Dear SciAm

Dear SciAmThis is a post I’ve had sitting on the shelf for when I wanted an easy one. I don’t know about other bloggers, but it takes hours for me to crank out a post. Some can take most of a day. (There are some where I spent days making graphics, and an upcoming one has work that took weeks! (You saw a glimpse in a recent post!))

The situation this concerns is long past. This is no rant, just a piece on a life change that surprised me a little, made me sad a little, and which doubly reflected the end of an era.

I could write this any time, but today I got another plea from Scientific American magazine. Again they beg me to come back. Again I won’t.

This, then, is an open letter to SciAm, a dear old friend with whom I’ve parted ways.

writingMy Friend, there are two problems here, both of them sufficient to end our long relationship. Combined they make it a dead certainty. If it helps at all, this is mostly your fault, but I will admit I’ve changed, too.

Let me touch on the first problem, since that one is beyond our control. Times have changed; our kind of relationship is becoming obsolete.

I mean, let’s face it: sacrificing living trees in the name of being together is archaic enough, but to spend all that time and energy on pulping them, applying all that harsh chemistry and driving them around the country. For what? To run them through your giant color presses, fold them into “magazines,” stick steel staples in their bellies and send them off — alone — into the world to who knows where.

forestThat’s just… well, it’s an industry!

No this trafficking in trees won’t do. Cellulose must live free in sunshine.

So there’s that, and that alone would give me pause, would make me rethink.

Yet I might have turned a blind eye, might have made you the one exception after I’d shunned all the rest.

The real problem is you became a whore. You wanted to be more popular; you wanted as many relationships with strangers as possible. You began playing to the groundlings. You became common and easy. You lost what made you unique and special.

Now I admit I’ve changed, grown, learned things, and it’s possible I’ve grown away from you, too. There was a time when you were a real challenge. There was a time, especially early on, when our times together left me puzzled, confused and scratching my head. It was as if you were speaking a foreign language.


Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate?

I found so much in you I couldn’t understand, especially in the early days. But I kept at it. I wanted to know you and all you contained. I wanted to explore every area of you.

Over the decades we were together that’s exactly what happened. Every month we’d start a fresh cycle of exploration; there were new discoveries, new sights. You taught me so much; not always useful things, but always interesting things — exciting things!

I admit I was a bit less interested when you spoke of anthropology or biology, but I loved you, so I paid attention always, and you taught me even there.

Then — in the last decade or so — you seemed to become less interesting. Our conversations weren’t so esoteric anymore, weren’t as detailed.

Weren’t as interesting.

Carl Sagan - one of the best

If only he’d made it to the ‘web. That woulda been awesome!
(Bet his site would be free!)

In fact, it was hard not to notice how quickly we’d finish our times together. You said less and less, and I found even less of it new to me. I’d heard most of it before, knew it already.

It became obvious you were reaching out to others. You wanted a new audience, but an audience with less advanced tastes. An audience mostly characterized by their strength of numbers.

And you know what? That same revolution that made tree bondage unnecessary also gave me access to a world of professionals freely talking about their science, art and craft.

There is a great deal of selling in the ‘web. There is also a great deal of giving, and some of that giving is very, very good.

sciam-1965-06For all those reasons it’s just not the same between us anymore. It’s over.

Do you remember how it all started? A friend introduced you to me. You’d been with him a while at that point and were looking a little frayed around the edges. But what was inside you was pure gold to this geeky kid! It was deep love at first sight!

[And do you know, I still have those times. I have almost all our times together, and let me tell you, it’s been a lot to haul around these years. But I do have those early times from the 60s. You look even more frayed, and your gold has in some cases turned foolish. But you were still really something back then!]

sciam-1966-05Let us then remember the good times we had, remember all you taught me, remember all the hours we spent together enthralled. Alas, the center has not held. The stars may not change, but we do, and so does the world.

I will always remember you with great love! And I do wish you luck in your new life.

best regards,

And, no darling, your website doesn’t interest me. It’s more of the same populist “big-box” model, a giant commercial internet store plopped down on Seller’s Row. I repeat: window shopping at SciAmMall versus sitting down with real scientists for coffee. Which sounds better to you?

