The black rat squatted in the closest corner of the cell, turning over some bit of scavenged offal in its paws but still watching what was happening to me with beady-eyed interest. I idly wondered how long it would take for the rat to chew through the leather straps binding me to the chair, if I could lure it closer, if it were hungry, if it were so motivated. At least the fantasy gave me an instant’s distraction from the man pacing in front of my outstretched bare feet.
“Bastinado,” purred the community manager of PLoS Blogs. “One of the more practical yet excruciating forms of torture embraced by the Spanish Inquisition.” He thudded the wolf’s head on his cane into his palm experimentally, testing the force. “Bludgeoning the soles of the feet inflicts unbearable pain without life-threatening injuries. And it leaves your precious, precious hands intact for typing.”
He looked me straight in the eye then. “You remember typing, don’t you? It was that activity you did with your fingers when you were actually blogging?”
“Seriously, Brian?” I sighed. “We’re doing this again? Okay, first, I’ve only been away for two weeks. In the Canadian Rockies, teaching at the Banff Science Communications program with broadcasting icon Jay Ingram and others. And second—hello, torture? Really? I still don’t even understand why the Public Library of Science lets you do this to the writers. It seems so… un-open access.”
He planted the cane on the cell’s dirt floor and leaned toward me. “Disciplined, regular posting is the cornerstone of successful blogging.”
“All I’m saying is, this sort of torture never happens at the Scientific American blogging network.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Doesn’t it? Doesn’t it, really?”
I had better things to do than argue about Bora. The steady pressure I’d been exerting against the strap around my right wrist was paying off. It was definitely looser now, and by tucking in my thumb, I was sure I could pull my hand free if I could distract Brian long enough. “What is it exactly you want from me?”
My question only seemed to irk him. He pointed at the computer monitor on the rough-hewn table, the brightest source of light in the room. “Do you even know what day it is? What the significance of this day is?”
“Of course,” I said. “It’s the first anniversary of the launch of PLoS Blogs.” The skin around my right wrist was raw from rubbing against the restraint but I kept twisting it. Almost there. “One year ago, PLoS gave me the chance to write alongside legends like Steve Silberman, Deborah Blum, David Kroll, Misha Angrist, Martin Fenner, Daniel Lende and Greg Downey, Travis Saunders and Peter Janiszewski, Seth Mnookin, Hilary Rosner, Emily Anthes, Jessica Wapner, Shara Yurkiewicz and Sarah Kavassalis.”
“Don’t forget everybody at The Student Blog, and Science, Upstream, and The Guest Blog,” he hissed. “Or the PLoS ONE community blog, or the official PLoS Blog! You ungrateful bastard, I knew you’d forget them!”
“Enough!” I said. My right hand pulled free behind my back, but I’d need more time to undo the left. “They’re all great. Everyone knows that. But what is it that you want?”
“How about a nice anniversary post?” The light from the monitor seemed to make the silver wolf’s head on his cane glow, but not one spark glinted from his dead, soulless eyes.
“Sure,” I said. “I could list my most popular posts of the past year. Off the top of my head, I believe that in order they are:
- The Rapture of Daylight Saving Time, about the effects of time zones on an alleged apocalypse.
- Height, Health Care and I.Q., on what might be not-so-obvious consequences of health care policies.
- Did Her Evolution Answer Win the Title for Miss USA 2011?, which asked a question to which we now know the answer is “no.”
- The Inhuman Response to Rebecca Watson, in which I tried to explain human manners to a lot of socially dysfunctional commenters.
- Busted Explanations for Karate Breaking, in which I try to clear up some misconceptions about a commonplace martial arts demonstration.
- Not-So-Elementary Watson: What IBM’s Jeopardy! Computer Means for Turing Tests and the Future of Artificial Intelligence, which is self explanatory and, surprisingly, not connected to the Rebecca Watson story.
- WTF Weather: Wichita Heat Burst, about what caused a weird midnight temperature spike in Kansas.
- JR Minkel, You Are Missed Already, my tribute to a fine science writer who is too soon gone.
- Great Moments in Science Writing: the Alpha Cavewoman Fiasco, about a cringe-worthy distortion of paleoarchaeology findings.
- The Real 12 Stages of a Lunar Eclipse, in which I try to correct the misunderstandings that come from reading literal-minded folks like The Bad Astronomer.”
“A listicle?” I could sense his scowl in the gloom. “A list of all your best work? Well, it’s better than nothing, I suppose.”
“Of course, that list doesn’t include some of my other favorite pieces. Like my posts about Ray Kurzweil and his version of futurism. Or the ones about global warming and the case for airships. Or my assaults on bad science on Dr. Oz. Or my post on photoelectric wasps. Or even the one with the big x-ray of a python. Or, god help us all, all the ones about bed bugs.”
“Don’t push your luck,” he said. “Nobody wants to read that much of you all at once. Or ever. You’re kind of an acquired taste at best. Still, you have contractual obligations to fulfill.” The rat in the corner caught his eye, and he swiftly swung his cane at it. The rat squeaked, then ran further into the shadows. Brian stared intently after it.
“I appreciate your encouragement, Brian,” I said. Both my hands were free now, and I could shake myself free of the remaining restraints in an instant. He seemed not to have noticed anything, so absorbed was he by the fleeing vermin. I tested the weight of the chair, sure that I could swing it as needed before he turned back my way. “It’s been a great year. I’m really looking forward to what’s coming next.”
Addendum: If you enjoyed this, then you must surely read Daniel Lende’s companion piece for Neuroanthropology. Or my own previous entry in this series.