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The best science artists (according to the European Space Agency)

I am making this list based on certain online sleuthings I made a few months ago.

There was an art competition announced … and it was an art competition that specifically had to do with satellites and climate change. Well, those were two topics heavily featured in my PhD dissertation, so I thought, why not enter? Especially because the guidelines specifically said, hey, you can enter as your artwork a film or an animation! Well, an animation is the only sort of artwork that I know how to make — as long as that’s acceptable, I can come up with something.

The competition was run out of the European Space Agency (ESA) climate office. I just figured I’d make a glowing animation all about their satellites. The winner got 30,000 Euros. It was too good of a chance not to take!

But before I started, I went about scouting the Twitter account of the ESA climate office, and was I in for a surprise. They were announcing their competition on it, sure enough, but then, they were also contacting all these artists and telling them … hey! We hope you enter! Of course, they never contacted me, so I wasn’t sure what the point of entering was at all. They seemed to already have a short-list developed.

But lets take a look at some of these favored artists!

Someone called Ruth Mottram, who is a climate scientist working on Greenland, tweeted at Jackie Morris Art, telling her to enter. The ESA climate office saw the tweet, and said:  lovely work! Hope you enter!

Looking myself at Jackie Morris’ images on her Twitter feed, yes, they are very beautiful. Look at this.

After that, the Climate Office didn’t wait for recommendations from people. They just started tweeting people outright asking them to enter. First, they tweeted at Ralf Schoofs. I looked through the illustrations on his Twitter feed, and I don’t know … They are nice, but maybe a little staid. Except I did like this one of little fishies.

Then the Climate office went and tweeted at a British astronaut. He doesn’t seem to be an artist at all, but I guess they were hoping?

Then, per another recommendation, they told “the Light Dreams” that they’d love to see a submission from him. The Light Dreams got a little huffy, and said, did you just call me a budding artist? I’m way above budding. So let’s take a look. I looked at the art on his pinned tweet. It is not exactly the style of art that I like, and maybe a little generic-looking, too.

They tweeted at Dr. Niamh Shaw. She has a Ph.D., and does art, and is she an astronaut to boot? She’s a big deal apparently. Looks like she does theatre, though I’m not sure I found real samples of her work.

At this point, the ESA Clean Space Office got in on the act, too. And they started helping out the Climate Office, and tweeting at artists as well. They tweeted at someone named Marianne Tricot. And the Climate Office was all, thank you so much! So what kind of artist is Marianne Tricot? Well, I don’t know, because I didn’t find enough images of art on her Twitter to get a clear view, and her website is down. “In maintenance mode.”

Then someone named Peter tweeted to someone named Vero that he hoped that she would apply. Her art looks really cute. And the Climate Office thought so, too, because said they hoped she would apply, as well. She did indeed apply, but she waited till the last minute (as did I) to upload her submission, and the website got stuck (as it did for me). So she tweeted back and they told her, don’t worry, we’ll make sure it gets submitted.

A few days later, the Climate Office, tired of a step-by-step approach, went ahead and tweeted at a bunch of artists en masse. Uh, and none of them were that impressed at the invite, apparently, because none of them answered. But who are these illustrious ones?

First was Melissa Gomis … I couldn’t find much art on her twitter page, but I did find a video she’d made on Vimeo. I thought it was kind of boring. And too abrupt in transitions, no?

Second was Zahra Hijri. Lookie there, first [and only] non-white person they tweeted at. I can’t find much art on her twitter page, but any case, she seems to be a very accomplished journalist.

Third was Susan Hassol. She seems to be a “big deal” as well. She makes climate change videos. What do you think? I wasn’t quite in the mood.

Fourth was Rosamund Pearce. It looks like it’s her job to make visualizations for the Economist magazine. I dislike that magazine, first. But this video she made is pretty cool. It has all the content you need right in the video; you don’t need a caption, which is nice for when you’re just scrolling through a Twitter image feed.

Fifth was Ed Hawkins. Another “big deal”, it appears. But where is his art? The little sun and rain cloud at the top of his website?

That was the end of that list. But then someone named Knurek tweeted to someone named Kiciputek to make a submission. And the Climate Office said, that would be lovely. But Kiciputek has canceled his/her account, so I don’t know what’s on it.

