facts and opinions

(Published in Against The Grain, v.30,#5)

How good do you think you are at distinguishing between statements of fact and statements expressing opinions?

The Pew Research Center issued a report last June studying that very question.(1)  How well could a sample of Americans distinguish a series of factual statements (whether or not they believed them to be true) from a series of opinion statements (whether or not they agreed with them)?  What factors might be at play in affecting one’s ability to make those determinations correctly?

The results weren’t surprising.  They used five fact statements, five opinion statements and two “borderline” statements, drawn from current topics in the news and found that only 26% labelled all five fact statements correctly and only 36% were right with the five opinion statements.  Sizable percentages (28% and 22%) got them all wrong.

The study defined statements as being “factual” if they were capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence and “opinion” as something “that reflects the beliefs and values of whoever expressed it.”  Note that they weren’t asking if the respondents thought the factual statements were true, only if they were capable of being proved or disproved.

That so many of us can’t readily distinguish statements expressing facts from those of opinion is certainly one of the reasons our political discourse is so toxic.  The oft quoted remark from Moynihan is that you’re entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts.  So what happens to discussion when most of us can’t tell the difference?

The report was in the back of my mind when I followed a thread on ACRL’s SCHOLCOMM discussion list in July.  Robin Sinn had posted expressing concern (annoyance? outrage?) at Taylor & Francis referring to their option for making an article freely available in a hybrid journal as “gold open access.”(2)  Her assumption (as clarified in a later post in the thread) had been that “gold open access” referred at the journal level, not the article level and that T&F was therefore misusing the term (presumably for nefarious purposes).  Over the next two days, most of the comments supported the notion that “gold open access” could be applied to individual articles as well as to journals, and examples were given of other such usage besides T&F’s.  Comments came from a variety of people including librarians, a T&F rep and others who’ve been deeply involved in scholarly communication discussions and debates over the years.  Sinn appeared to accept that consensus view.

Then Jean-Claude Guédon weighed in: “Gold open access (not open access as a stand-alone _expression_, but gold open access) refers to journals, and exclusively to journals. … On the other hand an open access article in a hybrid journal is simply an open access article, and that is not - repeat NOT - gold open access.”(3)  That ended the discussion.

So is Guédon stating what he believes to be a fact or is he expressing an opinion?  I’ll leave you to ponder that for a bit, but I’ll come back to it.

Consider some of the other statements that show up in scholarly communication discourse:

“…the profit margins of many academic publishers are simply not defensible…”(4)  In this case, the quote is from a comment made by Pamela Benjamin to a post on The Scholarly Kitchen, but it’s easy enough to find other versions of the sentiment.  Is it a fact statement or an opinion statement?  Keep in mind that the Pew categories don’t require fact statements to be true – at issue is whether there is sufficient objective evidence to prove or disprove them.  Opinion statements are reflections of beliefs and values.  I don’t want to ascribe to Benjamin views she may not hold, but on the face of it, you could interpret the statement as either fact or opinion.  As fact, however, it is simply untrue – that is, those margins certainly can be defended, which is all “defensible” means.  Whether one accepts those defenses becomes a matter of opinion.  Read as an opinion statement, it appears to be saying something like, “Because of the values that I hold regarding scholarly communication, I will not accept any justification offered for those profit margins.  I consider them to be antithetical to my values.”  The distinction matters because if the person making the statement believes it to be a fact, when it is actually an opinion, and the person they’re talking to treats it simply as a fact rather than addressing the values inherent in the opinion, then they’re talking past each other rather than to each other.  Indeed, that’s what happens in that particular comment thread and the discussion ends, having gone nowhere.

There’s a similar phrase that one hears often – that the increases in journal prices are “unsustainable.”  This phrase is used in two ways – it may be referring to a local situation, meaning, “In my library, given my budget, I can’t afford these price increases and I’m going to have to cancel stuff I’d rather keep.”  But here I’m interested in how it’s used globally, when the claim, in effect, is that the whole subscription-based system is going to collapse because of these “unsustainable” price increases.  This is an example of the third type of statement referred to in the Pew study – the “borderline”. 

Borderline statements may be based in objective evidence (the factual element) but have vague or predictive language that makes them hard to prove definitively (the opinion element).  This is the case with statements predicting the global unsustainability of the subscription model.  I’ve been hearing dire warnings about the unsustainability of the current system for decades.  And yet, despite budget cuts, academic libraries continue to operate; despite mergers and acquisitions, the scholarly publishing industry remains robust; and despite decades of open access activism, the subscription model remains dominant.  Does this mean the system will never implode and completely collapse? No.  But the uncertainty makes it impossible to classify the statement as purely factual.

A similar situation pertains to the debates about embargoes when posting OA copies of journal articles in repositories.  Those arguing for embargoes claim that without them publishers would be exposed to an unacceptable financial risk.  Those arguing for the elimination of embargoes claim that there is no evidence that current embargoes have resulted in significant cancellations.  This is a fact statement which, at present, appears to be true.  But it does not lead inexorably to the conclusion that elimination of embargoes will not result in significant cancellations or even that six month embargoes won’t result in significant cancellations in the future as the volume of material available under those conditions expands.  When the people making the statements believe they’re making strictly factual statements, they are once again talking past each other.

