Sunday, April 06, 2014

What is a science graduate and aspiring journalist to do?

- if you haven’t already been snapped up.

First let me thank the McGill (University) Daily for inviting me to participate in a panel on Science Journalism in the Digital Age. The March, 2014 event was coordinated by Diana Kwon, the Sci & Tech Editor. Co-panelists were Elizabeth Howell, space and science journalist, and David Secko, science journalism professor at Concordia University, in Montreal. This post summarizes some of my main points.

So, if you haven’t already been recruited by the mainstream media, there are things you can and should do. Explore and promote your own idea(s). One benefit is that you will be marking out your territory. The other is that you will learn hands-on ‒ and often at little cost ‒ what works and what doesn’t, digitally.

For example, even though my own book Escaping the progress trap never made any best-seller lists,
  • the sites that complement it, and consistently rate near the top on Google searches . That’s due to careful SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and regular, focused updates to the blog and the main site,
  • the book also has an electronic edition - eBooks are often short and can be produced at little or no cost,
  • the most frequently read page at the book’s site is about Tikopia,  and that page is also close to the top of Google searches for Tikopia,
  • the most frequently read page on the Blog is  Creativity: how extraordinary is the ordinary person's mind – an excerpt from the book.

The Territory
The digital extensions of this book are thus beneficial, and the 'territory' has been marked out, something that needs doing even if you have copyright and your work is widely known. In 23 years, only one author has claimed to have coined the term “progress trap” since I registered copyright on it in 1991.

Harvard Bookstore

Not built in a day
Some books do take time – for instance We, the Tikopia by Raymond Firth, was published in London in 1936 and languished unsold until WWII, when the publisher had to decide whether to dispose of it, or not. The book survived the blitz and eventually found a market after the war.

Quality, not quantity?
As a fictional aside one recalls the amusing episode from Angels and Demons where the character Robert Langdon ruefully proclaims upon unearthing one of the cryptic clues “ aaah.. just a few days with this and I could have finished my book …  and sold dozens of copies at the Harvard Bookstore.”

The digital world
So, on to the digital real world: There are many ways to analyse the performance of your site, blog, tweets & videos, and more internet tools than one can hope to use. Most of us rely on Google Analytics to gauge a site’s performance. For a general overview of the state of the net there is the assessment of internet publishing in its many forms: The 2013 Digital Influence Report is useful on blogging, social media and multimedia.

Common wealth
The Creative Commons license provides a free springboard to source material that is often the basis for serious, professional study and reporting. Better yet, Open Data sources from many international bodies such as the World Bank are available. There is also Open Science Data  and many governments provide Open Data. Yes it’s Ok to consult Wiki. If you can’t bring yourself to cite Wikipedia, do cite one of the peer-reviewed articles that you are likely to find among their references. After actually reading that article, of course.

Anyone for MOOCs?
If you suddenly feel the need for more expert knowledge, don’t be shy to take a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). Perhaps the best known are under the MIT-Harvard umbrella known as They are free for the most part and don’t take up too much time. I have taken three in the last year and now have Harvard, Berkeley and Oxford on my resume. FYI, is just now hyping Street-Fighting Math, #educatedguessing.

While it is true that traditional media outlets have been trimming science staff, the jobs haven’t gone away. Science isn’t going away. It gets more intricate all the time, needing expert interpretation for voters, policymakers, investors and everyone else. Many organizations rely on new media for communicating their interests. One example is the Mayo Clinic that lists about thirty staffers in its Communications department. The site also lists 14 Canadian Institutions and their newsroom personnel.

It means different things to different people and usually takes endurance, smarts as well as copious resources. This little blog post of mine can assure neither fame, fortune, professional accolades ‒ or any of the above ‒ to anyone. On the other hand, you might be invited to speak at McGill University!

The last word – goes to Jared Diamond
“The Easter Islanders' isolation probably also explains why I have found that their collapse, more than the collapse of any other pre-industrial society, haunts my readers and students. The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious. Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet, all countries on Earth today share resources and affect each other…..Thus, we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant peoples and past peoples.”
Jared Diamond, Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed. Viking 2005

Thanks also to the Canadian Science Writers Association (CSWA)

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Start 2014 with some good news - more clean energy for you!

