A Bunch of Cool Things I Learned at the World Conference of Science Journalists

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About a week ago, I returned from the World Conference of Science Journalists, which was held in San Francisco. Although the coolest thing was seeing that there are so many of us doing science journalism in so many countries (more than 1,300 attended from seventy-three countries) — some of whom are the type who wear DNA double helix earrings — I learned many other interesting things during the five days of sessions.

Here are the highlights:

  • In writing a profile about a scientific woman, remember that, “If you wouldn’t say it about a male scientist, don’t say it about a woman scientist.” This applies to factors like cooking prowess, childcare arrangements, familial relationships, etc. This should go without saying, but apparently, some journalists don’t know this yet!
  • The current anti-science political climate makes our profession more important than ever. (Ron Winslow, National Association of Science Writers).
  • The term “climate disruption” is preferable to the term “climate change.” (John Holdren, Harvard).
  • “I love science because it can improve the human condition. The current absence of trust in science threatens this.” (Susan Desomond-Hellmann, Gates Foundation). She also said that skepticism of science is okay. Denialism is not. Science journalists and scientists need to re-establish confidence by being credible.
  • “Our oceans are our lives.” (Rashid Sumaila, University of British Columbia). Sixty percent of the world population lives within sixty km of the coast. Fifty percent of the oxygen we breathe is generated by the ocean.
  • Most of the extra heat generated by climate change is going into the ocean (93%). (Malin Pinsky, Rugters University). He also said that ocean animals are moving ten times faster than land animals to new areas in response to climate changes.
  • Some solutions to overfishing: use algal oil in animal feed instead of fish oil. Consume lower on the food chain. (Julie Thayer, Farallon Institute).
  • The arctic is a hotspot for ocean acidification. Unfortunately, with climate disruption, it’s also where most of the fish are moving in general. (Rashid Sumaila, University of British Columbia).
  • There’s a relationship between climate disruption and human violence. (Solomon Hsiang, Berkeley). It can take fifteen years for economic recovery to start happening after only twelve hours of a hurricane. Hurricane Maria undid twenty-six years of economic development in Puerto Rico. “The only thing more destructive is a nuclear bomb.”
  • It would only take three hours for the water supply for the reservation near Standing Rock in the Dakotas to be impacted by an oil spill, given the current location of the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Phil McKenna, InsideClimate).
  • UC Berkeley has twenty-nine libraries, and some have interesting specialties. There’s a “no-technology” one (put those phones away!) There’s one where it’s okay to talk. There’s one for meditation. There’s even a “food-is-okay” one.
  • There’s a way to verify carbon dioxide emission levels of different countries. It’s called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory. (Inez Fung, UC Berkeley). The levels of U.S. emissions are lower than those of China and Europe.
  • A lack of wild fish can have harmful impacts on us humans, including slavery and an increase in HIV. See the full story on my work blog, here. (Justin Brashares, UC Berkeley).
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Louis Jenkins’s Favorite Poem

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Louis Jenkins reads at Zenith Book Store in Duluth, Minn.

Laconic prose poet Louis Jenkins gave a reading at a book store last week in Duluth.  He’s one of my favorite local writers (even though he lives in a Minneapolis suburb now instead of Duluth), so I went. I think of him as Duluth’s Earnest Hemingway. He has that larger than life quality and talent. A chance encounter with him once even inspired a poem out of me. (See “Two Poets in the Cereal Aisle.”)

The Poetry Foundation website describes Jenkins’s poems as having “a tight focus on the mundane particularities of ordinary existence, using deliberately flat language to comic and often heartbreaking effect.”

The last time I went to one of his readings years ago, I left my cell phone on. My children were home with a babysitter, and I wanted to be available. I told the sitter only to call me in an emergency. Right when Jenkins was reading a poem, my phone went off. I was in the middle of the crowd and everyone looked at me. I was too mortified even to turn off the sound; I just fled the room with my ringer intermittently blaring.

