Reading The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish and Prosper in the Digital Age gave me a glimpse into the world of full-time magazine writing – a world which I may never enter but still view with enthusiasm and curiosity. 

Science journalists spend their lives digging through the mud of news content, research articles, conversations and experiences for gems – ideas that, when polished into queries, will capture the attention of editors. Some journalists even spend their vacations building the background structures of local stories.

Science journalists look for ideas and polish them. Photo Credit: bored-now via Compfight cc

A science article may start with a very rough idea that needs extensive polishing. Sometimes, just a sparkle or flash indicates the value of the query within. A query e-mail cannot be simply a discussion of a topic – it needs a newsworthy angle and some exploration of the potential arc of the story.

As journalists explore their subject matter, they use audio and visual tools to record their surroundings. These tools may include tape recorders, cameras and note-taking equipment. Part of their work during interviews is to capture the context of the stories – personal details, local color, and other highlights that give stories personality and depth.

When science journalists are ready to build their story lines, they use a range of newswriting structures. One of the structures is called a “layer cake” because it alternates between scenes and their context. Putting together a story is an intuitive and experimental process similar to assembling an artistic or architectural model.

Architectural model
Putting together a story is like constructing a 3-D model or artwork. Photo Credit: Al_HikesAZ via Compfight cc

On reading the handbook, I resolved to include more concrete details in the stories I produce. My experiments with visual descriptions have turned out well in the past. Both with print stories and multimedia, I see the process of journalism as being like creating a three-dimensional piece of art – adding some elements, removing others, and seeing how the structure hangs together.

Midwest Energy News recently mentioned a quirky art project sponsored by Commonwealth Edison, an Illinois electric utility. To promote its refrigerator recycling program, the utility paid artists to take its message to the streets by recycling refrigerators.

The reworked refrigerators were on display in Chicago on Michigan Avenue during the summer of 2012. The photos below are from a Fast Company slide show.

Dream Engine Refrigerator Sculpture
Dream Engine refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)
Fridge Pic refrigerator sculpture
Fridge Pic refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)



Camperator refrigerator sculpture
Camperator refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)

To see photos of the other redesigned refrigerators, check out this article from Commonwealth Edison.

If you saw a fridge like this sitting in the middle of the street, would it make you think about recycling your own refrigerator? Would you have to read the plaque to realize what it was?

This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

What is shibui? It’s a Japanese aesthetic quality described by Wikipedia as a combination of qualities including simplicity, modesty, silence, naturalness, everydayness and imperfection. Objects that display shibui may be functional art. They often have gray mixed into their coloring. People can also show shibui qualities in their character or behavior. For example, someone who contributes to the success of a group without self-promoting is behaving in a shibui way.

In the world of social media, there is a shortage of shibui. We are surrounded by voices clamoring for attention. Some organizations advocate creating memes and telling stories to break through the noise. Many marketers use a “hard sell” approach in which they repost content often or email audiences many times. I’ve been advised by marketing professionals more than once to send similar emails to people five times to get their attention.

Branding is the hammer behind the nail of marketing. Personal brands are like armor, both asserting and disguising the identity of the professionals behind them. I’ve written about the flaws of personal branding here before – including how creating a personal brand can be challenging for people from underrepresented groups.

In this noisy and overly assertive climate, some shibui would help diffuse the pressure. Here are some thoughts on how qualities of shibui can alter the climate of heavy self-promotion that seems to be so common in social media and communications in the northeastern United States.

Simplicity is underrated in some circles. But describing things clearly, accurately and straightforwardly breaks down many communication barriers. Simplicity can help one reach audiences of different class, work and educational backgrounds. It can also help media-saturated readers relax and focus on the essential information one’s trying to communicate. In recent years, web designers have gravitated toward simple, unobtrusive layouts; writers can do the same with their copy.

Silence is a very intriguing tool for communicators. Pausing while conducting an interview can lead to unexpected revelations. Choosing what to leave unsaid is part of a journalist’s craft; these choices can make or break an article. For content curators, choosing what to omit is as important as choosing what to include. Advertisers are aware of the power of these qualities and sometimes leave their audiences guessing on purpose. Taking time to listen and watch what others are doing is important for social media managers.