So, back to Guédon and his insistence that “gold open access” refers to journals only.  Is he making a statement of fact or expressing an opinion?  If it’s a fact, then it should be verifiable by objective evidence.  But what counts as objective evidence in determining the meanings of words?  Grammarians have endlessly debated the purpose of dictionaries – are they to describe the way that language is actually used or to proscribe the way that it ought to be used?  If it’s the latter, who gets to decide?

If anyone can claim the right to be the authority on the terminology of open access it would be Jean-Claude Guédon.  One of the original participants in the BOAI declaration, he has written voluminously and persuasively for many years.  If your inclinations are toward the proscriptive camp of grammarians, Guédon’s pronouncement may be sufficiently definitive.  Personally, however, I’ve always favored the descriptive side and if you look at how the term is actually used,  for many people “gold open access” quite comfortably describes an article where the version of record is made immediately available upon publication.  Guédon wants the usage to be less ambiguous, and in the abstract I agree with him.  But in actual practice I don’t think we’re there yet.

So I’d be inclined to label Guédon’s pronouncement borderline – possibly subject to verification by objective evidence, but thwarted by the ambiguity in what counts as objective evidence.

One of the more fascinating findings of the Pew study is that one is more inclined to judge an opinion statement incorrectly as factual if one agrees with the opinion expressed.  In other words, to use one of the previous examples, if your values lead you to the judgment that corporations should not be producing large profit margins from publishing activities, you’re more likely to incorrectly classify the opinion statement “large margins are indefensible” as a fact statement.  If Guédon’s definition comports with your own, you’re inclined to take it as fact.

The Pew study was concentrated on statements in the news and there are no doubt limits to how far one can extend its findings into the debates and discussions around scholarly communication.  But it’s a useful exercise nonetheless.  Much of the smoke and heat generated by scholcomm debates is driven by people taking their opinions as facts.  They attempt to convince others with appeals to objective evidence when careful discussion of the values we hold and the implications of those values might be more productive.  It’s easy to assume that others must share our values because they’re so evidently true that they don’t require much discussion.  Aren’t they? 

Sorting our way through the opportunities and perils of the flux of scholarly communication in the digital age is important.  We’ll do a better job of making sense of it all and making decisions that are in the best interests of society if we pay close attention to the differences among the statements that we make.  I believe that’s a fact.  I think.

Endnotes

1. Pew Research Center. “Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News.” June, 2018. http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2018/06/07161621/PJ_2018.06.18_fact-opinion_FINAL.pdf

2. Sinn, Robin. “[SCHOLCOMM] Taylor & Francis and their ‘gold OA’ definition.” scholcomm@lists.ala.org. July 12, 2018.

3. Guédon, Jean-Claude. “Re: [SCHOLCOMM] Taylor & Francis and their ‘gold OA’ definition.” scholcomm@lists.ala.org. July 14, 2018.

4. Benjamin, Pamela. “Comment on: Anderson, Kent. ‘The Core vs. the Crowd — Why Barriers to Entry May Help Restore Trust.’” The Scholarly Kitchen. July 2, 2018. https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2018/07/02/the-core-vs-the-crowd-why-barriers-to-entry-may-help-restore-trust/#comments

 

 


Ready Player One

If I could only keep one, I'd take the novel. But I'm a book guy at heart.  I wouldn't begrudge someone taking the movie to their own desert island.

We watched it a few months ago.  Liked it quite a bit.  Weeks later, Lynn read it.  Very good, she told me.  But "it's very different from the movie."  So I read it and had great fun.  (My favorite throwaway line was the bit about the "geezers" Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton, still getting re-elected to keep fighting the good fight).  It had been long enough since I'd seen the movie that the details had faded, so I wasn't making comparisons.  I took the book on its own terms.

It's an Easter basket of unexpected toys and games, a Hallowe'en sack of delights, all familiar but popping up new.  It's been years since I spent a lot of time playing video games, but I could almost feel my fingers flexing as I turned the pages.  I wanted to go back and play every one of those old games, watch every one of those eighties movies.

I finished it midweek and we watched the movie again just a couple of days later.  The specifics of the book's version were still sharp.  I thought the changes the moviemakers made were absolutely fine.  I didn't miss anything that was taken out.  The movie's so engaging and well paced, there wasn't time for that.  I liked the fact that the challenges were different.  Not that I liked them better than the ones in the book, just that it was fun to have more of them.  Of course they were much more visual.  The big dance scene was more vivid on film than the swirly version I'd cooked up on my own.  The book's a little darker, the movie a little sweeter.  The movie compresses the love story, but that was okay.  They only had so much time to play with.

