Posts Tagged ‘Edmonton Journal’

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STARS fly-along unedited

October 13, 2010

One of the most interesting things I’ve gotten to do at the Journal is to fly on a mission with STARS air ambulance. As usual, I wrote and wrote and wrote and my editors cut and cut (don’t get me wrong, I’m still happy). Here is the story that was in yesterday’s papers (and another one which was the main feature). Also check out photos from the flight in my Flickr feed on the right, several of which ended up in the paper.

This is the uncut and unedited story (not the one I submitted, but close to it).


***

If I learned just one lesson from STARS air ambulance mission #19,937, it’s this: adrenalin is overrated.

It’s 2 p.m. on a bright Saturday afternoon and I’m standing in a blue jumpsuit on the tarmac at the Edmonton City Centre Airport. The iconic red STARS 3 helicopter is in front of me, its crew on standby for another mission.

I’ve been given permission to tag along, wherever they go, however white-knuckled the destination.

The sun is already heading westward, but we’re stuck.

Nurse Deb Bowers holds an iPhone and looks ahead while listening to a consult between emergency doctor Mark MacKenzie and Camrose hospital. The option of ground ambulance is weighed, or it may not be as serious as first thought. Or it could be too late. Pilots Alan Baldwin and J. N. Armstrong sit and stand nearby, white helmets ready at their side. I ask advanced life support paramedic Mike Gradidge how long an alert typically lasts.

“Sometimes 20 to 30 minutes,” says Gradidge. “But 5 to 10 minutes, usually.”

In usual time, Bowers announces the verdict: stand down.

Approximately half of the missions flown by STARS — short for the Alberta Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society — are responses to trauma scenes: drownings, car crashes and workplace accidents. The other half are equally serious and time-dependent, but less acute: urgent patient transfers, equipment deliveries, heart attacks and strokes. The constant in every mission is a quick response. That means always being ready to wait.

“It’s like fishing,” Gradidge says as we walk back to the hanger. “That was the nibble you get before the bite.”

The fact that not every STARS mission is a highway collision, although those happen, is neatly illustrated that day. Inside the hangar, it’s all drama. STARS missions survivors — dubbed Very Important Patients — tell harrowing tales of rescue. Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA Raj Sherman, a former emergency physician who put in time with STARS, aptly sums up the critical minutes after a traumatic incident. He calls it “the golden hour of health care.“

An additional helicopter is here from Calgary to ferry media and survivors through Edmonton’s skies. On landing from a seven-minute whirl past the University and Commonwealth Stadium, I learn the crew had just repeated their earlier ritual: pre-alert, dressed and ready to go, but stood down. Another nibble.

An hour later, we finally get a bite: we’re dispatched to Two Hills to pick up an elderly female patient, struck by an autoimmune disease and in need of blood. It’s not Sherman’s golden hour, but the minutes are still precious.

***

3:57 p.m. Inside the STARS 3 helicopter.

I’m behind pilot Alan Baldwin, sitting in what would be the passenger side in a car. Paramedic Gradidge is just past a ventilator on my right,  back-to-back with co-pilot J. N. Armstrong. Gradidge and I both face nurse Bowers, who is scribbling down case notes at the back of the helicopter.

It’s an experienced crew. This is Bower’s main gig — she puts in three shifts a week — rounding out her schedule instructing 4th-year nursing students at the University of Alberta. Gradidge is a part-timer, taking four or five shifts each month in addition to a full-time managerial role with Alberta Health Services.

Like most pilots, Baldwin is full-time, though his co-pilot is actually having some fun moonlighting. When not flying, Armstrong is the head anasthesiologist for the Calgary health region. In a pinch, as has happened 15 to 20 times, he can help thread a breathing tube through a windpipe.

4:07 p.m. Lift off.

The helicopter quivers as we rise. The crew assures me, “it’s normal.”

Our first stop is two kilometres down the road at the Royal Alexandra Hospital to pick up two units of blood for the mission. It’s one of the unsung duties of STARS missions, delivering blood products or essential equipment wherever needed. Approximately every fifth mission, a physician with mission-specific training rides along.

