Monday, April 29, 2013

Dear Congress — Get your filthy hands off my science

Here’s a scary tidbit: Republicans on the House science committee seem to want to have an unprecedented amount of oversight into what the National Science Foundation considers “worthwhile” when funding scientific grants.

A bill put forth by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology demands that the non-partisan foundation provide details to Congress in order to justify how it divvies up its research funding, potentially politicizing decisions how that funding is awarded in the future.

The Nation Science Foundation is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense," according to The foundation has an annual budget of about $7 billion.

Smith says that in these tough economic times, the federal government should have stronger oversight on how taxpayer dollars are being spent. That’s an incredibly valid point. Which is exactly why I want scientists deciding how scientific grants are awarded and not a financial writer-turned lawyer-turned congressman, which is exactly what Smith is.

The bill, titled the High Quality Research Act also asks the NSF to recommend how to place similar restrictions on other federal science agencies. In other words, it isn’t only good enough that Congress micromanage science, they’re looking to micromanage anything else possible, too.

For years, Republicans in Congress have been salivating at the opportunity to defund public broadcasting, in hopes of killing off that annoying Big Bird and his “liberal agenda” — you know, like teaching children not to hit, hate, pollute or waste.

I can only imagine what might happen if they get their hands on science. Coming soon to a textbook near you: How we lived alongside the dinosaurs and why God wants you to smite your neighbor.

Seriously, though, I could easily see a partisan Congress refusing to fund research on global warming, claiming the whole “phenomenon” to be a hoax. Scarily there are even members of Congress who don’t believe in evolution. Could that get the ax? What if we get a band of loonies who want to declare the earth flat?

I rely on Congress to fund government, provide some national infrastructure and keep me safe the rest of the world. If they can figure out how to do those things, I’ll consider turning to them when I have questions about science. Until then, I’ll rely on encyclopedias … and scientists.

Scott Leffler was really bad at science in school … except political science. He did okay at that. Starting next week, find his column in Friday’s paper. And please follow him on Twitter @scottleffler.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Just call me Mr. Dressup ...

That's me in the bottom right corner. Yes, it's embarrassing. But it's for a good cause. More details to come ...

Monday, April 22, 2013

We need to be careful where we get our news

I had a love-hate relationship with my profession last week.

It started with frustration over an AP photo from the Boston Marathon bombing. The photo in question showed a man in a wheelchair being wheeled away from the site of the bombing. The caption for the photo didn’t give the man’s name and that frustrated me to no end.

I thought it was very distasteful to show a closeup of a man severely injured and not take the time to get the man’s name. I was concerned for his wellbeing and had no way to find out if he was OK or not. I was fearful of using a photo of someone that may have ended up dying in the blast. I thought to do so would be classless. So I didn’t use it. In fact, none of the papers in this newsgroup used the photo — I’m happy to report.

It continued with all of the erroneous reports from — primarily — TV news saying there were more bombs than there were ... and that the suspects were caught ... and the use of photos of people that may be the suspects. One such case had the New York Post showing front-page photos of two men they said were suspects in the case. As it turns out, they were not.

The race to be first, it would seem, has replaced the need to be right for many news organizations. Just as the desire for sensationalism has replaced any semblance of decorum among many news organizations.

Another example of news-gone-awry was the alleged release of “the suspects” names via a Boston police scanner — followed by several Twitter posts with those names — followed by thousands of retweets of those posts. Within minutes the names of two men unconnected to the case went from a police scanner in Boston to the entirety of the internet due to the rapid response of social media.

Many news organizations picked up on that and used Twitter as a source of information, saying that the details came from Boston police, which Boston PD denies.

The timing was odd as just a week prior a local bank was robbed and the name of the suspect went out over the police scanner. Later that evening we got a press release from the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office about the robbery but they didn’t list the name of the suspect that had gone out over the scanner so we didn’t print it. The decision was made that it was better to be a day late on getting this person’s name out than to have the wrong name published and tarnish someone’s reputation without cause.

As it turns out, the name that went over the scanner was the same as the name of the woman they eventually arrested. But I would still make that same decision again. From my perspective, being right outweighs being first. Every time.

