Science Not Silence: Voices from the March for Science

The thinking cap photo is mine

I have a photo in this beautiful book from MIT Press! Science Not Silence celebrates last year’s March for Science with stories and photos from around the world. More than a million people came out to support science, in cities across America and around the world.

My photo is the guy in the thinking cap. Heading down to the march in Washington, DC, I didn’t know what to expect. The weather was terrible – it had rained all day. Would people even show up? But when I approached Constitution Avenue, I heard a dull roar. Crowds stretched in both directions, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol, a half-million people joyously marching, singing and chanting.

I was proud to support the cause. I’ve spent a career working with scientists, helping to communicate their achievements at The Nature Conservancy and NOAA. What makes science different than other professions is that it’s not just a job, it’s a life. You are a biologist or an oceanographer or a chemist – it’s not just something you do 9-5.

It’s inspiring to be around that kind of passion. After my NOAA experience, I wrote a novel, The Swamp, that features a meteorologist as a character. He has to send his employees home after their shifts, otherwise they would hang around the forecast office:

weather being as much an obsession as a vocation and one that they would abandon only upon death.

That’s the kind of dedication I’ve found in the sciences.

At the march, there was so much to see – women dressed as Klingons, people in dinosaur suits and countless hilarious signs grown soggy from steady rain. I captured the photo of the guy in the thinking cap toward the Capitol, where the crowds began to thin. I liked his expression.

I had been out for an hour, zipping around the edges of the massive demonstration on a bright red Capital Bikeshare bike. Despite my raincoat, I was cold and wet. The thinking cap photo was one of the last I took before I left to get warm.

“Science predicted rain,” read one sign. The forecast came from a National Weather Service meteorologist, a government employee and a scientist, which must enrage the red state know-nothings who believe that they can live in some kind of lawless, free fire zone of ignorance.

The rain fell on everyone – marchers, tourists, photographers. Like science, it was non-partisan. Like science, you can deny it but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re soaked.

Science Not Silence: Voices from the March for Science Movement is available from MIT Press.

SEO for Everyone: Search Engine Optimization with Yoast

nice bikes

You can’t outsmart Google.

That said, there are simple things that you can do to improve Google’s ability to find your site. That’s called search engine optimization (SEO).

Yoast SEO is an excellent WordPress plugin for search engine optimization. Coming in free and paid versions, the free version will keep you busy for weeks while you tweak your site and learn SEO along the way. It’s better than any course, for you will learn by doing rather than dozing off in a classroom.

Yoast SEO concentrates on three main factors in search:

Keyword

What is this page about?

A keyword doesn’t have to be just a single word – it can be a phrase, the more specific the better. It’s the word or phrase that you want in your page title, description and throughout the content of your page.

For example, when I worked at the National Weather Service, one of our best-performing web pages  was on Wireless Emergency Alerts. Why did this page get so much traffic? Because it was focused on a single topic – Wireless Emergency Alerts – and repeated that keyword over and over again in an organic manner, for it was an FAQ about Wireless Emergency Alerts. Google loves FAQs.

Title

The most important decision you will make will be your page title. Imagine readers scanning down a list of search results, trying to determine if your page is relevant to their needs, with only the titles and little bit of description to help them out. You have just a few words to grab their attention – what will they be?

Your title should include your keyword, to make it as easy as possible for your customer.

Here’s a good example of a title from Capital Bikeshare. With “bikeshare” mentioned three times in the title, it’s obvious that they’ve optimized their page on the “bikeshare” search term.

Description

Think of the snippet of text nestled under the page titles in a search result. That’s the page description.

If you don’t write a description, Google will take the first text it sees on your page and put it in this field. Frequently, this is text that does not help the reader.

Here’s a company that didn’t put anything in their description field. Without a description, Google pulls text from the site’s navigation.

A good page description is a sentence or two that contains your keyword and provides additional context for readers.

SEO Belongs to You

I’ve worked on web sites my entire career. SEO is typically an afterthought, something that the coders do, metadata that is added during the publishing process.

But SEO is key to your site being found. It belongs to the writers. It belongs to you.

Keyword, title, description – if you write relevant content for these fields you’ll have done more than many sites and improve your chance of being found by customers.