And that was a wrap. None of them ended up winning, though.

I applied, after all, and made my little animation. I knew it was a long-shot, but I thought, I can’t pass up the chance (I didn’t have a job at the time!) … and then once you’ve submitted, you stop thinking it was such a long-shot, you start thinking, oh, maybe I’ll actually get it!

Like I mentioned, the submission website got stuck as I tried to submit, like with Vero. I tried it again and again, and it finally worked on the third try. At least, I thought it did. I was able to check online to see if my video was ever downloaded by the Climate Office, and it was not. I emailed them, and it hadn’t arrived. I had my confirmation email and everything, so I sent them that, plus sent them the video directly, and I guess it got considered in the end.

The person who won was Shane Sutton. Looks like he does all sorts of large-scale art, so I think it must catch the eye really fast. He’s what I’d call a “real” artist — like he does it with his hands. But can you tell what this is supposed to be?

Animation seems like so much computer-magic, it seems far too technical that I’d actually be able to call myself an artist. But I was happy with my submission anyways. I didn’t want to spend a long time on something that had a small chance of success, so I mostly made it by recycling and stitching together animations I’d already made. I told myself that wouldn’t take too long. But then it took like 12 hours after all. I had to do a lot of thinking and plucking and re-stitching.

 

A very girly science feed

I am working as a science communicator, like at a real job, can you believe it?

Well, I like shiny things, a la Taylor Swift, and I like pretty colors, and softness, and sparkles and flowers and things like that. So my plan is to use my new position to populate the online presence and outreach presence of the project I’m hired under with all those favorite things of mine, in the name of science.

So far, I’ve mostly made Twitter stories. This one has pretty flowers and pretty glaciers with a sunrise behind them, and a cute girl, too! This one was a little more sedate. Nothing very silky and golden and whimsical about it, but it’s still okay.

Right now, I’m trying to make a series that I shall call, “how we know what we know.” I am trying to make the introductory frames, first. I’ve had to do a couple of takes. My first attempt looked like this. I loved the pretty ocean water and its rich, sparkly green-ness, and I loved the glacier, and I loved the diamond moon, and the blossoming pink tree … but then I realized that it was way too busy.

So I had to take out a lot of the pretty stuff, and I ended up with this, instead. But that’s okay, because I have my girl back in it, and she’s not just another white girl, and it’s a cleaner and clearer view of things overall. It’s just a work in progress for now.

I made these videos in Blender.

Something new in the Blender tutorials

It’s rare enough to find a Blender tutorial made by a woman.  I won’t complain too much, because essentially all the men making tutorials are sharing their knowledge for free — aside from some ads — but when there’s no women making tutorials, it gives you a sense that you don’t really own the field all that much. I think before yesterday, I had only seen one tutorial by a woman — and I don’t remember it at all — I just have a feeling that there was such a one — and aside from this mythical one, I believe all the hundreds (or thousands?) of tutorials I’ve used were produced by white men.

But yesterday, I came across a tutorial that I’m pretty sure was made by a Black woman. This is her YouTube site, VScorpianC. She has tutorials on Blender, and all sorts of other cool, free, artistic programs. The tutorial I watched was on the grease pencil. She went at a very slow pace (for me), but it’s probably just right for many others, and I got the information that I was looking for.

The latest Landsat images on Earth Engine

I had thought that Google’s big library of satellite images was no longer furnishing us with the latest Landsat images. I was using the same lines of code I always had been, and I could never find images past April 2017.

Well, I figured out what the problem is. The images are there, alright. But they have been reorganized and there are new paths to accessing them. So it was a simple matter to sort out! I went to this website and I clicked on the Landsat libraries I wanted, and voila — I found the new pathways that I need. I tried them out, and yes indeed, I saw Landsat images in the areas I wanted from within the last week (so mid-September 2019).

I had earlier written a blog post decrying the loss of current Landsat images on Earth Engine, and giving undue credit to the Europeans for filling in the gap, to top it all off … glad I have things sorted out now.

 

Those cool sliders that show “before” and “after” images

I wanted to look at some satellite images from Hurricane Dorian, and I found a lot of them — specifically Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands — up on Google’s big library of satellite images.