The 24-hour news cycle, coupled with social media has made a mess of the news.

Facebook and Twitter are certainly useful means of communication. But they’re unfiltered and should be taken with a proverbial grain of salt. They shouldn’t be used as sources for media. And they shouldn’t be confused with being vetted media. To be clear, I’m not saying that having access to the most up-to-date news is a bad thing. Not at all. But I am saying that we need to be careful to distinguish between news and supposition.

And by “we” I mean readers and reporters alike. If the mainstream media starts acting like a bunch of bloggers, that’s how we’re all going to end up.

Scott Leffler considers himself a writer with a full-time job editing. He also blogs, Facebooks, Instagrams and tweets @scottleffler.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Stupid cats ....

So there's these two cats that were - until a moment ago - sitting on the stairs in my back hallway. Apparently, the wind blew my back door open and they were just sitting there — a fact that I was made very aware of by the sound they were making. They sounded like the boy from The Grudge. It is a VERY unnerving sound ... kind of like kids crying. But creepier.

It's sound effect #2 on the YouTube video above.

Anyway ... so I opened the door and kicked them out. And now they're hanging out in my driveway — making horror story dead kid/cat sounds. And there's no friggin' way I'm getting any sleep tonight. (update) So now I'm torn between "steering into the skid" and watching The Grudge - one of the few movies which actually creeps me out - or trying to figure out a way to get that eerie sound out of my head.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The state of humanity - and journalism

I love my job. I love the people I work with. I love being in the thick of things and I love the ability to shape the world - even if only my very small corner of it.

But sometimes I despise my profession.

Monday night as I sat in the newsroom at the Lockport Journal sifting through stories about the Boston Marathon bombings and trying to find photos to epitomize the stories, I went from being upset about the bombing itself to being upset about humanity - and I don't mean upset about whatever dickwad would blow up innocents. And I don't mean upset about the fact that humanity would create such a massive douchebag.

Voyeurism is not cool. And our voyeuristic nature is sometimes absolutely repulsive.

I have a constant internal struggle with the news. I talked to my boss about it just yesterday. While he reminded me that we can be a tool for good, sometimes I'm simply reminded that we can be a tool.

Several years ago, the paper I work at now - and worked at at the time - printed a front page photo of a girl in war-torn Iraq. She was crouched down in the dirt, surrounded by destruction. Crying. It was an incredibly moving photo. Touching. It spoke more than 10,000 words could. I could feel her pain. Her suffering. In short, it was a great photo.

And I hated it.

Not only did I hate it, I was angry that it was used. Even more upset that it was used so prominently on our front page. Surely others would react like me and have an emotional reaction to the photo. Maybe it would inspire some people to buy the paper that day. And in doing so, it would increase our profit.

When we have compelling photos of accidents and fires taken by one of our freelance photographers, they undoubtedly land on the front page. 1) They're better in color. And 2) They lead to increased sales. People want to know the details of the fire or accident. I want to think it's out of concern for victims. I fear it's sheer voyeurism, though. But long story short, accident photos and fires lead to higher sales. Higher profits.

This is specifically what I talked to my boss about. The business end of tragedy. I hate the thought that my paycheck is derived - even in part - from the fact that someone got injured ... or lost their home. I hate profiting off tragedy.

What I hate even more, though, is the ugly part in humanity that leads to it. I hate the fact that we want to see these things. I wish that death and destruction sickened us - as a whole. I wish our reaction to these things was negative. I wish it led to less papers being sold. Not more.

My boss reminded me that because of the position that we have, we're able to turn these tragedies around. Print the house fire photos and then follow up with stories about ways to help the family. Print accident photos and follow up with reminders not to drink and drive or text and drive ... or whatever. Take the tragic event and publicize it as the first act in a play designed to make the world a better place.

He was right. But I'm still uneasy about it.

Back to Monday night.

As I'm scrolling through photos on the Associated Press newswire, looking for the perfect shot to accompany our front page story about the bombings, I was frustrated. Most of the photos were gruesome. They were images of people injured. Some being tended to by medical personnel. Some being wheeled away. Some just lying in the street.