Learn SEO the Yoast Way

Yoast SEO ranking screenshot

Yoast SEO will teach you how. With the plugin installed in WordPress, you’ll see a set of SEO bullets like the ones above for each post or page. Look at the analysis to see how you’re doing. You’ll get an overall ranking for your post, using a simple stoplight formula – Red, Orange, Green – with the same scale applied to the specific factors that impact search engine optimization.

Fix the errors and the red bullets turn green. It’s weirdly satisfying, like a game – the sign of a good user interface.

SEO for Everyone

What makes Yoast SEO different are its guides that are actually fun to read. Confused by one of your SEO bullets? Click on the Content Analysis Guide to learn what you’re doing wrong and how you can fix it.

With a mission of SEO for Everyone, it’s no surprise that they’ve managed to write content on search engine optimization that’s engaging and free of jargon. Even if you don’t use Yoast, their site contains information helpful to anyone, like their sections on SEO basics and small business SEO.

Search engine optimization is not a dark art. Help readers find your content by producing quality content with good keywords, titles and descriptions.

Free Library Find: Dear Committee Members

Dear Committee Members
Dear Committee Members

I let books find me. One reason I never fully embraced the Kindle is that I don’t always know what I want to read. Sure, you can find anything in the world by typing  a few letters into an e-reader but that’s not the same as aimlessly browsing titles on a Sunday afternoon.

Serendipity is what’s missing from the e-ink experience, the happy accident of stumbling upon the right novel at the right time.

In Praise of Little Free Library

Little Free Libraries are ideal for us serendipitous book browsers. Located in every neighborhood in Washington, these little boxes offer literary surprises for readers.

“Take a book, leave a book” is the motto of this nonprofit organization that fosters reading across the nation. I like to drop copies of my book, The Swamp, into Little Free Libraries in DC.

And I almost always find something interesting to take home with me.

The nicest Little Free Library in Washington is located at the top of a hill in Kalorama. Just a block from witless Jared and Ivanka, this bookish outpost is in a park, and offers a sunny bench to read your discoveries as dogs bark and children play.

Dear Committee Members

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher was a free library find, a book I pulled from the box like literary treasure.

The novel is a hilarious satire of academic life told through the endless letters of recommendation that Professor Jason Fitger is forced to write for students and colleagues. Each letter is inventive and unique; combined they tell a story of budget cuts, romantic humiliation and creative failure. Schumacher’s wry, ironic style reminded me of David Lodge, who satirized academic life in forgotten classics such as Small World.

Free is a powerful attractor, drawing you to things you might never consider. But the world is full of free things to read.

Selecting a book is an investment of time, not money.

You never know what you’ll find in the free library – biology textbooks, romance novels, books by unknown authors. Finding something worthwhile, like Dear Committee Members, feels like an achievement, not just because you discovered something great, but also for participating in the great reading experiment that is the Little Free Library.

Letter from Washington: The Jericho Protest

The Jericho Protest

Small acts of rebellion, like the Jericho Protest, serve to remind others that they’re not alone.

On Sunday mornings, I like to go for coffee at Peet’s by the White House. Located on a sunny corner, it’s a good place to write in the quiet moments just after dawn. Inside, it’s usually just me, Secret Service agents taking a break and the odd jogger.

One of those odd joggers is the man from the Jericho Protest. I saw him a couple months ago. A runner with a vuvuzela. He stopped in front of 1600 Pennsylvania, blew his horn, and jogged off. Clearly, it was his Sunday morning routine.

So, when I saw a person with a horn in front of Peet’s, I had to stop and get his photo. He does seven laps around the White House, blowing his horn on each circuit, just like the Jericho legend.

The plaza in front of the White House is blocked off to cars. Located at the intersection of two major bike lanes, it’s the Mixing Bowl of #BikeDC. If you bike in this city, and are going east-west or north-south, it’s hard to avoid the Trumpian residence.

How do you respond?

Some go out of their way, not wanting to be reminded of the figure in the White House.

Others incorporate protest into their daily routine.

Flipping off the White House

There’s a cyclist who flips off the President every morning. For a while, I had the same schedule as her. I’d see her, the woman in the Ortlieb backpack, one hand held up in defiance as she pedaled by, her moment of protest for the day.

On Tyranny is a great little book on defending democracy. In it, Timothy Snyder highlights that tyranny is only possible through consent. Our actions, even small ones, matter:

The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote

Rites of resistance, from blowing a horn at the White House to flipping off the President, make a difference, for they signal to others that Americans will not give up democracy without a fight.

