under the weight of dreams-too-big, I think that a print-on-demand magazine or book should be able to capture most of what we want. At least to start with. Later versions could be online and interactive.

4. Who would contribute?
Anybody who is interested. There is no need that your day job be as a professional science writer. You can define your connection to telling the stories of science however you like.

5. When will this happen?
I’m thinking now and writing this so it begins now. I’ll put out a call for submissions and see what we start to get in. Then we’ll take another look.

6. How can I be involved?
Contribute, edit, design, organize, contribute, contribute, smile, encourage, contribute, enjoy.

7. What are the kinds of things you are looking for?
I hate to say as it might push you in a certain direction, but I’m thinking about a few things myself. Translating an issue of a journal into haiku. Building an installation of a branching story in real space, photographed for the publication. Creating a rogue QR-code infestation in my town with each code telling a little story of science. Exquisite corpse, science style.

8. What do I do now?
Create something. Send it to me. Chat with me. I’m physicsdavid just about everywhere but I prefer gmail for contact. Or just add your name or a comment below and I’ll keep you in the loop.


A new year, and finally a real place to live on the Web, apart from the dispersed and disparate bits of writing floating all over the place. Some of my creative projects will live in their own categories, and the rest of the writing will appear in either “Cathemeral thoughts” or “Essays”, depending on how well thought out and detailed it is.

Week 14/15: The spine tingler

What if the scary book you were reading could really shock you?

This piece of biofeedback-based experimental book art detects the rising fear or excitement in a reader and then amplifies it, by causing tingling in the hands through to mild electric shocks. This effect is created by a wrap-around book cover that can sense the physiological changes that occur when a person sustains fear or other arousal, and then responds by injecting a small electric current through the book jacket and into the hands.

Important note: Those who suffer from heart conditions, who wear a pacemaker, are epileptic, pregnant, or undergoing cancer treatments should not use this device. (It works at low enough levels that it should be safe for those people but I am not familiar enough with all makes of cardiac implants and other therapies to guarantee safety.)

The Spine Tingler in use

In essence, the book jacket acts as a lie detector. (Lie detectors don’t detect lies, but they do effectively measure increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system—the fight or flight response.) When you read something that excites you, your sympathetic nervous system ramps up leading to the galvanic skin response, in which the electrical resistance of the skin changes. The response kicks in with fear, anger, being startled, or sexual feelings.

When the device measures the increase, it switched mode to send an electrical current proportional to the level of sympathetic nervous system response through the book cover. It starts out feeling as a very slight tingling, increasing to enough of a shock that most people would naturally recoil from it, probably dropping the book.

How it works

The first stage of the Spine Tingler algorithm is to detect the galvanic skin response. This is achieved through use of a home-made combination resistive and capacitive touch panel. It consists of one sheet of conductive polymer and two sheets of striated conductive polymer—conducting plastic—separated by a very thin sheet of non-conductive plastic. (The capacitive touch panel is similar in principle to the iPhone touch screen but not quite the same.)

Continue reading Week 14/15: The spine tingler

Week 13: The etolemur

This one is just for fun. I had an electric razor which had died and wasn’t really repairable. After having a hard time breaking inside the thing, I managed to dissect it completely and have reformed the parts into what I am calling my etolemur, because of a very vague resemblance to an otolemur.

I didn’t reuse all the parts but all the parts of this little guy came from the razor. My favorite parts are the eyebrows and the super-sharp claws. He also has some extra talons out the front but those are primarily due to his need to defend himself against creatures made of bigger and better electronic equipment. His ancestors were picked on a lot so evolution has given him a couple of extra advantages for survival.

He’s not great at standing on his hind legs unassisted so he uses his tail for support when showing off like this. His arms are pretty agile and springy, which are of great use both in launching himself from branch to branch and as shock absorption when he takes a rough tumble when playing with his other etolemur pals.

Week 12: What is a magazine?

An essay for this entry that starts as follows and continues at Cathemeral Thinking:

As I work toward launching a new magazine, I am contemplating a question that seems to have an obvious answer to many people, but is definitely contentious, and for which there is no real consensus. Although finding a concrete answer might also seem like a philosophical pursuit of no real importance, I think it is pretty important to be aware of what I am about to do. I should probably already know the answer to this as editor-in-chief of one magazine that I built, but the changing publishing landscape prompts me to re-examine it. Knowing what makes a magazine also gives us a chance to emphasize what is characteristic and gives us hints as where we could focus our efforts.

What is a magazine?

Summary: An exploration of the essence of magazines reveals that their defining characteristics have more to do with how they represent and enable communities rather than any physical or publishing characteristic.

Why define magazines?

While I work toward establishing a new magazine, I am contemplating an existential question:What is a magazine? It’s a question that seems to have an obvious answer to many people, but is definitely contentious, and there is no real consensus on an answer. Although finding a concrete answer might also seem like a philosophical pursuit of no real importance, I think it is essential to be properly aware of what I am about to do. To be honest, I should probably already know the answer to this as editor-in-chief of another magazine that I started up, but the changing publishing landscape prompts me to re-examine the topic. Knowing what makes a magazine also gives us a chance to emphasize what is characteristic and essential and gives us hints as where we could focus our efforts.

There are really two questions to disentangle in this discussion: “what have magazines traditionally been?” and “what is a magazine in essence?” It is the latter I am most interested in.

Continue reading What is a magazine?