I just don’t like glitz and glam. I do like good hard science.

I like knowledge. (Sepere aude!)

cu sry

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

17 responses to “Dear SciAm

  • Chyina

    Well put and agree wholeheartedly, especially with Carl’s website! Man that would have been a sight to see! (pun intended 😉 ) It’s sad that many things that use to hold such knowledge have gone by the money side. It’s happening too often. If there ever was a revolution needed it’s in getting knowledge back into peoples live. So many are content to sit and watch reality TV (what a joke!) or listen to half truths in the news. Whatever happened to pushing the envelope? To making people sit up and take notice? To showing them there is so much more out there they don’t understand? To giving them the idea to think and research for themselves? There are a lot of things I miss. This being only one in an ever growing list.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Oh, don’t get me started on what the “learning” and “science” TV channels have turned into. PBS’s Nova is still pretty good, but most of the rest of them have become useless.

      It’s a very sad testament to our times that the “science” channel runs shows about ghost hunters as if they stood a chance of actually detecting a ghost. That the “science” channel would even imply that ghosts might be real is horrifying to me.

      It’s worse than ignorance… it’s willful ignorance, something I’d be fine making a capital crime.

      • Chyina

        I couldn’t agree with you more. I could rant for hours about what’s happened to the so called “educational” channels and shows. 😛

        The sad thing is that it’s permeated to other mediums too. No one thinks of MTV or VH1 as music channels anymore. They are BS unreality crap, playing music for four hours from like 2-6 in the morning. I remember when 98% was nothing but music and you might have the occasional show that focused on…shocker…music!

        PBS, Discovery, TLC with a number of others I use to watch all the time. Now they barely have an hour’s worth of stand-able airtime.

        I will never forget when I watch a hip replacement surgery on TLC. That was great, and slightly disturbing, lol. Probably won’t see that again, ever, at least not on that channel.

        So sad.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yep, exactly. (I hadn’t even realized it, but you’re right. I haven’t seen a listing for one of those actual surgery programs in a long time, but they used to be fairly common.) What makes it worse is that they are very likely just reacting to viewer tastes.

        TV channels air what their viewers will watch, and our TV viewing tastes as a nation depress and terrify me.

        I’ve wondered how much feedback loop exists. Can TV channels raise the bar over time (if we could convince them to do so)? Or would doing that just put them out of business? It’s still not clear to me how effectively you can actually change people.

      • Chyina

        It’s a catch 22 (another great read). We would have to change our viewing tastes on mass before anything I think. It’s like corruption, once it pass a certain point, it takes a massive number of people to get it under control again. Though I fully believe it is possible to change the system, as it’s been done already (and not always for the better).

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Earlier I was catching up on the last two weeks of Jon Stewart, and he’s been raising the gun topic (many, many people have mostly due to the Newtown shootings. (An interesting testament to our times: with all the gun violence going on all the time, it takes murdering lots of school children to really shock us now. Yeah, it’s outrageous, but where has that outrage been all along?)

        This is a topic on which I have extremely mixed feelings. I went through a hand-gun phase due to some friends who were really into it. (One was involved in IPSC, and their contest events involve practical shooting scenarios, so you get to play good guys and bad guys… with real guns! It really is fun!)

        And as a libertarian (slash anarchist), I really do believe in a great deal of personal freedom. At the same time, I fully recognize we have a major problem in this country. I do tend to side with those who feel that guns aren’t the problem, per se, but they are definitely the visible effect of the problem.

        I would be willing to try extreme control measures just to see if they work. Part of me fears they won’t. The two biggest fatal attacks on people in this country were accomplished with fertilizer+diesel fuel and box cutters+airplanes. Those Columbine guys had planned to use propane tanks to create large bombs that would have killed far more than they did with guns had the bombs worked.

        So my sense of things suggests that crazy people who decide to commit mass murder will probably find a way, simply because so many ways exist.

        Anyway (digressed a bit there), my point is that Stewart pointed out how, since the 70s, we’ve reduced drunk driving problems (I’m forgetting now… “incidents”? “arrests”?) to 1/3. Many laws were changed (ability to charge bar tenders who serve drunks), and over time we did change the world. (And yet I still hear the stat that “one-in-five drivers is drunk.”)

