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Writing in an Hour: Story Ideas From a Journalistic Blogger

June 8, 2013
Matt Hamer, a programmer for Pyra Labs, the makers of Blogger.com. Photo: Evan Williams http://www.flickr.com/photos/evhead/2005327119/

Matt Hamer, a programmer for Pyra Labs, the makers of Blogger.com. Photo: Evan Williams

This weekend I had the honour of being invited to present at the Canadian Science Writers’ Association‘s annual meeting, a conference that took place on the beautiful campus of McGill University in the foothills of Mont Royal.

I had the pleasure of joining Lisa Willemse, a communicator for the Canadian Stem Cell Network and the main force behind their Signals blog, and Pascal Lapoint, who works with L’Agence Science-Presse, to talk about the ins-and-outs of blogging for one of the CSWA meeting’s career development sessions. The session was organized by freelance writer Jude Isabella.  [Full disclosure, I was recently elected to the Board of Directors of the CSWA.]

Lisa covered the details of operating a blog network authored by scientists, and some of the nuance of running a highly niche blog. Pascal discussed some of the advances being made in French Canada and the growth of the Canadian science blogging community. Pascal’s presentation is online here (in French).

For my part of the talk, I decided to talk about blogging as a journalist–specifically, the kind of rapid turn-around news blogging that my colleagues and I do for Smithsonian Magazine‘s Smart News blog. Part aggregator, part synthesizer, part context-provider and part original story teller, Smart News is intended to give a quick, interesting perspective on the news. In my presentation, I tried to cover a few of the techniques that I’ve learned through Smart News’ not-quite-one-year existence on how you can tell an interesting story given the constraints of working as a blogger. Below I’ve put the notes I used to guide my presentation.

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Hi everyone. So I’m Colin Schultz. I’m a science journalist. I’m also a blogger. Unlike a lot of people who blog—as a hobby, as outreach, as something they do in their free time—for me, blogging is my job. I do sometimes write blog posts for fun, for my own website, but that’s not exactly the most… frequent thing I do.

In preparing for this session, one thing Jude asked me to talk about was money. How the heck do you make a living as a blogger? I’d guess that’s a pretty common question, so I’m going to get that out of the way up front.

For me, the answer is pretty simple. I’m not writing on my own WordPress site with Google ads. I know of very few people who make a living doing that.

I blog for Smithsonian Magazine. It’s a job. I don’t just write what and whenever I want. I have an editor, I have deadlines. I work part time. I write 12 stories each week. There are three of us doing this—that’s 36 stories each week, Monday to Friday.

I get around 40% of my income from blogging. You don’t get exact numbers—unless you want to hire me, then we can talk :)

As Lisa mentioned earlier, and as I think Pascal intends to talk about, there are a wide array of bloggers and different kinds of blogs. The blogging I do for Smithsonian is different than what you’d probably do for fun. I want to call it “journalistic blogging.” That’s what I want to focus on: What does that mean, what do I do, and how does it work.

Being a journalistic blogger means you’re a journalist who works under a different set of constraints.

As a journalist, the most important thing to me is trust. My career runs on trust—I need people to trust me. Which means I need to deserve their trust.

I also need to be interesting—I need to say something new.

Now, those two goals: to be right, and to be original, run smack into the biggest and most important constraint in this kind of quick turn-around blogging: time.

I write each of my stories in an hour or less. Sometimes I’ll take longer if I’m doing something bigger. But, in general, I have an hour to research and write each story.

I really need to point this out: this kind of blogging can be incredibly high risk. With every post I put my reputation, and in some sense the Smithsonian’s reputation, on the line. The Smithsonian has been around for 167 years. I really don’t want to be that guy.

So that’s the question, how do you balance those three factors: accuracy, novelty and time? Obviously I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t think all of my stories hit this mark, but I’m going to use some examples from my own work to show some things that I think work pretty well.

