Leftovers

Following Christmas and New Years, it is common to find yourself staring into a fridge full of leftovers. Turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, perhaps even some half-munched shrimp rings. The debris and detritus left from the festivities that took place.

This year I am taking stock of another form of leftovers. The leftovers of my once profitable freelance writing career.

It has been a few years since I was working full-time as a writer, and in that time much has changed in the media landscape. Ok, that’s putting it mildly. Reconciling the writing market a few years ago with what exists now is like the difference between a chicken and chicken nugget – one is vibrant, full of life, and pecking away at change, while the other is dead, lifeless, devoid of value, and sold for cheap.

Take, for instance, Innovation Canada. Once upon a time this was the online magazine for the Canada Foundation for Innovation. It published long form journalism on top-notch research, which yes was supported by grants from the CFI. It had interviews with leading researchers. And, it was a great place for a science writer. Good editors, interesting articles, and payment that was fair and timely.

Well, it’s gone, and so are the numerous articles I wrote for it. They can still be searched for on the CFI website, but rather than good journalism being front and centre it is now hidden amongst press releases and media briefings.

I can also add the demise of YESMag, a Canadian science magazine for kids; the loss of a reasonable payment scale at Green Living Online and National Geographic News Online. Plus, you look at all the journalists losing jobs and the rising number of journalism graduates from universities, and I have to wonder if there is even enough leftover from my freelance career to make a decent soup. It’s got me quite glum.

I think I’m gonna go see if there is any leftover Christmas cookies.

Christmas Death Wish

This week four years ago my friend died.

I know it is only a few days past Christmas and a few until New Years. All in all this is supposed to be one of the happiest times of the year – at least that’s what we are told anyway by advertisers, carol writers, and Christmas cards.

But this is the time of year that has an eternal dark stain for me. I have been through so much in the four years since JD took his life, and I now understand the struggles of bipolarity, depression, pain and suicide so much better than I did before. I know there is nothing I could have done. It was his choice. He chose to do what he did, it was not forced on him and it did not sneak upon him like a flu on an AIDS patient. It was a drastic, horrible choice.

But I still feel the pain every year at this time. I go back into my email inbox and read his last email to me. Just days before he decided to kill himself, he was supposed to come visit me and celebrate New Years with my family in Algonquin Park. Instead he sent an email explaining that he couldn’t come because he was sick.

I had no idea what sickness he was fighting.

I wish I had. And that is what angers me most. Why I have chosen to be so public with my depression and hospitalization. Knowing would probably not have prevented his suicide, but at least I would not have been deceived.

The truth matters, and a lie of omission is still a lie. Sometimes we must bring our deepest darkest fears out into the open to realize that they are in fact not ugly and horrible, but beautiful and common to us all.

Can Science Change the World?

Many people will read my blog title, and without thinking say “Obviously. Penicillin, space flight, and don’t forget the Internet.”

But, those are the outcomes of science, not the actual science. That’s like saying a plate of spaghetti and meatballs is cooking. It’s not. That’s food. That’s the outcome of cooking.

Science, just like cooking, is a process. And a pretty damn tough one too. Weighing information, throwing out ideas that might seem great but the data won’t support it, finding holes in your logic, admitting when you don’t know enough or where you might be wrong. This is what science is actually all about.

Last week I got to watch science happen on a grand scale. The Waterloo Global Science Initiative, hosted at the Perimeter Institute, brought together dozens of scientists and policymakers from around the world to hash out some ideas on how to solve the energy problem we are now facing.

You can read all about my experiences at the Equinox Summit here, and of course check out the Communique that was finally produced.

But, what I found most surprising and inspiring about the Equinox Summit is that science is not a cold, calculating machine. It’s a people thing. It relies on the knowledge, passions, and visions of people.

If I had to bet on a single project after the Equinox Summit, I wouldn’t bet on engineered geothermal systems, thorium nuclear generators, or smart grids. I would bet on the innovative power of smart people doing sound science. Individual projects and technologies may fail, but the people who believe in a better world never do.

Weirdest Sessions at the AAAS Annual Meeting 2011

I got the program for the annual meeting of the AAAS in Washington, DC in February a couple months ago. In anticipation of the meeting later this week and all the great science stories that other journalists will be writing, I am posting a list of my favorite oddly named sessions. Weird yet intriguing. I love scientists.

