Calamities of Nature, RIP

So, nature got a little bit less calamitous last week when Tony Piro announced that he would no longer be updating his absolutely superb webcomic Calamities of Nature. Fortunately, he has announced that he intends to keep the site up, so you can peruse the archive of over 650 of the smartest meditations on science, philosophy, religion, and bacon that you’ll find anywhere.

I’m writing about this here because of something that he said in the post where he announced the end of the strip:

Today is my last update for Calamities of Nature. And I’ll be perfectly frank about the reasons. My full-time career is in academics, and I need to put everything I have into it if I’m going to have any chance of keeping it that way. As much as I love this comic, I can’t have it taking precious time away from my work. It’s time to move on.

Now, I hope, for Tony’s sake that he had also grown tired of maintaining his updating schedule, that he felt that five years was long enough, and that he is happy committing his efforts full-time to his academic career.

But, whatever the actual situation in this particular case, there is no question that he has hit on an unfortunate truth about academia. The fact is, it is extremely difficult to establish and maintain a traditional academic career while devoting time to other interests. Once you add in family (Tony also mentions that he has two kids), traditional academia basically demands that all of your time not spent sleeping or parenting be devoted to a very specific, constrained set of activities.

I think this is a shame. Certainly, there are people out there for whom this is the ideal lifestyle, people whose interest line up neatly with the demands of an academic career. I’m glad that they exist, and hope that they will continue to populate our Universities. But, for a lot of people, a more piece-meal career with time devoted to a broader range of activities would be more compelling, more fun, and would lead to their doing higher quality work over all.

Calamities of Nature is consistently smart and thoughtful, and it has a huge readership (roughly 5% the traffic of the mega-popular xkcd, according to alexa). It has probably engaged more people with ideas from science and philosophy than most academics do over the course of their entire careers. It seems criminal to me that the all-or-nothing structure of traditional academia means that someone with this much talent, and this great a platform, has to abandon it in order to maintain their career.

This is one of the things that the Ronin Institute aims to change. We are building an alternative model of scholarly research, one where scholars would be able to scale their commitment to research based on their personal interests and constraints. I imagine an ideal world in which someone like Tony Piro could commit, say, two-thirds of his time and effort to traditional scholarship, and one third to maintaining Calamities of Nature. I’m putting words in his mouth, of course, and I don’t know whether or not this is something that the real Tony Piro would want, but I think the world is full of Tony-Piro-esque scholars out there, who have other talents and interests that they have had to set aside in order to commit themselves to academia.

Of course, a part of this alternative model is that the two-thirds-time scholar would only be paid, say, two thirds as much as the full-time scholar. For people whose outside interests also made money, this would likely be an ideal scenario. For people whose other interests have no corresponding income stream, full-time academia might be the only way to pay the mortgage. However, I suspect that there are a lot of academics and would-be academics out there who would gladly trade a portion of their paycheck for a saner and more well rounded life.

Here’s the final Calamities of Nature strip. When you have a chance, go check out the whole archive.

Best of luck to Tony Piro in his all his future endeavors, academic and otherwise.

[Reposted from the Ronin Blog]

Iran and Israel, Love and Peace

So, here’s a pretty cool thing. Yesterday someone started a Facebook page where Israeli and Iranian citizens are sharing messages of mutual respect, love, and peace, in contrast to the rhetoric coming from the two governments. Check it out here.

It’s a small thing, but still cool, and has already built up a pretty good head of steam. And, you know, it is always worth pointing out the fact that it is usually governments that hate each other, not people (except to the extent that they are whipped into a frenzy by misinformation from their war-mongering governments).

Now, I’m neither Israeli nor Iranian, but I am American, and, of course, we have a similar set of issues. On that point, let me just put this up. You’ve already seen it, because it’s all over the internet, but, again, there are some things that can’t be said too many times.

Darwin Eats Cake Fan Art!

So, here we are, five days after celebrating Darwin Eats Cake’s birth, and the little comic that could has just received its first piece of fan art. To set the stage, here is Darwin Eats Cake number 88 — The top five underutilized Watchmen references:

And here is this awesome piece, submitted by Iona Bellamy:

which is so much more clever than any of the ones that I came up with. Thanks, Iona, for this piece of genius!

Liberty Square Reoccupied (Briefly)

So, last night wasn’t just our national annual paean to Irish drunkenness. It was also the six-month anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In celebration, hundreds of occupiers moved back into Liberty Square. There are widespread reports of police overreaction and use of excessive force in the course of clearing the park, but, as usual, exactly what happened, who did what to whom, and who is responsible is a matter of some disagreement.

Occupy protesters in front of the George Washington statue on Wall Street. Photo by John Minchillo (AP).

According to most sources, “scores” were arrested last night, according to the Seattle Post Intelligencer, 73.

For those in New York, there will be a follow-up protest at 8pm tonight (March 18) at the red cube across from Liberty Plaza. The protest is focused on yesterday’s arrests. If you can’t make it, check in on Tim Pool’s always excellent livestream. He is almost always right were the action is.

Now that the weather is warming up, expect to see a lot more occupy protests. After all, the world still needs saving.

Toxoplasmosis Extravaganza: Ride Complete!

So, this week at Darwin Eats Cake, we celebrated our one-year anniversary with a series of nine strips on the zooparasite Toxoplasma gondii. This parasite, which causes Toxoplasmosis, is the reason why pregnant women are encouraged to avoid cat litter.

Here’s the full series, presented for your one-stop-shopping viewing pleasure. The strips do not, I think, assume any expert biological knowledge, so you don’t need to be a parasitologist to enjoy them. However, a dorky and juvenile sense of humor will help a lot. Alternatively, you can read them on the Darwin Eats Cake website, where they look a little better, I think. The series starts at

At this point, Darwin Eats Cake will return to its regular programming schedule, with twice-a-week updates, usually on Mondays and Thursdays, except for those days that have been recognized as official holidays by the Darwin Eats Cake Council of Freeholders and its chairwoman, the duly elected Queen of Naboo.

So, stop by on Monday for a new strip, or any time to trawl the archive:

Happy Pi Day

So, how are you celebrating Pi Day?  If you’re like most Americans, it’s by beginning the three-day process of deluding yourself into believing that you have some non-negligible Irish ancestry.

Here’s what you should be doing instead:

Note: this song appears in many, many versions on the web, and, to be honest, I don’t know what the appropriate attribution is. I picked this one because I like the video.  If you know where origination credit should go, let me know in the comments.