Tell the Story Around the Story

First, you have to play to your strengths. You’re not out in the field. In my case, I’m usually either at home or at a coffee shop on a laptop. So, you almost never break news. Also, there’s a reality to writing a story in an hour: you can’t really do interviews. The most responsive person in the world is probably still too slow. You can ask one or two questions here or there to confirm something, but you’re not going looking for quotes.

But, I really do think that’s okay, because there are lots of people out there trying to break news. What there are less of, and what you can actually do really well from behind a computer, is help people make sense of the news.

There is a tendency in news to jump from headline to headline. But every story has context, history. Things that have happened before that people forgot. I have an advantage here working for the Smithsonian: their audience really likes history.

As an example, I’m sure many of you remember this, when Clint Eastwood gave a very, very bizarre speech at the Republican National Convection. Tons of people wrote stories about how weird this was, what people at home thought, what people at the speech thought. What I think many people didn’t know—and I didn’t know until I started looking around—was that there is a surprisingly long history of debating empty chairs in American politics. It goes back to at least 1924.

So that is the story I wrote–The Long History of Americans Debating Empty Chairs. Some Googling was all it took to put this together, but it got picked up all over. The Washington Post wrote about it. NPR picked it up. And I think this is cool: I got a Wikipedia citation out of it.

Here’s another one: Scientific American in 1875: Eating Horse Meat Would Boost the Economy. It’s a similar idea. This story came out when they found horse meat in Ikea’s meatballs.

By this point, the horse meat story had been around for a while. It had been covered to death by pretty much every angle. But I knew there would be history to it. I was actually looking for old recipes on how to cook horse meat. But I found this instead: some really weird history about horse meat.

That one did really well, too. I got to go on NPR’s Marketplace to talk about it, which was fun.

So both of of those stories are sort of “weird quirky history” more than news, which may not be exactly the kind of stories you want to tell.

But this story, How to Understand the Scale of the Oklahoma Tornado is an example of how I think you can write something that people really want to read, something that really helps them, with limited resources and in a fairly short amount of time.

This came out a few hours after the recent Oklahoma tornado–the first EF-5 tornado that touched down in Moore, Oklahoma. This was a big breaking news–there was a lot of live coverage, and it was very much an on-going story. In that coverage there was a lot of talk about the tornado’s size, its strength. But those are just numbers to most people. They don’t really mean anything. I tried to give it some context. I think people appreciated it.

So that’s one way to do something new, something useful. To find the history or the context of the news. You can do that pretty easily in a short amount of time.

Tell New Stories With Other People’s Facts

There’s another way to do interesting work that is still quick and accurate, and it relies on what I’m going to call “outsourcing your trust.” What do I mean by that? It means I can’t necessarily verify every single fact in the amount of time I have. In order to make sure my stories are accurate—which is the most important thing—I need to know who I trust enough to wrap their name around my neck. Sometimes this means places like The New York Times, but sometimes it means other writers, or bloggers, or researchers who I trust.

You need to become a pretty quick judge on who you can trust, and who you can’t.

So now you’ve built this mental list of people whose work you trust. Then what? This is, I think, where blogging can sometimes get a bad reputation. In the worst case, this means reblogging—taking someone else’s facts and story and work and packing it up in a different way. It’s the online version of rewriting a wire story.

But you don’t really want to do that. And, honestly, those types of stories don’t tend to do very well.

The better way is to use those facts in new ways. To re-frame them. To put them together.

A few weeks ago, the video game press was all riled up about this new game: a virtual reality guillotine simulator. You’d put on these goggles and see your head get cut off. Everyone was writing about it. The easiest way to tell that story is: “Hey! Look at this thing!” and a lot of people did just that. But that’s not necessarily the most interesting story you can tell. To round out this news for my story–Feel Your Head Roll With This Virtual Reality Guillotine Simulator–I relied on facts that people had dug up for other, different stories. I remembered reading a feature in Nature from a few years earlier by Ed Yong, a story about virtual reality research and how real it felt. Putting those two things together made, I think, a stronger story than just “hey look at this thing.”

