Got no time for the blogger-blagger!

modern science

One of the toughest things about modern science is its all-consuming nature–it literally sucks up one’s time. And while I am unable to sit down and write a serious blog, I thought this photo nicely illustrates how scientists struggle-to-juggle their time.

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Hey, I didn’t even get the grant!

Scientists today spend a considerable chunk of their time writing: grants, protocols, manuscripts, reviews, grant reviews, etc. One of the bureaucratic requirements that most of us are familiar with is the “progress report.” Every year — or even after every six months of funding, we are obliged to send in a report detailing our progress in carrying out the aims of the grant proposal.

I think I am on fairly safe ground in claiming that although this can be time-consuming, most scientists don’t begrudge this task — they are too happy and relieved to have money for their research. However, I managed to lose my temper with such a request this week.

Into my email box came a rather stern note complaining that I had not met my deadline for submission of the annual progress report, and I was being given a final warning to submit. However, although I typically try to comply with all of my grant-related obligations, this time I unequivocally refused. No! I will not submit this report! Absolutely not! Enough bureaucracy! No! 

Yes, dear reader, I refused. I decided that I would not comply. ENOUGH is ENOUGH!

And why would I be such an adamant refusenik and troublemaker? Because the private foundation that was demanding I submit the report — read carefully, dear reader — this esteemed research foundation HAS NEVER FUNDED ME!

How my name became entangled in the web of grantees who were required to submit progress reports, I will never know. But what I do know is that every scientist has his limit — and this is where I draw a line in the sand: no funding, no progress reports! Go pick someone else’s email out of a hat…

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Libraries, technology and e-books–go with the flow…

Kindle vs paper

Libraries are becoming virtual, and there are some distinct advantages…

Technology is changing the world, and libraries are picking up on the changes. As a long-time library patron, it has not been uncommon for me to head out to the local branch nearly every weekend. Typically with ~20 books out, including paper ones, CD audiobooks for the car, and more recently, “Playaways” (not to mention another stack of books for my kids when they were younger), I often find myself unable to renew and return everything precisely on time. The library used to be more lenient, and have a grace period for late returns, but no longer. So I often willingly pay the little fines for late returns. All for a good cause.

All that is changing. A couple years ago, I bought a basic Kindle to read e-books. In truth, I prefer the paper (okay, ‘dead tree’ for you tree-huggers) format. Why? First, I find that I am less likely to remember the title and author’s name when I read the Kindle format. The book opens to the page I am on, and unlike a paper-book, I don’t continually see the title and author’s name (which eventually become etched in my ever-weakening memory). True, I can always look up what I have read on the Kindle, but that’s beside the point. Second, I like to know how much of the book is left. Kindle gives me a percentage (i.e., read 88%), but that’s not the same. The problem is if there is a reader’s group discussion, or long acknowledgment at the end–in such a case, the actual book might end at 95%. With a paper book, it is easy to just flip and see what page is the end. Another minor complaint is navigation within the book. I feel much more comfortable going back a couple of chapters to check what a character said in the paper format. However, admittedly, that is me being ‘old-school,’ as there is certainly an opportunity to e-navigate on the Kindle–especially for those who grew up with e-technology.

The advantages of e-books are many. For a start, the size and weight of a Kindle makes it an excellent choice for travel. Before travel, I was often faced with the irritating decision of whether I would complete my book on route, and be left as a ‘book-orphan’ for the rest of the trip, or whether to drag a second heavy novel with me. At times, I would even start a new novel just before travel, and leave the one that I’m halfway through at home. Another feature that I love is the built-in dictionary; looking up new or unfamiliar words has always been a sore point with me, as I hate to stop reading and pull out a dictionary mid-sentence. Even using an iPhone dictionary is disruptive–but the Kindle has a wonderful built-in dictionary which is a pleasure to use.