There's something fundamentally askew in trying to judge whether any book or movie is the better version.  They're such different ways of telling stories.  Least likely to be effective is a film that hews too closely to the arc and incidents of the novel, or a novelization that does little more than recount the settings and episodes of the movie.  If comparisons must be made, it should be to compare the book to other books and the film to other films.  How effective are they at using the tools of their craft to transport the reader or the viewer?  To give them an effective experience.

The ingredients of the Ready Player One book and movie are different, but the dish is recognizably the same.  I'll grate pecorino-romano instead of parmagiano-reggiano to sprinkle on tonight's bolognese.  Last time I used bucatini pasta instead of tonight's pappardelle.  I'll bring up a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino instead of an Amarone.  And don't get me started on the meats in the sauce, which vary every time I make it.  There are good reasons for all of those variations but they all result in the same dish.  Sure, you might prefer one variation over another.  But it's silly to say that one is "better" than the other if you're suggesting anything more than personal taste.

When Josie was small, e-books and e-readers were climbing their first big wave and there were endless arguments over which was "better" and how soon e-books were going to eliminate print.  In those days, she was a big fan of The Monster at the End of This Book, in both its print and iPad versions.  Somedays she'd go for one, some days the other.  Different experiences.  She'd've been horrified if I'd told her she could only pick one.

Those debates have settled down now, although they haven't quite disappeared.  And while I may happily substitute grana padano for the pecorino in Josie's beloved cacio e pepe if that's what I've got on hand, I have to be careful who to tell that to if I want to avoid a lecture on the only right way.  (And alright, yes, I'm the guy who declares there's no such thing as a "vodka martini" -- there are just vodka drinks served in a martini glass!  But I'm joking. The grievance vein in my temple isn't pulsing.)

Where does that come from?  That seemingly irresistible impulse that so many have to declare that their preference isn't just preference, it's the only correct thing.  Is it people being so insecure about their own taste that they need to declare that all other versions of taste are inferior?  Or is shouting about it just one more way the internet helps people be thoughtless?

If I were only allowed one version of Ready Player One, I'd pick the book.  But that's me.  I wonder which version of The Monster at the End of This Book Josie would've picked if she'd had to.  So lucky to live in a world in which she doesn't.  She'd've bawled.

 


"Put Hope Away"

It’s usually one of the last things I hear before heading into bed at night.  I’ll be sitting at the antique rolltop, sorting out my pills for the next day, dropping them into the appropriate compartments of my Mad Hatter pillbox, and Lynn will be calling, in her sing-song encouraging voice, “Put Hope away…!”

I grimace and shake my head because it seems all too appropriate for the political times we find ourselves in.  Thankfully, she isn’t talking to me.  She’s talking to Jemma, the golden retriever.  It’s part of their nightly routine, as Lynn coaxes Jemma to put the day’s toys back in the toybox.  “Jemma, get red ring.  Put red ring away.  Good Jemma dog!  Now put green ball away.  Put green ball away.  Good dog!  Now put Hope away…”

A plush white rabbit.  A Christmas gift for Jemma that arrived with a silver medallion around the neck that said “Hope.”  Not long after, word came that the Trump whisperer was leaving her job at the White House.  So we now refer to the bunny as Hope Hicks.  “Put Hope Hicks away…”  She’s just landed a job as chief communications officer for New Fox.

There was a despairing column in the NYT a few days ago, “How Do I Explain Justice Kavanaugh to My Daughters?”  Jennifer Weiner feels crushed by the vicious reactions of Kavanaugh’s supporters.  Blasey Ford bravely testified and it didn’t matter.  Weiner writes,

Our girls will learn to police their clothes, their words, their drinking, their behavior, their choices, because they’ve been watching, and what they’ve seen is this: If you get hurt, it’s probably your fault, and if you tell, probably no one will believe you, and even if people do, probably nothing will happen.

But maybe our daughters are smarter than that.  Perhaps they’ve seen more than that. 

The chances of Kavanaugh not being confirmed were ever miniscule to none.  Nothing short of a convictable offense was going to change that.  But it is far from true that nothing happened.  Young women were watching all of that, too.

They saw the floodgates of stories open.  Women who’d locked up their own stories for years and decades discovered they could finally find it in themselves to testify, too.  They found empathy and support.  Some called them heroes.

Monica Hesse wrote a brilliant column explaining why so many women hadn’t, and haven’t, told their fathers about their own assaults and many fathers were rattled by those revelations.  They struggled and questioned and thought and re-thought their own behavior.

Young women saw that they’re not alone and the voices proclaiming, “It’s not your fault,” echoed loud and long.  Young men questioned their own behavior and wondered about the kinds of men they want to be and how to become them.  Discussion shifted from the privileged power dynamics in the workplace to the conditions that give rise to men behaving that way in the first place.

People looked for better ways to talk about what happens.  Catharine MacKinnon wrote:

Culturally, it is still said “women allege” or “claim” they were sexually assaulted. Those accused “deny” what was alleged. What if survivors “report” sexual violation and the accused “alleges” or “claims” it did not occur, or occur as reported?