Same idea here for the story Stunning View of the Arctic Could be Last of Its Kind. The news was a photo, a gorgeous satellite image of the Arctic. Tying that photograph together with other stories—in this case, a feature on Arctic sea ice loss—made for a more interesting take. As long as you attribute and source heavily, people are usually pretty happy with this sort of thing.

Now those are both examples of relying on mainstream news sources, but it works with bloggers too.

I saw this story–New Zealand Is in the Midst of a Five-Month-Long Earthquakeon a blog post by GeoNet, an earthquake monitoring company in New Zealand. Combining that with knowledge I already had made for a pretty interesting story. The key here, though, is that I had to trust the writer of this blog post. Knowing GeoNet and their work is what made me willing rely on their blog post.

Trust Your Own Knowledge to Tell Original Stories

As I said earlier, doing this kind of work you’re not going to be breaking much news. For the most part I think that’s true. What you can do when it comes to science, though, is find things other people aren’t finding. I really care about climate change and Earth science. I keep tabs on a number of journals. Often, I’m able to find things other people haven’t covered. And, because I have a decent background in the field, I can normally understand the study without needing to talk to anyone. But again, there are no interviews. You need to be really careful in not overselling the results. There are no cranky outside scientists. You need to provide the caveats.

So this is the third way I think you can do good, valuable work in a short amount of time: trust your own expertise. Researchers Find Fracking Might Cause Earthquakes After All is an example of this kind of story–one motivated by a report [pdf] from the British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission.

Doing general news, or even general science news, there are going to be topics you know more about.

For me, the thing I know more about is Earth science and climate change. So I can, in an hour, read a paper, figure out what it’s about, and dig up some caveats. I can say something new by trusting my own knowledge base. This was really scary for me to do, but I think it has worked out so far.

I can also use what I know about these topics to expand on the news. Here the original story was a political story, of the closing of a research group working on carbon capture and storage guidelines. By adding in some of my own knowledge, I could tell a more interesting story–Canadian Government Winds Down Research That Could Help Stop Climate Change–about the importance of carbon capture and storage, or “negative emission” technologies, to combating climate change.

I do this kind of story less often because it does take longer. But this, and providing context and history, are my favourite types of stories that I can do given the circumstances.

So that’s it. I know that blogging sometimes has a bad reputation. But I think that journalistic blogging is actually a very powerful medium. If you do it right, I think you can provide something really valuable.

Thanks so much.

Why Scientists Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Blogging and Social Media

May 4, 2013
The University of Toronto in moody HDR. Photo: Francis B http://www.flickr.com/photos/szasukephotography/2942329761/

The University of Toronto in moody HDR. Photo: Francis B

Yesterday, I along with my good internet friends Miriam Goldstein and Marie-Claire Shanahan gave a presentation at the brand new University of Toronto Science Leadership Program about the opportunities for science communication offered by online tools such as blogs and social media. It was a great chance to meet an amazing group of Canadian scientists, all of whom were extremely interested in learning to better communicate their passions for science and for the scientific process.

For our small part of the afternoon, Miriam, Marie-Claire and I gave a presentation on communicating online. Miriam talked about her recent research, published in PloS Biology: An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists. Marie-Claire about her own experiences using social media, and the opportunities it has afforded her. For my part, I wanted to try a different tack. I wanted to try to fight some of the common barriers that I think people put on themselves that stop them from engaging online.

The attendees to the program were amazing; many bright young researchers and extremely accomplished Canada Research Chairs, and all (thankfully) seemed interested in what we had to say. Aside from a perhaps nauseating amount time spent talking about twitter, the attendees also got training on public speaking, on talking to the media, and heard some behind-the-scenes tales from inside the Canadian press from people like Jim Handman, the senior producer of Quirks and Quarks, and Ivan Semeniuk, the science reporter for the Globe and Mail.