The call was not an emergency. After mildly chastising the inexperienced babysitter (I am a Minnesotan, after all, we can’t afford to get all riled up), I sheepishly returned to the reading, waiting until the crowd was applauding to cover my entrance.

At last week’s event, you can bet I turned that sucka OFF. Jenkins read from his new book, “In the Sun, Out of the Wind.” Afterward, he took requests for readings from his other books and he answered questions.

One memorable question came from my friend and partner in crime, Sharon. She asked which poem of his was his favorite. His response was, “The next one.” He went on to explain: “Sometimes you think, ‘I got pretty close with that one,’ and those are the good ones. Other times you wonder, ‘Why in the heck did I write that?’ ”

Another person asked him what he thought of living in the Twin Cities. “Bloomington’s a lot like Duluth,” he said. “It’s only got one good restaurant.”

The topic of actor Mark Rylance came up. In case you haven’t seen the Tony awards lately, Rylance is the actor who, for the last two Tonys he’s won, recites a Louis Jenkins poem instead of giving an acceptance speech. Rylance and Jenkins even did a play together based on Jenkins’s book, “Nice Fish.”

Although age has taken its inexorable toll, Jenkins still has a twinkle in his eye when he reads, and his wit is unmistakably intact. I felt privileged to see him once again, and to sit through the entire reading this time.

Hemingway’s Cats

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A descendant of Hemingway’s polydactyl (many-toed) cats sits sleepily in a box on the front porch. My son took this photo.

I read in the New York Times recently that the multi-toed descendants of Ernest Hemingway’s cats at his house in Key West, Florida, all survived Hurricane Irma. The house fared well, too.

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Hemingway’s home in Key West, Florida.

My youngest son and I visited Hemingway’s house about five years ago. We delighted in seeing the cats, which lounged around in the yard and in the house. One was even sleeping on Hemingway’s bed, below a painting on the wall that depicted the house surrounded by cats.

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I am glad to hear that everything is okay there.

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Hemingway’s writing studio above the pool house.

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Okay, so I’m Being Lame

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I think it’s lame when bloggers write about how they don’t have anything to write about. Or they start off a story by apologizing for not writing in a while. Seriously, I don’t think anyone notices they’ve been gone (well, maybe their stalkers notice – grin).

I believe bloggers should just write a story when they have an idea and get on with it. Stop apologizing first!

But here I am saying that I haven’t written in a while and that I don’t really have much to write about. I do have an idea for a book review, but I haven’t finished the book yet. So, I’m in a holding pattern of sorts. Maybe I’m gathering strength for the next four years of blogging?

Anyway, I’m still alive, still out here. Just living life, enjoying the last of a fleeting summer, and waiting for my meandering thoughts and feelings to gel into something worthy.

Author Interview on “Minnesota Reads”

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Lisa Johnson, multitasking radio goddess.

I had the good fortune to be in the radio studio last week with Lisa Johnson, host of KUMD’s Minnesota Reads show. We talked about the “Going Coastal” anthology project and Lake Superior Writers, the local writing group that produced it.

I had to leave home for the interview during the time of morning I’m usually just sitting down to eat breakfast. And here Lisa is, multitasking between radio songs, flipping switches, keeping records of what played, and then calming down enough between all that to sound incredibly composed on the air.

I don’t know how she does it! Plus, she reads a lot of books every month for her show about Minnesota authors. Here’s a link to my seven-minute interview. Enjoy.

Fun with Apostrophes

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As a writer, I care about the written word. I care about proper grammar. While I have been known to dangle a preposition at the end of my sentences, I usually try to do what’s proper, especially in my writing for hire.

I had an instance this week where I wanted to confirm the name of a bay in the Duluth-Superior Harbor. Someone who works for an agency in another state asked me to review a web site about this bay, which is the subject of a federal cleanup project because it’s contaminated. My office coworker is also helping with the project by providing engineering advice.