Weekend Read: In the Midst of Winter

In the Midst of Winter
In the Midst of Winter

My reading is guided by serendipity. I let books like In the Midst of Winter find me. Reading should never be required but something you do because you enjoy it.

One night, going through Netflix, I found Allende, a portrayal of the last hours of the Chilean president, who was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup in 1973. The Spanish title for the film is even better: Allende en su laberinto or Allende in His Labyrinth. The movie is not magic realism, despite the title, but gritty realism, as Allende single-handedly defends his revolution against nearly every other institution of the state. His loss results in decades of dictatorship.

The movie left me curious about the thin country so when I saw In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende, I had to pick it up. This new novel by the niece of Salvador Allende concerns itself with social justice. Not what’s legal, but what’s right for vulnerable people such as refugees. As a child, Isabel Allende was driven from Chile following the overthrow of her uncle.

The novel starts with a car accident on a snowy day, an incident that upends the lives of everyone involved. Richard Bowmaster, a stuffy norteamericano academic, gets drawn into the lives of Evelyn Ortega, an illegal immigrant, and Lucia Maraz, a lusty 60-something Chilean. All three are haunted by painful tragedies, their lives shaped by the loss of loved ones. Drawn together in conspiracy, they grow closer as they share the stories of their lives.

The plot is a bit of a melodrama (a mysterious body in the trunk of the car), but, after reading of how much Richard, Evelyn and Lucia have suffered, you want a happy ending. You want them to discover an invincible summer in the midst of winter, to quote Camus.

How do you respond to tragedy, from the loss of family members to the inescapable indignities of growing old? What are our obligations, beyond the law, to refugees? How do you build a just society in an age of cruel states and dictatorships?

In the Midst of Winter offers the simplest of solutions – take care of your fellow humans – a revolutionary act to counteract a world steeped in tragedy.

Where Do Book Ideas Come From? The Story of The Swamp

Perfect headline/photo from the Express #snowquester

Where do book ideas come from?

In my novel The Swamp, a drone crashes into the White House, changing the course of history forever. Where did that come from? A bad weather forecast.

The Triggering Incident

On this day in 2013, Washington was supposed to get an epic snow storm. There was a run on milk and toilet paper. The federal government shut down. The local TV channels suspended programs and went to wall-to-wall coverage. Jim Cantore from the Weather Channel even flew in to witness the snowy carnage.

And it rained. I watched it all day, waiting for it to turn to snow, but the precipitation remained persistently non-frozen. It was the city that cried snow, to quote the Washington Post Express.

Around 4 PM, I gave up and went to happy hour, walking deserted downtown streets to be the only customer at a bar. The weatherman on TV said that there was a layer of hot air over the city; it was snowing in the suburbs.

Layer of hot air…. If you’re a writer, this is one of those amusing details that you file away.

Collecting Information

Ironically, I had recently started working in communications at the National Weather Service. A few months later, I had the chance to visit the Weather Forecast Office in Sterling, the office that had issued the bum forecast.

I didn’t ask them about that. Instead, I was shown how they used computer models and data displays to customize local forecasts. I was also shown a weather balloon, which carried a radiosonde designed to transmit atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity and wind speed data.

“The Secret Service visited after we had balloon end up on the White House lawn,” a meteorologist told me. Another interesting detail, filed away.

At the same time, I was annoyed by the ever-increasing level of security theater in DC. Public spaces and parks have been stolen by the Secret Service and other agencies in the name of security. The perimeter around the White House expands ever outward, seizing Lafayette Park to the north and the Ellipse to the south, grand public spaces that are routinely closed off. This is done despite the Secret Service’s failure to prevent fence jumpers and other miscreants.

Then, in 2015, a man crashed a drone into the White House in what was described as a drunken lark. It made a mockery of security theater. How can you keep the President safe in the age of the drone? Another interesting detail.

If you’re a writer, you constantly collect information – even if you don’t realize it, filing away interesting stories and amusing incidents for future use.

Write What You Know

I had a recently finished writing a mystery novel, Murder on U Street. It’s a dark comedy in which I kill off hipsters.

For my next book, I wanted to write a satire with a political edge, like Scoop by Evelyn Waugh.

What could I write about? The image of the drone disappearing into the night stuck with me. It would be a great way to open a book.