The program was organized by Ray Jayawardhana, an accomplished astrophysicist, author, and the Senior Advisor on Science Engagement to the President at U of T. It’s a position that Ray admits was sort of ad hoc but has allowed him to put on a number of science outreach events directed at the public, from advertisements in transit cars and public talks at local city libraries to “science at the movies” nights with people such as Lawrence Krauss on hand to answer questions.

So, below I’ve put my slides and script for my talk, with a ▬ symbol indicating where slide transitions happen, if anyone should be interested to look.

Hi everyone. So Miriam talked about reasons why you might want to use social media and blogging. Some of the goals you might have. Things they can help you achieve.

I want to step back a bit. I want to talk about practicalities. I don’t mean practicalities of doing it. If you want to talk about technical details we can do that later. In the questions soon, or some other time.

I’m Colin Schultz, you can find me here.

I’m a science journalist. I mainly write for Smithsonian Magazine and the American Geophysical Union but I also blog… sometimes.

What I want to talk about is the practicalities of actually getting started with social media and blogging. There is a huge barrier to getting started. Not a technical barrier, that’s easy. A psychological barrier.

I think a lot of people are hesitant to start, and I think there are three main reasons why:

Time. Expertise. And they’re worried that they’re going to “do it wrong.”

That last one, that you might be “doing it wrong,” is, I think, the most powerful. The communicators and bloggers who are held up as “the best” might not be doing what you want to do. They might have different goals. And that’s okay. As Miriam said, blogging and social media are tools to be used.

There are very successful blogs that have widely varying goals. I want to show some examples.

This is, arguably, one of the most successful science blogs in existence. It’s run by Elise Andrew. It is a Facebook group: I Fucking Love Science. It has 4.9 million fans. If you use Facebook, you’ve probably seen this.

This blog is pure love of science. It doesn’t really try to teach. It’s not trying to affect policy. It doesn’t try to right misinformation except in the most passive way. But it reminds people that science is cool. And people love it.

This is Joe Hanson‘s tumblr blog It’s Okay to Be Smart. It does a lot of the same things that I Fucking Love Science does. Joe shows people cool things. But Joe just got his PhD a few months ago, and teaching is really important to him. So he doesn’t just show cool things, he tries to explain them.

Joe shows that science is cool, but he’s also trying to teach.

One more step along this ladder.
This is Rhett Alain. He runs the blog Dot Physics, hosted by the magazine Wired. Rhett uses physics to solve popular questions: How many people could work on the Death Star? How much does the USS Enterprise weigh.

How high could The Incredible Hulk jump?

Rhett moves away from the cool things category and into the realm of more classical educational outreach.

His focus is still the general public. But the science is getting heavier. He is very much here to teach.

Dave Petley runs The Landslide Blog, hosted by the American Geophysical Union. Like Rhett, the science is heavier. But, unlike Rhett, he doesn’t use fun or goofy angles to get into the science. This is a blog that a graduate student would read.

Education and outreach doesn’t have to mean “for the general public.” People in undergraduate or graduate degrees, or even highschool, might want this kind of blog if they want more than a superficial discussion of something they really care about.

Then there’s Astrobetter, run by Kelle Cruz. Kelle isn’t doing outreach at all, not in the classical sense. Kelle runs a blog that is specifically directed to other scientists: graduate students or working researchers. The general public probably wouldn’t care about Astrobetter at all, but that’s okay, because that’s not Kelle’s goal.

So there are all sorts of blogs, nearly every one of them run by an academic. They all have different goals. If you have a goal that doesn’t fit with what other people think you should be doing, don’t let that be a barrier.

The other major barrier people run in to is expertise. They think they’re not qualified to write about these things.

And first, for a lot of people, that’s nothing more than imposter syndrome. And, for a lot of people, that’s never going to go away, no matter how qualified you are.

But again, bloggers cover a huge range of expertise. What you have to say is valuable. The important thing is to stick to what you know.

So this is Market Design. It’s written by Alvin Roth. Alvin stands as being, as far as I know, the only person with a Nobel prize who runs a blog. Alvin, along with Lloyd Shapley, won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences last year, and this was Alvin’s blog post that day.

