The Last Word

Rafe_Blue_Marble-June 22 – 26, 2015

Wouldn’t you like to know how to work for clicks and not cash?  Guest Bryn Nelson collects the wisdom of the online media in list form, and you absolutely won’t believe #73.

Michelle profiles/remembers/learns from the biologist Rafe Sagarin, who died too young and who had the choice of moving upward but moved outward instead.

You know how in journalism, if you’ve got three things, you’ve got a trend?  Journalist Helen saw bugs on her window three times and now some kind of bug is crawling up my window right this minute.

Craig went into an anechoic room so quiet he could hear earthquakes in China, and when he left the room and got his senses back New York City was a reassuring river of noise.

I’m pretty sure you don’t want to know the content-per-unit volume of insects that are allowed in your canned tomatoes and peanut butter, but if you do, Jennifer is happy to help.


And not to change the subject, but in form and content and perfomance this eulogy is a gold standard for all eulogies.




Meal, Worm

shutterstock_108198206I eat meat. Most kinds. Beef, pork, chicken, bison, turkey.* Dark meat, white meat, legs, breasts. I’m not big on lamb—too much flavor, or perhaps too fragrant. Same goes for goat and venison. And I say no to veal, no matter how delicious it may be. Not that other farm animals aren’t treated poorly, but those little lambs immobile in those tiny crates…I can’t stand it.

Even if we promise to be cruelty free, those of us who are carnivores think little about carving away parts of animals to gobble down the protein and fat and vitamins disguised within. And yet, when we think about another kind of meat, insect meat, we cringe in disgust.

Of course, it’s all about what you’re used to. People who grow up with insects (and their insect-like relatives) for dinner don’t consider them unpalatable. But those who shriek bloody murder at a spider sighting or own the long-handled “bug vacuum” (try SkyMall) to avoid close encounters are less likely to order grasshopper tacos, if given the option. Give us our ground up cow or shredded chicken any day.

I’ve asked around. Part of what turns some away from entomophagy (insect eating) is the idea that you are eating the whole animal then and there. A baking sheet in the oven with rows of caterpillars—full bodies, lots of legs, and eye-topped stalks intact—is somehow harder to stomach than the wings of a bird on a grill (which don’t really look like what they are at that point). And there’s the “ick” factor of bugs to begin with. Other than spidery basements or mothy pantries, most modern houses are pretty good at keeping insects out. And when bugs do find gaps and sneak in, we are willing to spray noxious chemicals rather than spoon a weevil out of our oatmeal.

We’re fooling ourselves, though: Continue reading

Rivers of Noise


Manhattan rattles my ears. Subway lines shake the fine bones inside my head. Cars honking on the street change the way my brain physically functions. When I stayed in the city a week ago I noticed the same as I always do: noise.

I live in a quiet place off the grid in Western Colorado and when I plunge into urban melee it is a primarily aural experience. Much of the city runs at about 85 decibels, a level that takes just eight continuous hours to permanently kink the hairs transmitting sound through the inner ear. The average subway ride comes to around 112 dB, somewhere between a shouted conversation and a power saw going off near your head.

An audiology researcher in Berkeley, California, informally tested the sound of his local transit system and found sustained peaks at the level of a rock concert (around 120 dB). On top of that, he noted, many passengers were wearing ear buds, listening to music loud enough to mask the external noise, far exceeding limits on volume and time-exposure that lead to permanent damage and hearing loss.

I’ve made a habit of seeking out the quieter places in the city, this time taking shelter in a poetry reading room. At other times I’ve gone to Wall Street at dawn on a Sunday morning for its towering quiet or, once, the Ramble in Central Park at night, also quiet but disturbingly dangerous. Continue reading

Bugs on My Window

Here’s a thing that reliably brings me delight: seeing a bug on a window.

I don’t know how this love started. But it’s real.

Here’s what happened when I was walking to the water cooler at work the other day. I saw a dark spot on the glass. A step or two more and wings came into focus. I speed-walked back to my desk, put down the glass, picked up my camera, and set the dial to manual focus while I rushed back to the window. Continue reading

Learning from Rafe

Rafe_Blue_Marble-On May 28, on the northwestern outskirts of Tucson, Arizona, biologist Rafe Sagarin went for an evening bike ride. He intended to spend the night at the nearby Biosphere 2 facility, where he hoped to one day build a living model of the Gulf of California. He was, as always, full of plans and ideas—for himself, for his family, for his students, for the world. Shortly after 6:30 p.m., a driver, allegedly impaired, swerved off the road and hit Rafe from behind. Rafe died that evening. He was 43.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who would call themselves friends of Rafe’s. I’m one of them. Rafe was a source who became a friend and colleague, someone I saw infrequently but always thought of with fondness and respect. Over the decade that I knew him, he often gave me hope for the fields I cover most. He often gave me hope, period.