Write what you know. What did I know? The National Weather Service had taught me about weather forecasting and government bureaucracy. I knew security theater, for I had seen places I loved locked away by fences. And I had heard enough anti-Washington sentiment to understand that a good chunk of this country wanted this city to disappear.

So, where do book ideas come from? Putting all of these thoughts together, I had my idea for The Swamp:

A meteorologist, humiliated by a bum forecast, puts a drone into the layer of hot air over DC to measure its strength. It crashes into the White House, triggering a security scare. The nation is outraged. How can we keep the President safe from drones? By moving him, and the rest of government, out of Washington.

Now, I just had to write it.

Hail Caesar! Three Books About Tyranny

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century

Three books about tyranny provide lessons for Americans about overcoming dark times.

Heavily marketed, The Storm Before the Storm is a book that I desperately wanted to like. This work of popular history about the end of the Roman Republic has so many parallels to our time – at least according to the sales copy – but the book itself is a tedious examination of the political issues before Rome became an empire. Praetors, consuls and legates come and go in a swirl of assemblies, riots and wars, a mix of similar-sounding names and titles adding to the confusion.

Rome wasn’t a democracy, but a republic, ruled by a narrow set of wealthy families jockeying for political power in a country grown wealthy from foreign conquest. The original 1%, they governed through a series of norms and traditions that became degraded with wealth and privilege. Citizenship was narrowly construed (even Italians outside Rome couldn’t be citizens) and the masses restless, seeking cheap grain for the cities and land for ex-soldiers. Failure to resolve these contradictions, and defend their sacred institutions, led to Caesar and the Roman Imperium.

Left unsatisfied by The Storm Before the Storm, when I saw Dictator sitting on a shelf at the beautiful new West End Library, I had to pick up another book about tyranny. This novel by Robert Harris, the last in a trilogy about ancient Rome, does a far better job at explaining Roman politics and the end of the Republic. His Cicero is a tragic, deeply flawed figure in a brutal age. The novel starts out beautifully, with Cicero on the run from his enemies, lucky to escape into exile. He’s lost everything. But, through his genius and dogged work, he regains his property, his stature and his reputation.

Caesar is a dangerous man who indulges Cicero – to a point. The orator, however, doesn’t know when to shut up, even after being warned by Caesar’s generals. Is this due to vanity or a genuine commitment to democratic institutions?

The most practical guide to our times is On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Early in this spare tome, Timothy Snyder, who has written extensively about the Nazi regime, makes this observation:

The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands.

Germany was a democracy, just like us, yet they fell into catastrophe. Why? It’s not just “good men doing nothing”, it’s the systematic corruption of an entire society – the media, courts, even truth itself. On Tyranny is a guide to defending democratic institutions, and this slim little book provides practical advice on how to do so, drawn from the dark history of central Europe.

Are we Rome? Are we Germany? The founders of this country studied history, and books about tyranny, so as not to repeat the errors of the past. We would do so too, if we are to prevent tyranny in our time.

Letter from Washington: The Fascist Impulse

Kids protest gun violence in front of the White House

There they were, by the hundreds. Students from local high schools who had walked out of class to protest the Florida massacre. Streaming past the White House, they chanted, “Hey hey ho ho, the NRA has got to go!”

When I got home, Facebook told me this didn’t happen. They were paid actors, according to videos posted to the site, a vicious slur coming from the social network known for distributing disinformation during the last election.

Why not? their shareholders may ask. They can monetize the traffic, selling ads against the videos, the Republic be damned. A user is a user, whether they’re an American citizen, or Russian bot.

Twitter has at least done something, purging thousands of suspect accounts, as conservatives wail that they’ve lost followers, more concerned with social media fame than their role as unwitting (or perhaps witting) agents of a foreign power.

Unlike past tragedies, the nation is not moving on from Parkland. Trump held a listening session where he needed crib notes to remind himself to be human.

But the real fireworks came that night, at the CNN Town Hall, as students pilloried the politicians that had failed to protect them from assault rifles. Senator Marco Rubio appeared, thinking he could filibuster his way out of this mess. Instead, he was confronted with angry Floridians who demanded that he stop taking contributions from the NRA. He dodged, and the crowd roared in outrage.

Conservative commenters complained that the students were disrespectful. Days earlier, these kids watched their friends get slaughtered. That they had the composure to attend the town hall and ask questions is a tribute to their generation. Their strength and unity gives me hope for the future of this country.