Modesty, everydayness and naturalness are qualities that can win respect but are often ignored in high-visibility fields. Many people view salespeople and publicists with mistrust because they believe there is a lack of authenticity in their communication. In some cultures and fields, there is a real distrust of salesmanship. I grew up around many people who were influenced by Mexican culture. They told me modesty was valued relatively highly in their families and social circles. In environmentalist social circles, many people mistrust artificiality and self-promotion too. Eco-friendly product marketing often addresses this preference.

Imperfection is powerful. It can humanize people and organizations. Being able to admit flaws, apologize and learn from one’s mistakes can help one build real relationships. Brene Brown has written about how vulnerability and taking risks can make people more empowered. But in high-visibility professions, there can be immense pressure in the other direction – pressure to be perfect, have all the answers, and never have a bad hair day. Media can exacerbate this pressure. It’s impossible for a famous person – even a talented and well-known marketer – to look perfect to everyone. Striving for an illusion of flawlessness reduces one’s ability to connect with people on a human, healthy and real level. When personal branding is based on creating illusions of perfection, it contributes to this problem.

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to be authentic in how I use media and mass communication. This is difficult; there are many pressures in the other direction. But I believe that, in the end, respectful honesty can build credibility and relationships. High-pressure marketing and personal branding can have the opposite effect.

Shibui can empower people and organizations to communicate clearly and sincerely.

The Boston Foundation launched a new resource for community organizations and media on November 27 – the Boston Indicators Project website. The site now contains data visualization tools, thanks to a collaboration with the Institute for Visualization and Perception Research at UMass Lowell.

“Data and reports alone do not produce change,” said Charlotte Kahn, Senior Director of the Boston Indicators Project. To create change, data must lead to action. And community organizations can use data to illuminate the challenges they face.

One way the Boston Indicators Project website helps nonprofits build momentum for social action is by giving communicators the visual tools to tell strong stories to reporters.

“Data is the new sexy,” said John Davidow, Executive Editor at WBUR. Davidow participated in a panel of journalists who described the ways they wanted to use community data to tell stories about poverty, unemployment and crime.

If data-based stories look sexy to journalists, nonprofits in the Boston area can easily leverage this website to earn media attention for their work – much of which happens under the radar of the press.

The website covers 10 sectors: Civic Vitality, Cultural Life & the Arts, Economy, Education, Environment & Energy, Health, Housing, Public Safety, Technology and Transportation. Nonprofits working in any of these areas can download data from the site and use them for media outreach.

For example, the map of pollution hazards below might be useful to advocacy organizations. The color red indicates the highest concentration of sites while white shows the lowest concentration.

Environmental justice map
A map of environmental hazards in the Boston area. (Data source: Metropolitan Area Planning Commission)

There are many ways to present the data you want – once you have found them. Rahul Bhargava, a research specialist from the MIT Center for Civic Media, spoke about visualization techniques during one of the PechaKucha talks at the launch. He described using evocative images, annotated graphs, physical models, and community-created art. He also mentioned software such as Wordle, Taxego, Prezi and Omnigraphsketcher.

Communication with media can and should go beyond press releases. Community-created art projects and physical models of data may attract reporters’ attention and build support for nonprofits’ work. Even a flash mob could illuminate statistics from the Boston Indicators Project.

The UMass Lowell team which developed the visualizations for the Boston Indicators Project is also collaborating with organizations in other cities. For more information about mapping projects outside Boston, visit

Note: Although you can download all of the data sets from the Boston Indicators Project website into Excel currently, not all of the visualization pages are working yet.

This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

Where can you see a poet reading her work underneath a gray sedan? Tonight, Wayne’s World of Automotive Services in Beverly, Massachusetts hosted a reading where poets stood at a podium underneath an auto lift, surrounded by tools and fluorescent lights.

