My blog sucks: my journalism school application

This week I applied ta a 2-week science journalism summer school. The focus of the summer school includes “experimenting with new forms of scientific storytelling”. Part of the application included a letter of intent, and as I wrote it, it started to turn into more of a personal manifesto. Here it is, more or less, for those who are interested.

My name is Adam Fortais and I would like to be considered for acceptance into the Project Futures 3 program. I am interested in pursuing a career in science journalism, but am concerned that current forms of journalism are not ideal in reaching the public.

 

My interest in scientific communication was first motivated by the goal of inspiring the next generation of scientists. By showing them that cutting edge research can be done by anyone, I hoped to inspire young students to increase their own scientific literacy and interest in pursuing a career in STEM. However, through my outreach work, I realized that what goes into the job of “scientist” is not very well understood by young students.

 

I think the lack of understanding of what a scientist does is because many people don’t actually know any scientists (for example; the CBC recently ran a story which claimed nearly half of all Canadians couldn’t name a single female scientist). When I was young, the careers I imagine myself doing were the ones that I could actually imagine. Having a picture of someone with a career I admired allowed me to express my interest and find guidance toward pursuing that career.

 

To think every young student will be able to meet and interact with a scientist is naive – many scientists are located in metropolitan areas, not to mention the fact that there simply aren’t that many scientists per capita. These factors limit how many young students will ever get to meet a scientist to a small, (and demographically biased) group. For this reason, I began considering how to reach students indirectly.

 

Aside from directly interacting with a scientist early on, I was influenced by media portrayals of scientists and the opinions of my family. It’s here, within social circles and the media, that I believe the majority of people’s scientific understanding comes from. Yet, through my blogging and outreach activities I have begun to see a fundamental issue with these forms of media – they seem to only reach those who look for it. In a sense, we are “preaching to the choir”, and I think this is dangerous.

 

I’m worried that when a detachment occurs between a source of authority and the general population, distrust develops. Maybe this is the origin of climate change denial or the anti-vaccine movement. Of this, I can only speculate. However what I can say, is that current scientific journalism leaves many people behind. Podcasts have helped increase access to science, but are even still biased to the people who look for such a thing, and have the ability to consume this type of media. I think the way we involve the public in research needs to be rethought, and I think this begins with us.

 

Thank you for your consideration,

Adam Fortais, M.Sc

 

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Self interview: Career planning

I was recently the subject of an interview for a social media campaign about the people in the Faculty of Science. I will be featured as one for the graduate students that make up the Physics&Astronomy department. During the interview I was forced to think about myself, my motivations, and what I hope to do in the future. The interview ended and I found myself unusually keen on continuing this self exploration, particularly regarding what I hope to do when I graduate. The interview format seemed particularly useful for collecting my thoughts in a systematic way, so I decided to interview myself.

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The following is a transcript of an interview with Adam Fortais. The interview took place on January 22nd in an undisclosed location. 

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Adam (A): What the hell… where am…

Interviewer (I): We will be asking the questions.

A: Who is “we”, and jeeze, can you get that light out of my face?

I: State your name, age, and occupation.

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A: Ok ok. Adam Fortais, 27, graduate student in physics at McMaster.

I: Do you like it?

A: Grad school? … yes…?

I: Are you unsure?

A: No! No, I like it! This is just very strange… Yeah, I like grad school just fine. I mean, it’s not where I want to be forever, but it’s definitely good for now.

I: Where do you want to be then, in say, five years?

A: Is this some sort of interview?

I: Answer the question.

A: I don’t know! I guess I assumed I would figure that out by ruling out things I don’t want to do, but the closer I get to graduating, the more options there seem to be.

I: What have you ruled out, then?

A: I think I can say that I don’t intend on pursuing my own academic research group. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to work at a university, I just don’t think I want to run a research program in academia.

I: Are you concerned getting a PhD in physics is only going to prepare you for that job though?