Perhaps the biggest change coming is the burgeoning relationship between libraries and e-books. Rather than decry technology, libraries are bravely embracing it, and evolving rapidly to stay relevant. And they are succeeding! My library (and the entire Omaha Public Library system) now carries Kindle, PDF format e-books and even recorded books on ‘OverDrive‘ for remote electronic checkout. This means that on a ‘simple’ iPhone, I can browse the library catalog, and download Kindle books and recorded books, which I can listen to on my iPhone while exercising or driving, or read on my Kindle, iPhone, iPad (which I don’t have) or computer. Instantaneously–instant gratification.

As a reader, I am like a kid in a candy store–but as an author, I am also enjoying the rapid changes in the publishing industry. Being as this is the holiday season, and everyone is avidly looking for a great gift for their favorite scientist, I can shamelessly resort to plugging my own creations. As recently outlined in a Nature article about scientists who are authors of fiction, my books are selling. Most astonishingly, my first novel, Matter Over Mind, selfpublished back in 2010, is still selling strong — in fact it’s outselling my other two books combined. I have no real explanation for why it continues to do so well comparatively, except that the subject — a scientist with a parent suffering from bipolar syndrome — is of interest to a wide group of readers.

All my novels are selling better on Kindle than on paper, and now that Amazon/Kindle has expanded into libraries and books can be ‘borrowed,’ I find that I am receiving consistent royalties from the tracked “number of pages read” too. It is, however, too preliminary for me to quit my day job and live off my royalties…

Here’s wishing all scientists, authors and colleagues and virtual colleagues and friends — a Happy Holiday Season and happy, healthy, New Year.

 

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Beertown: anatomy of an American town

Omaha may not be known as a Mecca of the arts, but for a mid-sized Midwestern US city, there is no shortage of good theater. No, it’s not Broadway – although we do get the occasional traveling Broadway show that comes through – but the endemic talent of local playwrights, directors and actors is quite phenomenal.

This week I had the good fortune to experience three local productions. The first was a high school play written by budding playwright and actor, Ben Adams; this was a clever and humorous satire written and directed by a high school senior that had the audience laughing at the witty dialog.

The second play was really a reading of Omaha playwright Noah Diaz’s “The Motherhood Almanac,” at Omaha’s unorthodox Shelterbelt Theater. The play (or rather, the reading) has been described as:

“A play about women; about daughters and mothers // a play about the tropics, death, birth, rain, adoption, white trucks, peaches, rabbis, weddings, Tuesdays, hair ties, eyelashes // about what’s spoken and unspoken and understood and everything in-between // about swimming pools, wine, lists, wrists, fists, poetry, divorce, and the parallel lives we were never meant to lead // about learning how to carry on and all the things we must leave behind …// a play about women and the women who raised them.”

Hefty topics for a male 22 year-old playwright, but successfully done with aplomb and style and carried out magnificently by Omaha’s top ‘amateur’ actors (note that there is one who carries the same last name as me…), and under the direction of Omaha’s premier director Susie Baer Collins.

Finally, last evening we attended the Omaha Playhouse’s production of “Beertown.” A very unusual production, “Beertown” represents small-town-America at its most democratic. The play begins invitingly with the town members (we the audience) bringing an array of desserts to the 20th quinquennial town meeting and time capsule ceremony. As we Beertonian’s filled our plates with calories, the Mayor of Beertown, State Representative and other townspeople chatted with us about the upcoming quinquennial program, while the Beertonian Bugle editor took photos and interviewed  some of the townspeople.

The distinctive idea was to introduce the permanent and ‘ephemeral’ artifacts that the town’s bylaws had included into the capsule, and to democratically decide what, if any, new artifacts should replace any of the nine ephemeral ones in the capsule – and if so, which artifacts would be replaced.

The play presents a window for the audience to view how attitudes and values have changed and are still evolving in small town America. The subtle or not-so-subtle conflict between youth and the older generation. Disagreements over the significance of sport vs. the arts. And so on.

The unique angle of the production is that it allows for significant input from the audience, allowing the actors and Mayor of Beertown to use their superb improvisation skills to navigate through interesting debates and lead the democratic decision making. In all, a very interesting experience and unique theatrical production. And did I mention that the playwright from “The Motherhood Almanac” makes a superb performance as State Representative Pickel-Cooper?