4:17 p.m. Back in the air.

Ten minutes pass while hospital security couriers two units of blood to the hospital roof.

“We were too quick,” says Mike Gradidge. It’s less a slow response by the hospital as it is a speedy flight. Pit stops typically last only a minute or two.

A fluorescent green “handle with care” sticker marks the nondescript white cardboard box: our precious cargo. Bowers places it on the stretcher.

Up in the air, Gradidge and Bowers slip into casual banter, joking about the trials of working together and the joys of raising teens. They’ve been through a lot together in 14 years. Bowers recalls the night when Gradidge was in my seat, his first mission a “rough” self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Gradidge has flown 393 missions since, while Bowers is on her 630th flight.

We pass over Elk Island National Park, where a few trees are still holding onto yellow leaves. Near the end of the flight, Baldwin spots a white cloud and tells us to look south. On closer view, it’s thousands of snow geese heading south for the winter.

4:48 p.m. Land at Two Hills.

Cutbacks in recent years mean Two Hills no longer maintains a hospital airstrip. The field is still pressed into service in extreme cases, but we’re assigned to a nearby airstrip where bails of hay appear to grow as we make our approach.

As the ambulance shuttles us to the hospital, Gradidge and Bowers tell me why they love their job. They tell me that in the early days, STARS paramedics and nurses were volunteers. When they began, workers received an honorarium of about $50 per shift, meaning the STARS crews were initial people who wanted to be there. The wait list to work at STARS has grown with the wages, but the crew is mostly comprised of veterans like Gradidge and Bowers, who have been there for over a decade.

Gradidge says the reasons to fly with STARS are obvious.

“It’s about an experience most people would die to get,” Gradidge says.

Bowers adds that while some of the calls are tragic, it’s amazing to just be there in a supportive role.

“I find it humbling,” Bowers says. “Sometimes it’s closure, just knowing everything was done.”

5:02 p.m. In the patient’s room.

At the hospital, Bowers is quick to talk to the patient, who is conscious, weak, and appreciative.

“Hi, I’m Deb, how are you, sweetie?”

While Gradidge takes the patient’s blood pressure, Bowers swiftly slips a blood sample from her IV and plugs it into a handheld blood metre. Hemoglobin, glucose, and other readings appear on a screen in less than 120 seconds. A staff nurse records the particular cocktail of medication filtering into the saline drip. Case details are relayed, recorded and moments later, the paramedics are lifting the patient onto the stretcher. A small dose of gravol will make the flight less nauseating for the patient. The crew packs up. I’m assigned the job of carrying the patient’s purse.

5:38 p.m. Lift off.

Before prepping the patient to receive the units of blood, Bowers checks on the patient once again. Is she cold?

There’s a discrepancy between reports: the crew calls Two Hills to ensure the medication ratios are correct. Bowers receives confirmation.

As we leave the agrarian community, combine machines create new patterns on the checkerboard landscape, leaving plumes of smoke-like dust as they harvest. But it’s sunny, and Bowers is singing a John Denver tune. “Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy….”

5:53 p.m. Another call.

The crew is put on pre-alert once again. Multiple calls happen. If there’s no patient, they may be rerouted to a more urgent call. When there’s already a patient aboard, they’ll stop at hospital first, and if necessary, refuel. Once again, we’re stood down.

5:59 p.m. Back at the Royal Alex.

The stretching carrying our patient is quickly sprung out of the back of the helicopter, down an elevator, and into a hospital room. Bowers relays the critical details to residents, adds a few more assuring words to the elderly woman, before we return to the hangar to debrief,

***

The mission over and the patient in capable hands, there’s a final chance to ask the crew about the job. The end of shift is time for the crew to fill out charts, to record details and observations for future reference. It takes up to an hour.

Bowers says team closeness is pivotal when they’ve returned from an accident. Joking and laughing throughout the day helps create a “safe place” for when things go badly. During debriefing, there’s time for the crew to talk, sometimes with a critical incident stress debriefing team, but usually just among themselves.