Then, on the total opposite end, this is Extreme Biology. This is a class blog run by high school students. Or it, was until Stacy Baker, the teacher who ran the class, got a new job.

Then there’s everything in between. Undergraduate students. Graduate students. Early career researchers. Running a site is a great way to find collaborators, talk to students, or build a name for yourself in your field. If I’m not mistaken I think Marie-Claire will have more to say about that.

So, really, you’ve all got more than enough expertise to do this. The only word of caution is to not overreach, because people will find you, and they will let you know that you are wrong. (Even if you’re not). But, you’ve all gone through PhDs, so you’ve probably had the desire to overreach beaten out of you already.

The last main barrier people say holds them back is time. Social media takes time. You have to update it every day, right? Well, no. People aren’t going to unfollow you on twitter if you don’t say anything. They’re not going to unsubscribe from your blog if you don’t post for a while. Unless you’re trying to survive off the money you might be able to make by putting ads on your website this isn’t even a real problem.

But setting up a blog, as easy as it’s become, does take time. Luckily, there are ways around this, ways to dip your toe in and try it. Many people who run blogs will let you write a guest post.

Scientific American has formalized this to some extent. They have a Guest Blog. If you have a one-off idea, or you want to try to your hand, they may let you write your story for their site. They’ll advertise it, and share it around and give you their platform. And then you get to be in Scientific American, which is pretty cool.

Then, I just want to jump back to Alvin Roth’s blog for a second. See that. Right there. Four hundred and two posts in 2012. And the guy just won a Nobel Prize. No offense to anyone, but if he can do that, you can write a post once a month if you want to.

So that’s it. Those are the three main barriers that I often hear about keeping people from blogging. A lack of time. A self-perceived lack of expertise. Or the fear that you might “do it wrong.” But again. Blogging and social media are just tools. All of these exist on a spectrum, and all of them are valuable.

Again, if you have anything specific things you want to talk about we’ll have plenty of time after. Or, I am here.

Thank you.

#CanComm, Conferences, and the Search for Allies

February 23, 2013
Scientists march in Ottawa during the "Death of Evidence" rally. Via: Eight Crayon Science

Scientists march in Ottawa during the “Death of Evidence” rally. Via: Eight Crayon Science

Standing in a Raleigh pub last year, the exhilaration and exhaustion of Science Online 2012 still coursing strong, and the news that Canadian federal scientists were being muzzled making waves worldwide, Marie-Claire Shanahan and I arrived on what we felt was a vital topic overlooked in that year’s edition of the annual conference.

By geography and demographics, Science Online attendees skew British and American. Holding strong is the Canadian contingent, but Marie-Claire and I noted that the experiences of our international friends are, in many respects, fundamentally different from our own. In the UK and the US, science magazines, TV shows, radio shows, formal/informal outreach endeavours and bloggers are in far greater supply. Missing from Science Online’s niche debates over how, exactly, scientists, journalists, public relations people and the public should all get along was the broader discussion of how to give a kick in the ass to a science communication ecosystem that is lacking much of the established infrastructure to which nearly all of the conference attendees are accustomed.

Against this backdrop, Marie-Claire and I pitched a session for the following year’s conference: “Communicating science where there is no science communication”—a place to acknowledge the unique issues facing Canadian science communication efforts, and to highlight what we felt would be some of the downstream consequences of our country’s current climate.

The presentation, an early-morning gathering on February 2, went well, I think, generating discussion and debate both during and after the one hour session. The #CanComm twitter tag pulls together much of the ongoing conversation. But, not all were pleased with the representation of Canadian science communication that we conveyed, calling it “overly pessimistic” or “ghastly.”

Indeed, Maryse de la Giroday, who runs the FrogHeart blog, sent me the following email—leading questions suggesting of a displeasure with our presentation. I’ll not be speaking for Marie-Claire but just for myself, but I hope to answer Maryse’s questions, to better explain what I said, why I said it, and where I think we need to go.

