Saturday, March 31, 2012

Google Maps uploads "Quest" View

This morning, I saw that Google has changed their Maps to include a "Quest" view that looks like something a la the early Final Fantasy Dragon Warrior/ドラゴンクエスト games: boxy, low resolution, and "cute".

For example, this is the view of Mt. Fuji:

Was there more to this new view than a world of heavy pixelation and occasional interesting hits? Well, many of the largest cities in Japan and the US did have some interesting special graphics. Kyoto had some, Tokyo had some, San Francisco had some, Washington DC had some, etc. However, there often seemed to be a pair of guys in beanie caps that would show up in some random places. What were those beanie guys?

In Ann Arbor, the beanie guys showed up at the corner of Washington and Division. What is at the corner of Washington and Division that would be relevant to Google Maps? Well, it's Google's Ann Arbor office!

Ah ha! If Google's office in a moderately sized city would occasion the use of such a symbol, then surely Google's headquarters ought to be AWESOME! Well, in all of early Final Fantasy Dragon Warrior/ドラゴンクエストesque glory, here is what Google's headquarters looks like:

At least Google hasn't gotten personal with this map view. It hasn't, for example, made fun of Apple, Microsoft, or Facebook - the headquarters addresses for these companies merely show up as green plains.

Hopefully, it's not only for April Fool's Day. However, it does seem to be a PART of Google's annual April Fool's Day pranks:

Multiple shot dancing

Wonderful, and quite reminiscent of this previous video.

Music video for the song "Skyscrapers" by OK Go.

Director: Trish Sie
Producers: Trish Sie & Paula Salhany
Cinematography and editing: Paula Salhany
3D DP: Eric Kurland
Dancers: Moti Buchboot & Trish Sie
Special Thanks: Jennifer Kay Tyre, So Yun Um, Joanna Mayorga, Andy Green, Diane Castrup, Anthony Hartman, Jenny Oppenheimer, Roe Sie, and Marjorie Kulash

Friday, March 30, 2012

Why some commentary from members of my parents' generation annoys me

This entry was sparked by the tenor of some commentary from members of my parents' generation about why members of my generation should be grateful to them for our good upbringing, instead of criticizing them for the structural problems that they perpetuate in society and in the physical world. The commentary was from people that I don't personally know, but it did remind me strongly of what I hear - both in person and in interviews - from older generations about the viewpoints and actions of my generation. Like any rant, it tends to be somewhat disjointed, but I did go through and try and correct for some of it, while also trying to revise some of the more angry parts. Here goes:
Geez, some older people are really taking intergenerational criticism personally and are completely missing the point when 30-somethings (or younger!) make this type of commentary. It's almost like they want us to be grateful that they cared for us, their children, which is a logical fallacy made into a double standard when the my generation says, "Hello, I'd like to have a career like most of your generation could aspire to when you were my age or younger. Why? Well, it's because I don't currently have a lot of social benefits and fewer career options the longer I wait. In comparison people who are my parents' age already have accumulated far more wealth than I will likely be able to, currently have guaranteed government health care, and are in a far more stable financial and social situation than me. They are also exhorting me to get a job and stop complaining. So... can I please have a career in which I can work for the next thirty years; which happens to be about 15 to 25 years longer than you are likely able to?"

Why is the argument of "children should be grateful to their parents" a non sequitur? Well, of course, non-abused children ought to be thankful that they weren't raised by abusive parents who did the absolute legally minimal requirements of childcare. However, being thankful for being loved, taken care of, and provided with opportunities is different than an obligation of thanks for being cared for lovingly. In fact, it is about as much of a non sequitur as that child saying that it is the parents that ought to be thankful to the child for being a good child in a family into which I didn't ask to be born. In other words, it's a logical fallacy, and to further state that a child's obligations to a parent extend to that child having a blanket obligation to not be critical of the parent or of the parents' generation as a whole is a mind-boggling logical failure. In short, we all have the right to criticize our parents. We all also have the right to criticize our parents' generation. If members of my parents' generation don't like our criticism, especially when they are well reasoned (although not always coolly delivered), then that's too bad, but basing that dislike for criticism on a logical fallacy is not only poor argumentation, it is also dishonest. Finally, it is - in this case - a non sequitur to make the argument that "children should be grateful to their parents" when the person in question is (A) an adult, who is (B) trying to be successful based on the rubrics of their parents' generation, but who is (C) systemically hampered from being able to reach success and is then (D) blamed for inaction against a scale of actions and outcomes that are no longer valid while (E) being told how selfish that person is for continuing to rely on their parents. Does anyone else see what's wrong with the situation, or is it just me?