A: A little bit, sure. But I have been trying to diversify and get a bit more experience outside of standard academic work.

I: Elaborate.

A: Sure, but seriously, is this light in my face really necessary?

I: …

A: Fine. Well, I started looking into what being a science journalist entails. That seems pretty attractive. So this year I started blogging again. I’ve kind of always kept a blog, but I never thought about it as anything that would be useful professionally.

I: And how have you been using it professionally?

A: This was more so last summer, but I started writing some general interest science articles. I researched something I thought would demonstrate some interesting science, and tried to present the information for a non-scientific audience. However, I started to recognize this was less science journalism and more #ScienceCommunication.

I: I believe you mean “hashtag”, and not “pound sign”.

A: You do, do you?

I: Ye… Tell me what you think #ScienceCommunication is.

A: So… Yeah, good question. I

I: Thank you.

A: … yeah. So it’s tough to pin down because I think it covers a lot of different things. I think I would start by pointing out some people I’d consider science communicators. People like Neil Degrasse Tyson, Chris Hadfield, Al Gore, or Bill Nye – these are science communicators. That might give you a sense of what #SciComm is, but it doesn’t really answer the question. And I think the fact that it’s hard to pin down is kind of exciting!

I: Hard to pin down because it’s not really a job.

A: Right.

I: Because it’s more like a component of different jobs?

A: Right. I think.

I: Ok, fine. So what do you picture a job involving #scicomm looking like?

A: Good question!

I: Thank you.

A: … well that’s just it. I know what I want my job to involve but I don’t really know what that job is.

I: List the qualities you want it to have.

A: I want to constantly be learning. I think I could dig in and find almost anything interesting, but I also value being able to learn about a wide range of things. I know people won’t pay me to go around learning things, I know I have to be able to package what I learn in some way and sell it. So I guess what I want is to a) acquire lots of diverse knowledge, and b) package this information into a useful format for others.

I: So you want to do research, but not too much research, and also teach, but not teach the same thing over and over.

A: Yes!

I: This sounds like a consultant or a science adviser. Maybe for government or something.

A: Or a podcaster!

I: Or a journalist for a news outlet.

A: Or a youtube star!

I: …

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A: I am kidding. But a content creator, like someone who works on podcasts and videos. That could be cool! It certainly would scratch my creative “itch”.

I: Yes, but you should really consider job security. Journalism is already fairly risky, you’ll likely be working freelance mostly, which means you probably aren’t looking at any sort of benefits or a steady paycheck. But hey, tell me about this “itch”.

A: Who are yah’, my doctah? Ba-dum

I: Tsh. Answer the question.

A: Yeah! I do all sorts of creative stuff! I like music and art. I’ve been doing some creative writing. I guess you could call me a polymath or renaissance man!

I: Don’t ever say that to anyone, ever again.

A: Yeah, it felt pretty gross coming out of my mouth. None of this leaves this room, right?

I: …

A: Well, from all the non-technical writing and reading I did in 2018, I’ve really been getting joy out of creative writing. I’ve been having fun working on some short stories and poetry and photo-zines.

I: Can I see some of your work?

A: This sort of counts, doesn’t it?

I: So what, are you saying you might also want to leave science to become a writer?

A: No, no, I am very satisfied having creative writing as a hobby, but I do feel it has helped me with crafting narratives. I think that’s an important part of journalism or communicating ideas in an interesting way.

I: Sure, makes sense.

A: Hey, so, I’d really like to know who you are, where I am, and what’s the deal with all of this?

I: Wouldn’t we all.

A: Hey! Wait, come back! I didn’t get to tell you about my idea for a cafe/bar/makerspace/bike-record-print shop! I’m pretty serious about it! I think it would be really cool!

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At this point in the tape, a door opens and closes, as if the interrogator has left the room. Adam calls out, asking if there is anyone in the room, and if he can leave. After approximately two minutes of silence, the lamp clicks off and Adam presumably sits quietly in the dark room. The rest of the tape consists of gentle breathing and the occasional cough.