And looking at the bigger picture, there's this, from Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code:

...the girls of this generation are as passionate and unapologetic about what matters to them as any in history. They display a sense of moral clarity, an instinct for inclusiveness, and a commitment to making the world a better place for people of all ages and genders. The rest of us should follow their lead.

Times Up isn’t going to eradicate workplace harassment, but it is giving people the tools, psychological and practical, to resist and to fight back.  The walls of the patriarchy didn’t come tumbling down on the strength of Dr. Ford’s testimony.  But more cracks appeared.  Young people watching saw all of that, too.  One woman came to DC and told her truth to the Senate.  Millions watched.  Sure, Kavanaugh was confirmed.  But so much else happened as well.

On any given night, weary of the tumult and anger and bitter frustrations of the day, we put Hope away.  Every morning, full of energy and glee, Jemma shakes her loose again.


Veracity

How about a presumption of veracity? 

What does it mean to "believe women"?  Start by believing they're telling the truth.  That they, too, are "innocent" -- innocent of deceit or misjudgment.   The presumption that they're telling the truth should be exactly as strong as the presumption of innocence we give the accused.

Reasonable doubt.  Is the story of the person proclaiming their innocence true?  We start with the presumption that it is, and we hold to that presumption until the weight of evidence carries us to the point where we can no longer believe what we started out believing.

If we apply that same standard to a presumption of veracity, instead of just one story, now we have two.  Only one of the stories can be true, but now we have to weigh them equally. 

In the case of Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh, what evidence do we have?  Their histories, the testimony of people who know them, bits of documentation (her therapist's notes, his calendars).  The psychology of trauma and memory.  The motivations that might move them to tell their differing stories.  All of it counts.

To disbelieve Blasey Ford requires concluding, beyond a reasonable doubt, that either the assault never happened or she is mistaken about the perpetrator.   The gaps about time and place in her story are explained by the psychology of trauma.  The delay in telling anyone about it is, we know, quite typical in cases of assault.  None of this is sufficient to conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that her story isn't true.  

Kavanaugh's story is weaker.  The testimony of people who knew him, the record of the bar fight when he was at Yale, the physiology of alcohol induced blackouts, all indicate that the picture he presents of himself as a young man isn't accurate.   But this still isn't enough to judge him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. (Not "innocent," remember.  Just not guilty.)

So the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard isn't going to help us if we apply it equally.  But we don't need to hold this as the standard.  This isn't a criminal trial and his story isn't the only one that matters.  We're not facing a question of imposing criminal penalties. We don't need to conclude that he's guilty of that particular assault beyond a reasonable doubt.  We need to decide if all of the facts that we have create sufficient doubt about his character to appoint him to a seat on the Supreme Court.

Whose story seems less likely?  Everyone needs to come to their own conclusion, but if "believe women" is going to mean something seriously, if we're going to correct the state of affairs in which the woman's story is automatically cast in a shadow of doubt, with all of the life ruination and miscarriages of justice that's caused, we need something like the presumption of veracity to correct the balance.  We'll still need to struggle with how to apply it in case after case.  But in this case, I doubt the man. I believe the woman.  

 

 


Sidewalks and Stories

Story is hard.  Lynn and I end up having a version of this conversation every year at the Sidewalk Film Festival.  So often, if the movies fail to satisfy, whether they be narrative features or documentaries, it's because the story doesn't cohere.  If the story is compelling, we can overlook other flaws.  But if the story isn't sharp, no amount of cinematic excellence can make up for it. This year's films made that point multiple times in multiple ways.  

The challenge for the documentarian is different from that of the filmmaker trying to compose a fiction (whatever the source material might be).  Michelangelo believed that the statue was in the stone and his job was to discover it -- "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."  Real lives are messy and complicated and there are many stories between birth and death, most of which don't have clear beginnings, middles and ends.  The documentarian has to figure out which story is most amenable to being told and then be ruthless in the carving in order to free that story in a way that's satisfying to the audience.  These stories will only ever be partial truths.

Sometimes the story that the director thinks they're going to tell turns out to be very different from the one that emerges during filming.  Real life events aren't beholden to whatever script the director has in mind.  Some of the best documentaries we've seen have been the result of those shifts and a filmmaker canny enough to follow the story they didn't realize was going to be there.  (This was the case with Gip, which won Sidewalk's audience choice for documentary in 2016).  Sometimes the story that the director pursues turns out to be even richer than he or she might have imagined. 

Near the beginning of White Tide: The Legend of Culebra one of the participants explains the difference between a northern and a southern fairy tale.  "The northern fairy tale starts out, Once upon a time..., the Southern fairy tale begins, You're not going to believe this shit!"  The story told in this very Southern tale is mostly true.  But since the director, Theo Love, came on the scene after all of the events had concluded, he didn't have much as-it-unfolds film to work with.  He solves the problem by recreating the crucial scenes using the real life protagonist, Rodney Hyden, and a crew of accomplished actors.  Hyden is a very effective collaborator, willing to show himself at his most foolish.  Love radically pushes the boundaries of documentary filmmaking to tell a story that's true and satisfyingly unbelievable.  Rodney Hyden may not be an angel, but he emerges at the end with at least a bit of a wobbly halo.