Well, none of it is Broadway – and for that, I’m very glad. One doesn’t need New York for first class drama.

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Gut feeling: colonoscopies are a marvel of modern medicine

About 10 years ago, suffering from some stomach troubles, my family doctor recommended that I do a colonoscopy. I was barely 40 years old, and just the thought

colonoscopy

Not even ‘pixelated’ — my ‘gut feeling’ is that these images showing my healthy colon are pretty high resolution images.

of having someone explore my inner workings, by shoving a small camera affixed to a flexible rod — well, you get the picture — made me lose my appetite for a month. When I asked the doctor, whose overall bedside manner (not to mention qualifications for dealing with a mild hypochondriac) was brash at best, “what if the colonoscopy doesn’t find anything,” his answer was: “Then we’ll go in from the other direction and do an endoscopy.”

I ‘freaked out,’ and decided that this doctor was not a good fit for me. When a few months later I read an article in the local Jewish rag about this doctor being part of a team that visited archaeological sites in Israel that used medical endoscopic tools, I realized that I had been dealing with an endoscopy-obsessed physician, and lauded myself for running away from him. Let him use his tools on the archaeological digs — not on me!

Well, for the past ~10 years, I have been dreading the 50 y tune-up. Dreading, fearing, and wondering if I should pass. It’s easy to find pseudo-science to “support” not doing the procedure: Many claim that it’s invasive, and can do more harm than good. After all, some people end up bleeding from a punctured colon. I assume that many of these who oppose this test for screening purposes probably also deny the importance of vaccinations.

Over the years, I have followed the development of the “PillCam Colon,” a pill that carries a miniature camera that will traverse the digestive tract when swallowed and obtain photos of the colon before being excreted (and recovered). But most insurance plans do not yet cover this type of (expensive) procedure, and it is still deemed a weak alternative of the colonoscopy. An additional problem is that during many colonoscopies, small (or larger) polyps are discovered. These are considered to be potential precursors of tumors, and their removal (and pathology testing) is an essential part of the colonoscopy process.

So, I sucked it in and acquiesced to a regular colonoscopy.

Everyone I talked to told me that the procedure itself was ‘nothing,’ that one doesn’t feel a thing, and that it’s easy and no big deal. But it scared the hell out of me. On the other hand, my friends and colleagues all lamented on the horrible “prep” — the need to drink buckets of the laxative to cleanse the colon, and the cleansing itself. That, for some reason, did not scare me.

Well. I was wrong, and they were right. The prep was AWFUL. The same polyethylene glycol that I used years ago to make liposomes was the main laxative in the dense, disgusting-tasting prep. There was about a gallon of “Nu-Lytely” that had to be drunk, in two sittings: from 5-9 pm, and from 2-4 am before the morning of the procedure. Nauseating stuff. I wasn’t sure I could actually do it. But, I did not want to go through the fasting and be forced to eat green ‘Jello’ and clear broth on another day.

On the other hand, the procedure was a piece of cake. They hooked me up to an iv. Put a warm, heated blanket on me until the doctor was ready. They asked me to lie on my side, and the next thing I knew I was waking up after a nice nap. With a clean colon (see images above) and 10 years until the next one!

I did have a tiny 2 mm polyp removed, but the lab found it to be benign.

All in all, I think modern medicine can chalk up a victory (this coming from a hypochondriac), and I hope everyone who can will take advantage of this opportunity for screening.

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The Lady and the Trump

This week, my family and I convened to do something very unusual: to watch television. And not just any television program — no, it was to watch the Republican presidential candidate debate. While I fully expected the debate to be ‘entertaining,’ perhaps I underestimated the sheer level of ignorance that I would encounter. In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

Chicago buildings

The Chicago skyline, with Mr. Trump’s building, as observed on a recent visit.