Many people have written lovely remembrances of Rafe elsewhere, including here, here, and here. I’d like to add a few words to what has already been said.

Continue reading

Guest Post: Upvote This Post, Pleeease!

Is your cat slowly killing you? Here’s why you should…SQUIRREL! Haha, so cute

You won’t believe the 17 ways you’re doing online science journalism wrong! Number 25 will make you cry[1]

Are you a long-time science journalist? Maybe just starting your career and seeking exposure? Maybe only have a vague idea of what science even is? In today’s online marketplace, it doesn’t matter. If you can write quickly about the “science” behind semi-nude celebrities or speculate wildly about “Jurassic World,” there’s a gig for you – quality, accuracy, and payment are purely optional.

In the scramble to the bottom, it’s not about the valid blog or high-profile post that helps you increase your personal brand, or about the passion project that you want to see published despite the abysmal rate. It’s about ridiculous offers made by media companies that would have been laughed at a decade ago but are now being made in all seriousness, and about the devaluing of actual news and facts in favor of fluffy entertainment.

Not one to be left behind, I decided to give the new model a test drive.    

I was recently made aware of a very special opportunity that’s so amazing I couldn’t wait to share it with other science writers: To earn the same $1,000 payment that journalists once received 20 years ago for writing a single 1,000-word article, all I have to do is post “a few” online articles. I know, unbelievable, right? OK, so “a few” equals 17 in this case, but who’s counting when you’re having fun?[2]

Oh, and I need to share them through every social media platform known to humanity (anyone know how to use Plurk or Skoob? Anyone?) because online science writing has now become an incredibly exciting competition! That’s right, think of it as a marginally kinder and gentler “Hunger Games” for journalists. You see, my pay is contingent on each post being in the top 10% of all articles every month. Plus, if I’m one of the lucky six writers with the most points, I earn the unheard-of bonus of $150![3] Continue reading

The Last Word

bearhairtrapJune 14 – 18, 2015

We begin with a backward glance to a favorite post of Christie’s about the distance between email and postcard on the spectrum of serendipitous stumblings-upon.

I make a case against the multimedia approach to long form writing. It’s spectacular but it invites superficial reading.

Cassie plans a camping trip to the idyllic Apostle Islands. Then she finds out they are crawling with bears.

Guest Jennie Dusheck writes to the Pope about revising the Church’s stance on contraception. The letter arrives at the Vatican in time for the Encyclical on climate change.

Expectant father Erik reaches out to a journalistic community of fathers to try to understand his future role. They really come through.

Image: Courtesy of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

A Council of Writer Dads

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 10.16.17 AMSunday is Father’s Day, a national holiday built around the giving and receiving of ugly ties, power tools and camping gear. I’ve always felt that Father’s Day is a sort of second class holiday – an awkward “me too” to Mother’s Day that is just a tick above Administrative Professionals’ Day (4/22/15) and Fairy Day (6/24/15).

Probably that’s because we don’t have a concept of what Father’s Day is. I mean, Mother’s Day is when we make breakfast in bed and treat Mom like a queen. And who helps us with that task (or rather attempts to salvage the meal and literally put out fires)? Usually Dad. But there is no such tradition, no ceremonial flavor, to Father’s Day. Breakfast in bed? Forget it, the guy gets up at like 6AM. Treat him like a king? Sure, in that you can be an indentured servant and work in the backyard (Father’s Day is a great opportunity to catch up on gardening).

Sunday will be my first Father’s Day as an actual father, though my child has not yet opened his/her eyes in the womb. And just like I’m confused about what Father’s Day should be, I’m confused about what it means to be an expecting father. My wife (and Cassie for that matter) has daily reminders of strange and amazing changes in her body. She walks down the street and people see immediately what she is and, at least here in Mexico, they give her a special kind of respect.

But no one looks at me and says, “awww, when are you due?” I can’t rub my belly and have an immediate connection with my baby. I’m not even showing yet.

Continue reading