There are no angels in the fictional Hot Summer Nights.  There are some good performances, a love of movies, a technically accomplished crew, but in the end, no story worth telling.  Elijah Bynum mines a few decades worth of teen coming of age movies and noir films about drug deals gone bad to string together a series of clichés that form something much less than their sources.  Lynn was ready to leave two-thirds of the way through, but by then I was in trainwreck fascination mode -- I needed to see how Bynum was going to get out of the mess he'd made.  Not well, as it unsurprisingly turns out.  One of the three main characters is killed, the other two hit the road, never to be seen or heard from again, but living on in the trite myths of the useless narrator.  We've seen this kind of thing at Sidewalk many times before -- movies that bring together a lot of talent, that are visually rich, have good acting, are put together by people who've immersed themselves in the lore of cinema, but are lacking the key element. 

The creator of Union on the other hand, has way too much story to deal with and, despite years of trying, hasn't yet managed to create a satisfying movie out of it.  Spurred by the legend of Joan of Arc, Whitney Hamilton discovered that over 400 women, disguised as men, fought on either side of the Civil War.  She wrote a play, then a novel, and then a series of films, the latest of which is Union, all trying to tell their story through the tale of one such woman -- how she came to make those choices and how it affected her and the people who connect with her life.  It's a marvelous concept and there's much that's marvelous in the movie.  But we were baffled by it.  All through the first quarter I was uncertain if I was just missing connections among the characters, or if those connections weren't being made clear.  To my relief, when we talked about it afterwards, Lynn said she'd experienced the same thing.  The next day, in line for another film, we talked to some people who'd also been at Union and, not only had they felt the same way, they said that was the main topic of conversation on the shuttle bus they'd been on afterwards.  It wasn't just us.

Lynn did some investigating and discovered the multiplicity of works Hamilton has created so far.  After we got home, we watched an earlier film, My Brother's War, hoping that it would provide some answers, some continuity.  It did some, but there are still huge gaps.  Where did the young boy, Harrison, come from, for example?  Perhaps it's all clear in Hamilton's mind, since she's been living with these characters for so long, but she hasn't made it clear to her audience.  It's the danger of being writer, producer, director, editor and star.  There's nobody to push back in the service of the material.  It might help her to enlist the aid of one of those ruthless sharp-eyed documentarians.

"Story" doesn't have to imply linear chronological plot.  I loved Cloud Atlas (book and movie), thought Arrival and Shutter Island were brilliant.  I like stories that are complex and twisty and multi-layered and surprising.  Take Damselwhich also played at Sidewalk this year.  I loved it when I saw it and in retrospect I find myself loving it even more.  Call it a fable.  The opening shot, of two men sitting in what looks like a 19th century version of a bus shelter in the middle of a Monument Valley-esque wilderness waiting for a stagecoach, establishes firmly that this will not be a conventional narrative.  Don't waste time wondering how they got there or how long they've been waiting.  If you do, you're missing the point.

By the time Penelope and Butterscotch (the miniature horse) disappear in their rowboat into the fog of the mysterious sea, a wonderful story has been told, of a damsel whose only distress is caused by the men who are trying to rescue her or, in the end, be rescued by her.  It's puzzling and quirky and a little confusing and completely satisfying.

I think of Lynn and I as naive movie-goers.  We're not cinema buffs by any means.  But we're old, so just by default we've seen a lot of movies.  The ones we come back to, the ones we hope to find every year at Sidewalk, have great acting and cinematography and editing and music and all those things, but mostly they have great stories.  Well told tales with beginnings and middles and ends -- not necessarily in that order.

 

  

 


The Pain That Isn't There

So many of the dishes I enjoy cooking require a fair amount of chopping.  Like last night's hash -- potatoes, some leftover smoked brisket, an onion, a poblano pepper.  All cut into half inch dice.  A lot of chopping.  Since I don't have much fine motor control it's inevitable that I cut myself.  Not often, but frequently enough that I can't say it's rare.

One of the advantages of the spinal cord damage that transverse myelitis has left me with is that the cutting doesn't hurt.  I hardly feel it.  It's more likely that the hand holding the knife registers that I've cut into something that isn't the celery stalk I'm trying to focus on without noticing that the ring finger of the hand holding the celery has curved underneath the stalk just as I'm pulling the knife along the center.  (This was a few months ago prepping the soffritto for my bolognese).  The blood clues me in.  It's a nuisance.