Having seen the spectacle of Donald Trump in the first debate, with his childish, bigoted and chauvinistic remarks, I guess nothing should really have surprised me. But nonetheless, I came away shaking my head in disbelief.

Toward the end of the debate, when the candidates had already vied for the title of who would “defund” Planned Parenthood” most rapidly and who told the most moving stories of  love for their hero, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump (mistakenly called “Tramp” by my spouse) let the vaccine out of the bag. According to Mr.–or should I say Dr.–Trump, childhood vaccines cause autism. And how does he know this? Someone he worked with had a beautiful baby, and took him for vaccines–and lo and behold, the baby turned into an autistic monster. Point proven.

The hell with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the decades of study by thousands of scientists and doctors–no, no. He, knows better. But no better was the follow up with comments by two physicians who are also in the running for the Republican nominee: Dr. Ben Carson and Dr. Rand Paul. First, neither doctor contradicted the comments of Mr. Trump. Dr. Carson made very ambiguous statements, claiming that (in agreement with Mr. Trump, who he jokingly called “an okay doctor”) vaccines are bunched too closely together and should be spread out over longer periods. I doubt if Mr. Trump could even name the diseases that these vaccinations prevent, but the important thing is that his careful scientific analysis demonstrated with perfect clarity that the vaccine schedule needs changing. Dr. Paul, the Libertarian, invoked freedom of the individual to choose, and carefully avoided contradicting Mr. Trump’s claims.

I find it incredible that in a country that has enough real and serious problems, we have to waste time and energy inventing non-existent ones. I realize that Google has made everyone an expert in everything, and that parents can now diagnose their children’s pediatric illnesses with the click of a mouse, but this is creating a false sense of comfort. One cannot become a trained scientist or physician by exclusively reading online. It just doesn’t work that way. And we should not be giving equal weight (or any weight for that matter) to politicians or uninformed doctors on issues that they do not understand — that is the province of the CDC or NIH — to establish rigorously researched protocols based on the best data available. Mr. Trump and his cronies may be good at paying for tall buildings in Chicago, they they should stay the hell away from putting in their ignorant  two-cents worth on subjects that should be left to professionals.

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Right on: the only museum dedicated entirely to human rights

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Technology and hands-on exhibits make the Canadian Museum for Human Rights accessible for visitors of all ages

When I last visited family in the city of Winnipeg, Canada, I had the opportunity to do a tour of the outside of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), as it was not yet opened for the public. On this visit, 2 years later, this one-of-a-kind museum located at the Forks — the meeting place of the Assiniboine (east-west) and Red (north-south) Rivers is now hosting over 800 paid visitors per day.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights

The CMHR — not my photo

I found the idea to be unique — important and intriguing, although I was very skeptical before seeing the exhibits. My childhood in Canada had caused me to anticipate a very back-slapping and self-righteous museum, in which Canadians would denounce others and proudly announce their own commitments to human rights, without mentioning the many failures. I was wrong.

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A display seen from one of the many alabaster bridges that work their way up the building.

The CMHR is not perfect — but no museum is. However, it makes a sincere attempt to reconcile Canada’s past with its many errors. These include, but are not limited to the assignment of First Nations’ children to Christian religious boarding schools over the past 100 years (indeed, until the 1990s) — what was conceived as an attempt to remove any traces of native Canadian First Nation culture. Also included was a serious discussion of Canada’s abysmal record of turning away immigrants (mostly Jews) who had managed to escape from Nazi Germany during the 2nd World War. Many of these immigrants ended up returning to the shores of Europe only to die in Hitler’s gas chambers.

In the history book “None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948” the authors address Frederick Blair — the head of Canadian immigration — who reportedly was asked how many Jews would be allowed into Canada as refugees after the war — and his answer was “None is too many.”

The museum is unique in that it is focused mostly on personal stories — victims and heroes — and typically shies away from too much emphasis on blame. More important is the attempt to understand how the violation of human rights led to atrocities, and how this could have been stopped.

