Archive | July 2013

Superstitious about Sports?

Most of us dismiss superstitions as hokey hooey—except when it comes to sports.

Sure, I know the Indians won’t really perform any worse if I step out for a bathroom break in the top of the 8th inning. But I recall too many times when Tom Hamilton’s voice on the lavatory loudspeakers said we gave up yet another crucial run at just the wrong moment. So, yes, this factors into whether and when I leave the stands.

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Now a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research says sports superstitions play a role in brand loyalty—or the lack thereof. The study comes from Gita V. Johar of Columbia Business School and Eric J. Hamerman of Tulane University.

Researchers tested people’s candy bar choices during a simulated college quiz bowl game. Before the game and as their team did better, test subjects got Snickers candy bars. Then, while the game was still going on, subjects got a choice of Snickers or Kit Kat.

About half the time, people chose Snickers—even though they’d already had a lot of them. The researchers attribute the results to superstition.

“It can be stressful when you want your team to win, but can’t do anything about it,” Johar said in the Columbia Business School’s press release. “Superstition is one way that people can feel that they gain control over an uncertain situation.”

Maybe that happens subconsciously. Consciously, though, I’m fully aware that my actions don’t control what happens on the field.

It’s like author Michael Crichton wrote in Timeline: Whether I’m at a Mets-Yankees game doesn’t change the outcome.

So, maybe the timing of my breaks isn’t because I’m superstitious. Maybe I just feel more comfortable stepping out after we’ve gotten through the top of the inning, and I know the team is in good shape. Then I just have to hope our closer hangs in there for the save.

Besides, can you really compare a college quiz game to real-world baseball? I think not. And I think lots of fans rooting for the Indians, Mets, Red Sox, Rockies, and other teams will agree with me.


Low Lake Levels Raise Concerns

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

If you know me, you know I love the beach. I enjoyed playing at Long Island’s Jones Beach in the summer. My husband and I honeymooned by the Pacific Ocean. We’ve taken numerous beach vacations over the years we’ve been married. And even though I live in the Midwest now, I regularly head up to Lake Erie’s beaches to walk, to read, to picnic, or just to look out over the water.

So, you can see why press releases and webinar notices about low water levels in the Great Lakes caught my attention.

Ideally, journalists want to write stories about topics they care about. First, one needs to get enough information to see if there’s a story plus a fresh angle that others aren’t addressing. Then comes the job of pitching that story in a way that gets editors to see why readers should care about it too. So, here’s a bit of what I found out, and then I invite you to read my article in Midwest Energy News.

This past winter, Lake Michigan and Huron reached record-low water levels, says NOAA. Lake Superior is also lower than its long-term average. Lakes Erie and Ontario are near average levels.

Basically, more water is evaporating or otherwise going out of the upper Great Lakes than is coming in from precipitation and other inputs. And climate change is a big factor.

Climate change increases the likelihood for extreme weather events, such as last summer’s drought. Even slight overall warming reduces ice cover, which allows more evaporation to take place. And shallower waters can heat up faster.

To see the data for yourself, check out NOAA’s Great Lakes Interactive Dashboard.

And yes, lower water levels in the upper Great Lakes cause problems. Shore areas face threats from invasive species, and shifting shorelines alter nearshore habitats. Tourism suffers. And shipping costs rise.

Power plants face problems too, as I learned while researching my latest article for Midwest Energy News:

Low Great Lakes levels raise concerns for Midwest power plants

Low water levels in the Great Lakes pose potential operating and efficiency problems for Midwest power plants.

It’s one of several ways power plants are increasingly vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather, an issue recently highlighted in a Department of Energy report. . . .  Read more.

The bottom line: Climate’s consequences matter today—not just in some far-off future. Let’s not be left high and dry.

The Heat Is On! Now Let’s Use It

Waste energy recovery and combined heat and power save money without added pollution. Check out my latest article at Midwest Energy News:

Ohio’s waste heat potential remains largely untapped

While experts say Ohio’s industrial infrastructure offers vast opportunities for energy production from waste heat, that potential could go untapped if efforts to roll back the state’s renewable standard succeed….