It was cool, because when I was for example searching on September 9, there were already images of the Bahamas posted that were captured on September 8. That is quite a quick response time!

I wanted to make a feature where you can slide back and forth between the before-and-after of Hurricane Dorian. I had heard about this new app called Flourish, and lo-and-behold: you can get a slider like that for free. You just have to create an account, and then you upload the “before” and “after” images you want to compare.

Here’s mine comparing Great Abaco Island from August 16 (before) to September 5 (after).

 

You can see that the storm has kicked up a lot of sediment in the water. If that sediment was leached from the land (it kind of looks like it; you can see curls of sediment smoking their way into the water) then that can have repercussions for the land surface of Great Abaco Island.

By the way, did you ever read the “Lost Girl” books? They were set on a deserted speck of the Abaco Islands.

Now, that is a comparison of two images that are just weeks apart in capture; so how about looking at changes in an island’s land surface over a few decades? I made another before-and-after slider image of Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay. The “before” image is actually from Landsat, and it is from 1992, so you see it looks quite a bit blurrier than the newer Sentinel-2 image. Times have changed, and so have satellites.

Looks like Tangier has lost quite a bit of ground; both in the north, and on that smaller eastern island. The spit of sand in the south has changed, too.

By the way, have you read “Jacob have I loved”? It’s set on a seemingly fictional Chesapeake island very similar to Tangier and Smith Islands. Oh, it is so good!

 

 

My best tips for your Fulbright-National Geographic Application!

My Application

I applied two years ago and my application didn’t move on to the semi-finals. As a favor to you just starting your application, let’s go through mine to see where you can do better.

My application

Here’s the summary of my proposal:

“I will undertake a series of animated film projects at schools and libraries in six locations in Sweden to discover how working together on common challenges builds social cohesion. The projects will intimately involve children in the narration, illustration, and animation of simple kids’ stories focused on environmental issues. The children will be drawn from all backgrounds, and I will tell a story of how these projects promote community building with immigrants and refugees.”
You can read more in depth here:
Personal statement
Statement of grant purpose

Now, let’s go through it step by step!

Main point

This application is a scam. Point-blank. You are asked to spend months and months of preparation entrusting all your highest dreams and hopes to David Braun and Vincent Pickett, both of whom spend their time acting like they are so, so sad because there’s never any application that really, truly will “humanize each other”, and will be “working for a future peaceful planet that we can all share.”

That, it turns out, is just a bunch of highfalutin, fancy prose from these two. In reality, they want the girl who’s going to go backpacking through Kyrgyzstan, hyperventilating because she rode in a taxi, and they want the white guy to go tell the story about Africa.

This fellowship is nothing more and nothing less than you entrusting your highest dreams, and an awful lot of your time, to a panel that will ignore you, not read your application (see below), and be totally careless with those dreams.

They are the prime example of a Trump-like autocrat. They want all the power — all your time, all your effort, all your ideas. They give you nothing in return. And they want you to sit back and accept their decisions mutely, and treat them as though they are almighty deities with all the right wisdom and all the right decisions

Writing style

David Braun from National Geographic said during a Q&A webinar: “The way you write is judged very harshly. Writing needs to be clear, crisp, no grammatical errors. Poor writing throws you in the non-select pile.”

David Braun 2
David Braun: If you can’t fulfill the most basic requirements, don’t expect my grace and esteem.

So, read my application, and for the love of God, no matter what else you may do, don’t write like me. Let my application stand as an example of how not to write.

New

During at least 3 webinars, they stressed that they are looking for something very new: “fresh”, “unique”, “creative”, “inventive”, that “hasn’t been done before.”

My application was all about doing animations with kids, which definitely hasn’t been done before. So I advise you to pick something new, but make sure your level of ‘new’ stays far away from where my level of ‘new’ so clearly transgressed. Does that clear it up?

A kinder, trusting world

Vincent Pickett from the State Department said during two webinars that your application should “break down barriers”, help create a “peaceful, prosperous planet”, help “humanize each other”, and be “working for a future peaceful planet that we can all share.”

Vincent Pickett 1
Vincent Pickett says: why aren’t you good enough? Why are you not impressive?

Read my application carefully, find all the times that I talked about these topics, and just … don’t do what I did.

