In Which I Get Philosophical About Journalism

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The coolest thing about my job is that I get to read a lot of new scientific research and see a lot of cool new technology even before it becomes the day’s news.  It’s really easy to get swept up in the excitement of that, and in fact, part of my job is conveying some of that excitement to readers, because viral reservoirs are delightfully horrifying, dinosaurs are awesome, and crashing a spacecraft into another planet makes for an exciting story. By the way, did you know that we’ve actually managed to reach up into space and grab a sample of actual stardust from outside our solar system?  The world – the universe, really – is an amazing place.  Some days, I look around and wonder if I’m actually living in a science fiction novel.

It’s important to take a critical look at new research and new inventions, though.  That doesn’t mean that I have to be negative about everything, but it does mean that when I’m looking at news about animal behavior research, a potential new medical treatment, a planned space mission, or a cool new feat of engineering, I have to ask some questions, like:

Is this really going to work?  Is this really groundbreaking research, or just a new angle on something that’s already mostly understood?  How big is it, really?  Do these researchers have a conflict of interest?  What about this safety concern or that environmental concern?  Will it ever be scalable or affordable?

I try really hard to balance that critical approach with a sense of wonder. That’s something science and journalism have in common, I guess.  Of course, some days, I cover stories like this one and still find myself thinking, “Holy crap, we live in the future.”

Those are the best days.

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In Which We Learn About Palm Wine

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Researchers announced earlier this week that chimpanzees around the town of Bossou, in southeastern Guinea, occasionally steal palm wine from local harvesters. I covered the story for Discover‘s D-brief blog (which is one of the coolest places on the Internet, by the way). Go check it out. I’ll wait.

Are you back? Awesome.

My D-brief story focused on the chimpanzee research, which is hopefully the first step toward some pretty cool insights about primate evolution. In the process of covering the story, however, lead researcher Kimberley Hockings shared some insight on the palm wine harvest. It was a tangent from my original story, but I couldn’t resist sharing a little glimpse of another culture. Once an anthropologist, always an anthropologist – so here’s the story behind the story.

Many species of palm trees around the world supply sap which is fermented into some form of palm wine, but the people of Bossou harvest and drink the fermented sap of the raffia palm. When a tree matures, the local yohpami, or palm wine harvester, climbs fifty feet or so up to the crown of the tree on a bamboo ladder, where he (the yohpami is always male) cuts at a place on the crown called the yohle, or “mouth of the wine.”

“For the first 4-7 days the yohpami must cut a bit off the yohle each morning and evening until the palm wine comes,” Hockings told me. When the sap begins to flow, the yohpami leaves a plastic container in the crown of the tree to collect the sap, covered with leaves to protect against dirt and insects. Hockings, who talked with Bossou’s yohpami during her research, told me, “He said that if the container is not covered it becomes cold and the taste changes.”

As I mentioned in the D-brief story, raffia palm sap ferments really quickly, so it’s ready to drink almost as soon as it emerges from the tree. The yohpami comes to collect the sap early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Most people in Bossou like their palm wine straight from the tree, unprocessed, and very fresh – within 24 hours of harvesting. “98% of people prefer newly harvested wine,” Hockings told me. After the first day, the sap ferments so much that it makes the wine stronger, but gives it a vinegary taste. By the third day, the wine separates into water, thicker sap, and sediments, and it has to be shaken before drinking.

It seems that the local chimpanzees prefer fresh palm wine, too – they drink it right in the treetops, after all. Hockings said that the yohpami doesn’t seem to mind much. “As it happens rarely, it is not considered a huge problem, but of course the palm wine harvester will not be happy about it due to a loss of income,” she said. “At Bossou local people are very tolerant towards the chimpanzees. Traditionally chimpanzees were a totem and could not be hurt (even in retaliation for crop feeding).”

In Which My Inbox Holds A Surprise

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If you’re a Facebook user, you might (or might not) have noticed that you messages get sorted into an Inbox folder, for people on your friends list, and an Other folder, for everyone else. This came as a complete surprise to me today, when I discovered that back in October, I had missed a very nice message from a fellow writer, who very kindly complimented one of my older articles* and shared a link to her own work on a similar topic.  The extra-cool part is that I remember reading her article on CNN several months ago and really enjoying it, so it was pretty awesome to get to chat with its author.

In addition to her piece for CNN, Zoe has also written a novel entitled Turn Our Eyes Away, which is now officially on my stuff-to-read-really-soon list.  It starts with a murder and a frantic 911 call (I’m hooked already) and, in the author’s words

Detective Pollizi and his colleagues in the Detroit Police Department try to piece together what happened on that snowy night in late December that left one young woman dead and another on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Using electronic journal entries, text messages, and social media posts, the detectives attempt to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death.

When Olivia moved back to her childhood home, she set in motion a series of events that ended up causing each woman to face her tortured past. Years ago, when both girls found themselves outcast and tormented in their suburban school, they became best friends until a tragic event ruined their friendship forever.