Animal News Roundup

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Today’s breaking news includes a report from the Associated Press’s Scott Mayerowitz about goats at airports. San Francisco International Airport has paid $14,900 to Goats R Us. In return, nearly 400 of the family-run company’s goats grazed on brush covering part of the airport’s property.

The two-week goat gluttony fest should help prevent nearby homes from possible fires. Mowing and other methods weren’t practical because two endangered species live on the grazed areas: the California red-legged frog and the San Francisco garter snake. Fortunately for them, goats tend to be vegetarians.

In other animals news, having some blue blood helps octopods survive frigid water temperatures. A special form of a blue colored pigment, called hemocyanin, helps the Antarctic octopod Pareledone charcoti get oxygen to its blood. The research comes from Michael Oellermann, Hans Pörtner and Felix Mark at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany. They presented their study results at the Society for Experimental Biology meeting this past week.

Various marine animals in other parts of the world also have bits of blue in their blood. That’s why juvenile forms of some clams and other invertebrates have blue eyes. (Thanks to MBL and its Marine Resources Center for letting me see this firsthand by taking me and other Science Journalism Fellows out on specimen collecting trips!)

Specimen collection aboard the Gemma. Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Specimen collection aboard the Gemma. Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Last but not least, Petfinder has issued an Independence Day weekend reminder to everyone to protect their pets’ safety. Holiday celebrations are fun, but fireworks can be dangerous for both animals and people who aren’t licensed to use them. Parties and loud noises can send animals scurrying off, where they can get lost.

Also, dogs, cats, and other animals can get heat stroke just as people can. Petfinder warns folks not to leave animals in locked cars.

More generally, don’t leave your pet somewhere you wouldn’t want to be. And if you’re feeling thirsty or overly hot, chances are your pet is too.

Here’s hoping everyone stays cool and enjoys summer fun!

I Should Use Shorter Sentences

As a science writer, I often interview scientists. Experts in different fields know what the most important issues are. They understand the details. And they’re often on the front lines of research. They know what’s news.

Expert quotes add depth and insight to my writing. Expert quotes add credibility and authority.

Beyond that, expert quotes add dialogue.

Yup, you read that right. Good nonfiction should be as easy to read as fiction. That’s especially true when you’re writing for kids or the general public. The principle even applies to readers who are generally familiar with a subject. The more readable an article or book is, the more likely someone is to keep reading.

Often I’m lucky enough to talk with experts who provide lots of quotable comments. Yet sometimes getting a quotable comment is a struggle. The expert keeps reverting to jargon. Or, the expert’s comments are so qualified or convoluted, it would take ten times as many words to put them in context.  Articles’ word limits make such situations even more frustrating.

Nonetheless, scientists may be experts in their fields, but that doesn’t mean they’ve had media training or are polished public speakers. Plus, they’re doing me a favor by providing the interview.

It’s up to me, then, to keep pressing until I get something clear and quotable. It’s my job to ask clarifying questions. It’s my job to get the expert to talk to me like a 12-year-old kid, or an average mom, or the average guy on the street.

After all, I’m the writer. I’m supposed to be the expert on knowing what the article needs and how to get it.

And I need to remember that my interview subject is human. In most cases, he or she is not a pro at giving interviews. Nor has he or she usually prepared answers to my questions in advance.

I got a strong reminder about this when I was interviewed last summer for a journalism project of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.  MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station was hosting a conference of journalists and scientists on communicating about climate change. Videotaped interviews asked us to talk about the challenges, barriers, and common ground between journalists and scientists.

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

The edited videos are now up on MSU’s website. The short videos provide a good introduction to issues that journalists and scientists face in dealing with each other.

Yet my own clips also underscored that I need to do more of what I want experts to do for me. In particular, I need to use shorter sentences.

No, I hadn’t known the particular interview questions in advance. So yes, I was speaking off the cuff. Yet many people I talk with are in the same situation.

Just as scientists keep experimenting and researching, I need to keep experimenting and expanding my interview techniques. Seeing my own interview clips gives me some guidance on where I can improve.