It isn't that my hands are numb.  Far from it.  I have lots of sensation.  There's the constant buzzy tingling in both hands from above the wrist to the tips of my fingers, as if I'd slept on the elbow wrong and the hands are just waking up.  Occasionally there'll be bursts of sensation at the tips of a finger, a little explosion seeming to have just gone off on the surface of the skin.  Random sharp pains at the wrist or the thumb joint come and go.  None of these are "real."  That is, they're not an accurate reflection of something physiologically happening in my hands.  They're the artifact of the garbling of the signals those nerves are trying to send to my brain through that inch or two of demyelinated spinal cord just below my neck.  As if the individual wires in a cable had the insulation stripped off and the signal was short-circuited on its way up the line.  The stiffness, the effort required to bend the fingers or to straighten them again is the garbling going the other way -- my brain trying to control the fingers, but unable to get a clear signal to the necessary nerves.

Given all of the work going into that miscommunication in both directions I'm hardly surprised that when I cut myself the nerves don't seem even to try to send the shock of that sensation up to the brain.  There's too much already in the way.  So I feel the pain that isn't there and don't feel the pain that is.  I try to be careful.

The twenty or twenty-five minutes a day of guitar practice is going well.  I'm working on the ring finger of my left hand.  I need D-major-1 a D major chord in almost everything I play, and bringing that finger around to the D note on the 2nd string has been taking about an extra beat.  But I discovered the other day that if, when I'm bringing the index and middle fingers around to their positions, I tighten the muscle across my left shoulder blade, the ring finger keeps up.  For now, I have to remember to consciously trigger that muscle, but give me a few thousand more repetitions and it should become routine.  I suppose, in the old days, I used all the muscles in my arm to form chords, but it was subtle and automatic enough that I never really noticed.

Among the very many things I've learned in the last five and a half years is how stunningly complex the movements of a healthy body are and how little conscious thought is required.  The intricate mystical ballet of muscles and nerves combining to have fingers do everything from playing the piano to brain surgery to a fifteen year old girl talking on an airplane to a blind and deaf man.  Marvelous.

In my world, none of it is automatic anymore.  Everything has to be done with intention.  Let the attention waver for a moment and blood wells up from the tip of my finger.  But find the right muscle to flex and I can hit that D chord.

 

 


Against the Grain column

Katina and the crew at Against the Grain have graciously (or recklessly?) given me leave to write a column for each issue.  The first one (April issue) is up now.

I've written a small handful of pieces for them over the years and Katina has always encouraged me to do more.  Last fall I was inching toward my official retirement date.  I knew I wanted to do more writing, touch on some topics of professional interest, some more personal.  And I need deadlines.  I thought maybe Katina would be willing to let me write regularly for ATG.  That's six deadlines a year.  As the Charleston conference approached, I considered how to pitch it to her.  I thought she'd be receptive but I didn't want to be presumptuous, or set up a situation in which it'd be awkward for her to turn me down.

I went to the Vendors' Showcase, and she was the first person I saw.  We talked a bit about how we were each handling retirement.  I said I was intending to do more writing and before I could say anything else she quickly said, "Would you like to do a column for Against the Grain?  You could write about whatever you want."

So much for me trying to figure out how to pitch it.  I'm calling the column "Epistemology."  The things that are of most interest to me these days (both within the world of scholarly communication and beyond it) often have to do with notions of what we know and why we think we know it and how we come to have the beliefs we have about what we think we know.  And that's epistemology -- the study of knowledge.

In this first piece I go back to some of the issues I wrote about previously concerning beprexit, and try to put those into a broader context.  In the June issue, I tackle blockchain and technophilia.  I haven't decided what to focus on next, but the deadline is June 25, so I'd better get on it.  I'm open to suggestions.

 


Retirement -- The Score So Far

Lynn says I shouldn't joke that I'm "failing at retirement."  She fears it calls up images of me sitting vacantly in a rocking chair, despondently wondering what I'm going to do now.  "No, no," I tell her.  "I always explain it's that I'm ridiculously busy."  I'm having a good time.

Josie stayed overnight on Tuesday.  Lynn tells me she asked the next day (while I was on a Zoom call), "Why does Nonai have all of these conference calls?" "Well," she said. "He's got a lot of projects."

As my plans started to jell early last summer, I'd tell people I was retiring from UAB, I wasn't retiring from my life.  My retirement goals were to stay involved with some of my professional projects, gradually move my exercising from 20 minutes a day to an hour, do more writing, play more guitar, do more cooking, see what happens next.  I was anticipating leisure and long quiet days.

I needed to retire because my body couldn't keep up with the demands of my full-time job, even though I was working from home a couple of days each week.  It took me a long time to accept that.  It was reassuring, then, when at the end of December I was approved for Social Security Disability just seven weeks after applying.  Some 65% of applicants are denied after the initial application and then have to wait many months (20 on average) for their appeal to wend its way through the process.  That the evaluators looked at my file and took next to no time to agree, "Yes, this guy is seriously messed up," eased some of that lingering sense that maybe I should've just tried pushing harder.  Huh, I thought.  I guess I really am disabled.