A decade later, in a story that illustrates the lasting effects of childhood bullying, they have dealt with their problems differently. Olivia has channeled all of her energy into proving herself to the world. While she obsesses over achieving perfection, Tiffany falls even further into a downward spiral. As the story builds, both women’s insecurities and demons will be exposed and their worlds will collide, ultimately culminating in tragedy for one of them.

I’m really intrigued by her storytelling method and looking forward to seeing how it all comes together.  If you’re also interested, it’s available on Amazon and iBooks, or directly from the publisher’s website.

*I wrote that article back in late 2011 or very early in 2012. MilitaryFamily.com was my very first writing gig as a freelancer, and I really enjoyed having the opportunity to share some hopefully useful information and perspective with service members and their families.  A lot of my focus there was on education and career development for spouses and veterans, but I turned out the occasional opinion piece like that one.  It looks like they’re either re-posting the articles or bumping the dates, which I’m only pointing out because I’m a stickler for accuracy – I certainly don’t mind, and I hope they’re still useful!

This Year, in Space…

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My latest article for Popular Mechanics is a calendar of 13 big space events coming up this year. There’s a lot going on in space exploration these days.  Later in 2015, one American spacecraft will reach Pluto, another will crash into Mercury, and other’s will study Earth’s magnetic field and provide advance warning about solar storms. A Japanese spacecraft will (hopefully) enter orbit around Venus.  A European spacecraft and lander will ride a comet all the way to its closest approach to the sun, while another will carry out experiments with gravitational waves.

I focused on science events – either space exploration missions, or Earth science missions based in space – but along the way, I read about several really exciting launches of communications satellites and even (probably) spy satellites.  Did you know that a few times this year, commercial spaceflight company United Launch Alliance’s cargo manifest includes “classified payloads” for the National Reconnaissance Office?  This year will also bring several awesome commercial spaceflight launches and demos – I’m looking forward to seeing SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch, along with (hopefully) the first flights of XCOR’s Lynx suborbital spacecraft.

I Climbed a Volcano and It Was Awesome

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A few months ago, I drove my 13-year old car – the one with the gas gauge that reads Empty regardless of its actual state – 20 miles out into the desert of New Mexico so I could climb a volcano for Popular Mechanics. The resulting article was posted today, and here it is for your enjoyment:

“Get Out There: New Mexico Desert Volcano Adventure”

I was surprised by both how remote Aden Crater is and how accessible it is.  In a time and cultural setting where most experiences are structured and packaged in some way, it felt very adventurous to just drive into the middle of nowhere, find a volcano, and climb around on it.  It’s an experience I’m still very glad to have had and shared with my husband, who is the best adventuring partner anyone could ask for.  Looking back on it from my motel room in Tucumcari, New Mexico, on my way to a new home in Kansas, I think it’s one of the coolest things I did with my time out West.  Most of all, I’m really excited to have the chance to share it with the awesome people who read Popular Mechanics.

For more adventures in the borderland, you can also read all about

Never Say Never Again

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Last year, I gave National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, in the online world) a firm but gentle “It’s not you, it’s me” speech and vowed never again to spend a November panicking over word counts.  My reasons were sound, and the decision seemed utterly sensible in light of my work situation and my fiction writing goals.

Predictably, on November 1st, I launched into a new story.  It’s tentatively called “Misspelled,” and it’s an urban fantasy through which I’m hoping to explore things like PTSD, grieving, and how Army combatives training would hold up against necromancers.  Yeah, it’s sort of hard for me to keep my “Serious Hat” on for very long – it’s windy here, you know.

I have always struggled with the impulse to edit every sentence as I go, usually seven or eight times until it’s “perfect”.  That habit is most of the reason for the stack of unfinished drafts languishing on my hard drive.  Honestly, I would rather have a finished draft that needs heavy editing, so this month’s insane writing marathon is apparently some sort of aversion therapy for my compulsion.

Four days in, I think the current draft of Misspelled is shaping up the be worst thing I have ever written.  On Day Two, I realized that in my haste, I had painfully dislocated my protagonist’s shoulder in a barfight, only to forget all about it by the next page.  So far, I’ve fought the urge to go back and fix that and other errors, but I have a whole file full of notes for future revision.

Author Chris Hill recently made some very astute and very important observations about National Novel Writing Month and the whole speed-writing trend on his blog.  It started one of the best comment threads I’ve read in a long time, because lots of people have opinions, experiences, and insights to share, and it’s interesting to see some real discussion on this topic.  Ultimately, the real takeaway is this: National Novel Writing Month may or may not (depending on the writer) be a great motivating tool for finishing a first draft of your novel, but please, for the sake of your own credibility and that of any other writer who hopes to self-publish their best work, remember that what you are writing this November is a first draft.  Revise, edit, seek feedback from trusted friends, hire an editor, and make sure your work is finished and polished before you head over to Createspace or Amazon.

Meanwhile, I’m going to keep plowing through this draft.  It’s horrible, messy, awkward, and slightly embarrassing – but that’s what a first draft is.