Fifth article for WIRED

I published 3 articles within 8 days! But there are two extra weeks you should count at the beginning when I was working on them and didn’t publish anything.

One was about air pollution in a mostly Black neighborhood in Maryland. Oh yeah, I mentioned that here before. It’s the one I did the GIS analysis for.

Click here to read it. I was super excited to write this story because I felt I was being very noble in helping people who very rarely get their voices heard in the national media. [You see, my motives are not exactly altruistic, rather self-flattery.] I wanted to do a story that brings out the fact that we don’t seem to care if we place all the polluting factories where Black or other minority children will get sick with asthma or other diseases.

wired article 5 image

For this article, I also got artwork credit. I made the smoke coming out of the smokestacks in Blender. I think I will always be a little pleased to think that I got to make some real actual published and credited 3D art. It took me hours of plodding through a “quick smoke” tutorial, and 16 rounds of edits and modifications to the smoke before I was done with it. But the art department was very happy.

After the article got published, two of the people I interviewed emailed back to say they liked it a lot; the third did not. S/he pointed out something I wrote at the very beginning as being very offensive, and declared that s/he didn’t read past that point, and s/he’s always disappointed by journalists!

Years ago, an email like that would have sent me into a tailspin. I would have been both incredibly angry at the person; and also beating myself up for having done something that could cause such offense. Perhaps I might have thought: I will never bother to help you again! You just enjoy yourself with the polluting factories! Clearly, you don’t want my help! All followed by a grim determination to do something so good, that the offended party would hear of it and realize they had totally misunderstood!

I felt all that this time, too – obviously, I’m writing a whole blog post about it. But the feelings were more subdued. I wasn’t in utter despair at myself; I was more annoyed like at a mosquito bite.

I checked back through my notes, and decided I hadn’t done anything wrong, I had written the truth. But .. and here was another truth … I could very well have worded things in a way that would have satisfied the truth to the other person. That I neglected to do so was of course not maliciously done or anything. But that neglect came at the cost of something incredibly important to that person.

So something that does feel like a personal disappointment is: I usually pride myself on being sensitive to other people’s wishes. It is a personal disappointment to know that I am so far removed from the atmosphere and life of the person who wrote me so as to not notice or take care of something important to them. I dismissed their anger with a roll of my eyes, and cheapened their offense by likening it to a mosquito bite.

So despite the noble smirks I was giving myself, and the GIS fact-checking, and my Blender3D artwork, I feel pretty flat about this article.

Making maps

I had to verify a fact for my article I’m working on now. It’s about a bunch of polluting power plants being built in a neighborhood in Maryland where mostly Black people live. Having lived in Maryland, I can tell you that this is exactly the sort of thing that Maryland would do.

What the community activists told me was: there is no other place in the United States where you have 3 natural-gas power plants of that size within 2.9 miles of each other. So of course, I wanted to include that in the article, it’s a pretty powerful statistic.

But, no one could show me any report that backed it up.

All I got was a fact-sheet prepared by the non-profit Earthjustice. That fact-sheet said: after all 3 power plants are built, Brandywine will have more power-generating capacity than 99.9% of the country.

This was, first, a more confusing statistic – a lot less clean – compared to the first version. Second, I didn’t have any idea how they’d come up with that figure.

So, I got out my own nifty mapping and GIS skills. I felt so smart!! I have done GIS stuff for 10 years; and the particular program that I used, Google Earth Engine, I used almost every day for the last 2 years of my Ph.D. work. But I haven’t really touched it since I graduated in May. When I pulled it open, I kind of just stared at the screen. I couldn’t remember how to do anything. And it’s only been two months!

But soon I was coding up a storm:

power plant map code

I found a big spreadsheet from the EPA that lists all the power plants in the US. Somehow, I managed to upload that in Earth Engine. Then, I found a shapefile (computer map) of Maryland. Then, I was able to search through the giant EPA spreadsheet, and first pull out only the power plants in Maryland, then only the large ones, then only the fossil fuel-powered ones. It was super great! I’d forgotten I could do all that in Earth Engine, so it was like getting surprise presents one after the other.

Then my script crashed. So I had to redo everything, and I made sure to express my anger in the new script title.

Then, I mapped it all:

power plant map

The black dots are the power plants with a capacity of over 200 megawatts, of all fuel types. There’s one place that has two such plants, by Riviera Beach (the blob south of Baltimore). And the string of 3 black dots, with the red line over them, are the three power plants set to be running in Brandywine by next year.

So the statistic I was able to safely use in the article is: there is no other community in Maryland that will have as many large power plants as Brandywine. It would have been nice to go further and see if this was true for the whole US, but I didn’t have time to visually examine the map; or alternatively, I wasn’t sure how to get Earth Engine to do those calculations for me.