Here is my list of totally strange sessions at the AAAS (you can check out the entire program at their website):

Experimental Cooking: Exploring the Frontier in New Taste Experiences

-alternatively titled “101 cooking uses for your Bunsen burner”

From Heavy Electrons to the Cuprates, Organics, and Pnictides

-I don’t know what cuprates or pnictides are, but I love that someone thought they would be good names for particles.

Volcano Science Diplomacy

-Volcanoes are cool. Enough said.

Dining in with Trillions of Friends: Our Guy Microbiome and Nutritional Status

-I sense a theme of eating at the AAAS.

Adolescents and Oral Sex: Is it Really Something to Worry About?

-This is actually a session about STI’s and HIV, but honestly who named that session?

Neuroscience and Evangelical Christianity: Anticipating and Alleviating Concerns

-The jokes about the brains of evangelicals are going to be too easy.

Hey Mr. Weatherman, Is This [insert unusual weather event here] Related to Global Warming?

-This is actually a great title about a real problem, namely the difference between weather (day to day) and climate (decade to decade).

How Science-Based Social Networking Helped Find 10 Red Balloons

-I can imagine this research project might have had problems getting grant approval.

Has Humanity Become the Maggot in Earth’s Apple?

-Definitely my favorite title. Anything with “maggot” in the title wins hands down.

Enjoy the AAAS Science-palooza this week!

Journalism 101 for Scientists

Next week I am going to be speaking on a panel at the University of Waterloo about journalism for a group of scientists. The event is being organized by the Science Media Centre of Canada, which aims to help scientists understand journalists and journalists understand science so that our society is a little more science literate.

To help the discussion, I am posting a recent article I wrote for the United Church Observer about how ministers and church groups can work better with the media. And, before you say, “Wait a minute, science and religion aren’t the same, how can they learn from each other?!!” Consider that I am married to a master’s student studying theology (and you can see her blog Third Way Style about religious fashion), plus the first two sections to be cut in most newspapers well before the horoscope or comics are the “Religion/Spirit” and “Science” sections.

Without further ado, here is: HowtoMakeHeadlines

Magazine Articles Abound

We are so used to printing our own business cards, letterhead, and other personal business communications on our home printers that we forget that just a generation ago it was normal to take those sorts of things to a local print shop.

Now, there is a growing movement numbering in the thousands that print simple replacement parts, devices, and even some increasing complicated machines at home rather than buying them at a hardware store. This sort of decentralized manufacturing on demand could change everything. No more shipping goods from China.

Look in the October issue of the Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery for my article about 3D printing.

And, October also brought to print a completely different type of article published in a radically different publication.

Many churches have experienced either good or bad media coverage from time to time, but how do you build a really strong and lasting relationship? That’s the question I set out to answer for an article in the United Church Observer.

The article had me talking to ministers and editors across the country about the give and take between reporter and reportee. One of my favorite stories involved a church about a 30 minute drive from my home that decided to publicize the fact that they hadn’t raised enough money for a Habitat for Humanity build. By being open and honest about their challenges, another local group actually agreed to contribute the remainder needed and the build went ahead.

Unfortunately you won’t find a copy of my article online, but if you sneak into any United Church they will likely have a copy of the October issues still sitting out.

Dinosaurs and Video Games

Although they have been gone millions of years, kids and adults alike still love dinosaurs. They are one of the most popular science topics alongside the planets and volcanoes.

Recently for InnovationCanada.ca I got to interview someone who brings dinosaurs back to life…sort of. This isn’t Jurassic Park, but it is the next best thing: dinosaur drawings.

Michael Skrepnick is a dino-artist based in Alberta who has been the guy to imagine for the first time what dozens of dinosaurs look like. He was even the guy to draw the feathered dinosaurs into the popular imagination. You can check out the article here.

I also got a kick out of hearing one of my stories turned into a BBC radio segment on Digital Planet, a regular podcast favorite of mine. The story was for the Foundational Questions Institute online community about Gaurav Khanna’s research using over a dozen PlayStation 3 consoles in series to make a super computer that can do some heavy duty cosmology questioning. You can check out my story on the FQXI website and the Digital Planet’s story too.