The title of the web page was first thing I noticed. It was called “Howards Bay,” which just screams out for a possessive apostrophe, doesn’t it? (Howard’s Bay.) Unless, of course, the bay was named after someone with the last name of Howards vs. the first name of Howard.

I’ve run across instances before where proper grammar for place names flies out the window because some mapmaker hundreds of years ago labelled places incorrectly on local maps. As such, writers like myself are required to grit our teeth and perpetuate the mistake because what’s on the map has become the actual factual name for those places. One example is the St. Marys River, which empties out of Lake Superior and into Lake Huron. It makes me cringe every time I write it, but there’s no possessive apostrophe in that name due to a mapmaker’s error.

Hoping against hope that wasn’t the case for Howards Bay, I investigated. I looked on the internet. I found that newspaper stories about the bay gave Howards an apostrophe. I found that many government documents (but not all) did not. I asked friends if they knew which form was correct, and received helpful suggestions about where else to check. I looked it up on the U.S. Board of Geographic Names website. It had “no data available” about this name.

Along the way, I discovered that that state of Wisconsin (where Howards Bay is located) has a state Geographic Names Council. Who better to ask? So I sent them an email. While I was awaiting their reply, I learned more about the organization. They seem mainly formed to approve new names for lakes and other geographic features.

They have a list of rules for new names. Among them is one that says, “newly acquired proper names for geographic features shall not be designated with ” ‘s ” or “s”, indicating possession, following the name. For example: Mott Lake, rather than Mott’s Lake or Motts Lake.”

Geez, I wish they would have had that rule in place when Howards Bay was being named!

The next day, I received the geographic names councilperson’s reply to my apostrophe question. Here’s what he said: All of our records that I have been able to find have no apostrophe for Howards Bay. I’ve attached a state sediment sampling document as evidence. I cannot give a more definite answer to the “official” name but I would say that the consistency in our records would point to this being the correct spelling.

In the meantime, with my dogged grammatical passion, I had asked the state cleanup project manager for Howards Bay the same question. He said: The apostrophe question has come up before.  I have not been able to determine which version is correct and occasionally catch myself using both. For consistency, the project team chose to perpetuate the mistake and go with the original name shown on maps, i.e. “Howards.”

Aaargh! Why are we at the grammatical mercy of ancient map makers? I say that modern writers should rise up and free themselves from this typographical tyranny! Add the apostrophe “s” and may the mapmakers be dammed!

Who’s with me?

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**Update** August 9, 2017

A friend of mine asked a research librarian with the Superior Public Library the origin of the name of Howards Bay (also called Howards Pocket). She said it’s named for John D. Howard who held an interest in a sawmill on Connors Point. He died in 1891.

So there really should be an apostrophe because it is Howard’s Bay. Darn those mapmakers! And there should be an apostrophe in Connors Point, too, but I’m not even going to go there. 🙂

The Joys of “Going Coastal”

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Six of nine “Going Coastal” authors. From L to R, Evan Sasman, Maxwell Reagan, James Brakken, Judy Budreau, Marie Zhuikov, Eric Chandler. Image by Ryan Swanson.

I’ve been working a lot lately to promote a new anthology of Lake Superior short stories, called “Going Coastal.” I’m finding that promoting a book written by a bunch of other authors versus a book written just by myself is a lot more fun. Having others to share in the workload of doing readings and events is well, way less solitary, and I enjoy helping to promote their writing careers.

We just had an event at a new local bookstore this week. A superb description of it can be found in “Ennyman’s Territory,” a local arts and culture blog written by Ed Newman. His story also includes a link to a recent review of the book.

And if you are ever in the Duluth area, stop by our newest independent book store, Zenith Books. If you love to read, you’ll feel right at home there.

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Zenith Book Store owners Angel and Bob Dobrow with a copy of “Going Coastal.”