I'm up to about 35 minutes a day of exercise now, trying to cautiously increase it.  Too little and the spasticity gets worse.  Too much and it's harder to ignore the aches.  I keep trying to nudge that balance point further.  My goal is still the hour a day.  At my recent 6-month checkup my doctors said they don't need to see me again for a year (unless there are symptom changes that alarm me).  I'll keep taking the baclofen to help moderate the spasticity and the various tremors & spasms. The pain I can tolerate.  Beyond that it's all a matter of exercise, physical therapy, and neuroplasticity.  Dr. B says, "You're motivated."  Indeed I am.

Lynn and I split the cooking. I do the evening dishes, she washes the glassware.  The most challenging thing about kitchen work is getting through packaging.  Who knew opening all these bags and jars and boxes with all their clever seals and zips and tags and spouts depended so much on the fingers' fine motor control?  Only rarely do I need to ask Lynn for help, but I know I always have to allow extra time for container wrangling.

Throughout the fall I wasn't picking up the guitar nearly as often as I thought I ought to.  I remembered what it was like when I had my hands.  To stand behind the microphone and sing while my fingers slid along the strings.  The tactile beauty and pleasure of it.  Now I struggled just to hold onto the pick.  I could form many of the chords, but the stiffness kept me from moving seamlessly among them.  Not enough strength for the barre chords.  Not enough diaphragm strength to sing my way through a song even if I could fumble my way through the music.  I knew that if I was ever going to get it back I'd have to put in the work, but it was painful and frustrating and most days I settled for running out of time doing other things, telling myself I'd do better tomorrow.

Josie was beside herself with anticipation the week before Christmas.  One day when I picked her up from school I asked her what she was most looking forward to.  She surprised me by saying she was excited about the present she had for me.  And on that morning she gave me a little paper gift bag and inside was a plastic envelope with 20 guitar picks with her picture on them.  On the back of each one it says, "Love you always! Love, Josie."  Since that day, unless we've been out of town, I think I've only missed three or four days.  I'm improving.  I'm singing again.

And then there's the projects.

I told Katina I needed deadlines so now I'm doing a regular column for Against the Grain.  She said, "Write about whatever you want."  My first will be in the April issue and I just turned one in for June.

There's the committee, led by Kevin Read, that's working to develop an open data policy for the JMLA.  We've just published an editorial on it and should have it mostly wrapped up before the MLA annual meeting in late May.

I turned down a consulting gig with a small independent publisher.  They're doing work that I think is quite good and what they wanted from me was something I think I could've done well.  I considered it, but decided I couldn't fairly commit the amount of time it would take and I didn't want to feel as obligated as I would have with somebody paying me.

Glenn asked if I'd be willing to chair the OSI Summit group, and Clare asked if I would at least run the first couple of meetings of the Metadata 2020 Definitions project.  I eventually agreed to both, but only if it was clear I was doing them on an "interim" basis.  I know, I know -- it's a fiction, but I like it.  It makes me think I can walk away whenever it stops being fun.

So the JMLA, OSI, and Metadata 2020 projects account for the many conference calls -- typically using Zoom or WebEx combined with Google docs.  Some weeks now I have more meetings than I typically had in any given week the last couple of years I was working for UAB.  But now I take them from my study.  Handy that the technology seems to be maturing just as I've needed it.

I wouldn't have considered retiring this soon if it hadn't been for the short circuit in my spinal cord.  (Which is not to say that on the difficult days I didn't sometimes fantasize about it).  I wasn't ready to "slow down."  I've always felt there's still so much more for me to do.  But now that it's here, now that it's been thrust upon me, it feels like a gift, despite the circumstances.  My unimaginable life, mysterious and fascinating as ever. 


Transparency Designed to Suppress

The irony is that Pruitt's proposed rule for Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science comes cloaked in the language of open data and replicability reform while developing a tool that will be quite effective in suppressing the use of any scientific results that the EPA Administrator finds inconvenient.  I'd seen the various editorials raising the alarm about what seemed to be in the works, but it wasn't until last Tuesday that the proposal was finally posted on the EPA website.  Yesterday (April 30) it was officially published.  It's quite impressive.  If one wasn't aware of the tangled history leading up to this proposal one might be fooled into thinking that it is indeed simply building on the trend towards open data policies that journals and funding agencies have been developing for several years now.  The document repeatedly references open data policies at leading journals like Nature and Science and PLoS One and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences as models for the kind of policy it's proposing.  But where the clear intent and effect of those policies is indeed to make science more transparent, the intent and effect of the EPA's rule is to give the Administrator an efficient mechanism for ignoring scientific studies that won't provide support for the kind of regulatory rollback that Pruitt is clearly engaged in.

The rule requires that studies dealing with dose response data (i.e., studies that address the effects of particular levels of pollutants) can only be used as evidence for significant regulatory decisions if all of the data is made available in a fashion that facilitates independent review and analysis of the data.  Open data advocates might be expected to cheer.  Isn't this the kind of policy that so many of us have been working towards?  But wait -- those journal policies are designed to be prospective and to encourage researchers to plan for data sharing as they develop their protocols.  No one has suggested that work that has already been done is somehow less valid because it was published at a time when data sharing wasn't the norm.  No one has suggested that we can't make use of solid peer reviewed literature in making decisions and developing policies.  Not even the most radical advocate of open data and the need for replicability has advocated ignoring well established science because it hasn't been, or can't be independently verified.  Not until now.