Exhaustion 1/n

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I’m tired and am staring at this screen like it’s a window.

About two weeks ago I experienced a particularly low period. Some days I was sleeping nearly 12 hours, but could have slept more. There is a line you can cross where the sleep becomes more exhausting than restful. I managed to do the few tasks required keep my life on track, but anything beyond that was non-trivial.

I’ve since come out of that low, but I find I’m drained.

Part of pulling myself out of the hole involved sticking to a schedule. If I was going to sleep for 12 hours, it would be at night, in one shot. No afternoon naps. It’s too easy to fall into the pattern of sleeping all day and being restless all night.

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If I choose to keep the door closed, my office can be quite private. Even if all I could manage during the day was to answer emails, I could do it from my office – ensuring I left the house a little bit each day while the sun was out.

The narrow windows of my office face North, staring at the frosted gray of the nuclear reactor. But if you prefer, there is a sliver of window that just catches the periodic flow of students moving between classes.

Through repetition, these things required less and less mental energy to perform. If I can keep a schedule during a low period, I can limit how much it affects me. It’s like when I used to do bike races; you would eventually hit rough patches, but you needed to keep pedaling. And when you finally felt good, you needed to keep pedaling.

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Despite feeling much better, I still find it hard to motivate myself to do work or focus on anything one thing. Instead of throwing myself into my graduate work, my mind wanders to anything but that. I find myself sitting in front of windows. I’m not looking at anything in particular, so long as whatever I’m looking at isn’t where I am right now.

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This is different from what I was feeling before, and I don’t know how to push through it. Last week I tried letting my mind wander and indulging in a few short work days and some crafting (this week I carved rubber stamps). I tried spending time with friends (in Toronto on Saturday to see my friend’s band, Boonie). I tried spending time with family (watching my mom curl one afternoon with my dad)…

I don’t know. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt like this and I’m sure it won’t be the last. If I could force myself out of this slump I would. But right now, staring out the window is the only thing I want to do.

A Misuse of HDR in LA

I have been playing with Pro HDR Camera – an app that lets you take HDR images…

Which are High Dynamic Range images. The technique uses several images (usually three) with different exposures and combines them to maximize the dynamic range of your photos. For example, taking a picture of your friend sitting in the shade on a sunny day with one exposure may result in good detail of the bright scenery around them but a too-dark subject, or a well-defined subject but a washed out background. HDR let’s you take both of those images and intelligently splice the best parts together.

That is the intended use at least.

In LA I abused the HDR app to try and capture fast-moving scenes. The result is ghostly scenes of semi-transparent objects and blended backgrounds. Hard to control, but very fun!

I tried some fairly extreme post-processing as well. The first two in the sequences are the processed images, the third is the original. The idea of the first was to make it “pop”, and the second was to emphasize the spookiness of the technique.

The Official APS March Meeting Coffee Ranking

Coffee is to a physics conference as beer is to a hockey game. While some patrons want quantity over quality, I would prefer to relish my coffee. I want to fall in love with my coffee. I want a coffee I could bring home to Mom. But hey, you do you. I just want to help. I will rate and review as many coffees as possible and report my findings daily.

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Thursday

8) Verve Coffee – pour over – $4.00

Taste: 10/10

Price: 4/10

This is the only true specialty coffee shop I’ve found so far. With that in mind, the coffee was incredible, and they had many beans available for sale. But with that, comes a greater price. This is exactly what I wanted, but it may not be for the average coffee drinker. I would highly recommend for the specialty coffee enthusiast but if you just like a good cup and don’t want to think too much about it, don’t bother.