But right-wing pundits online wouldn’t let go of the respect issue. The Trump movement is, at its core, a fascist impulse. Make America Great Again is about respecting your betters (old white people). Throwing aside American traditions, these so-called patriots forget that this country was founded by people with a healthy disrespect for authority. America is no place for kings, and the rowdy democracy demonstrated at the CNN Town Hall was restorative and inspiring.

The kids demonstrated how you deal with Trump and his ilk: you relentlessly attack. You stay focused on the core issue (banning assault weapons) and force opponents to fight on your terms. You don’t take any shit, in other words.

After the election, liberal friends of mine tried to understand and empathize with the other side. That time is over. We all know what Trump and Republicans want now: a totalitarian state where dissent is suppressed in the name of authority. The party of Lincoln has become a fascist cult of personality enthralled by fake news. It must be destroyed if democracy is going to survive.

The kids have shown us how it’s done. Powerless, but speaking truth to power, from the streets of DC to a brightly lit town hall in Florida, enduring the endurable to build a better nation.

They’re coming to Washington next month to March for Our Lives. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

A Good Pitch: The Age of Surge

Sometimes people send me books to review; sometimes I review them. The Age of Surge is one that caught my interest.

As a writer myself, it’s an interesting approach to marketing. Based upon my previous Amazon reviews, authors have approached me to review their books. It’s almost always business books, and rarely novels or bottles of whisky. Perhaps this is because business authors are more marketing-savvy.

The email pitch was a good one:

I’m a first time author reaching out to those who love learning and reading about innovation, leadership and new ideas on reinventing companies for digital.
Your review of StrengthsFinder 2.0 is what caught my eye.  Our new book (The Age of Surge.) was written to help leaders and everyday employees take the kinds of ideas covered in StrengthsFinder 2.0 and show how to put them to work in even the most dysfunctional, “broken” companies.   I think you’ll find our book provocative and thought provoking…  you might even like it 🙂
Would you be open to reading our book if I send you a free digital copy (no strings attached)?  Obviously I’d welcome and appreciate any time you’re willing to spend leaving an honest review.

This was a good pitch for a couple of reasons:

  1. It was personalized. The email was not just a press release but a personal note that highlighted the fact that I liked a similar book. There was research behind it.
  2.  It was written in a human voice. The pitch came from the author. It was direct, concise and respectful of my time.

That said, just because it’s a good pitch doesn’t mean I’m going to review it.

I look at these books on business reinvention with a jaundiced eye – my novel Don’t Mess Up My Block satirizes the genre, following a clueless consultant who leaves disaster everywhere he goes. It’s based upon my experience seeing organizations conduct ill-conceived change initiatives.

I didn’t want to like The Age of Surge. But it is a very readable, humane look at change in the workplace from someone who operates in the real world, not the theoretical domain of management consultants. The author praises middle management – I’ve never seen that before.

So, it’s not enough to craft a catchy email. First, you have to write a great book. But to get reviewers to read your book you have to approach them with a personalized, human, relevant message. That’s a good pitch.

15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice

15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice

Donald Trump may demonize refugees but it’s impossible to look at a suffering person and not feel compassion.

That’s why photography is so important and why the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies recently hosted a panel of photojournalists and an accompanying photo exhibit.

15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice examined the impact of photojournalism and creative storytelling on policy.

But when we say policy, what really mean is people. Immigration is a policy; seeing a photo of a child saying goodbye to a deported father is heartbreaking reality.

After the photographers presented the work, a large part of the discussion centered around how to share their photos with the wider world. The set of people willing to go to JHU on a weeknight for a talk on social justice and photography is self-limiting. It was an audience sympathetic to the plight of the dispossessed.

But in an era when people can select their own reality, how do you break through the Fox News bubble?  In his work, Salwan Georges depicts a view rarely seen on network news – the Arab community of Dearborn, Michigan. These are Americans who have given their children in service to this country but their stories are rarely told. Salwan had touching photos of imams at work, not just providing religious instruction, but visiting with their congregants and even arranging marriages, a portrayal of the Muslim faith that never reaches conservative media.

Bridging this gap requires reaching out. It means that photographers and advocates must invite not just the familiar universe of liberals but also other groups, such as churches and veterans. None could look at 15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice and go away unmoved.

The Johns Hopkins photography panel was just the first of several to occur this year, leading up to Focus On the Story, a new photography festival, coming this summer.