I'm sorry that my parents' generation's pensions were negatively affected by the housing loans disaster and they were mostly wiped out. But you know what? Many among my parents' generation have pensions that they accumulated for 30+ years; I will never have that. I'm sorry that the 401(k)s of the members of my parents' generation aren't doing so well. But you know what? They have 401(k)s that have been invested in for 30+ years; I will never have that. I'm sorry that Social Security and Medicare don't cover all the medical needs of my parents' generation. But you know what? They have Social Security and they have Medicare; even if I were able to pay greatly into these programs, it is unlikely that they will be available to me in 30+ years. And you know what else they have? Accumulated wealth and a governmental system that is structurally set up to pay out more for them than for us.

What do a lot of 30-somethings and younger have? Jobs that don't have pension plans, very few opportunities to save money (i.e., to accumulate wealth), few jobs for which we can fully extend the abilities that our parents' generation's good upbringing has trained us for, and a future in which many of us will have serious inabilities to attempt to have a fraction of what our parents' generation had promised us, mostly because of the actions that our parents' and grandparents' generations have had in shaping the current world. For example, while it does matter what one's current environmental footprint is, what matters more in the next 100 years is the footprint of my parent's generation, and in the next 50 the footprint my grandparents' generation. The anthropogenic global warming that is expected to submerge most coastal cities and cause global economic hardship (at best) or catastrophe (at worst) is already baked into the system, and these impacts weren't caused by my generation.

Are we happy? No. Are we saying that the current social structure doesn't actually allow as many 30-somethings to fully actualize their potential (like what was available to the Boomers) is due (in a significant way) to the collective individual actions of Baby Boomers? Yup, because It. Is. What. Is. Happening. Does this recognition mean we should euthanize old people, divest them of all wealth, lock them up in retirement communities, etc? No, and any imprecation of that is flat out nonsensical and a plain attempt at obfuscation.

Let's all face it: we men and women who were born in the 1970s and 1980s are not children anymore. (Perhaps our parents might like us to still be children, but that's a different point altogether.) We do have the ability to form thoughts about complex social and global systems that perhaps our parents never had any reason to investigate. This ability is in a large part thanks to our parents' feeding us, clothing us, ensuring our education, providing the intellectual muscle to have large research universities that we would attend, and conducting the scientific and social research that we would then learn, among a vast array of other actions taken directly or indirectly to help us (i.e., my generation).

To those of my parents' generation who find all of this appalling and atrocious:
  • Don't turn around and act all shocked when we state that we're not satisfied with what our learning, cognition, and investigation show us to be a problem for us and our children; one that you won't likely live to see.
  • Don't get shocked when we explain, as one set of adults to another set of adults (admittedly in various tenor, style, and volume), why we aren't satisfied.
  • Don't get petulantly passive-aggressive when we explain that the baby boomer generation - being the unique social feature that it is - causes many structural problems in the current setup of our society.
  • Don't get righteously indignant and cast imprecations against us for being "uppity", for being "snotty", for being "entitled", for being "lazy", for being "unworthy", for being "uninformed", etc. These forms of address don't deal with the issues about which we are unhappy, and that attempt at distraction is also annoying. Stop it.