“We come back, we’re charting, the pilots are here because they see things, too,” says Bowers. “The really sad calls, when a child dies, we all go home together, we cry sometimes.”

On those calls, they’ll often stay on scene to support local firefighters and emergency crews, often directly touched by the trauma.

“If something horrific has happened, we’ll shut down the helicopter,” Bowers says. “Some things, there’s no human intervention that will matter, the damage has been done. At that point, we can maybe be a resource for each other.”

Gradidge says that when he began, calls weren’t as frequent. He worked just two shifts a month back then, and remembers a five month stretch in 1997 when he didn’t fly at all. Those days are over, partly because rural hospitals began to see STARS as more than just extreme cases.

“I haven’t been skunked in a long time,” Gradidge says. “One time you brought your skills, now you get your skills at STARS.”

Keeping and building those skills is partly why Gradidge still puts in shifts. No longer a front line paramedic, he gets ample opportunity to keep sharp in this part-time gig. An added benefit is the experience of a completely different type of organization. STARS is “small and quaint,” he says, in an often “huge and bureaucratic” health system. The differences keep him on his toes and make him better at both jobs.

It’s 8 p.m., and I’m ready to head home. But I’m stopped as I’m about to head out the door.

“Do you want to go to another scene?” Bowers asks.

A new crew is on hand, and I quickly grab a jumpsuit and helmet, head to the tarmac and buckle up again. In case I didn’t learn it already, I get one final lesson.

We’re stood down. Adrenalin is overrated.

bwittmeier@edmontonjournal.com

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Unclaimed Accounts: A Mathematical Interlude with Paul Erdos

October 2, 2010

Ever heard of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon?

Twenty-five years before that, there was the Erdos Number.

One of the highlights of my series on unclaimed bank accounts was a little over $2,000 in a Bank of Montreal account right by the University of Calgary. An eager Journal reader, Natasha Schiebelbein, brought this late mathematician’s account to my attention:

Math genius left unclaimed sum

At first glance, there was little to connect Erdos and the U of C. He never taught there, never lived in Canada, and was by all accounts, an itinerant. My initial thought was that Erdos had simply visited the U of C for a conference or the like, where a stipend was collected on his behalf. But I was intrigued.

Anyway, the article was a complete pleasure to write and wound up going from an anecdote of a story, to a colossal 30″ long feature (My average story is probably less than half of that).

That meant editors trimmed down some copy I was sad to see go:

  • Microsoft board member Maria Klawe, a former Edmontonian and president of Harvey Mudd College, spoke about Erdos as “everybody’s favourite weird uncle.”
  • Discussion of Erdos-Bacon numbers and “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” actually derived from the Erdos Number phenomenon.

So here, uncut and unedited, is the bottom half of the story:

It’s been nearly three decades since Guy’s last shared paper with Erdos, though he penned a pair of tributes when his friend died. Now approaching 94, Guy has since slowed down, though he still maintains office hours, grad students, researches interests, and speaking engagements.

Collaborations with Erdos remain a badge of honour in the world of mathematics, where one’s “Erdos Number” — akin to the “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” — signifies closeness of collaborations. Erdos himself was a 0, while Guy, Graham, and select few hundred are 1s, their co-authors are 2s, and so on. According to Oakland University researchers, the average mathematician has a Erdos Number of 4.65.

The idea of linking Bacon’s co-stars was actually derived from Erdos Numbers, later spawning the bizarre “Erdos-Bacon Number,” calculated by adding the two scales together.

The Erdos Number is a dangerous lure, says Graham, since scholars may be tempted to pen a paper based on a fuzzy decades-old conversation.

It’s been 14 years since his death, but Graham says the publications and collaborations are still coming.

It didn’t stop him, it only slowed him down a little,” said Graham. “I think he just published one or two papers last year.”

No spectre of doubt clouds former Edmontonian Maria Klawe’s Erdos Number. The Microsoft board member and president of the prestigious Harvey Mudd College couldn’t resist lending a few minutes in her hectic schedule to speak about “everybody’s favourite weird uncle.”