But any case, I’m really happy I was able to do this little bit. And it was worth it for sure to give the article a stronger backing.

Third article for WIRED

This article was going to be a triumph for me, for many different reasons. First, because it was about Sweden, pretty much. Second, because all the instagram/twitter/blog/facebook stalking I’ve done over the years came into handy. No one can say all of that was a waste of time any more. I went from a random Twitter post, to a Twitter account; then hunted up an Instagram account, which was all in Swedish, and figured out what blog I needed to follow, which was also all in Swedish, and found the email to get in contact with the girl on the cargo ship. I could not have been more proud, I could not imagined that I could ever, ever get a chance to write something like this!!

But then, when the story actually came out, I was super upset. I felt this weird sense of loss that I maybe shouldn’t try to explain. And I was also sad because some of my descriptions had been taken out of the story. Like, I had mentioned the Swedish midsummer beckoning for Kajsa to come home. And I had used the description “sunrise-bound” in the paragraph talking about the ship gliding over the Atlantic.

It was a little hard and mournful to see those killed off.

Here’s the article.

I actually have since also written my fourth article, but there was no big to-do about that. It was just a short little thing. I mean, I should have been really excited, because this one was in Greenland, so there was a chance I could talk to a Danish person. But I don’t know, that didn’t appeal too much for some reason.

Maybe I thought I was pushing my luck with too many stories from Scandinavia, even though this Greenland story was assigned to me. It wasn’t me that chased it down.

Well, I regret to say that I didn’t actually fulfill the mission of the Greenland story. I was supposed to find out: are big icebergs like that going to get stuck by villages and force their evacuations quite often from here on out, because of climate change? Or was this just a freak accident, due to some combination of the depth of the water, or the size of that iceberg, or the elevation of that island? No one that I spoke to actually knew. My interview-people were all researchers who have been to Greenland, and know a lot about glaciers and icebergs; but none of them had seen that particular iceberg, and they couldn’t say anything definite merely through looking at the pictures of it.

I contacted people in Denmark and Greenland, but they all got back to me too late. Or, they just told me, “no, can’t help,” and then when I emailed back, “do you know anyone who can help,” the reply was “unfortunately not.” Well.

In other news, I found out today from a lady called Therese Øvergård that my bristlecone pine film was not chosen to be played at the Fredrikstad animation festival. I thought it would because I had an idea that all student films are chosen! But I guess not. I got a similar email from Therese two years ago when I’d entered the film, “Who’s cutting down Yusuf’s trees?”. She always ends the email with, “Thank you for submitting your film!” I think you should leave off the exclamation points at moments like this. I’m going to check the YouTube stats. I give it 50-50 that no one from Norway has watched the film in the first place. Not to say if they’d watched it they would have picked it. But you at least would hope that they’d watch.

And this was the most carefully prepared animation I’d ever made. I was a little sad this morning. Good-bye to the bristlecone pine. It’s sunset-time.




Second article for WIRED

I wrote about people taking trains, instead of planes, to lower their carbon emissions. I try to do the same thing whenever possible. Last year, I went to a conference in Boston, and I took a bus and overnight train from North Carolina; and I also went to New Orleans for another conference, this time nearly a full day on the train.

Just by coincidence, one of the people I interviewed in my article was on that very same train! I have never met her, and I didn’t know she’d been on that very same train until I had done some research, tracked her down, and was talking to her.

Being a journalist means I can finally put my online-stalking abilities to good use – abilities that I have carefully crafted and improved upon by 10 years of steady and completely legal spying on people’s lives. My family always made fun of me with me giving them updates of strangers’ lives, and told me I was weird; but see what’s come of it!

New University Rules Encourage Scientists to Avoid Air Travel

As far as I can tell, apart from some essays or personal blogs people have written, mine is the very first news article about this topic 🙂 And, it’s been shared on Twitter and Facebook a lot, which is very exciting, and people have left comments and everything.

I was a little sad, and at times heart-broken, during the editing, because I interviewed a lot of scientists, and they told me the coolest stories about their trips by train/bus. And I wanted to include all the information, all the cool details. But instead, the word count didn’t even let me include all those scientists. The final article is less than 1/3 the size of what I’d originally written. Oh dear. And me and the editors and fact-checkers went back and forth so many times, trying to pinpoint the exact correct meaning. So by the time we were editing the same paragraph the 30th time, I wanted to toss of my hands in despair. But in the end, I think – I hope – it turned out alright. Of course, I am sad that not all the nuances are there, but I guess I’ll just keep learning how to make the best of the word count limits I have.