Community engagement

During one webinar, they had fellowship alumni come in and give us their tips. They mentioned that some journalists will go to a foreign country, take a few pictures, and then run away. David Braun from National Geographic echoed that in a later webinar: “What will be the benefits for the community, and the wider world? You don’t want to just come in, photograph people, and leave.”

You know what, I give up. When I compared my 2017 project to all the previous projects, I concluded that widespread community engagement was far more intrinsic to my project than any others.

So, engage the community; but just don’t overdo it.

“Every moment of your life led to this”

The same fellowship alumni also said that you should demonstrate that “every moment of your life has been leading to this grant. All your life experiences added up to this. All they have to do is fund you to make something awesome happen.”

You can read my personal statement and decide for yourself whether my application fulfilled this criteria or not. But let’s be real. Because, who was that self-same fellowship alumni who blabbed that “every moment of your life has been leading to this grant?” Oh, well, it was a white American guy who’d grown up in Africa. And for his grant, he went traipsing back to Africa to make a movie about how the primitive natives live. And he didn’t even know the local languages – he had to hire a translator. But that’s okay! Because you know David Braun himself, the fellowship dictator, is another white guy who grew up in Africa. So why not?

David Braun pathetic
David Braun: sad because applicants are so unimpressive and it makes him worry for humanity

Digital portfolio

My samples included videos of finished animations that I made with kids. Logical choice since that’s what my proposal was about. Because these videos are on YouTube, I’m able to access viewership statistics. I can even see what states viewers are from. I noticed that from October to December, there was not a single view of the pertinent videos from any of the states where are located the colleges at which the 11-member Fulbright-National Geographic review panel work.

So I don’t think they looked at my digital portfolio at all. Maybe at best they skimmed the first page of the grant proposal. Maybe they look at your name and decide they don’t want to read the rest; or maybe they look at where you’re from and give up from there. Who knows?

Passion

From at least two webinars: “Your passion should come through.”

I was passionate enough about my project that before I ever heard about this fellowship, I had already done it small-scale three times, twice in the US, once in Sweden. I found the classes and libraries to work with, I came up with the idea on my own, I found time while doing my PhD to pull the projects off, and I spent my own money drawn from a student budget for the plane ticket and rooming in Sweden.

So don’t do this.

Feasible

On at least two webinars, they stressed that your project can’t be a fantasy. You have to demonstrate that it’s doable. I’ve done every step of my project before, multiple times, but that’s not good enough. I hope you who are applying now have something far better up your sleeve.

Language skills

They suggest speaking the language of your host country. I do, but that is after all not even semi-finalist standards. I probably needed to win the grand prize for the Sweden-wide “Best Swedish Essay” competition for them to consider me.

Be the best to tell the story

Vincent Pickett from the State Department says: your application has to make clear “how you fit into the story, and why you’re the best to tell it.”

In my case, I understand that the world is chock-full of Americans with Swedish backgrounds and another immigrant background, who make animations, work with kids, and have a background in environmental science, and speak Swedish; how could I ever have thought that I was the ‘best’ to tell the story?? Make sure that you do better.

Affiliation letter

Click here for mine.

Your affiliate must be ‘willing to work with you’, ‘help you carry out the project’, ‘connect you with resources or people’. And ‘if you have local contacts already, then weave them into the statement of grant purpose’. (Quotes from webinars).

My affiliate and I knew each other; we had worked together before on a small-scale pilot of the same project I proposed here … not good enough for semi-final standards.

Recommendations

Two of my three recommenders shared their letter with me.

Here’s the first one.

The second one I received as a google document, and unfortunately I didn’t think to save a copy and now it’s been deleted. But from what I remember of its contents: that I have a “careful, storytelling mind”. That this project is especially feasible because it will take place supported by the existing robust infrastructure of libraries and schools in Sweden; that my work writing in the local community newspaper had been very well-received, that it was entirely on a volunteer basis, and that my readers would email me and even take me out to lunch; something like I have a keen intellect and lots of curiosity; that the recommender herself received a prestigious media fellowship, and she’s married to a former Fulbrighter who now judges Fulbright applications, and with that background, she can still full-throatedly endorse me and my project.

So, to those of you applying now, make sure you show these example recommendation letters to whoever you’re asking; and tell them they’re going to have to step it up about 70 or more notches from here. Because this is not even semi-final standards!