The privacy exemptions are exceptionally clever.  Section 30.9 gives the EPA Administrator the authority to grant exemptions if he or she believes that it isn't "feasible" to make the data publicly available or to conduct an independent peer review.  Which, of course, gives the Administrator the authority to refuse to grant such exemptions.  It also lays out a clear roadmap for industry in developing research supporting the conclusions which industry prefers, the data for which the Administrator will have the authority to grant an exemption for.

The rule itself is quite short -- five columns in the Federal Register version, following the fourteen plus columns of the preamble, which lays out the justification for the rule and makes the case that it is simply building on the "scientific community's moves toward increased data sharing" (as the accompanying press release puts it).

I have to admire it from a creative writing standpoint.  It's quite breathtaking in its brazenness.  For years Senator Lamar Smith has been inveighing against EPA's "secret science," introducing legislation intended to achieve this result.  Steve Milloy, tireless opponent of "junk science" has been its strongest advocate.  Fortunately, the legislative approach has gone nowhere.  But now it's about to be done, without needing to bother with the messiness of Congress.  Thirty days for public comment is all that's required.

Open data advocates should be outraged.  The scientific community is pushing back.  But I have no confidence that it will be enough.


The Path

Fahrney's, the magnificent pen store in DC (where I've obtained most of my fountain pens for over 20 years) is having a contest in honor of next Tuesday's National Handwriting Day.  This is what I'm sending:

Dear Fahrney's,

    You ask about my attitude to New Year's resolutions.  The last  time I made one would have been 2001.  I resolved that in the coming year I'd write one good essay.  I'd recently been named editor of the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, for which I wrote four editorials a year.  When the New Year came around again, I felt that at least one of those 2000 word essays had met my criteria, so I had no need for more annual resolutions.

    This is not to say that I've achieved everything I want to.  Far from it.  But  the struggle to be the best man I can be Fahrney is a daily one.  If I only took stock of my successes and failures once a year, I'm afraid I would be a rather sorry mess.  So for the last four decades, since my early twenties, I've started my day with a bit of writing, sometimes at the keyboard, but more often with pen and paper.  I comment on the day just past and outline what I hope to manage in the day to come.

    The Lakota believe that every person has their own path to walk and one tries to walk it the very best they can, sometimes slow and deliberate, sometimes dancing.  There is no destination, there is only the path.  My daily writing is my attempt to make sure that my feet are where they need to be.

    Thanks for asking,

    Scott

Handwriting is difficult now.  Slow, and usually a little painful, but rewarding all the same.  My hands feel stiff, weak, and they are always tingling, as if being rained on by tiny pins.  In the first months after transverse myelitis I kept writing in a journal, but my handwriting was slowly becoming more cramped and less legible.  By September of 2013 (10 months after I was felled), I could no longer manage the journal.  I didn't have enough strength in my wrist and arm to hold my hand steady when I got to the edge of the page.  I started writing on single sheets of G. Lalo medium.  With my hand resting solidly on the desk, I could keep the pen steady enough.  For over a year I kept the journal that way.  Lynn bought me a beautiful lidded box just the right size for stacking the finished sheets.  After a time I graduated to large Moleskine journals; still pretty flat, but raised up a bit.  Josie would give me notebooks for Christmas or my birthday, fairly skinny ones, but thicker than the Moleskines and over time I could manage those as well.  This past September, I went back to the small Roma Lussa journal that I'd abandoned four years earlier and began writing there again.  A couple of weeks ago, having filled that one up, I started in a fresh, full sized Roma Lussa, my favorite journals for many years.  It's still slow, it's still painful, the last few lines of each page get shaky as I struggle to keep my hand steady, but I manage.  It is extremely satisfying.

It's part of what it means for me to walk my path.  Around 1990, as my marriage was breaking up, I came to realize that at some point in the preceding years I'd stepped off my path.  I didn't go in the wrong direction, I didn't get lost.  It was as if I was just standing to the side of it.  Not moving.  Maybe afraid, maybe uncertain, maybe confused about what the path meant and where it was leading.  It took some time, and some work, to return to what I'd understood years before, that all that mattered was to walk my path as best I could.  To invest each step with as much truth and humility as I could muster.  To find the beauty there.

Is there an irony here?  That the metaphor that I've used to guide my life is one of walking, and here I am now unable to walk at all unaided?  No.  The metaphor just gets richer.  The universe is showing its sense of humor.  Isn't it true that whenever we take our very best and truest and most significant steps, we do it only with assistance?  We may take each step very much alone, but we are always bouyed up by the countless others who make our lives possible.  

Each morning, with coffee clearing sleep away, a fountain pen in my quivering hand, I still dance along my path.