One of the wonderful about the mathematical community is that he was like their child,” said Klawe. “They embraced him, and loved him and took care of him and admired him.”

A star-struck Klawe first met Erdos as an undergraduate at the University of Alberta, where she went on to complete a PhD. She earned her Erdos Number through a graph theory paper examining a problem Erdos once posed in an Australian taxi cab. Klawe frequently gets requests to co-author papers — from aspiring students to the founder of Netflix — to land an Erdos Number of 2.

Apart from his unusual lifestyle, Erdos was also known for posing math problems with corresponding bounties. Cheques ranged from a few dollars to $25,000, proportionate to the difficulty of the problem. Guy, for instance, once won $5.

One of Graham’s ongoing duties has been to dole out cheques whenever a riddle is cracked. In the fascinating 1993 documentary, N is a Number, Erdos is a silhouette at Graham’s shoulder, signing blank cheques for future claimants. In 1998, Graham and his mathematician wife Fan Chung co-authored Erdos on Graphs, a compendium of approximately 100 unsolved problems posed in Erdos lectures. Only two have been solved in a dozen years.

As Erdos liked to say, if you hoped to earn a living by solving his problems, you’d be paid way below minimum wage,” Graham said.

Graham initially suggested the unclaimed bank account could be put toward the unsolved problems. But faced with the paperwork necessary for the claim, the money may be as difficult to grasp as one of Erdos quandaries. Not only did Erdos leave no heirs, he was not one to bother with the paper work of a will. His Wikipedia entry, which declares Graham “the (informal) administrator of solutions,” is probably insufficient for Bank of Canada criteria.

Like so many other unclaimed accounts, then, the money will most likely remain in the Bank of Canada database, a sizable bounty for an unsolvable problem, and a century-long record of a truly unique human being.

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On Horse Stories

August 5, 2010

Early in my oh-so-young journalism career, I learned a very valuable lesson: animal stories are dynamite.

I first met Pearl about an hour before her surgery.

My earliest realization of this nugget came during an internship at the Edmonton Journal in Christmas 2008. A pair of abandoned horses were found buried in snow near Renshaw mountain (west of Jasper), and a group of local volunteers from McBride, BC, worked tirelessly to free the animals.

The story had a happy ending. The horses were adopted and recently walked in McBride’s town parade. And I got an amazing clipping: an exclusive interview with the Edmonton lawyer who had left the animals during a fall trip.

That story has been with me ever since. A large number of visitors still come to my website looking for information about the case. It’s also given me a glimmer of recognition during job interviews. And one of these days, I’ll get out there and meet Belle, Sundance, and a few of the people I talked to that Christmas.

I also jump at the chance to write about animals: the passion they inspire, their connection with their owners, and how a simple story about an animal tells a lot about a community.

I’ve recently become the Journal’s crime reporter, meaning I rarely get to tackle animal stories anymore. Last week, however, I was handed another horse story. It was a fascinating one.

Pearl is a 8- or 9-year-old mare that was rescued last winter from neglected and dire conditions at a ranch near Carrot Creek. She was placed with Sherwood Park’s Rescue 100 Horses Foundation, a group that takes on horses seized by Alberta SPCA.

Pearl had a large hole in her face. We’re not sure how she got it, but the hole was substantial. You could look right into her sinus. And the group responsible for taking Pearl in and nursing her back to health raised money for surgery to fix her face.

I went out last Friday to see Pearl get the surgery to fix the wound. The day was fascinating – I had no idea what horse surgery looks like – but it’s an amazing thing. Since there was little to do but watch what was going on, I ended up shooting a video of the preparation and earliest parts of the surgery with my Canon G11 camera.


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A day in the life of a crime reporter: My new gig!

April 29, 2010

Sixteen hours after finishing my final UBC paper, I landed my first full-time journalism gig!

After May in India and June in Toronto, I’ll be returning to the Edmonton Journal as the new cop desk reporter.