We aren't very happy, because we plainly see how structural conditions of current society are leading to untenable positions in our futures (not YOUR futures, but OUR futures; you won't likely be alive in 2050, that's just a plain - if hard - truth). One of those structural conditions is the baby boomer generation. Another - which intersects it at several points - is anthropogenic global warming. We caused neither but we will be (and are being) negatively affected directly by both, and the education that we have been given heightens and sharpens that understanding even more greatly. People of your generation might not like to hear that you have bequeathed us a world that is - in all likelihood - worse than the one you had and worse than the one you had promised us. However, petulant passive aggressive arguments based on non sequiturs is a piss-poor way of addressing a group of people who have the knowledge that the world won't be such a great place; it's even more of a piss-poor way of addressing a group of people who are simultaneously being told that they should just work harder (even though this no longer really makes much of a difference), be more responsible (even though we are being responsible with what we are able to be responsible over), be grateful (even though it's not really clear about why we should be grateful for inheriting a future world that's worse than what we started off with), and be happy to have it so easy (even though the people most affected by the recent recession were disproportionately people 30 years and under); it's a really piss-poor way of arguing about what is, ultimately, a demographic transition problem: your generation will continue to die off and my generation (and subsequent generations) will continue to live with negative legacies; and finally it's a piss-poor way of trying to deal with someone who's justifiably unhappy.

A bit of a disappointment

I just finished The Gunslinger, and I have to say that I was a bit disappointed with it. I don't know if I will be continuing the series any time soon. Oh, well. I guess that I'll just have to find another series to start reading.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

I lost my Android Market app!

I wanted to install Google Goggles (to look at those evermore ubiquitous "square bar codes"), and so I went to my list of apps on my Android phone and looked for the Market app.

... and it wasn't there.

I checked again...

... and it still wasn't there. Furthermore, nothing looked like it could have been the Market app.


Okay, maybe someone's figured this thing out. Let me check online.

*check, check, check*

Huh. If you install Google Play, the Market app is removed. So, all I have to do is open Google Play?

*open Google Play*

Well, THAT'S simple. :-)

Furthermore, Google Play allows you to use the interface of your own web browser to assess what apps you have and install new ones.

IN SUM: If you installed the Google Play app, then you no longer have Market, but Google Play is what you use as Market (except that now you can control it through your web browser ... if you linked your phone to a Google account).

Perpetual Ocean

Very, very beautiful visualization of the movement of ocean currents. Turn on the HD and watch this vanGogh-esque swirling and shifting of the oceans waters.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Fun backyard parties are fun

I like the backyard party. As an institution I like them, partly because of the camaraderie that they instill, partly because of the filling (and often very tasty) food that you get, and partly because of the (often) welcome weather that brings out the best in people. All these were in force in the backyard party that I went to yesterday: the first in the spring, and what a "spring" day it was, too. Warm (uncommonly so) and sunny, yet not too hot to just lounge around and chat in the yard. (Of course, it was quite warm enough by my standards for cycling through to Ypsilanti and back, but that's another story.)

It was great, too, to catch up with friends and get to meet people from other walks of life (okay: most of them were graduate students, but many were from other departments). It was great to sit and eat and chat, catch up, bullshit, and do it all over again after you were dong with your plate of food.

The weather turned colder as I left, the weather dropping from a high of 71F (with 10 of the previous 11 days having record temperatures) down to 50F. It was actually nice to ride through the cool northerly winds. They actually made my bike ride home a little more enjoyable since I could try to take my bike a little harder, pushing it just a little bit more, since I didn't have to worry too much about getting sweaty on this last leg of my long-is (34 miles) round trip to Ypsi.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

One-plus year of photos

Since 1/1/2011 through to 3/18/2012 I have been taking a photo (or two) every day from the front of the cabin.

I had put together a version last May, in which I organized things in a more systematic way (and included photos from before 2011), but this one took each photo, put them through Windows Movie Maker (without centering them all to a common point) and then running it through the "stabilize" function in YouTube, and adding a music track that YouTube suggested might work. Admittedly, it is quite jerky (compared to the previous version), but it still (hopefully) shows the many faces of Saginaw Forest through a year.