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An exhibit hall on the 3rd floor

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Women’s rights. 50% of the population, and many countries

Women’s rights are an incredibly important part of the exhibits — and the problems presented are not limited to third-world countries. The museum does not shy away from showing western commercials and advertisements that present women in a demeaning manor — ads for shoes and clothes and fashion models. Seen as part of a gradient of sexism, this is very compelling.

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Very few women in Saudi Arabia are permitted to drive

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Interactive displays have movies and stories on a multitude of human rights issues

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The Holocaust and at least 11 documented recent atrocities

Reading about the museum, I was informed that there were demonstrations by certain communities against the museum for its “unequal exhibits.” I read that some members of the Canadian Ukrainian community felt that the Holocaust received ‘too much’ attention as opposed to the Holodom0r, the man-made famine forced upon Ukrainians by the Soviets in the pre-WWII era, where anywhere between 2-7 million people perished.

The Holodomor was presented as part of a permanent exhibit that includes 11 horrific atrocities in the 20th century. The Holocaust received its own exhibit. Part of the complaints, as I have been informed, stem from the fact that a wealthy Jewish donor contributed a lot of money to the museum, and there is/was a perception that this may have influenced the museum’s content. While any human suffering is horrible, I do feel that the Holocaust deserves special treatment, as it was a very unique situation. Not land disputes or fighting between tribes — but rather an entirely scientific plan to murder millions of people — even at the expense of losing the war. Nothing like this has ever been perpetrated on humankind, and understanding how this could have occurred really does deserve special attention.

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View of the city and into French-speaking St. Boniface from the CMHR tower

In summary — I strongly recommend to anyone who has an opportunity — if they end up in the middle of nowhere in central Canada — to visit the CMHR. Well worth a full day’s visit, and should be a must for every school child.

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Who the hell will tell me who my father really was?!

This angry question, uttered repeatedly by the protagonist of Bualem Sansal‘s courageous and thought-provoking novel, translated into English as “The German Mujahid,” has been permanently etched in my brain.

The story follows the day-to-day chaos in the life of Malrich, a young and poorly educated Algerian immigrant in a Parisian housing project. Malrich is reeling from the depression and suicide of his older brother–all the more shocking because his brother (Rachel) was a well-paid engineer for a multi-national corporation who had apparently integrated seamlessly into French society. The key to the tragedy lay in Rachel’s journal.

In the course of the novel, the reader is exposed to the deadly radical Islamic fundamentalism that has become rampant in the housing projects, along with the deadly massacres of the Algerian civil war–in which Malrich’s parents were murdered along with dozens of others in their small village. Simultaneously, Rachel’s diary brings to light an insufferable secret that neither Rachel not Malrich can bear–the father of German descent that they loved  (who had moved to Algeria after World War II) had been a chemical engineer at Auschwitz charged with enhancing the efficiency of gassing Jews to death.

Having read many books focused on the Holocaust, I am still recovering from the chilling  accounts of how mass murder could be coldly turned into an engineering problem–getting the maximum number of dead Jews for the minimum of Zyclon B gas–whether more efficient in cooler or warmer weather, and what height the roof of the gas chamber should be for maximum efficacy. This is an unforgettable novel, for anyone able to stomach the descriptions.

Infused with humanity (and despite his self-described simplicity), street-wise Malrich embodies Sansal’s courage, and is unwilling to bow to the Algerian authorities or the fundamentalists. At the same time, he is also unwilling to accept that his father participated in the largest scale and most organized genocide ever known to mankind–hence the repeated cries: “Who the hell will tell me who my father really was?!

Sansal is a rare author who stands out in his tremendous personal courage, drawing parallels between today’s Jihadists and yesterday’s Nazi’s. The symbolism is clear: the Nazi engineer murdered by the wake of fundamental Islamicists represents the turning tide and new world order. This novel by Sansal, an Algerian native, has been described as the first attempt by an Arab author to address the horrors of the Holocaust, but this is not mere lip service; it is one of the most impacting books I have read. Given Sansal’s moral compass, I will be on the lookout for anything he writes.

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Being an expert in (membrane) recycling has perks!