One photo in particular angered me. It was a photo of a man being wheeled away from the accident scene, bloodied and battered and appearing to be missing a part of his right leg. Paraphrasing the caption that went with the photo, it said, "A man is wheeled away from the scene ..."

The photographer didn't even get his name. I was livid. I had no idea whether this guy was okay. And no way to find out. For all I knew, he was one of the three who didn't make it. And here's a photo of him to use as though he's a prop in a major motion picture. Completely dehumanized. He's just profit in a wheelchair ... "oh, and sorry about your leg."

I looked through photos for a good ten minutes - longer than usual. I wanted to find a photo that showed the scene - explained the chaos - without depicting any one person's pain. In the end, I went with a photo that I think captured that ... along with a smaller shot of a man holding his wife. I felt it was tasteful. And it allowed me to sleep last night.

Yes, something so simple as what photo runs on the cover of my paper can have a huge impact on whether I can sleep at night - literally. I take these things personally. And those who know me will tell you that I'm a very emotional person ... some might say overly emotional.

I cry during movies. I get upset at the news. I have fights with inanimate objects. (I usually win ... but not always). I believe that I "feel" deeper than most people. I think it's a curse. Others have found it endearing at times.

The TV news upset me last night, too. Same basic principle. Showing the explosions over and over from different camera angles. Interviewing people who are injured and clearly should not have a microphone stuck in their face. Round table discussions with "experts" who clearly have no idea what they're talking about. I know it's our job to bring you the news ... but when the news is tragic, do we have to be so damn glib - or worse happy - about it?

Monday, April 15, 2013

It’s a global world in which we live

Last week I lamented our provincialism — our small-mindedness, if you will.

Monday reminded us that no matter how small we might want our world to be, the world itself is shrinking all the time.

Whenever something happens in other parts of the world — and particularly other parts of the country — my first thought turns to “who do I know there?” For better or worse, my immediate concern is for those I know and love. It used to be focused primarily on natural disasters — earthquakes, power outages, blizzards and whatnot. More and more lately, it has to do with man-made disasters — terrorist plots.

So when details started to emerge Monday about bombs going off in Boston, my mental rolodex starting thinking of those I know in and around Boston — and hoping that they’re okay. I immediately checked Facebook and saw that my friends in Boston had posted that they were alright. That set my mind at ease and shifted it to my next thought — to those who weren’t okay — the dead and injured.

Like Columbine and Waco and Sandy Hook, Monday’s tragedy was the kind that tugs at heartstrings no matter any personal attachment — due to the scope and the human stories that are bound to come out into the light.

To start with, every media organization across the country will try to find a way to personalize the story — starting with notes on those we knew who were running the marathon ... and people who had lived here — wherever your here may be — but have since moved to Boston.

Barring any tragic details from “our own” emerging from Boston, we’ll focus on personal accounts of the injured and dead — to the point where we think we really did know these people.

With last week’s passing of Annette Funicello and Margaret Thatcher, I noted to myself that as I get older “celebrity” deaths seem more personal. They strike me in a way in which they didn’t when I was younger. I’ve grown to “know” these people.

Over the next several days and weeks, we’ll grow to “know” the victims of Monday’s horrible attacks. And our world will shrink just a little bit more.

Last week, I said we were all Buffalonians. This week, we’re all from Boston.

Thoughts and prayers.

Follow Scott Leffler on twitter @scottleffler.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Provincialism will be the death of us

A house divided against itself cannot stand. Lincoln knew it. Jesus knew it. It’s time for this area to figure it out.

I got a press release last week from the Buffalo International Film Festival. The subject line on the press release was “Buffalo International Film Festival is not Buffalo Niagara Film Festival.” Apparently there are two competing film festivals in the Buffalo area and they want to make sure you know that they’re not “those other guys.”

The Buffalo International Film Festival started in 2004 as an effort to promote cultural tourism through movies. Its goal was to encourage film producers to consider Western New York as a backdrop. It’s a good group ... with a good goal. They’re proud of Buffalo and they think it should be showcased to the world.

But their email was a bit snarky for my tastes — especially for a press release. The line that really caught me off guard was “Apparently the ‘City of Buffalo’ is no longer identifiable to the average person as ‘Buffalo.’ Nor is the ‘City of Niagara Falls’ a proudly identifiable city: Buffalo and Buffalo-Niagara seem to have become synonyms.”