Colleen Michaels
When she isn’t standing underneath cars, Colleen Michaels teaches writing at the Montserrat College of Art.

The event was part of the Improbable Places Poetry Tour, a rotating performance night which has also visited a bike shop, a tattoo parlor, a swimming pool, a roller skating rink, and other locations. In each setting, the poets set up shop for one night, surrounded by a cheerful audience and a cameraman from Beverly Community Access Media.

Poetry reading at Wayne's World of Automotive Services
A red light from a passing emergency van illuminated the poetry reading.

What’s poetic about cars? One might ask. In the red light of passing tow trucks and emergency vehicles, the audience heard how cars become part of one’s family and one’s life story. One poet even said her dress matched her father’s car. It was clear that cars are objects of affection to which we ascribe personalities. We also associate cars with being teenagers. Each generation remembers different cars and knows what it feels like to drive them.

The language of cars – “revved up,” “full throttle,” “shifting gears” – permeates American vocabulary the same way sports metaphors echo down the halls of Midwestern businesses. Like sports, cars are one of our central metaphors. When we play the game of life, cars are always by our side.

Wayne's World of Automotive Services
The poetry reading took place next to mechanics’ uniforms, toolboxes and an American flag.

Every day, we are surrounded by cars. Some of us evaluate strangers based on their car choices. When we meet a new person on the highway, we see the car he or she is driving, not the person at the wheel. Many of us depend on cars continually, driving for even short errands.

So it’s not surprising that we feel symbiotic with our cars. Hearing poets describe their relationships to cars tonight cemented that awareness for me.

An audio clip I recorded while listening to a poet named J.D. expresses this sentiment in one concise line:

“We were baptized in grease.”

Electronic waste often ends up in places where it isn’t appreciated. Sometimes, it ends its life cycle in fiery pits in China and other countries. MIT students have tracked urban trash and found that e-waste ends up in all kinds of unexpected spots.

Today, Electronics Takeback Coalition posted photos of another possible destination for our computer chips: an art exhibit in Berlin, Germany. At the Electronics Goes Green 2012+ conference, artists Muharrem Batman, Ayse Batman and Judith Brun displayed these gorgeous compositions of resistors, plugs, circuit boards, connectors, wires and other electronic fragments.

Electronic Sculpture 1

Electronic Sculpture 2

Electronic Sculpture 3

I paid for part of my college education by building electronics. During my first year working at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s physics department, I thought the colors of resistors were attractive. I brought some of the discarded resistors home to add to art projects, but never figured out what I wanted to do with them.

Since then, I’ve seen electronics recycled in many ways – as jewelry, business card holders, bookmarks, coasters and clipboards. But the artwork above is the most inventive reuse of electronics I’ve found yet.

Cuff links made out of circuit boards

Have you seen any interesting reuses of electronic scraps? If so, what were they?

It takes an artistic eye to look at an ordinary wall and see potential spaces for art in the fissures between the bricks. Some artists see the blank spaces between objects as zones where new ideas can emerge. M.C. Escher used white space as a central part of his artwork.

Now, in cities around the world, artists are using plastic bricks to fill in empty spaces and “patch” broken walls and monuments. These “dispatchers” have collected their handiwork on a website which includes their manifesto:

I don’t enjoy living in dull and grey cities. Do you? Have you noticed that toys for kids are generally very shiny and colorful? I wonder why that is, given that they are to be brought up to live in mostly dull and gray cities as adults. Since I lived in many of such cities, I am seeking to improve the appearance of public spaces in different ways, in terms of what I consider improvement. Dispatchwork aims to seal fissures in broken walls worldwide, completing the material compilation in urban constructing and adding color to the urban greyscales.

Like Buddhist sand mandalas, the repairs are intended to be temporary. Because the plastic will end up in our water systems eventually, I’d like to see this group experiment with biodegradable LEGOs. Unfortunately, the only biodegradable LEGO-style bricks that exist are a dull shade of brown. Only their scent is attractive; apparently, they smell like green tea.