        I’ve heard that a massive government campaign was able to reduce cigarette smoking rates about educated whites… at least for a time. My sense is that it’s been rising again, but that’s just anecdotal based on how many people at work I see taking smoke breaks.

        So I just dunno how malleable I really think people are. [shrug]

      • Chyina

        I am with you on the mixed feelings when it come to the gun issue. Statistically, more people are killed with knifes, hammers, drunk driving, and even prescription drugs, than they are with guns. Not to mention you are more likely to be shot and killed by a cop with a gun than a maniac.

        There are also the other countries, like Great Britain and Australia (among others), that have seen a rise in violent crime since banning firearms. So I don’t see how getting tougher on them will help.

        It’s always been my belief that if a criminal is not legally getting the weapons, then make them illegal isn’t going to stop that. Criminals will always find a way to get guns, or other means for their crime.

        In the end, the 2nd amendment was meant for protection. To bear arms wasn’t for hunting, but for a persons personal protection of their land, lives, and family.

        That said, I don’t like guns, lol. I prefer knives and swords, but to each his own. *shrugs*

        Mankind, no matter the age, is like a child. You tell them not to do something, or you can’t have that, solely for your own good, people are going to rebel. I also think it is not, and should never be, up to the government to make all the decisions on what is best for its people. Only the people can do that.

        But I could go on for hours on how I feel things are screwed, lol. I tend to be a bit radical in views, not in a kill them all sense, but in a protest/revolution take back your freedom and free will, kind of way (in a peaceful manner).

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The stat I always like to whip out is the surprising number of infants who drown in those five-gallon plastic buckets. Clearly we need plastic bucket control measures!

        The Founders were also pretty clear on the idea of the populace taking out the government should it get out of hand. Many today feel the modern military would be unbeatable, which would invalidate the premise. For them I have two words: Vietnam, Afghanistan. Two cases where modern military machines got their asses kicked by the natives. (In the former case, by guys running around in pajamas!) Hell, for all our might, we took a beating in Iraq from insurgents. Never underestimate the capabilities of guerrilla fighters!

        [shakes head] Both sides have their points, and it may be one of the most intractable issues of our time. I know about the problems in England, and I’ve heard bits about Oz. It’s all so wrapped up in our perceptions and culture.

        Honestly, I’m at the point of thinking a 20-30 year experiment might be useful. We went through prohibition to discover what a lame idea that was. Perhaps it’ll take actually trying extreme gun control to demonstrate whether it’s also a lame idea.

        Sometimes I wonder if it’s all just a cost of having the society we do. And that energy and freedom… maybe the violence is just the dark flip side of the coin. We can solve the violence problem… but we all have to go back to being sheep and wheat farmers. (Hell, works for me! :lol:)

      • Chyina

        I have to agree. I think guns get the worst of it because they are made for killing something. Even though there are a number of other things that are more likely to end you life.

        Fear is a great determining factor for both arguments. I can pull up stats on how many mass murdering dictators disarmed their people before going on a rampage.

        The military is a formidable thing, but as you said, they are not impervious. Hell, I think it was something like 5% of populous stood against the British during the revolutionary war. So it can be done.

        I think people are just to scared of each other and their governments. Very little of them take responsibility for their own life and actions. In the end, gun control will be in place, and later down the line people are going to be kicking themselves for letting it happen I think.

        I could go for the farming life. Hell, I’m pretty much there already. Growing a lot of things myself (no room for animals, yet). I love it. 😀

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, agreed, fear has a lot to do with it. Not just the fear of others or of government, but many are just scared shitless of guns in and of themselves. Noisy, fearsome, scary things, you know!

        People are so willing to project their own shit on situation. I saw an article today that the US Military has apparently decided that, yes, women can too be on the front lines under fire. That article of course had an opposing article to the effect that ‘critics claim women would be distracting.’

