Sabin Russell Science Writer


A Not So Good Photo of a Great Moment, in Great Light

Posted by Sabin Russell

 I wondered this morning how much better this shot of a rainbow would have been had I used a quality camera, and not just an iPhone.

I wondered how much better this shot would have been if it were taken, say, by Fred Larson, my former colleague at the San Francisco Chronicle, who like me, is now freelancing in the brave new world without big-enough newspapers.

Fred told me once that a great picture is just a combination of the right moment and the right lighting. That's the professional view, because the right equipment and the right photographer are already in place.

Which gets me to the question, can we really expect to always have the right photographers, with the right equipment, in the current environment of journalism? Not so sure about that. Read this, from yesterday's New York Times:


By the time Matt Eich entered photojournalism school in 2004, the magazine and newspaper business was already declining.

But Mr. Eich had been shooting photographs since he was a child, and when he married and had a baby during college, he stuck with photography as a career.

“I had to hit the ground running and try to make enough money to keep a roof over our heads,” he said.

Since graduation in 2008, Mr. Eich, 23, has gotten magazine assignments here and there, but “industrywide, the sentiment now, at least among my peers, is that this is not a sustainable thing,” he said. He has been supplementing magazine work with advertising and art projects, in a pastiche of ways to earn a living. “There was a path, and there isn’t anymore.”

Then there is D. Sharon Pruitt, a 40-year-old mother of six who lives on Hill Air Force Base in Utah. Ms. Pruitt’s husband is in the military, and their frequent moves meant a full-time job was not practical. But after a vacation to Hawaii in 2006, Ms. Pruitt uploaded some photos — taken with a $99 Kodak digital camera — to the site Flickr.

Since then, through her Flickr photos, she has received a contract with the stock-photography company Getty Images that gives her a monthly income when publishers or advertisers license the images. The checks are sometimes enough to take the family out to dinner, sometimes almost enough for a mortgage payment. “At the moment, it’s just great to have extra money,” she said.Mr. Eich and Ms. Pruitt illustrate the huge shake-up in photography during the last decade. Amateurs, happy to accept small checks for snapshots of children and sunsets, have increasing opportunities to make money on photos but are underpricing professional photographers and leaving them with limited career options. Professionals are also being hurt because magazines and newspapers are cutting pages or shutting altogether.

“There are very few professional photographers who, right now, are not hurting,” said Holly Stuart Hughes, editor of the magazine Photo District News.

So, that's an excerpt. I recommend the whole thing. It raises a question for me. Had I not had the iPhone, I would not have been able to share this pleasant picture of a good moment with great light on Bernal Hill this morning. And you, my one or two readers, would not have seen this. But we are going to miss something important if we trade quality for quantity in the images we use to document our lives. I miss you out there, Fred.


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California Magazine Profile of Goldman Prize’s Richard Goldman

Posted by Sabin Russell

Here is another freelance story, just published, in California Magazine  It is a profile of Richard Goldman, the San Francisco philanthropist who started the Goldman Prizes, the annual awards to environmental heroes,. The prizes are sometimes called the "Green Nobels." Cal named him Alumnus of the Year, and asked me to write the following story. Here's how it starts, with a link to the whole thing below:

The Heroes' Hero

By Sabin Russell

Alumnus of the Year Richard Goldman made it his mission to reward environmentalists

Environmental philanthropist Richard N. Goldman ’41 has saved many, many places on this earth, but perhaps the most unusual is an old Burger King at the Presidio of San Francisco, the former Army base at the north end of the city.

Boarded up and slated for demolition by the National Park Service, the fast-food joint occupied an aging Army mess hall of little historical value. Yet it offered, through its floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows, what Sunset magazine once declared “The Best View of The Golden Gate Bridge of Any Restaurant in the City.” Goldman liked the spot and arranged to lease it. In 2005, after a considerable architectural makeover, the building was transformed into the headquarters of the Richard & Rhoda Goldman Fund.

That choice of locale certainly squares with the idiosyncratic style of Richard Goldman, a lifelong Republican who supported Hillary Clinton and then Barack Obama for president. Goldman was a businessman who became a lion for the environment and a thorn in the side of oil companies.

Instead of dispensing Whoppers at the Presidio site, the organization dispenses cash—lots of it—to causes close to the heart of the 89-year-old retired insurance executive. With his late wife Rhoda H. Goldman ’45, a great-grandniece of Levi Strauss and an heir to the blue jeans fortune, the couple has given away $618 million since 1951, including $39.3 million to Cal in the past three decades. They have endowed professorships, built new facilities for athletics, and doubled the size of the Richard and Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy. In appreciation for decades of such altruism, Richard Goldman was named the Cal Alumni Association’s 2010 Alumnus of the Year ....(read the whole thing:

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Green Shoots from the Vaster Wasteland.

Posted by Sabin Russell

 Maybe as Spring arrives, there is life left in publishing. Give this a click, and stay with it. It's a gimmick. 

 It's a YouTube post that I liked, acquired via social media, and it's made of nothing but words, and the spoken voice.

Some day I'll learn how to embed the YouTube screen onto the blog page. I am slow to learn the ways... But that link will do it for now.

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Earth from Space

Posted by Sabin Russell

I like this photograph by Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, who seems to spend a lot of time on the International Space Station doing what most of us would do, looking out the window in amazement.
Why do I like this shot? Because it shows a living, active earth -- the glistening tidal flats surrounding Mont Saint-Michel in France -- where there is a mix of the natural and the human-made intersecting rather beautifully. It makes the site look like some sort of microorganism, which, from space, is what it is.
 Besides, it's our view. We paid for it.
That being said, I believe I should link to Twitterpic, which posted this from Noguchi's web site. I am new enough at this that I seemed to have failed in my first attempt, but perhaps this link will do:

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Bandaging Ileana

Posted by Sabin Russell

                One of the joys of the troubled business of journalism is to come in contact with the heroism of people who are living their day to day lives out of the spotlight. I was about to write “the heroism of ordinary people,”  but…they are extraordinary people.