Since living in Chicago, I have been interested in art projects that reclaim damaged parts of city landscapes. There are many ways to introduce art into cities, including turning vacant lots into parks and yarn bombing.

I participated in a Dispatchers project in Beverly, Massachusetts this weekend. We decorated the entrance of a graffiti-covered building with LEGO-shaped stickers.

A Dispatchers event in Beverly, MA.
Dispatchers standing next to an entrance covered with LEGO-style stickers.

We also inserted LEGOs into the foundation of a building at the Montserrat College of Art, as well as some other buildings including the Unitarian church on Cabot Street. We used friction and a small amount of silicone caulk to hold the LEGOs in place.

Inserting Lego bricks into the foundation of the Montserrat art school's Hardie Building
Inserting LEGO bricks into the foundation of the Montserrat College of Art’s Hardie Building.

Curious about whether Dispatchers have been at work in your city? Explore the Dispatchwork website for more details and photos of the installations. Many of the installations are in Europe, but some are in Asia, the Middle East, and North America.

Leatherback sea turtles are tough, but waterborne plastic can kill them. See Turtles, a nonprofit organization, says “hundreds of thousands of sea turtles… die each year from ocean pollution and ingestion or entanglement in marine debris.” Many of these pieces of plastic come from landfills.

To show passersby how plastic threatens leatherback turtles’ survival, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation is getting ready for the Revere Beach National Sand Sculpting Festival next week by making a wire sculpture of a leatherback turtle. I helped to build the turtle’s flippers and head this afternoon today in a back yard in Revere.

Leatherback turtle sculpture
Leatherback turtle sculpture. Photo credit: Matthew Nash.

At the festival, Visitor Services Supervisor Matthew Nash will invite people to pick up plastic trash from the beach and use it to decorate the turtle’s wire structure. At the end of the festival, he expects, the turtle will be covered with pieces of plastic. Each piece of plastic the visitors retrieve will reduce the beach refuse that turtles – or other animals and birds – might ingest.

When they aren’t dining on dangerous plastic debris, leatherback turtles are very tough. Their range extends all the way to northern Canada; they don’t object to cold weather. Their shells are made of flexible pieces which help them decompress when they are surfacing from deep water. A medium-sized leatherback turtle is about six feet long.

There are many intersections between dance, health and the environment.

Dance can raise awareness of environmental disasters. This article from the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media links to a video of dancers from the Pacific islands of Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tokelau performing “Water Is Rising.” This performance toured the United States and made a stop in Boston at the Museum of Science.

These three islands are at the epicenter of climate change since they are only a few feet above sea level. Situated on coral formations, they will be the first inhabited islands to be submerged by climate change’s rising seas. The tour shows the rich cultural legacy of these islands.

Global Water Dances took place worldwide last June to raise awareness of threats to freshwater supplies – including mountaintop removal and hydraulic fracking. The second set of dance performances is scheduled for 2013. Boston’s Global Water Dance was held near the Charles River in Cambridge.

No post on the Global Water Dances would be complete without video. These dances are from the Netherlands, Germany and Israel.

John Maeda spoke at the MIT Media Lab this week about how art can energize science, technology, engineering and math. The event posting says “artists and designers make information more understandable, products more desirable, and new invention possible.”

Even though I missed the talk, the event inspired me to write about visual communication and science. Visual communication’s effectiveness isn’t just smoke and mirrors. Andrew Revkin wrote a post for the New York Times Dot Earth blog on the science of engaging the whole brain. The gist of the message: multimedia and visual communication help us grasp concepts and information that we might not understand otherwise. Revkin challenges data visualization experts “to find ways to envision, literally, that vague but vital concept called public health.”

Patterns of paper pollution
Paper pollution image by J. Henry Fair

Here are some examples of eye-catching visual communication:

Visual Science depicts patterns of paper pollution

Information Is Beautiful asks why the Wall Street protesters are angry

Breathing Earth shows global warming, birth and death rates

John Kyrk animates cell biology

Keep an eye on the Information Is Beautiful contest, where designers are developing ways to show the world’s non-renewable resources in multimedia format.