How much time should you spend on your application?

Well, I spent five months. Five stupid months. Let me give you a few tips so you don’t feel as stupid as I do …

First, the fine fellowship judges aren’t actually going to look at your application, darling (see “Digital Portfolio” above).

Second, you can probably finish your application in a day. All you have to do is rush off some silly essay about how you’re planning to spend the fellowship money on a typical, post-college, backpacking trip “through the Caucuses” so that you can really find yourself.

Lens to choose

I picked the ‘Human Journey’ lens and emphasized that, but there was probably some overlap with a more environmental-focused lens. I thought that was okay based on what I heard in the webinars:

Vincent Pickett from the State Department: You need to cover one of the lenses, and they’re pretty broad, but you could cover 2 to 3. Sometimes, there’s “human journeys” happening in very “wild places”.

David Braun from National Geographic: Don’t sweat it too much. It’s pretty much the whole world and everything in it.

Honestly, don’t believe any thing that David Braun or Vincent Pickett say in these webinars.

If your country already had a fellow

Sweden did have a fellow, maybe 2 or 3 years ago; but she was only there for 3 months. During the webinars they said:

“It’s all about the project, first. If a project is proposed for the same country as a previous year, then make it a new topic at least.”

“Syrian refugees is a huge story, and affects millions. So [even if it’s been done before] you could for sure look at it differently. Maybe something that closes the loop, finishes the story, or takes it to a new level.” – Vincent Pickett from the State Department.

In retrospect, that was another lie they told. Or maybe the new State Department policy is that your application can’t say anything nice about Sweden, because it will inflame Trump, because Sweden is one of his favorite punching-bags; or maybe Sweden just told the Fulbright they don’t want any more applications about migration. Who knows?

So who does get these fellowships????

Oh, let me tell you. There was a girl who got to go to Kyrgyzstan. This is what her blog posts sounded like:

 

Oh, my God! Today, I rode in a taxi. Like, oh my God! And I got into the taxi all by myself. Like, oh my God! And guess what, there was a Muslim sitting on one side of me … and a Christian was, like, sitting on the other side of me … and oh, my God, no one killed each other because I was sitting right in between them … can you believe it? Like, oh my God … our taxi ride … oh my God, I just solved world peace.

Yeah, so that was one of the fellows. Sad to say, that’s not even an exaggeration. Literally, she wrote a series of super boring, trying-to-be-profound blog posts from Kyrgyzstan that any backpacker who’s traveled there at probably 1/10 the cost has already written about.

And then another fellow went to Taiwan. Let’s sample her blog posts:

Hehehehehehehehehehe … ! Oh my God … I’m here in Taiwan, and I’m supposed to be  engaging with people  and there’s just one small problem … I don’t remember how to speak Taiwanese … hehehehehehehehehe …. ! So I’m sitting here on a bench with a stranger trying to practice ….. hehehehehehehehehehehe!

Now that you’ve seen some samples, just make sure to make yourself as stupid as possible in your application … that will give you the ticket in.

Final thoughts

vincent snotty0053
Vincent Pickett in peak form

I am so, so sorry for every second, and every thought, that I placed into my application. If I could take every moment back, I would.

I am so sorry that when one of my recommenders disappeared (she was getting married) about three weeks before the application was due, and was no longer answering emails, I biked around at night so I could find someone to give me her phone number, so I could interrupt her two days before her wedding and honeymoon with nagging about my application. I am so sorry for the effort, for the worry, that I gave to tracking her down — and that was just one tiny, tiny piece of trying to put this application together.

I am so sorry for the spreadsheet I made of dozens of libraries in Sweden, of the time I put in searching for libraries in different cities, running through the staff lists and gauging who I should contact, keeping notes on the seventy people I’d emailed, who responded, when they responded, what I told them in return.

I am sorry for the separate packet of notes I put together for each person who wrote me a recommendation.

I am sorry for the twenty pages of notes I took from the various websites with information: the site with the application checklist, the Sweden country Fulbright site, the site with the application tips, the site with the information on the three lenses, the general information site. And I am even sorrier for the I-don’t-know-how-much time it took me to watch seven webinars, most over an hour long, and take 31 pages of notes on them all together.