                Stephanie Peralta is a single mom, and her daughter Ileana, 15 years old, knows more about life than this aging baby boomer blogger. Ileana's skin, her body’s largest organ, has betrayed her since birth, but she perseveres as if to say to the world that life is about optimism and defiance, and maybe more so when things are undeniably tough. I wrote a piece about her, and the disease she has, epidermolysis bullosa, in the Bay Area section of the Sunday New York Times.

                Epidermolysis bullosa is also an intellectual challenge for medical scientists who try to set their emotions aside while they puzzle over the genetic mechanisms that cause it. They are looking for ways to  restore a missing gene that codes for Collagen VII, the glue that keeps the rest of us neatly and painlessly packaged in an envelope of healthy tissue.

                I wrote about this disease in December, when I first heard about it, because it is a target of the taxpayer-supported California stem cell initiative. I felt then that it was such a compelling story that  it was worth a closer look. The New York Times, thankfully, offered me another opportunity to do so.

           That same compelling story had already attracted the attention of Hollywood, where skin is a more important organ than in most places on the planet. The Epidermolysis Bullosa Medical Research Foundation – started by a Piedmont, California couple, Lynn and Gary Anderson, who lost two children to EB – is now headed by Paul Joseph, a Los Angeles stockbroker, and his wife Andrea Pett-Joseph, whose six-year-old son, Brandon, has EB. Andrea is a talent manager in Los Angeles. They care about their son just as deeply as Stephanie Peralta, the unemployed single mom from Livermore, loves her daughter. EBMRF now has assets of $2 million and an advisory board listing celebrities who have been moved by the tragedy of this disease:  Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Steve Young, Gwen Stefani, and Courteney Cox-Arquette and Adam Sandler, to name a few.

                The foundation supports research, including that of Dr. Alfred Lane at Stanford. Because Dr. Lane conducts medical research on these children, the pediatrician makes a point that another Stanford physician, Dr. Anna Bruckner, provides their clinical care. He recognizes that the interests of a researcher and that of a treating physician may not always coincide. Dr. Bruckner is their caregiver and their advocate. “They have to cope with so much,” Dr. Bruckner told me. “Once you go beyond what you see…there’s a real person in there just waiting to come out.”

                Another parent-founded group DebRA (Dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa Research Association of America), in New York, raises money to educate the public and the parents of EB children about the disease. When a child is born with EB, DebRA arrives with a kit to help the deal with what has just happened to their lives. It helps to pay for the gauze bandages that are the only reliable treatment for EB. Each year, parents wrap their children in literally miles of bandages costing thousands of dollars. Here is their web site:

                Stephanie Peralta was a scared teenager when she gave birth to a daughter whose skin had sloughed off from her right calf when she was born. Stephanie had no idea she was a genetic carrier of the disease, nor did Ileana’s biological father, who played no part in their lives after the pregnancy. Stephanie has since had three other children since Ileana’s birth. None of them have EB. They are a warm and loving family, and Ileana’s biggest regret at home is that she can’t roughhouse with her siblings. It’s just too dangerous.

                Ileana visits Dr. Bruckner at Stanford on a regular basis for treatment of anemia, a common symptom of EB. Like others with severe EB, Ileana lost her nails when she was an infant, and her fingers have curved inward and partially fused.  But she can grab a pencil and write with impeccable cursive script. She can draw.

                “I’d like to try to become an artist,” she told me. “To get a job and earn money, to pay for my own phone bill, to get a car and drive it to the movies.”

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A Good Idea: Put Up or Shut Up

Posted by Sabin Russell

I have a simple formula for news. It should be new, and interesting, and important. That's why I started this blog, on March 8, 2010, with an obscure quote made in 1888 by an American astronomer no one has ever heard of. Still fresh as ever...

So I would like to draw the attention of my vast readership to something I found new, and interesting, and important. It's a New York Times Op-Ed that appeared yesterday (yes, not new, unless you haven't read it yet). It's one of the best, and shortest analyses I've seen of what ails the U.S. Senate and what can be done about it.

It's a call, believe it or not, to reinstate the filibuster -- the way it used to be. My interpretation of it is: Put Up or Shut Up.

 The piece by Barry Friedman and Andrew Martin explains that, since the 1970's, a filibuster doesn't really shut the Senate down -- it just sends a filibustered bill off on a separate track that needs 60 votes to break, while the Senate can go on doing its business. In the old style filibuster, a filibuster could shut the Senate down, as long as Mr. Smith or some other senator really thinks it is important enough to talk non-stop and shutter the doors of the World's Most Exclusive Club. No time for golf, philandering or influence-peddling. Like a lot of things that make the Senate run, the two-track system is just a rule. It's not burned into the Constitution. So the rule could be changed, and the Senate could breathe again:

"To pull this off, the Democrats need to take three steps: First, they should announce the order in which they will take up their legislative agenda. Next, they should declare that they will no longer be using dual tracking, so that the Senate will hear just one issue at a time. Finally, Democrats should require those who want to filibuster legislation or appointments to actually do so, by holding the floor, talking the issue to death and bringing everything to a halt."

Here's a link to the whole thing:

This new rule should be dedicated to Senator Jim Bunning, whose recent antics may have finally awakened lawmakers out of their stupor. It may be the best and only good thing he's done since he retired from baseball.

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