Saturday, March 24, 2012


Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.
— George E. P. Box, Empirical Model-Building and Response Surfaces, 1987

How true. Modelers ought to remember this more often.

via FlowingData

Friday, March 23, 2012

Spring Dawning

Various photos of our early spring:

Frogs singing in a drainage field behind the local DTE service yard

"Blossoming" willows along the Huron River

"Blossoming maples" around the campfire circle in Saginaw Forest

Damnable garlic mustard popping up all around town

Invasives are already leafing out, too

A wonderful sunset

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Inherent depths in language

I had read the short story "French Lesson I: Le Muertre" – from Lydia Davis' collection break it down – a few years ago. It was, in fact, the reason why I purchased the collection in the first place, reading it somewhere else. The premise in the short story is that words take on additional contextual meaning based on the language and experiences of the user. Not too great a surprise, perhaps, but it is in the manner of the telling that spoke so deeply to me:
A French arbre is not the elm or maple shading the main street of our New England towns in the infinitely long, hot and listless, vacant summer of our childhoods, which are themselves different from the childhoods of French children, and if you see a Frenchman standing on a street in a small town in America pointing to an elm or a maple and calling it an arbre, you will know this is wrong. An arbe is a plane tree in an ancient town square with lopped, stubby branches and patchy, leprous bark standing in a row of similar plane trees across from the town hall, in front of which a bicycle ridden by a man with thick, reddish skin and an old cap wavers past and turns into a narrow lane. Or an arbre is one of the dense, scrubby live oaks in the blazing dry hills of Provence, through which a similar figure in a blue cloth jacket carrying some sort of net or trap pushes his way. An arbre can also cast a pleasant shade and keep la maison cool in the summer, but remember that la maison is not wood-framed with a widow's walk and a wide front porch but is laid out on a north-south axis, is built of irregular, sand-colored blocks of stone, and has a red tile roof, small square windows with green shutters, and no windows on the north side, which is also protected from the wind by a closely planted line of cypresses, while a pretty mulberry or olive may shade the south. Not that there are not many different sorts of maisons in France, their architecture depending on their climate or the fact that there may be a foreign country nearby, like Germany, but we cannot really have more than one image behind a word we say, like maison. What do you see when you say house? Do you see more than one kind of house?
This passage explores with brilliant imagery the emotive memories that bubble up and bloom with words like arbre and maison. I don't know, for sure, whether Davis is making sly and witty humor, but its something that is important when learning any new language – the differences that make something more real, provide more depth and nuance. It is the partial reason why some phrasing "sounds better" to a native speaker than others. For example:

"St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland" vs. "St. Patrick banished the serpents from Ireland".

The context of the second sentence is far more Biblical than the rather mundane wording of the first. However, "drive out" does have a meaning of "banish" and "snakes" does overlap with "serpent", so why not just substitute the one for the other? This is analogous to the problems that many foreign students face in their writing, and that I face when speaking Spanish. (I once got into a long discussion about which verb for "walk" I should have used to describe by activities of one afternoon: andar, caminar, or pasear. It turns out that I should have used all three to better describe different activities that I had done during the afternoon. I was - quite figuratively - out of my linguistic depths.)

However, languages draw very strongly upon imagery, especially in poetry. Shakespeare's 18th sonnet ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day") relies strongly upon inherent imagery of an English summer:
Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft' is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Its imagery might not, for example, translate very well into languages with cultures that don't draw upon positive emotional associations with summer. However, this sonnet remains - in English - in a very central place in the cultural understanding. Even to such an extent that it was the central part of one recent xkcd web comic:

The imagery and emotions that are connected in a culture's lexicon is one of the major means of conveying depth and emotional consonance in the poems of Langston Hughes. To me, particularly, the imagery of water pulls on me, and when the 10th-grade me read "The Negro Speak of Rivers", I felt almost physically drawn in to them:
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Many analyses of this poem speak to the deep emotional linkage between the African American identity and the rivers:
"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is perhaps the most profound of these poems of heritage and strength. Composed when Hughes was a mere 17 years old, and dedicated to W. E. B. DuBois, it is a sonorous evocation of transcendent essences so ancient as to appear timeless, predating human existence, longer than human memory. The rivers are part of God's body, and participate in his immortality. They are the earthly analogues of eternity: deep, continuous, mysterious. They are named in the order of their association with black history. The black man has drunk of their life-giving essences, and thereby borrowed their immortality.
For me, however, I didn't resonate with the history outlined above, but with the natural flow of water, the evocation of these major rivers and the images that they provided (and still provide) to me. (It's a reason why I decided to work on water issues, in fact.)

