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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.