I am sorry for how I agonized over the website instructions, nitpicked over every sentence, and debated what to do when two sites indicated two different rules to follow; how I censored the number of emails I sent to the contact at the IIE so as not to annoy her too much. Why did I do all that?

I am so, so sorry that both times when submitting the application – both during the initial school submission and then the post-campus interview submission – I re-read every part of the application twice, just to check one last time that there wasn’t any word, any letter out of place. I regret that time and that concentration.

They give you no explanation.

I regret everything about this application.

Google Earth Engine no longer adds Landsat images .. WRONG!

EDIT: I have finally discovered the trick to getting the latest Landsat images on Google Earth Engine … which means my whole blog post below is incorrect. I had a feeling it would turn out like this, because honestly? Whenever you start giving too much credit to Europeans, that should be the red flag to let you know, “something ain’t right.”

But I will leave this blog post up, so if anyone else is having the same issues, they can find it and then find the solution here.

Note: if you want to know more about why satellites like Landsat are important, see this animation or this animation.

I used Google Earth Engine to complete a large part of my Ph.D. dissertation.  I needed lots of images taken by satellites. Like, I needed thousands.

There’s a couple ways to get these images (for free!) You can go to a NASA website, and make an order. You have to do a lot of clicking to get it done, and then you have to wait a few days for the order to show up in your email. Then you have to download all the images. They take up a lot of room on your laptop. You have to figure out how to organize them, and then you have to load them into whatever computer program you’re going to use to analyze those images.

Or you can use Google Earth Engine. As much as I hate to give more power and control over to Google, this feature is very helpful. They already have all the millions of satellite images out there uploaded onto the Google servers. Instead of waiting a few days for a NASA order to come through, you can access those images with just a few lines of code in Google Earth Engine. You don’t ever have to download the images to your own computer or laptop, because you can analyze them right there in Earth Engine. The whole process is streamlined, you save so much time, and you don’t clog your harddrive up with huge satellite files.

Well, that’s all in the past now. NASA has apparently given up cooperating with Google Earth Engine. I tried to search if there was an announcement made to that effect, but I didn’t find anything. But it is a fact that if you search for Landsat images on Earth Engine, you will easily dredge up old images, going back to the 1970s. But there are no new images, not for Landsat-7 and not for Landsat-8. In fact, there are no Landsat images past April 30, 2017. Hmmm. I wonder what changes engulfed NASA’s ultimate leadership right around then, so that the ripple effects eventually led to this change in April 2017?

At least, they did not delete all the images that had already been uploaded. So images from the 1970s to April 2017 are still available.

If I’m wrong about this, and the new images are up there somewhere, someone please let me know. I have searched a couple spots on the globe and it is the same every time – nothing new after April 2017.

Yesterday, I searched for Houston in March 2019. I wanted images from the sky of that terrible oil fire that occurred. But I found no Landsat images. However, I realized there was potentially a work-around. The Europeans have launched their own satellites, and thank goodness, because ever since 2016, they have been loading their images from Sentinel-2 onto Google Earth Engine. And they are still loading away — looks like Trump can’t stop them. There were in fact 18 images from the Sentinel-2 satellite for Houston sprinkled between March 1 and April 15, 2019.

Alas for me though — no image showed the black smoke of the fire. That was what I wanted. The fire started on March 17. The first satellite image after the fire (March 18; below) had a thin coverlet of clouds covering Houston, and you can’t see anything through it.

Houston March 18 2019
Sentinel 2 image for Houston, March 18, 2019. Bands: Red, green, blue.

 

The next satellite image came on March 20, but alas again — there’s no more fire to be seen. Do you see black smoke?

Houston March 20 2019
Sentinel 2 image for Houston, March 20, 2019. Bands: short-wave IR, near IR, and blue.

That black dot in these images is supposed to be the location of the company that started the fire, or there-abouts. Zooming in a little closer …

Houston March 20 2019 zoomed
Sentinel 2 image for Houston, March 20, 2019. Bands: short-wave IR, near IR, and blue.

Well, maybe that is black smoke, but I don’t know that it’s going to convince any one.

Sentinel-2 has a band for “coastal aerosol”. Maybe that will be the key to being able to tell where the plume of black smoke is.

My Earth Engine code for getting these images is here.