Sunday, April 29, 2007

asymmetry everywhere

On the handedness/asymmetry front, Sandra Blakeslee recently had an interesting piece in the NY Times Science section about dogs and their wagging tails.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

the harbinger of dry and cnn

Today’s leading headlines from Australia’s four major dailies. “Pray for Rain.” “Prime Minister’s Dire Warning on Water.” “Howard Threat to Cut Farm Water.” And “Murray Running on Empty,” referring to the Murray-Darling Basin, the country’s most critical source of water by a long shot. Australia, if you hadn’t heard, is in the midst of a catastrophic drought—not good at all for the already-absurdly-dry continent. The longer-term fear is that climate change will exacerbate drought conditions. More immediately, if the rains don’t come within weeks, farmers will lose most of their allocation for irrigation so that cities can continue getting their water, and in turn visitors like me can keep taking carefree-long showers. But what goes around comes around, at least a little. The price of fruits, nuts, dairy, cereals, and wine are expected to soar as a result of failed production on parched farms. The water controls in some parts of Australia are more strict than anywhere on the planet (are you listening Las Vegas?) and one can’t help but wonder whether the drought and subsequent rationing here are harbingers of things to come for other parts of the world. Meanwhile, I learned yesterday that it takes an average of 360 liters of water to produce 1 liter of wine. I tried pitching a story or two on this but didn’t get much traction. The reply in so many or not so many words: Australia is far away from the U.S. and only has 20 million people. A similar thing happened to a pitch about Africa and biotech crops a few months ago. The message from the top editor: “I want stories about Indiana, not India.”

On a separate note: Today, 4 days after the Virginia Tech tragedy, I made the mistake of watching Larry King on CNN, asking students with now-dead friends about whether or not the shooter's photos and videos should have been aired by the media. The whole thing was nauseating. Cut to commercial break, where I was treated to yet another ad for the special program “celebrating Larry King’s 50 years in showbiz” (my emphasis). How fitting.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

on the esplanade

Rodney the cutting-board craftsman at Sunday Market in St. Kilda.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

under the sea

The morning presentations about the polar regions included some terrific images of the seafloor, obtained using something called multi-beam acoustics. This one shows the scarring created by keels on the bottom of sea ice as they move over the seabed with the change of seasons.

Monday, April 16, 2007

morning propaganda

When I woke up this morning, I noticed that the crackpot fairy had slid a little present under my door here at the Grand Hyatt in Melbourne: A leaflet of sorts called The New Citizen, with the blaring headline: “Global Warming is a Fraud!” and a colorful graphic illustrating the “Global Warmers’ Fabrication.” Inside, lots of scattered texts and head shots of Queen Elizabeth, a crocodile, and Tony Blair. At breakfast, I enjoyed looking over the–ahem–articles titled, “Global Warming Hoax = Genocide” and “Why ‘Scientists’ Lie.” I imagine the rest of the visitors here at the 5th World Conference of Science Journalists were similarly amused. The same can't be said of hotel management, however, who quickly followed up with an official apology for last night's "security breech."

Sunday, April 15, 2007

the puzzling geolexography of globalization

Walking past a seafood shop on Acland Street yesterday, I noticed this label.

Friday, April 13, 2007

wherever you go

...there you are. Line drawn to my hotel. Nice place, Melbourne.

Brunswick Street, Melbourne

Terrific spot to walk, eat, drink beer, and consider buying old CDs.

on emissions and pessimism

Snapped this shot from my window seat at Sydney Int'l. Nothing special, really. Yet it illustrates a point I've been mulling lately. As far as climate change goes, the notion of addiction to fossil fuels doesn't quite cut it. It's that everything out there, out your window almost anywhere, is made, and most manufacturing processes involve greenhouse gas emissions. The guardrail, paint, jetway, truck, advertisement -- delve into how these things come to be, and more likely than not the process is one that produces CO2. The same is true of hybrid cars and solar panels. Of course that doesn't mean these promising technologies are a waste and one might as well drive an SUV or support coal-fired power plants. But the ugly reality of the made world's relationship to greenhouse gases makes it hard to feel encouraged about a small up-tick in automobile emissions standards. I suppose the headline writers aren't wrong to use the expression "life as we know it" when referring to the causes of global climate change and what would have to change to mitigate it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

from 33,000 feet

Somewhere over the Pacific now, en Route to Sydney and on to Melbourne. Before departing, not one but four friends asked me to report back about the direction water flows when flushed down a toilet in the southern hemisphere. (See this site to learn about the urban legand they're referring to, a.k.a the Coriolis Fairy.)

Now, a brief dispatch, written from within the high-altitude hazy-brained bleary-eyed hallucinatory otherwold of jet lag. Wherever you go, there you are. I don't know who coined this phrase, or whether it's just one of those thoughts that has made the rounds, but the person who recently said it to me was my brother in law, who's also a pilot. Meanwhile, the guy in the seat in front of me has spent a lot of time with his forehead to the window, staring out at the darkness. What's on his mind?

However many hours later, my in-flight map says we're between Hawaii and Fiji. The only other cities labeled on the video map? Sapporo and Apia (Western Samoa).

Around Sydney, things look so verdant. But not for long. Connecting on to Melbourne, looking off the right side of the plane I get a hint of just how brown and dry most of this continent is.

Friday, April 6, 2007

follow-up journalism

I just got off the phone with Kerri Miller of Minnesota Public Radio's Midmorning show. Now and then, Miller follows up with authors previously featured on the program, to hear how the book changed their lives, research updates, what's up next--that sort of thing. I mention this only because yesterday I too was doing some follow-up.

The upside to writing about a variety of topics is that it caters nicely to ADHD. The downside, I think, is a sort of drive-by-shooting effect, or maybe the more apt and less violent metaphor is the one night stand. That is, you intensely study a topic, interview the right people, and work your tail off crafting and polishing the article. And then snap. It's over. You're on to the next thing.

For smaller assignments it's not a big deal. But with bigger subjects, be it oil and gas drilling in far-eastern Russia, the economics of environmental conservation, or the Department of Energy's favorite nuclear reservation, there's so much more to be written. Yet because the article I've been assigned to write for whatever publication has been printed, I find it difficult to justify futher time investment pitching new angles on the same subject because they can be tough to find and even tougher to sell editors on, as compared to a fresh topic altogether.

All of that is to say that yesterday at Stanford, I appreciated the chance to touch base with Gretchen Daily, the key source for a piece I recently wrote for West, the Sunday magazine for the L.A. Times. There was still a transaction to be sure: I'm listening for new story possibilities and she's trying to deliver them. Nevertheless, we also debriefed about the overall reaction to the first story, the editing process, what's up next--that sort of thing.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007


While researching the future of offshore drilling, I recently came across this image. The drawing of the platform and its supports is superimposed over a city to convey just how huge the whole thing is.

planes and trains

I'm in the Bay Area this week for a couple of book-related interviews. At the same time, I've been mulling over my most recent essay assignment. Topic: the absence of, and prospects for, high-speed rail in the U.S. After flying into Oakland, taking the bus to BART, then riding BART to Berkeley, one can't help but wonder whether travelers 20, or even 50, years from now will be able to ride speedy trains up and down the coast. I know, I know, there's Amtrak Acela in the northeast. But that barely counts.

On the plane this morning, I sat behind a bald Rastafarian from Eugene, Ore., who was having a loud and long-winded conversation about religion with a Pakistani high-tech engineer. Amusing.