This morning I awoke to the following email (and yes, “OMICS” does it again):

Dear Dr. Steve Caplan,

Greetings of the day. Hope you are doing well.

The purpose of this letter is to invite you to be an eminent speaker at  the World Congress and Expo on Recycling during July 20-22, 2015 at Barcelona, Spain.  The main theme of the conference is “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle for a better tomorrow” which covers a broad array of vitally key sessions.

We came across your contribution entitled  Novel Functions for the Endocytic Regulatory Proteins MICAL-L1 and EHD1 in Mitosis published in the Traffic and thought your expertise would be an excellent fit for Recycling Expo-2015 Conference.

For more details please visit: http://recycling.omicsgroup.com/

We welcome you to be a part of this exciting Recycling Expo-2015 Conference as a Speaker (Oral & Poster)

Kindly contact us for any sort of further assistance.

Have a Great Day Doctor!!

With Regards,
David Culver
Recycling Expo-2015
Environmental  Conferences
5716 Corsa Ave, Suite110
Westlake, Los Angeles
CA-91362-7354, USA
Tel: +1-888-843-8169
Mail : recyclingexpo@omicsgroup.com

I have to admit, this is a new level of sophistication: to “come across” my paper on endocytic regulatory proteins and mitosis, and connect this with environmental recycling. Painstaking research on the part of the organizing committee.

While it sure would be nice to be invited (as an eminent speaker) to Barcelona, I fear that the eminent environmental recycling speakers might be bored to tears hearing about endocytic recycling. So alas, I must decline my emminency…

 

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Paying for peer review? No thanks, I’m outta here…

I spent Friday traveling west of Omaha to the University of Nebraska at Kearney, in of course, Kearney, Nebraska–about 3 hours west of Omaha. The University of Nebraska has 4 major campuses: 1) The University of Nebraska Medical Center (where I work, here in Omaha), 2) The University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO, mostly undergraduate and also in Omaha), 3) The University of Nebraska at Lincoln (UNL–this is the major undergraduate campus and center of the university), and 4) The University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK).

I had been to Kearney several times before, most notably to see the sandhill crane migration (note you can see a photo of them at the top of this blog!), but this was my first time at UNK, and I enjoyed meeting colleagues, delivering a seminar and talking about art and science over beer at the science cafe. As the beer was good, and the hour late, I stayed overnight before striking out on my way back to Omaha this morning. Before leaving, I noticed an email that arrived in my inbox from a fellow scientist who also serves on the editorial board of “Scientific Reports,” an online open access journal from the Nature publishing group.

Reading the email, I learned of a very strange situation brought about by the journal: they are planning to open a new review track in which authors would pay to have their manuscripts reviewed within 3 weeks. I found that the publishing company likens this to paying for “expedited mail.” This, however, is a poor analogy, to say the least.

The journal intends to use a third-party-provider called “Rubriq” which seems to be a business that “pre-reviews” manuscripts that scientists intend to submit to actual journals, to help authors prepare for submission. Truthfully, I don’t know anyone in my field who would ever pay for such a service. However, it turns out that they are now expanding to provide reviews for Scientific Reports–at least for those authors who pay for the expedited service.

There are many ethical problems with this proposition. First, having a third-party group circumvent the regular editorial board is already wrong. It sets up two separate review entities–one for those who pay, and one for those who don’t. Second, there is no transparency for this Rubriq company. Unlike the general editorial board, they do not list reviewers who have expertise in specific fields, and this is entirely contrary to scientific ethics. Then, there is the issue of pay-for-review. To speed up peer review, the reviewers (chosen by the third-party) will be compensated. But if these reviewers are compensated, then why would any of the current editors and reviewers agree to continue volunteering their valuable time and effort to review without compensation? None of this makes any sense.

Needless to say, I signed the letter sent to me by email, but went one step further. I tendered my resignation from the editorial board and marked a large “X” by this journal. There may be many positive changes that lie ahead in the science publishing business, but this proposed change leads nowhere that I want to go.

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