Loving Explosions

Years ago, talking about the persistent rumor that the Hubble Space Telescope was an off-the-shelf spy satellite retrofitted for astronomy*, I told a NASA employee that I was pretty sure academic astronomers were culturally anti-military and they wouldn’t be crossing lines and dealing with spies or the defense department.  The NASA employee looked at me and said, “Don’t be naïve.”  And ever since, I’ve been interested in the cases of interplay between astronomers and the military.  The case I learned about most recently:  a hyper-violent explosion called a gamma ray burst, that astronomers are still trying to figure out, was first discovered by satellites flown by the defense department’s Advanced Researth Projects Agency, ARPA, now called DARPA. Continue reading

Best Of Lists Should Self-Destruct After One Year

Recently I was looking for a distraction-free writing system. I knew I had heard about many. But they all seemed to have simple, hard to remember names. (A related complaint: companies that name themselves words like “medium” so that when you’re trying to figure out how to do something you cannot search “medium format image” when you’re trying to figure out how to format an image on Medium.) Anyway, I googled “distraction free writing system,” because as you can see I am easily distracted. The first result was an article from 2010. Half of tools picked didn’t even exist anymore.

This happens to me a lot. I wanted a way to search Twitter images — four of the five sites listed on my top result had defaulted on their hosting. I was looking for a site that would let me pull up Instagram images based on their geotags, three of those were dead. Aside from The Wirecutter, whose staff constantly updates their picks and maintains their offerings, most of these best of lists are good to at most a year. Continue reading

Redux: A Case of J-Shame

This post ran back in June 2016 after the shooting in the Orlando nightclub. I’m running it again because, sadly, it is as relevant as ever. The atrocities keep coming, and as a writer I continue to feel unsure of how to handle them. (Here’s what’s happened since then.)

I’ve been working on a couple of essays over the last week, knowing I had to fill this space. But when the time came to post one of them, I couldn’t do it. The subject was too irrelevant, too glib in the shadow of yet another sick fuck shooting innocent people. It didn’t belong.

This is not the first time I’ve paused before posting my work, even when I felt extra good about the piece I’d written. Occasionally there’s a collective change in tone that makes the text feel out of place in any public forum. When readers’ attention has been yanked in a single direction, it’s hard to lure them back—and under tragic circumstances it feels wrong to try.

I’d imagine that most writers who publish on the Web have experienced this awkward mental flip-flop, questioning the validity and timing of their work before hitting “post.” As one who often covers quirky animal science or, here on LWON, personal absurdities from colonoscopies to battles with beach fleas, I’ve finally named the feeling because it has become so familiar. I call it J-Shame (for Journalists’ Shame). It hits when your beat is way out of synch with a big tragic thing that’s on everyone’s mind. It shrivels your confidence and embarrasses you for not taking on something with bigger-picture importance.

The big thing this time, not that anyone needs reminding: A man walked into a gay club in Orlando and started shooting, shooting, no need to pause because his assault rifle was packed full. He killed 49 people, last I checked, and injured more than 50 others—young people who were drinking and laughing with friends and lovers, who were posing, goofing off, dancing. In the end the shooter died, too, which I’d imagine is no comfort to those who lost loved ones in his massacre.

Of course, when people commit hate crimes or terrorist crimes (is there really a distinction?), the news doesn’t cease covering other subjects even if the tragedy holds its place on page one, above the fold. (That’s newspaper speak, for those who have never had Sunday-morning ink on their hands.) So really, if I happen to have written a mildly amusing article about E. coli from the bacterium’s point of view, I shouldn’t be ashamed to put it out there.

And yet, I am. I am.

Because one guy was hiding in a bathroom and texting his mother throughout the killing spree. He called her “mommy” and told her to call the police and that he loved her, and that he was scared, until he stopped texting because he’d been shot dead. For hours she waited to see more words from him, not knowing, but suspecting, what his silence meant.

These brutal acts are unfathomable, yet so familiar. We’ve endured a slew of mass shootings—is it 15 just during Obama’s administration?—in elementary schools and high schools and churches, on college campuses and in theaters and offices, at cafes and concerts. We’re flailing our arms against the madness, caught unprepared time and again.

Mostly we follow these tragedies from a distance, and we go through our helpless motions: Post a line or two of sympathy on Facebook, change our profile pictures to show solidarity, recount the worst bits we’ve read with friends at work or strangers on the train. Debate the killer’s motive, scroll through photos of the victims (so young!), think about how quickly a nutcase with a gun and a heart full of hate can ruin so many lives. Talk about the problems with gun laws and untreated mental illnesses, rant about the government or the NRA. You and your friends at work and strangers on the train all agree—something has to change.