For a taste of what the next year (+) of my life will be like (i.e. listening to scanners), check out Ryan Jackson’s profile of former Journal cop reporters Elise Stolte and Ryan Cormier:

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Sports journalism and public relations: The increasingly fuzzy line

April 28, 2010

An interesting discussion is happening over at one of my favourite hockey blogs, Kent Wilson’s Five Hole Fanatics, and at David Staples’s blog at the Edmonton Journal. Freelance blogger and journalist-turned-blogger both ask a key question (implicitly or explicitly): does having access to the Oilers or Flames locker rooms actually result in valuable analysis?

The answer, according to Wilson, is a decided meh.

This discussion overlaps with a case study I finished last week for my media ethics class where I talked about the somewhat incestuous relationship between sports journalists and PR. Do sports journalists (or other journalists) maintain a healthy enough distance from their subjects?

******

Sports coverage is not exactly known for its hard-hitting investigative journalism.

Katie Stein (Flickr CC)

A sports reporter, more often than not, is a curmudgeonly homer with an affection for puns and classic rock references. Occasional criticism of a local team may involve a question or two about management or coaching decisions, but that’s a rarity. Part armchair coach, part booster, sports reporters pump stories full of quotes and do what they can to keep fans watching, listening, reading.

Teams, in turn, carefully cultivate this relationship to mutual benefit. It’s rare when a sports journalist breaks a story about troubled team dynamics, but equally rare when pundits step out of line and are denied access. When CBC’s Ron Maclean was critical of the on-ice theatrics of Vancouver Canuck Alexandre Burrows, the Canucks refused interviews with CBC the next week. Such incidents are few and far between.

Beyond the obvious symbiosis, the relationship between press and professional sports is often cozier than commonly known.

An editor at the Vancouver Courier did a double take last February while attending a Canucks game. Lisa Smedman noticed Shane Foxman, the CBC TV sports reporter for Vancouver, working the jumbotron crowd, pumping up ‘Nucks fans to yell their signature, “Luuuuuuuuu.” By day, Foxman covered the team for CBC, but was moonlighting with the club as an announcer and commercial break entertainer.

She was perplexed at the apparent conflict of interest. How could he be objective in his reporting on the Canucks while essentially working in their PR department?

Smedman – a prolific science fiction and fantasy writer who has only occasionally worked as a journalist – has a bit of an outsider vantage point on the big journalism outlets. As a result, she ran with the ethical conundrum in the pages of the Courier, repeatedly indicating her discomfort with Foxman’s dual role:

Does this mean CBC news anchor Ian Hanomansing could moonlight for the Board of Trade or VANOC? Or Ron Maclean for the Leafs? Foxman does a fine job on the CBC, but shouldn’t even the appearance of a conflict of interest be a concern?

She approached the local CBC for clarification and was rebuffed. The BC news director didn’t see a conflict in the situation. There’s a clear distinction between sports and news, she was told; Foxman’s part-time gig could be positive for CBC news ratings, since a more recognizable TV personality is a better draw for local viewers.

These kinds of curious relationships are not isolated to a single broadcaster or medium. A few months after the Courier article, the Olympics offered further examples of apparent conflicts of interest. CTV reporters took flack for running lengths of the torch relay, awkwardly stepping into the story they used to only cover.

A lesser known kerfuffle happened when Tyee reporter Andrew Macleod broke a story about Jeff Lee, Olympic reporter for the Vancouver Sun. Despite his full-time assignment of covering an international event with only a slim majority of local approval, Lee collected payment for a feature article written for the IOC’s magazine. The early 2009 editions of Olympic Report featured “Feeling the Buzz” a pillowy soft feature penned by Lee which chronicled ongoing preparations for the 2010 Olympics.