Hi Colin!

Your presentation at the 2013 ScienceOnline conference came up during a recent conference call … apparently, you have ignited a fire in a few bellies with your contentions about Canadian science communication … I wonder if you might answer a few questions for publication on my blog (frogheart.ca) … I’ll be sending the same questions to Marie-Claire Shanahan and hopefully be able to include both sets of answers for each question … there’s not a lot of questions …I promise …

According to the ‘secret source’ who attended your presentation, you and Marie-Claire were very harsh in your assessments of the science communication efforts and environment in Canada. Given that most of my readers won’t have attended the presentation, could you summarize the presentation in a few bullet points and note where you agree and disagree with your co-presenter?

To understand the contents of the presentation, it is important to consider it in context.

Science Online pulls together brilliant, creative, hard-working and entrepreneurial problem solvers, communicators with a passion for science and a vigilante spirit. Many of these people, however, also have basically no idea what is going on in Canada in terms of the political atmosphere, the size of the mainstream press, or the scope of the science communication community. One of the goals I had in mind when putting together my short introduction for the session was that I wanted to tap into these clever minds so that we could all put our heads together and come up with projects that will work within the Canadian cultural context. But for this to work, we first all needed to be on the same page.

Though Science Online sessions have leaders, the focus is on the audience. Photo: Russ Creech

Though Science Online sessions have leaders, the focus is on the audience. Photo: Russ Creech

I opened the session with numbers: We have one mainstream science magazine, two TV shows, and one radio show. A 1998 study found that we had 18 full time science journalists at daily newspapers, and I mused that this number probably went down as the media industry crashed and companies cut their staff.

With no official science blogger database that I know of, I pulled from your (Maryse’s) own annual counts (2010, 2011, 2012) and the self-selected bloggers pulled together by the Canadian Science Writers’ Association to estimate that there are likely a few dozen science bloggers in the country. Discussions in the room pointed out that there are probably more than listed in those two places, but the order of magnitude on the guess is probably close enough.

Whether these numbers can be deemed “harsh” or not is up to you, but my goal was to give those joining us in the session a baseline count on what our mainstream science communication infrastructure looks like.

From the numbers I moved into my second main point, asking: “Why does any of this matter?” Scientific knowledge is borderless, so does it really matter if we hear about Canadian science?

To answer this I suggested that there is a split: for people learning about science, for keeping up with all the cool developments that are taking shape around the world, then no, it doesn’t really matter. Canadian, American, English, Australian—wherever your news comes from doesn’t really make much a difference.

But, there is the other side of it. There are serious scientific issues in Canadian life—the tar sands, oceans management, fisheries research, the climate of the Arctic—that will only really be addressed by Canadians, and outside of the larger issues of climate change or biodiversity, only really affect Canadians. Without established venues to discuss and report and debate science, without an established culture of science communication, there won’t necessarily be the conversation that we need on these and other issues.

I noted that when people aren’t aware of the work being done by Canadian scientists or Canadian federal agencies that it could become easier for those projects to slide away, a case that came to the fore recently with the cutting of federal scientists, the potential closing of the Experimental Lakes, or the issue of muzzling.

As for a “secret source,” our session was live tweeted and Storified at least twice, so such covert operations hardly seem necessary ;)

Were you trying to be harsh in your assesment? I read the presentation description which didn’t have a single positive comment about efforts in English Canada; did that hold true for the presentation or did you leaven it with some positive comments (and what were those positive comments)?

There is a lot of good science communication going on in Canada. Personally, I think that Daily Planet is a treasure, and following the session I had people asking how they could see it from abroad. Marie-Claire, and some audience members, raised examples of informal or non-mainstream media projects that are doing great work on science communication and science outreach.