Lots of journalists are driven to write about these tragic events, to report each moment in cringeworthy detail; I’m not one of them. But I found out this week that my J-Shame keeps me from offering a distraction. Even if a silly article about a cat befriending a goat might give a few people a brief reprieve from sadness, I’m not sure there’s good in rushing to normalcy. Sitting and staring at tragedy, even if we feel helpless in our response, is necessary and deserves time no matter how painful. Who am I to dictate when we look away? So I’m shutting down my screen, prepared to wait.

Photo: Shutterstock

Make Like A Tree and Get Outta Here

Bristlecone Pine

A small raptor alighted for a few minutes yesterday on the top of a tree in my yard. The bird perched up in the crown, on branches that have been bare for a few weeks. The tree is a pin oak, whose health was questionable when we moved to this house in the spring, yet which still has most of its leaves, now crisp and a warm orange-brown. The bird, the tree, the angle of the low November sun: it all made for a fine little fall tableau. All I could think about were killer asteroids. Continue reading

New Person of LWON: Rebecca Boyle

I am delighted to introduce, Rebecca Boyle, a supremely talented independent journalist and the newest person of LWON. Becky got her start as a newspaper reporter covering state and local politics. But then she returned to her first love: space. Her abiding love for astronomy drives her outside on frosty winter nights even though she hates the cold. This love gives her a “profound sense of connectedness.” This love earned her a certificate from Space Camp. And this love keeps her keyboard humming.

Today Becky writes for The Atlantic, FiveThirtyEight, and New Scientist, among others. Her reporting trips have taken her inside a particle accelerator, a supercomputer, satellite clean rooms, mission control, an MRI built for whales, and the White House. One time she almost fainted in the Chilean high desert. But that’s because the air up there is thin and weak. At LWON, we plan to provide her with plenty of thick, delicious oxygen.

On Speaking Up

I ran into my own Harvey Weinstein at the supermarket last week. He stopped me in the vegetable aisle with a “hey, I know you . . .” His brow furrowed as he tried to work out the connection. “Weren’t you so-and-so’s roommate?” he asked. I was. His face didn’t look familiar, but then he said his name and the memories came flooding back. The basement. The beer breath. The weight of his body.

“How are you?” he asked. “Do you live in the neighborhood? Married? Have kids?”

I answered him. I stood in front of a pile of avocados and had a very polite conversation with a man who once sexually assaulted me. And then I tried to politely end it. “Well, better get going. Nice to see you,” I flashed a wan smile. Then, I stuck out my hand for a handshake. He bypassed my hand and enveloped me in a bear hug. And I let him.

I did what women have done—what women have been told to do—for generations. I shut up. I grinned and bore it. Because if you can’t say something nice, why say anything at all? Continue reading

The Last Word

November 6 – 10, 2017

Somebody killed a wolf named OR 28.  Is this to be seen in the context of populations and therefore a slight matter? Is this to be seen in the context of individuals and their families and therefore a terrible thing?  Emma presented the argument, didn’t take sides.

The Humanities 110 syllabus: should it be the usual dead white men, beginning with Homer? or should it be more inclusive and diverse, living non-white men and women?  Michelle’s undergraduate college is arguing this right now.  Michelle takes sides.

The biological scientists tried to save the beautiful little vaquita and failed. Like, the vaguitas are now gone.  Erik thinks the biologists should have talked to the social scientists all along. Plus he really liked the vaquita, and now I’m sad too.

Craig and his girlfriend move in together.  On the tidiness scale, they occupy opposite ends (doesn’t every couple?)  Craig reads a book with a plan for getting along, and he thinks it’s working.  Until she nearly eats the can of dog food.

The San Francisco Bay area:  brisk, good food, smelling of jasmine and eucalyptus? or cold, traffic-jammed, smelling of pot and pee?  Helen and Cameron disagree violently but their argument is nevertheless civil and ends well.

Battle of the Bay: A very mild argument that ends with mint lemonade


Cameron: Dear Helen, the last time I saw you was in Berkeley, and it was 2012 (really that long ago?!) and you were sad. You said you hated Northern California, and then I was sad, because I love it. And so I also knew I wouldn’t see you last month at WCSJ in San Francisco. I missed you! So let’s argue about it.


Helen: Oh man, that 2012 trip was truly, epically bad. Except for the part where I got to see you. I just reread my journal for that weekend to make sure I remembered the full terribleness. It included: being cold all the freaking time, because why is it always so dang cold indoors in California; losing my phone; and having my Kindle stolen right out of my hands. I was sitting there looking at it, and suddenly this pair of hands appeared in front of me and it was gone. And I didn’t feel like I got much out of the narrative journalism conference that we were there for. I already didn’t like Northern California, and that weekend was really the nail in the coffin. I don’t think I’ve been back since.

Continue reading