What’s wrong with that? Why can’t we just all be Buffalo? There’s nothing wrong with being proud of being from Lockport or Pekin or the Tonawandas or Ridgeway or whatever. I was born in Lewiston. I grew up in the Town of Niagara. I live in the City of Lockport. But I’m a Buffalonian. And if you’re reading this in “one of the eight counties of Western New York,” you should be, too.

Last week Niagara County Legislator Rick Updegrove raised a stink because — at Yahoo!’s request — the company will be donating $3.5 million to the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo over the next seven years.

Updegrove said, “While I certainly appreciate the fact that Buffalo is facing its share of challenges, the reality is that we need to look at a fair and equitable disbursement of those funds so that the people of Niagara County may also benefit.”

What the majority caucus leader meant was: “There’s money. It should be all ours.”

We have free live music almost every night throughout the summer in Western New York. Lockport, Tonawanda, Lewiston, Buffalo. Free music abounds. But rather than trying to promote this unique feature of Western New York, these communities fight with each other — as if what’s prevented Tonawanda from breaking free of the recession of the 1990s is Art Park.
One of the things that prevents us from moving forward is our refusal to do it together. Rather than allowing any rising tide to lift all boats, we try to drown each other in an effort to keep our own heads above water.

I’ve never liked the phrase “Upstate New York.” I don’t remember it growing up. We were “Western New York” and in my mind we still are. I’d prefer, though, that we simply replace “Western New York” with “Buffalo.” Until we do that, we might as well be West Virginia. Or North Dakota. Or any other number of places that the rest of the world doesn’t care about.

Scott Leffler is a father, a writer and a Buffalonian. In that order. Follow his tweets @scottleffler.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Warm weather plays tricks on my mind

Now that the weather seems to have switched to spring for good (ignoring the snow on the ground Monday morning), my mind has jumped forward to all the fun things I want to do this summer.

Add in my impending income tax refund and I feel like I’ve won the lottery and just have to cash in my check. Never mind the pittance that is my tax refund is all but already spent.

With warmer weather, I start thinking about summer festivals and concerts and just doing things outside.

Last week my oldest and I got milkshakes in what I hope I hope to be a recurring theme over the course of the next several months. Milk shakes always perk things up.

Every year I create a list of things I want to do that year. And most years I have to roll several things over. The last two summers I had to roll “skydiving” into the next year. I’m hoping to actually be able to cross it off my bucket list this year.

Many people think my desire to skydive is a bit peculiar — especially when coupled with my completely rational fear of spiders. In perspective: Plunging to my death is not a concern ... but spiders freak me out.

I’d also like to run with the bulls in Pamplona. But that first requires that I get to Spain, which is a rather lofty goal since the furthest I’ve traveled away from home in the past two years is a trip to Rochester in October.

I like to travel. I miss New York City and have been jonesing for a trip to Washington DC since I was leaving the city in April of 2011. I’d also like to find my way back to Ohio this year to visit my alma mater. Haven’t been there in about a decade.

DC, NYC and Ashland, Ohio were all on my “to-do list” in 2012. And they all rolled over to 2013. Let’s hope they don’t roll over to 2014.

It’s not that there’s not a lot of fun things to do right here in Western New York. But I have always suffered from wanderlust.

Over the past couple years, I’ve really fallen in love with taking photos of everything I do. Maybe it’s due to the popularity of that hobby on the Internet. More likely it’s that my phones have had pretty decent cameras on them and as such, I always have the capability of taking cool photos in the palm of my hand.

My latest phone has a 3D camera. I thought it was gimmicky and didn’t expect to use it but have been surprised at just how cool it is. Needless to say, I have a nice collection of 3D photos now and really look forward to taking 3D photos over everything this summer.

Of course, I have to remind myself that it’s not summer yet. And my tax refund is not really comparable to lottery winnings. But the dreamer in me is excited.

Scott Leffler is a newspaper columnist and former radio talk show host. Apparently that makes him part of the problem for which positivity is the only solution. Follow his tweets @scottleffler.