        Which I’d guess says a lot more about the critic. I believe Israel has had women on the front lines all along, and likely so do other countries. I’d also guess that, when you’re under fire, your teammates’ boobs are the last thing on your mind. One does have to wonder just how sexually distracted those critics are; likely repression rearing its ugly head again.

      • Chyina

        I’d have to agree.

        Now a days women on the front line aren’t going to change anything really (as far as the men are concerned). Not that I want anyone on the fronts lines, but in many respects women can be tougher and more cunning than men.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Women (very generally speaking) have that interesting thing where they’re usually on the nurturing, consensus-slash-community building side of things. But when they tear loose, man oh man! They really go the other way big time. Not sure how much of that is wiring, how much is cultural; I do think some of it is wiring, it’s too universal. Maybe sports and hunting train it out of men… we learn that there’s always an afterwards, so it’s best not to totally nuke the bridge and then do a happy dance on your opponents’ graves. You might end up having to rebuild the bridge, for one thing.

        Sometimes we even go out for a beer together after having a “war” at the local football field…

      • Chyina

        I think it’s a little of both wiring and culture. I also agree that men have far more outlets easily available to them to redirect some of that fierceness. Plus women tend to bottle it up until one little thing snaps them. Then you are dealing with a whole mountain of waiting claws and teeth, lol.

  • reocochran

    I am sure that my father would be turning in his grave if he had not been cremated! I have had the pleasure of looking at some of his papers and his old magazines this past year. I am sure I would get far more good information now than when I was a young girl who would dust around his stuff! Thanks for an interesting read! I sympathize! I empathize! I don’t have a clue of what I am missing! Sorry!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      No need to apologize!

      Could be your father’s molecules are spinning madly in their atomic orbits over this dreadful decline and decadence of a once dandy and delightful magazine!

  • bronxboy55

    I don’t remember why, but I was thinking about Scientific American just last week. Maybe I got a subscription offer in the mail. I did subscribe for a while, when I was in my twenties. Their articles were always presented in a way that lured me in, and I’d devour the first page or two. But then I’d slam into a wall of technical detail that would leave me lost and uninterested. I miss Carl Sagan, too. He knew how ignorant I was.

    As we North Americans become more scientifically-illiterate, and continue to turn to our daily horoscopes for wisdom — and UFOlogists and ghost hunters for explanations of reality — the situation will likely worsen.

    You’re right: if only Carl were alive and had a website. Richard Feynman, too. At least we have Neil deGrasse Tyson (I’m trying to forgive him for what he did to our little friend). And we have Skeptic magazine, although, as you said, there’s very little that’s new.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I had a discussion with another blogger just the other day, and it concerned a difference between us in terms of reaction to perceptions of injustice in the world. My friend’s reaction, in part due to an abusive past, was to shut down and decouple. My reaction was to get mad and want to fight back.

      Perhaps what distinguishes us geeky technophiles is that, when confronted with that same wall of technical detail, finding it just as much of a show stopper, our reaction is more along the lines of, “Fuck you, I don’t know this. I will, you just watch me!” It’s like meeting a woman who’s just too damned interesting to not make a play for. She may be way outta your league, but you just gotta try, and I know for certain that sometimes you succeed.

      Now if only I’d become as expert with women as I did with science and technology…. [sigh] Not even a race.

      Reports vary, but between 50% to 68% of Americans believe in the reality of angels. That’s charming on one level, and seems harmless at worst, but it can lead to distrust in science and a rejection of critical thinking. I’m torn, though, wondering if it’s always been this way and the interweb just makes us more aware of each other. Are we really getting stupider and more ignorant? There does seem some support for that. The Marching Morons Theory. Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. Charlie Pierce’s Idiot America.

      Cavemen and dinosaurs. [sigh] Sure, why not.

      Ironically, I took Skeptical Inquirer magazine for a couple years and dropped it. I’m a Decisive Agnostic, militant even, and I tend to oppose both forms of gnosticism. I look askance at those certain about Atheism just as I do those certain about Theism. Buncha nutters in my book. (Admittedly, the Atheists generally don’t kill people over it, and naturally I support the rationalist approach.) Pat Roberts and Michael Shermer both annoy me (I would at least be in the same room with the latter).

And what do you think?

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