While the year brought its fare share of bad news stories — some energy related, like the Lac Megantic oil train derailment — one review highlights some good news developments. In their ThinkProgress article, "13 Major Clean Energy Breakthroughs Of 2013" Kiley Kroh and Jeff Spross describe significant advances in alternative energy production.

They are:
1. Using salt to keep producing solar power even when the sun goes down.
2. Electric vehicle batteries that can also power buildings.
3. The next generation of wind turbines
4. Solar electricity hits grid parity with coal.
5. Advancing renewable energy from ocean waves.
6. Harnessing ocean waves to produce fresh water.
7. Ultra-thin solar cells that break efficiency records.
8. Batteries that are safer, lighter, and store more power.
9. New age offshore wind turbines that float.
10. Cutting electricity bills with direct current power.
11. Commercial production of clean energy from plant waste-
12. Innovative financing bringing clean energy to more people.
13. Wind power is now competitive with fossil fuels.

Read the full article and get the details at

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The tree that engulfed a fence

This tree slowly overgrew the fence that was alongside it.
Eventually the fence was cut away, leaving the metal fence posts and chain-link within the tree, which lives on.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Good, Clean Energy & the salt of the earth.

Have you noticed how most North Americans now concede that their contribution to climate change is real (and increasingly spectacular), yet have no access to clean energy?

At the modest end of the scale, installations of solar and/or wind energy remain prohibitively expensive for the average citizen. Some of the costs can be recovered by feeding unused energy back into the grid, but this entails more expense. Moreover, solar panels and wind turbines are not yet installed in quantities that allow for economies of scale.

On the large utility scale, only a handful of solar power generators supply electricity around the clock. Wind generator farms are typically connected to the grid, but contribute only a fraction of world electrical consumption. Hydro-electic power is well established  ̶  in areas where water supply and topography are favourable. Fuel cell electricity is highly specialised, costly and not available to the general public.

So, what can the rest of us do to experience the joy of clean energy? Well, some folks do it themselves, making and installing solar or wind power units. Some installations energize small devices such as laptop computers or lights, while others power up homes and recreational interests.

One website -, gives us an idea of the scale and variety of DIY generators . One of their smallest units makes use of old floppy drive motors while a more ambitious project supplements a homes's utility source with electricity from an array of collectors and rechargable batteries.

An ingenious supplementary source of hydroelectricity is found at Turlough Hill, Ireland, where a double-reservoir system pumps water to the upper dam. On demand it flows down again to the lower dam, generating power at peak consumption times.

On a larger scale, Gemasolar Concentrated Solar Power plant in Spain has achieved a round-the-clock power supply. Believe it or not, the key ingredient in its heat storage  is molten salt!


Thursday, September 26, 2013

A record number of weather records fell in 2012

It's 2013 and most of us in North America have a sense that weather extremes have become more common. In Southern Africa and Australia the snow falls more often. Yet whatever inspiration may be found by climate change skeptics in the global warming hiatus noted by the IPCC, unabated pollution makes less sense than ever.

To help us check the facts the US Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) has put up a web page where one can enter a US zip-code and find out how many records have fallen in that area.

For example Beverly Hills 90210 : In 2011, California experienced:

    60 broken rainfall records
    15 broken heat records
    19 broken snowfall records

What about Boulder Colorado 80305? - in 2011, Colorado experienced:

    21 broken rainfall records
    11 broken heat records
    6 broken snowfall records

According to an NRDC news release, "In 2012, there were at least 3,527 monthly weather records for heat, rain and snow broken by extreme weather events" in the US, surpassing 3,251 records broken in 2011.

You can get a graphic sense of this with an interactive 2012 map that even includes forest fires in the US.


Monday, September 09, 2013

Blame global warming for melting a car - is that the last word?