Jeff Lee speaking to the Pacific Pin Club in Vancouver

To underline the point that Lee’s piece was mere advertorial, Macleod quoted Lee’s piece and mentioned IOC chief Jacques Rogge’s foreword. Despite assuming a predominantly neutral tone in the rest of the piece, and allowing plenty of space for Lee to object and inject a final word, the result is the clear allegation of a conflict of interest (and a plea for disclosure of similar conflicts):

Wrote Lee, “In the six years since that moment in Prague, the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC), with Furlong still at its helm, has continued to move mountains, if not literally then certainly figuratively.”

Corporate sponsors have brought “financial muscle” to the organization, venues have been built on time, buyers have snapped up tickets and the games include economic and cultural opportunities for indigenous people, he found.

“More importantly, Canada as a country adopted the message of the Olympic movement as a unifying force for humankind through sports.”

Doctors may be the worst patients, but journalists can clearly make for poor interviews. Lee didn’t help his case with his response. Obviously annoyed that his journalistic integrity was being called into question, Lee turned defensive and snarky. He scolded Macleod for a “bullshit” accusation of impropriety, called it a “cheap shot,” “mischief making,” and an “attack story” before the article had even been posted. In his own defense, he insisted his editors had been okay with the piece and that his relationship with VANOC was duly strained due to less than flattering coverage in the Sun. After the online article appeared, Lee popped up in the comment section, lambasting anonymous readers for not actually owning up to their criticism of his integrity.

********

These two stories had several common features. Both Foxman and Lee were called in question for using specialist knowledge to sell cheerleading services on a freelance basis. Both had the blessing of employers who didn’t believe the outside work affected their daily coverage.

The Courier and Tyee articles were also similar in construction and tone. Both were written by journalists at small media outlets criticizing senior journalists at major media organizations (with a history of trying to take on the big guys). Both invoked the opinions of “experts” who claimed there was a mild but preventable breech of trust. And both stories were framed in ways that portrayed a journalist in a conflict of interest.

But were either of these media types violating their journalistic allegiance to citizens? An interesting question with a less than obvious answer.

If you assume a covenant between journalist and the public, it seems a bit of a slam dunk. Given the choice to appear more or less ethical, it’s a no-brainer to err on the side of scruples. If the question is framed as whether or not to operate on both sides of the blurry line of press and PR? Again, slam dunk.

A mitigating factor in these stories, however, is the nature of the reporting. Because sports or entertainment reporting often involves semi-boosterism, there may be less of a public expectation of neutrality. The CBC sports reporter was singled out by Smedman partly because he works for the public broadcaster, which meant an additional set of expectations not typically demanded from other outlets. Foxman moonlights on the weekends as an announcer for the team, a local radio reporter performs the same task on weekdays. Smedman felt less of a breech of ethics for the radio persona.

But is there really much danger in sports reporters performing PR roles? Should the protection of integrity be the responsibility of the journalist or the media corporation informed about the freelance work? Smedman’s article raises these questions in another, analogous way. While it’s one thing for Foxman to plug the Canucks to paying customers, it might be different if Ian Hanomansing was working as a communications liaison for the Vancouver Board of Trade. But news anchors routinely appear as moderators or public speakers at corporate functions. When do these appearances become a violation of a public covenant? If I were to hazard a guess, I would argue that it depends on the job and the way in which the journalist presents themselves. In addition, politics seem a special case: journalists cross the line when they enter the political realm and side with a particular party. In any case, public figures run the risk of overexposure.

A second mitigating factor is the changing economic climate facing conventional journalism, means increased contract and freelance work. A sharp distinction between journalism and communications quickly disappears when you’re trying to make ends meet. In a freelance climate, journalists can see themselves not so much as truth-seeking servants of the public sphere, but as hired communicators serving the needs of corporate contract partners in exchange for a clearly delineated time and payment. The onus in freelance journalism shifts mostly to the media organization, which has to sell the integrity of its journalistic product. The public, meanwhile, increasingly must play a role in differentiating between types of information.

Regardless of whether Foxman and Lee are considered guilty of compromising their integrity, the too cozy relationship between press and sports may already be shaping the future of sports reporting. In the last five or so years, a proliferation of blogs have sprung up around most professional sports teams. Instead of relying on expensive access to athletes, legions of minimally-paid but passionate hockey bloggers rely on several advanced statistical methods of analysis which factor in possession, puck movement, chances, and quality of competition.

