Wednesday on the Web – 22 Nov Edition

Lately I’ve been writing a full blog post every Wednesday, but this week I came across so many interesting topics that I’ve decided to go back to a linkfest.
1. Sackler Colloquium: The Science of Science Communication III (SSCIII)
I had no idea this workshop was happening until the hashtag #SacklerScicomm started appearing in my Twitter feed. Hosted by the National Academy of Sciences, this was the third Sackler Colloquia about science communication. A lot of people were tweeting about it, which was great for those of us who couldn’t attend.
Although the conference suffered from a serious lack of diversity:

And people violated the very science communication processes they promote:

Despite these drawbacks, there were a lot of wide-ranging discussions—including a talk by Atul Gawande, who has written one of my most highly-recommended books: Being Mortal.
Check out the colloquium hashtag on Twitter, peruse Paige Jarreau’s collated notes here, and watch videos here (note that not much has been uploaded yet, but it will be).
2. Why Is It So Goddamned Hard to Make a Living as a Writer Today?
In mid-September, the American Author’s Guild posted this article by Douglas Preston. He talks about stats that show writers’ incomes have dropped 30-67% in the last six years, and explores some of the reasons behind that decline. He argues that:

“Writing is the lifeblood of American culture, of democracy, and of freedom. It is under assault as never before in the history of the Republic.”

I would edit that to say it is the lifeblood of Canadian culture and democracy as well—look at the diversity of books that are up for the well-known Canlit awards. Preston also makes a bold statement that really resonated with my colleagues on Twitter—I think it’s one of my most-shared quotes. He says,

“When a writer can’t make a living and switches to working in another field, an entire lifetime of books is never written. They are, in a way, censored.”

This is a novel way of looking at the decline of the writer’s life, something I hadn’t considered but makes perfect sense. Not only that, but publishing houses contribute to that censorship because the market is so tight,

“when an important book isn’t even written? Not written because the author couldn’t get a decent advance or was rejected — not because the idea was bad, but because the publisher was unable to take the financial risk.”

This conundrum really struck home when I read about the Scotiabank Giller Prize winner (and member of the Editors’ Association of Canada), Michael Redhill. While the Giller Prize is a hefty paycheque ($100,000), Redhill will need every cent. In fact, just this spring he was posting on Facebook looking for editing work. “The ends, they do not meet,” he wrote. This from an accomplished writer and editor in his early 50s.
Something is wrong when we can’t support our writers in the same way we support workers in tech, public service, etc.
Perhaps it’s linked to this Ursula K. LeGuin quote:

“One of the troubles with our culture is we do not respect and train the imagination. It needs exercise. It needs practice.”

3. The Last Word on Nothing (“Science says the first word on everything, and the last word on nothing” – Victor Hugo)
I’ve always enjoyed the articles at The Last Word on Nothing, a science writing site that hosts daily posts from writers who have been invited to join the LWON group. This week there were two articles I loved.
The first was by Rebecca Boyle, whom I know from our scienceCNF group. Her writing beat covers space science, but in this article she wrote about trees—specifically trees and asteroids. She masterfully combines the Chicxulub impact crater with science that shows that deciduous trees were able to withstand the asteroid impact better than evergreen trees, because they’re used to regularly losing their leaves and entering a dormant phase.

“The pin oak lives because its ancestors died, every fall, and it was adapted to withstand a period of hunkering down. This is appealing. I can work with this. Leaves falling in the autumn is not a symbol of giving up, but a sign of waiting out. It is not a symbol of death, but a sign of life.”

The second was by Sarah Gilman, a science writer whose work I follow closely. She wrote about moving from Colorado to Seattle, and how her sense of home changed as the landscape she lived in changed. Having come from the aspen parkland of Alberta to the heavily wooded and seemingly always wet Vancouver Island in 1994, I could empathize with her struggle to fit into the west coast landscape. This quote about the west coast really resonated with me:

“a place so green and eager to grow that if you sit still too long you’ll be mossed and brambled over, just another soft shapeless lump at the toes of giants.”

And as I consider where I might want to live other than this wet (expensive) coast, this quote also hit home:

“I understood my leaving home to be a kind of death, a drowning, and I longed for the surface. For the horizon. For the crack-me-open ache of space, spreading away.”

4. John McPhee
John McPhee has been everywhere lately, as his latest book, Draft No. 4, about the craft of writing, has just been published. It’s ironic because every interview with him says he doesn’t like to do interviews. Well, he’s done two that really resonated with me.
Let me first admit I’d never heard of McPhee. I know, it’s a sacrilege, and now I’m itching to read some of his books. But the way he interacts with his interviewees is fascinating—he’s quite humble and has a fairly prescribed life, except when he steps outside of that life to do in-depth research for his books. Two great articles that you should read: Wishing I Were John McPhee, by Kerri Arsenault, and The Mind of John McPhee, by Sam Anderson
5. Spawning salmon
Last week we went to the Cowichan River to watch the salmon swim upstream. We specifically went to Skutz Falls, which has a fish ladder plus all sorts of obstacles for fish to leap over.
The river was roaring with white water and standing waves. We had to yell to be heard over the noise. In the tumultuous, swirling water we could see salmon hanging out in back eddies, biding their time and saving their strength to jump over the falls. So many of them went around—instead of through—the fish ladder, I felt like giving them directions to help make the journey easier.
It was the first time I’d had my camera out in a while, and I decided to focus on one spot where fish were jumping, put my camera in drive mode, and shoot like crazy as soon as a fish appeared in my viewfinder. It paid off. I got a few pics that really captured the salmon run.
6. Last quote of the day
I’ll leave you with one last quote that has totally always been our plan:

“Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you ought to set up a life you don’t need to escape from” – Seth Godin, Tribes

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