In the conference halls, the cafe, and later online, discussions started at Scio often turn into projects down the line. Photo: Russ Creech

In the conference halls, the cafe, and later online, discussions started at Scio often turn into projects down the line. Photo: Russ Creech

The way that many Science Online sessions operate is this: The session leaders lay out an issue, a quick spiel to set up and frame a perceived problem, and then the discussion is opened to the floor. As I said, the conference attendees are brilliant, and I wanted to tap them as much as possible to offer up things they’ve tried, things that they’ve seen work, or to generally just bounce ideas around. The unconference format is unusual in this respect, in that the session leaders are not necessarily meant to be the ones with the answers. The one-hour blitz is the starting point, the opening remarks in a conversation that continues onward online.

Ideally, what you like to see take place in Canada, science communicationwise?

The most important thing to me, and something that I think has happened already, is just to get people talking. I want my international friends to know what we do and what barriers we are facing, and I want those within Canada to come together. Canada is a pretty sprawly place, and the biggest barriers we face stem from being so spread out. The first step in growing our science communication ecosystem and infrastructure is for everyone to know about each other, to know what we’re all up to and working on, and to put our heads together on creative projects. I have some fledgling ideas for things I want to work on, but can’t even begin to claim to have any real answers.

Would it surprise you to know that about the same time you gave your presentation a group (iwith no prior knowledge of said presentation) had formed to create a Canadian science blogging network? Full disclosure: I am a member of this group.

I heard whispers of this in the hallways at the conference, and think it’s a great idea. Building a blogging network will help draw people together, and help them find one another. I think that we have a lot of really serious issues to tackle, but this is a great place to start.

Purely for fun, I have three names for a national network. (These names are not from the group.) Which one would you join, if you one had one choice?

(a) Canuckian science blog(ger) network?
(b) Canadian science blog(ger) network?
(c) Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Canadian science blog(ger) network?

The last one, definitely.

Thanks for your time and I hope you have a lovely weekend.

Best regards,

Maryse

11 Things You Didn’t Know About Canada

July 13, 2012

1) Canada Gained Independence Only 30 Years Ago

Though the Dominion of Canada was formed in 1867, giving the country the ability to self-govern free from specific British oversight, Canada didn’t really come into its own until 1982.

The final legal step was achieved in 1982 with the passage of the Canada Act, which contained another rule of construction declaring that no future British Act would have effect in Canada. — source

The Canadian flag didn’t come into being until 1965, and O Canada officially became the national anthem in 1980, edging out its previously shared status with God Save the Queen.

2) Though, The Queen of England Is Still Technically In Charge

Queen Elizabeth II is Canada’s constitutional monarch, and acting through the Parliament-appointed Governor-General she retains symbolic oversight of the country.

The Queen personifies the state and is the personal symbol of allegiance, unity and authority for all Canadians. Legislators, ministers, public services and members of the military and police all swear allegiance to The Queen. Elections are called and laws are promulgated in The Queen’s name. — source

Elections can’t be thrown without the Queen’s permission, and the Governor-General can kick out the current Prime Minister whenever he or she so chooses. But without their intervention…

3) The Prime Minister Could Rule Forever

The head-seat of Canadian federal politics has no term limit, meaning that as long as a leader keeps winning, they can keep rulingWilliam Lyon Mackenzie King was in charge for 21 years. On the flip side, Joe Clark ruled for 273 days before being kicked out by a vote of no-confidence.

4) Most of Canada Used To Be Owned By A Clothing Company

Read more…

A Brief History of Antarctic Drilling

February 8, 2012

Lake Sovetskaya, first identified in 1968, marked the first discovery of a liquid water lake beneath Antarctica's vast glaciers. Eventually, the number of known subglacial Antarctic lakes ballooned to the present count of 387. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

Russian scientists have just reported that they have successfully drilled into Lake Vostok, a vast, tepid body of water that rests under kilometers of ice beneath Antarctica’s glacial surface. Most news reports make mention of the long-duration drilling effort that it took to make it down to Lake Vostok, but I’ve yet to see an account of the on-again, off-again relationship between scientists and these mysterious subglacial lakes.

