Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Uncharted Meets the Geek Atlas

At heart, I suppose, I’ll always be a geek.

My best friend in high school lamented, in my presence, that he was a “geek magnet” at Bonneville High. I have a collection of rocks that look like pig noses. I tell people I work at a landfill. A radioactive landfill. A radioactive landfill where the stuff sometimes blows up or catches fire on its own. And I love my job.

But this confirms it: John Graham-Cumming, author of The Geek Atlas (available in book form here) has noticed me. Not me per se, but a video I put together a few years ago about Experimental Breeder Reactor-1, a decommissioned nuclear power plant, the first to create useful atomic power, which I pass to and from work four times a week. I posted it to’s YouTube channel and promptly forgot about it.

Now it’s featured at, coinciding with Graham-Cumming’s own visit to EBR-1, one of 128 stops “Where Science and Technology Come Alive,” as Graham-Cumming subtitles his book.

And it does. EBR-1 is, to me, a fascinating place. Atomic – now nuclear – research has always been in the background here in eastern Idaho. That I work within a mile of EBR-1, however, makes the place special to me. I love to visit the decommissioned reactor and to inhale, if briefly, the air of the heady days of atomic research when scientists were optimistically hoping to tame the atom and make electricity “too cheap to meter.” Though technology has advanced, fear of nuclear power has stalled those dreams. But it’s fun to think this little bit of Idaho history – and my video, which Graham-Cumming describes as “quirky” – are getting their moment in the sun.

You can, of course, read about Idaho’s atomic history at Uncharted, here. Enjoy.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Vomit and Speaking Engagements

On a flight home from Ohio I found myself sitting in an aisle seat next to a couple in the middle of an argument. That would be my luck. In an instant, my dreams of a pleasant uneventful and sleepy flight went down the drain.

It soon became apparent that the woman was determined never to speak with her husband again. He, however, was not willing to give up so easily. I munched on some peanuts, trying to ignore the squabble. Stuck on a plane, next to a fighting couple, eating peanuts. It could be worse.

Suddenly, the husband snatched the vomit bag out of his seat pouch.
I braced for the worst. Visions of a waterfall of nauseating liquid escaping his mouth, missing the bag, and falling onto my lap went through my mind.

But instead of spilling his guts, he took a pen and began drawing a pair of eyes and a nose on the bottom of the bag. Placing his hand inside, he turned to his wife and in a squeaky voice said, “Hello! I’m the Vomit Puppet!”

If she didn’t want to talk with him, that was fine, but surely she couldn't resist an intellectual conversation with the Vomit Puppet. This continued for most of the flight, his poor wife, doing everything she could to hide any hint of a smile all the way home.

So now, whenever I go on a trip, especially when I’m nervous and preoccupied, such as my recent travels to speak at Columbia University, I think, “It could be worse. You could be seated next to a man speaking to his wife through a vomit puppet.”

Fortunately, there were no puppeteers or squabbling couples on this flight to distract me from preparing my presentation, and by the time I showed up on campus the next morning I was rested and ready to go.

The invitation to speak at the Columbia Scholastic Press Association (CSPA) national convention is truly an honor. I spent most of my high school years attending or even competing to attend similar events. I always came back inspired and excited to try out the ideas that were presented and discussed. I am indebted to the many educators and professionals who donated their time, talent and money to help me build a strong foundation that would set the tone of my life and career for many years to come.

The directors and board of CSPA are educators and professionals who are fiercely dedicated to their students and make great sacrifices each year to pull off both Fall and Spring conventions. Twice a year, they come together with an army of guest speakers to inspire and instruct students from around the world. Their enthusiasm is contagious.

So, when I found myself presenting in the Joseph Pulitzer World Room, the very room where the Pulitzer Prizes are announced each year, I hoped that my presentation would rise to the occasion.

Serving as Executive Director of Uncharted has given me firsthand experience in taking ideas, often seemingly ridiculous and outrageous ones at that, and making them happen, usually with limited resources and staff. So I wanted to show students, perhaps from schools with small budgets, how to be successful on the web notwithstanding.

This expertise is likely something I would never have achieved had it not been for the devotion of others sacrificing their time to present at conferences during my high school and college years. I’m grateful for the opportunity to give back to students now what others did for me.

And it looks like I’ll be back again. CSPA has invited me to speak at their Spring convention. My thanks goes out to all those, who over the years took time to help me get going in my career. My commitment is to do the same for others.

Alan Murray is Executive Director of Uncharted.
He likes sea horses and snowshoes, and
frequently has the urge to leave the country.
To contact Alan, feel free to write to

Monday, November 2, 2009


I promise we're not trying to annoy you. We leave that up to easy listening radio.

But seriously, we need to apologize for the, well, it's not quite a flood of e-mails announcing our most recent update, but it's not exactly the concise, neat little package we had hoped when we added these notification e-mails to the mix. But because we noticed a rather important photo was missing from the photoset, we added it. That sent out a notification. Then it needed a caption. That sent out another notification. And so on. We've settled down now. I think Andrew, our design guru, put it best when he said "You never know how things are going to work until you try them out." And that's what we're doing. Trying things out.

And in trying things out, we make mistakes. That's normal. But we do sincerely apologize for the four or so update e-mails you received from us over the past weekend, and we promise to do better in the future. Be patient with us in our affliction for some day, we may actually get this right. We're working on a fix that will allow us (and you) to tweak your captions, stories and such without spamming everyone in the universe. We'll keep you up to date on what's going on. In the meantime, keep feeding us information on how we can improve. Drop us a line through a comment on this blog or via our e-mail at . We look forward to hearing more from you, just as you likely look forward to hearing less from us.