Communities of devoted fans form as lively discussion boards provide a high level of interaction with other passionate fans. Many assume that mainstream media (or “MSM,” that blogger’s cuss word) is too close to team machinations to provide sound feedback.

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Auld Lang Syne to the tune of Blue Moon

December 31, 2009

Happy New Year’s everybody!

The day coincides with the end of my time at the Edmonton Journal. It ended on a bit of a somber note. The death of Calgary Herald health reporter Michelle Lang, reporting in Afghanistan, hit a lot of people pretty hard. My condolences to her family and friends.

It was a week of some fun stories. On Tuesday, the paper ran my profile of a Stony Plain “dog whisperer” Sarah Pay (here’s her blog), including my own photo (eerily similar to Sarah’s shot here, of me and her dog, Winston). Yesterday, I had the double whammy of writing about the New Year’s blue moon and the Olympic torch relay route. My original blue moon story included an interview with Victoria moon-man Gary Seronik, who has a nice little blue moon entry on his website. Seronik very graciously noted he liked the piece, despite the fact he got cut out by the editors.

One more story left in the can. I’m pretty sure it’ll run this weekend. It includes my career’s first (and hopefully only) reference to the “boob fairy”!

Tues. Dec 29, Stony Plain woman targets canine-human relations

Thurs, Dec 31, Olympic torch to travel scenic route

Thurs, Dec 31, New Year’s blue moon won’t happen again until 2028

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Hey there, coffee bean

September 14, 2009

Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once posed a simple but difficult question: “Why can’t I describe the aroma of coffee?”

I think we’d get along, me and Ludwig. Especially over a cup or two of that undescribable liquid.

I’m enjoying a cup as I write this. It’s a nice, light roast made from fairly traded organic beans from El Salvador, to be precise. I’m drinking it black, foregoing my costly espresso machine for my quick and easy Aeropress machine (made by a frisbee company, I kid you not).

St. Albert home roaster Kim Thornton shows Journal photographer Rick MacWilliam his home-roasting technique

St. Albert home roaster Kim Thornton shows Journal photographer Rick MacWilliam his technique.

I woke up this morning to discover my final Edmonton Journal piece from this summer had finally appeared on the front of the City section. It’s a 24-inch feature on home roasting coffee beans, a hobby I started last year and decided to write about at the prodding of another reporter. I gained a bit of a reputation as a coffee geek this summer, looking scornfully at anyone who asked if I wanted a Tim Horton’s double-double. Instead, I brought the funny looking Aeropress and brewed the coffee right at my desk. Mmmm.

The idea to roast my own beans was seeded long ago, when I heard about someone who roasted his own beans using a popcorn popper. A little extreme, I thought. But the concept stayed with me for at least a year. I eventually came to the realization: I’m a bit extreme!

I began reading about home roasting on web forums like coffeegeek.com, where I discovered a whole world of finicky folk who write impassioned apologies about coffee equipment and techniques to improve your daily brew.

I learned that hot air poppers are actually similar to a type of coffee roasting technique known as “fluid bed roasting.” It uses convection (rather than conduction) to get the temperatures over 400 fahrenheit, necessary for an espresso roast. It’s only one of several techniques you might try, but I’m sticking by it until I achieve coffee nirvana. It’s easy and roasts prettily evenly.

I found descriptions of the ‘holy grail‘ of coffee roasting, The Poppery by West Bend. It’s the very hot air popcorn machine owned by my mother during my childhood. I went to the SPCA thrift shop and found one for $4! After a few electrical modifications, I was able to control the temperature of the hot air (Check out this page to see how people modify the machine). I added my own tin chimney (via creamed corn) and a candy thermometer. It’s not pretty, but it works.

Since last fall, I’ve been steadily improving my home roasting technique. My balcony is covered in coffee chaff, I might smell of burning beans, but the coffee’s never been better.

Wittgenstein would be proud.