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Martin Siegert about his recent book, Antarctic Subglacial Aquatic Environments for the American Geophysical Union‘s members-only newspaper, Eos. Martin is the head of the UK-led mission to drill into another Antarctic subglacial lake, Lake Ellsworth, later this year. The full interview I feel is well worth reading (though unfortunately it is behind a paywall), but at one point the interview turned to a discussion of the convoluted history of the scientific endeavour to reach beneath the ice.

Eos: Lake Sovetskaya and the larger Lake Vostok were first detected in 1968 and 1970, respectively, but the field of Antarctic subglacial aquatic research did not begin in earnest until the mid-1990s. What was the reason for this delay, and what changed to make scientists take notice?

Siegert: That’s a really good question. When we first knew about subglacial lakes, no one—not even glaciologists—seemed to care. The lakes are now a curiosity, but back then no one seemed curious about them! The geophysical data defining both Lake Sovetskaya and Lake Vostok were published in the late 1960s and mid-1970s, but then they were sort of lost to the literature—people’s research just didn’t follow them up. The first inventory of subglacial lakes, published in 1973, showed there to be 17 lakes, but it still didn’t get wider scientific traction and interest. The paper published in 1996 on Lake Vostok showed that the water was about 500 meters deep.

Now, this is only my opinion, but what I think happened is that between the 1970s and the 1990s there was a great deal of development in our understanding of life in extreme environments. I don’t think that idea was mature enough in the 1970s for microbiologists to take an interest in subglacial lakes. But in the 1990s, when the new information on the depth of Lake Vostok was announced, microbiologists began to take notice, believing that trapped within these ice-covered lakes were bacteria that hadn’t been exposed to air for millions of years, adapted to withstand the extreme conditions. So glaciologists presented information on subglacial lakes in the 1970s, and glaciologists still presented information on subglacial lakes in the 1990s. It’s just that there was a different audience available: In the 1990s the audience suddenly became not just glaciologists but microbiologists too.

Siegert shows that the assumed linear path of scientific progress, of one discovery leading to the next, is not necessarily the way science works. Sometimes, waning interests or unrelated advances take a previous curiosity and transform it overnight into the next frontier.

11 Photos of 2011

December 11, 2011

You can learn a lot about yourself through introspection. You can learn even more through conversation. But retrospection… retrospection is different. It allows you to see the trends in your own behaviour or preferences, free of the constraints of what you should, or think you ought, to prefer.

Retrospection is great for soul-searching and big life decisions, but it works equally well for mundane things; like artistic tastes, or hobby preferences.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been carrying my camera around quite a bit. I’m not a great photographer, but I enjoy it. One of the most important steps in developing as a photographer is to figure out what you like taking pictures of. That understanding can later guide the inevitable expansion of your equipment: lenses, camera, lighting. For that, introspection and conversation are fine, but retrospection is best.

So, this is a slideshow of my favourite 11 pictures I’ve taken this year. I’ve tried to not over-process the images, for the most part leaving them the way they came out of the camera.

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So what have I learned? I like photographs with a short focal length, that is, only a very narrow slice of the image is in focus.

I take close-ups. Probably too many close-ups. (It was hard to find any photos that weren’t.)

I like pictures with moody lighting, or shots that focus on something other than the obvious subject.

Also, apparently, I like taking pictures of animals.

Another year down, another batch of files archived in the development of a new hobby.

Sometimes a Girl Just Wants to Get Her Work Done

December 6, 2011

Mind this off-topic post. I apologize, there is no science or journalism here. Instead, this is a response to AV Flox‘s wonderful story, “I Just Want to Go on a Walk.” 

A female friend of mine, after reading the story, asked me

“Hey Colin, what was your response to this piece? I have a guy friend who isn’t responding well and I’m trying to explain it to him, but it might be helpful to have a male perspective.”

The only response I could come up with was to recount a story; a scene I’d seen play out in a coffee shop where I often spend my afternoons writing.

Read more…

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