Wednesday

7) Impresso – Americano – $3.00

Taste: 9/10

Price: 7/10

Ding ding ding! We have a winner. The first coffee I was truly impresso’d with. Another shop that doesn’t seem too concerned with bean specifics, but I can tell you their Americano was appropriately dark and chocolatey. If anything, maybe it was a bit dilute for my tastes, but at this point I’m splitting hairs. Worth the trip.

Tuesday

4) Philz Coffee – pour over – $3.50
Taste: 8/10
Price: 6/10

I have to thank the March Meeting staff for this recommendation. Philz is a 5-10 minute walk from the conference center and is worth the trip. They offer a large selection of coffees sorted into “dark, medium, light, and decaf” designations. It appears all coffees are pour-over, made to order which is fine by me. Flavor notes of all varieties are listed, but place of origin or bean varietal is not. I ordered the “New Manhattan”, a light roast that was marketed as having notes of cherry and citrus. I disagree with the citrus, but as the cup cooled the cherry flavor become more obvious. I would predominantly call this a floral coffee – one of those light roasts that more resembles tea than a deep, bold Americano. If I were guessing origin, I would say likely a blend, but maybe Ethiopian? A generous small will run you $3.50 which seems to be approximately the sweet spot of prices in LA. I would highly recommend the trip.

Philz wasn’t the prettiest shop I’d ever seen, but the graffiti on the other side of the road was nice.

5) Cow Cafe – drip coffee – $3

Taste: 8/10

Price: 7/10

Wow, APS Meeting staff know their stuff. Cow Cafe was a 5 minute walk from the center and had some nice fresh food as well (grilled halloumi sandwich anyone?) As for the coffee… In short, very satisfied. Unfortunately their espresso machine was broken which meant they only had drip. Luckily, they really nailed their drip! Another blend, this time two South American varietals. The end result was a smooth, sweet, slightly chocolatey medium roast. Very easy drinking, no bitterness at all. I highly recommend going for lunch. My only criticism is not calling it a Calfe.

6) Kaffebaren – Americano – $3.00

Taste: 7/10

Price: 7/10

Another completely fine Americano… What I’m starting to find is that the “third wave” gourmet coffee culture I’m used to in Hamilton might not be as big here. I’m still getting fairly confused looks when I ask what kind of coffee they’re brewing. All have been blends, none could tell me much about the roasters they buy from. Don’t get me wrong, there is no problem with this, but it certainly makes for a dull adventure. Kaffebaren was a very cool looking cafe/bar (who woulda guessed?) in the fashion district. In fact, on my walk there I saw three independent photo shoots happening. As for the cafe itself – they boasted 63 beers on tap, which seems hard to believe. No taps were visible, so I assume they are in the back or something. I would not make the trip again for the coffee (it was very average, nothing about it stood out) but I would come back for the beer.

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I think that’s all I can handle today. This afternoon became quite warm. If this keeps up I may have to switch to iced coffee…

Monday

1) InterContinental hotel, downtown LA – Americano – $4.75

Taste: 6/10

Price: 2/10

A totally reasonable coffee at a fairly unreasonable price. No real discernable flavor notes, just a standard dark roast you would expect from a chain, but without the burnt taste. Good coffee to water ratio. Very poor for the cost. Skip it.

2) APS Limited Edition 9:30-10:00 – batch brew – free

Taste: 4/10

Price: 10/10

It’s free, and it’s right outside the session you’re in. I would never accuse it of being “good”, but strong and it’s free. However, it’s only available for 30 minutes a day. How’s that for a “micro-lot” coffee?

3) COFFEE (Taste of LA, main lobby of conference center) – Americano – $3.00

Taste: 7.5/10

Price: 6.5/10

The first coffee I can honestly recommend. The price is what one would expect to pay in Canadian dollars, which suggests to me it is slightly inflated. Regardless, a solid dark roast, minimal burnt taste. Well extracted shot, not particularly bitter. No real “sweetness” or interesting flavor notes, but a solid, classic “espresso”.

All right, I’m jittery and feel a little sick. Back tomorrow with more data.