Saturday, October 19, 2013

Links 19/10/13

'We live in an odd place and an odd time, amid things that know that they exist and that can reflect upon that, even in the dimmest, most birdlike way. And this needs more explaining than we are at present willing to give it. The question of how the brain produces the feeling of subjective experience, the so-called "hard problem", is a conundrum so intractable that one scientist I know refuses even to discuss it at the dinner table.'

A new law of biology: All mammals pee for about 21 seconds.

Skull 5: 'The spectacular fossilised skull of an ancient human ancestor that died nearly two million years ago has forced scientists to rethink the story of early human evolution.'

Great example of the extended phenotype: 'Bats that nest inside curled-up leaves may be getting an extra benefit from their homes: the tubular roosts act as acoustic horns, amplifying the social calls that the mammals use to keep their close-knit family groups together.'

A newly discovered giant virus 'definitively bridges the gap between viruses and cells - a gap that was proclaimed as dogma at the very outset of modern virology back in the 1950s.'

Space-born jellyfish hate life on Earth.

The Beautiful Mars tumblr (hat tip to Christina Scholz). 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Pro Bono

So science writer DN Lee was asked to be guest writer on a commercial blog, asked whether there would be any payment, and politely declined when she was told that she was expected to provide her services for free in exchange for 'exposure'. To which the editor replied, 'Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?' But that wasn't the end of her trouble - she wrote a scathingly funny piece about it for her Scientific American blog, and SciAm pulled it because 'it wasn't about science' (later amended to 'we weren't sure really happened').*

Meanwhile, Philip Hensher was asked by a Cambridge professor to write a foreword; when Hensher declined because there would be no payment, the professor called him 'priggish and ungracious'. And later, after Hensher published an article about it, the professor doubled down in a letter, pointing out that a) Hensher would have been paid, actually, in books, and b) he and other writers should, like academics 'give freely of their time' and contribute 'to the common good of our culture.' Hey, academics - first, don't confuse books with actual payment for services, and second, even though they spend a lot of time along in book-lined rooms, writers aren't actually university academics. They don't have a salary; they have to pay for their offices, and lighting and heating, and all the rest. Oh, and that stuff you think you're doing for free? You're paid to do that. Or at least, that's how it worked when I was in academia.

These are two extreme examples of the kind of entitlement writers sometimes encounter when asked to work for free. Usually, the people who do the asking know they're reaching out for a favour, and completely understand when the writer politely turns them down.  But sometimes they think that they're doing the writer a favour, and get all huffy when refused. Perhaps because they think that writing or giving a speech or appearing on a panel at a conference isn't actually work, or because they reckon that writers should give back something because other people have bought their books.

In fact, most writers do work for free now and then. Especially when they have a book coming out. If you are a mid-list author and your publisher doesn't have a marketing budget for your book, you'll buckle down and do what it takes to get the word out there. But working without pay eats into the time you need to spend doing work to earn a living, so you have to carefully pick and choose what you can and cannot do. Sometimes you'll do it because the person who asked you the favour is a friend or has previously boosted your signal; sometimes you'll do it because it supports a good cause; sometimes you'll do it because it looks like fun. I contributed a short piece to a collection of essays about Doctor Who because it supports a charity that does good work in an area that has personally affected me (and also as payback for the enjoyment I got out of Doctor Who as a kid). And on Monday I'll be appearing on a panel during a symposium on starships at the Royal Astronomical Society because the meeting should be suitably mind-expanding, and also because admission is free.

That last is important. There are honourable exceptions, but too often writers will discover that the prestigious literary festival to which they were invited expects them to perform for free. The festival has big-money sponsors, the organisers are paid, the owners of the festival's venue are paid, celebrity guests receive appearance fees, and the audience pays for admission, but none of the money trickles down to the poor bloody writers. Or that speech or reading they were asked to give for free? It will be delivered to a paying audience. And that's when it stops looking like 'exposure', and a lot more like 'exploitation.' Artists, actors, photographers and musicians report the same trend.

Genre writers may not get the same kind of exposure, but at least they aren't so often exploited. Most SF/F writers aren't paid when they appear at conventions, either, and the convention's guests of honour usually only get expenses and free accommodation. But although most conventions charge a membership fee, they are run by volunteers and rarely turn a profit. It's cheerfully ramshackle, sometimes disintegrates noisily, but mostly works. And although the number of books sold probably doesn't justify the time and expense of attending, you can at least moan about it with your peers.

*[UPDATE: SciAm have now done the right thing by Dr Lee and restored her blog entry.]
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