If there was ever an illustration of the human mental interpreter at work, it is the PR statement about the building that melted a car -  “The phenomenon is caused by the current elevation of the sun in the sky. It currently lasts for approximately 2 hours per day, with initial modeling suggesting that it will be present for approximately 2-3 weeks.” The spin doctors were responding to the ability of London's concave Walkie-Talkie skyskraper to focus sunbeams and partially melt a car. Our mental 'interpreter,' so named by neurologist Michael Gazzaniga, is explained by psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist:
    The left hemisphere is the equivalent of the sort of person who, when asked for directions, prefers to make something up rather than admit to not knowing. This impression is confirmed by Panksepp: ‘The linguistically proficient left hemisphere… appears predisposed to repress negative emotions, and even chooses to confabulate.’ To some extent perhaps we inevitably confabulate stories about our lives, a process overseen by what Gazzaniga calls the left-hemisphere ‘interpreter’. - The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilchrist, 2009
Among the rationalizations offered by the architect for the architectural faux-pas - in addition to the sun being in the wrong place (Galileo must be turning in his grave) -  are:
  1. 'the superabundance of consultants and sub-consultants' required by UK regulations
  2. 'sub-consultants that dilute the responsibility of the designers'
  3. 'the fault of the architectural discipline which has cast itself into a completely secondary thing'
  4. 'the calculations said it was only going to be 36 degrees'
  5. 'there was a lack of tools or software that could be used to analyze the problem accurately'
It gets worse (or better, depending on one's level of sophistication). Of a similar debacle in Los Angeles the architect said "That was a completely different problem," claiming he was following a masterplan that specified arc-shaped towers. "We pointed out that would be an issue too, but who cares if you fry somebody in Las Vegas, right?" The master designer reflected: "They are calling it the 'death ray', because if you go there you might die. It is phenomenal, this thing."

Persistent rationalizations and denial are among the key ingredients of progress traps. Gazzaniga was too kind when he called the grey matter that does this the 'interpreter'.

Oddly enough, we probably all feel a modern, urban compulsion to let the confabulist have the last word:

"When I first came to London years ago, it wasn't like this...Now you have all these sunny days. So you should blame this thing on global warming too, right?"


McGilchrist, Iain (2009). The Master and His Emissary. Yale University Press

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Carbon dioxide emissions - Sea level rise - NBC News sounds alarm

Ann Curry of NBC News interviews Inuit leader Aqqaluk Lynge in Greenland about changes in their environment and his message is blunt: we in the industrialized world are using more than our fair share and our children and grandchildren will pay the price.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Sunday, July 07, 2013

For coping with climate change, media must get with the program

Several recent events have signaled a timely change in mainstream media coverage of events related to climate change. And possibly a change in attitudes.

In an interview on July 1 an Arizona fire chief gave a no-nonsense reply to Scott Pelley's (CBS News)  mention that many people don't believe in climate change:  "You won't find them on the fireline in the American West anymore because we've had climate change beat into us over the last 10 or 15 years. We know what we are seeing.."

In a MacLeans article  David McLaughlin, a long-time conservative, criticized the Canadian Government for evading climate change issues: “Now we have in 2013 the second once-in-a-century flood in less than a decade,” he said af the 2010 and 2013 Alberta floods.

“Denying that climate change is a cause is akin to putting your head in the sand — in this case, your head in a sand bag.”

McLaughlin headed the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy which was eliminated in March 2013.

The time for counting on scientific proof of anthropogenic climate change is over. Instead, we have entered a period of 'beyond a reasonable doubt.' Good judgement says we need all the help we can get, not just the proven kind.

Whether one is in a progress trap or not there yet, tremendous creativity is needed for coping with the damage, and to prevent further societal deterioration.

Scientists in particular need to accept that the 'progress trap' syndrome exists, even if it implies that progress can be flawed.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Does the world really have too many people and not enough food?

With the successful world-wide March against Monsanto (May 25, 2013) and the US Supreme Court's ruling against the farmer who grew Monsanto's genetically modified soybean seeds instead of buying them, we need to look at the big picture. Especially in light of Monsanto's standard argument that it is dedicated to alleviating hunger...

read the full article:  Monsanto and the hidden hunger