Smarmy in the interview

I was interviewing these people.  I should have known they would turn out to be annoying because they were the only ones who had a secretary set the call up. And they’re honestly not such important people anyways. Now you know where administrator fees go at a public university!

They had an edge in their voice the whole time: why are you so stupid to be asking these questions, and why are you so unsophisticated, why are you so prone to splashing about in fallacies?

Every time I go back and read the interview notes, they sound ruder and ruder.

That kind of put me off my week.

Also, I don’t know what I’m doing after this fellowship. It is just now starting to be of some concern, because everything I applied to seems to have fallen through in the last two weeks. And some of the things I applied to were easy-peasy jobs, but I never even heard back.

My fall-back plan is just to go to Sweden. But I’m applying for things – very simple things – that would at least let me go there without starving and becoming homeless. And even those don’t work out. Not a single thing that has to do with Sweden works out for me, did anyone else notice?

I don’t ever quite get there, do I?




My first article

I feel a little unreasonably proud at the moment. I really wasn’t expecting to, because this is simply not a story I think I would click on and bother to read even though I’m the one who wrote it:

wired story 1

I was assigned to write this story.

When stories like this pop up, I just think: I know all the ice is melting, the details are not necessary in order to be miserable about it. Had I clicked on it, I suspect I would have stopped reading after, I don’t know, the second line, maybe?

I think with stories like this, it works better as a photo essay. So you write a short paragraph, and then there’s either a pretty drawing or a picture that keeps you engaged. Otherwise, my mind just glazes over, unless the writing is like Harry Potter, or like Charlotte Bronte.

But when my editor was editing it, she told me the sentences were beautiful. I thought: oh! There’d only been a single sentence whose symmetry and rhythm I’d been especially pleased with.

I had tried to brace myself for quick, brusque editing: that maybe my editor is busy, and maybe the standard newsroom etiquette is to allot time only for negative feedback, and not waste time on anything positive. When my editor told me about “beautiful sentences,” it was a really nice compliment.

WIRED articles very often begin sentence after sentence with the word ‘and’. It’s some kind of style that’s just not me. My editor added some of those ‘ands’ into my story, but then I took most of them out, and she didn’t say anything. That made me really happy, too – that hopefully, the voice in my stories will sound as much as possible as the voice of the person who wrote Daily Tar Heel opinion pieces!

She also put in the word ‘blockbuster’, which I didn’t like, and I removed it without push-back, too. But she made other changes that I did like. She kind of drew the strings so that the story was tighter. In the opening paragraph, I had included the image of “a watery grave”, and my editor added “walking the plank” to that. The back-and-forth was a good partnership.

I finished the article early this morning, before we all got to the office; the work-day passed in a blur of edits, calling some of my sources back to get clarifications, having to re-write the whole introduction – painstakingly, piecing together ideas from my editor and reviewing my interview notes – and then getting everything fact-checked.

At last, the article went live.

Because I had stayed up really late last night, and then gotten up at dawn this morning to finish the article in time, I got to leave early. So I walked out of the dim playground that is the WIRED main offices on the third floor of a restored warehouse, and into the bustle of downtown San Francisco, where everything around me seemed to want to tickle my fancy. A museum of some sort appeared before me;  I wandered into the spacious gift shop, full of books and pictures to examine. Further along the street, there appeared a Ghirardelli chocolate shop, and I thought it was time for a celebration. The brownie I got wasn’t really that good, though I don’t think that will stop me from going back for a sundae some day.

I went home on a quiet, empty train, before the rush of 5 pm.

Walking from my exit stop to my place where I live, the wind was waving against my face with the touch that reminds me of the last two times I went to Sweden in the summer. Along the road, spilling out of the front yards of all the houses, flowers lifted their pretty faces. In all colors – snowdrifts of white petals; roses flushed with pink or cream; buds wrapped against themselves, slightly yellow, whose scent was like the southern magnolias back in North Carolina. Riots of orange and lemony stems, and whole fences shrugged over with a shawl of bright violet. In the distance, the solemn green hills.

I had thought I was really going to hate it here.


Working on my first article

My inbox was not empty … I had almost everyone respond to my requests for interviews. So I spoke with five people on the phone yesterday, sometimes back to back. The longest interview was 50 minutes.

Since I am writing about a journal paper, that like I said seems quite easy to sensationalize, I can’t call this my favorite type of science writing. But, it was rather flattering to get to talk to so many scientists nevertheless. And, one of the people I talked to was Swedish. I’ll let you guess if that was an accident or not.

I wrote up the article – I’ve never had to write something so fast – and I’m not sure what I think about it, or whether I would read past line three, or whether I would even click on the article in the first. Oh well. Today, I fact-check it.