With haiku, too (and perhaps especially), the weight of imagery behind the sparse language provides a profundity that is lacking in the mere words of the stanza. To use another famous example, consider Basho's haiku (which is also about water): 
This is perhaps the most famous haiku worldwide. However, trying to understand merely the words of the haiku means that it loses a lot in translation into English. It is for this reason that there are so many explanations on this haiku. A good one that I've found is:
A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps . . .
Apart, unstirred by sound or motion . . . till
Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps.
While this translation fails at holding to the form of the haiku, it does a decent job of explaining the emotional depth of each phrase that makes up the original. For me, having lived seven years in Tokyo and having some emotional connection with Japanese, the original words run deeper than the "mere" translation of their significance, but when I read Pablo Neruda's poem "Oda al vals Sobre las Olas" - also about water - I am left dry:
Viejo vals, estás vivo
no a la manera
de un
corazón enterrado,
sino como el olor
de una planta profunda,
tal vez como el aroma
del olvido.

No conozco
de la música,
ni sus libros sagrados,
soy un
pobre poeta
de las calles
y sólo
vivo y muero
de los sonidos enlutados
emerge sobre un mar de madreselva
la miel
el baile coronado
por un ramo celeste de palmeras.

Oh, por las enramadas,
en la arena
de aquella costa, bajo
aquella luna,
bailar contigo el vals
de las espumas
apretando tu talle
y a la sombra
del cielo y su navío
besar sobre tus párpados tus ojos
el rocío
dormido en el jazmín fosforescente!

Oh, vals de labios puros
al vaivén
de las olas,
oh corazón
en la nave
de la música,
oh vals
de palomas,
de nada,
que vives
sin embargo
como una cuerda fina,
trenzada con
con soledad, con tierra,
con jardines!

Bailar contigo, amor,
a la fragante
de aquella luna,
de aquella antigua
besar, besar tu frente
mientras rueda
sobre las olas!
As much as I read and understand the words, they still remain just disjointed words, lacking in a depth of meaning that I find in the examples above. Of course, if I'm still working out which word for walk I should use to describe an outing around town, the depths of inherent cultural understanding that speaks to a Chilean reading Neruda's words are - unsurprisingly - a challenge that will continue to beckon through to the future.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The winter that never came, and what it might mean

Well, I pointed out back in January that the winter - at least the version one could expect in Ann Arbor, MI - wasn't actually here. Then, through February, we waited for winter to come, and - other than a couple of dips in the temperature and some snow that lasted a couple of days - we continued to remain stubbornly above freezing on most days.

Now, in March, the trees are trying to catch up with the temperatures that closer to what is typical of late June than anything close to what we would expect in March, let alone April (we could reasonably expect 82F/28C temperatures in May, but they are historically rare). In short, the temperatures we are experiencing in Ann Arbor are presently CONSISTENTLY SHATTERING all historical measurements (all the days from March 14 through March 21, 2012 have broken the previous high-temperature record, and the current forecast expects that March 22 and 23 are also going to be record-breakers, which - if true - means that there will be nine full days of record-shattering temperatures).

"But it's not TOO hot," and, "I LOVE this kind of weather," I hear some people say. Well, true: temperatures of 70-80F are quite comfortable, and it's no surprise that we'd love the temperatures that we (likely) evolved to thrive in. Such high temperatures, do, however, bring drawbacks.

The insects are also loving it - I've been having mosquitoes in Saginaw Forest for the past two weeks, and the moths and mayflies are starting to emerge. The frogs, too, are quite happy, singing up a storm in the evenings, but their choruses are already starting to die down. I wonder how long the summer temperatures will hold this year: will we remain (relatively consistently) above 70F from now to late September? Will we again get up past 100F in July? Will we again have a rain-stressed year? (I also wonder if the weather will suddenly remember that it's only mid-March and dip back into the "average" temperature range of lows in the low-30s and highs in the mid-40s.)

I know that this isn't (necessarily) climate change upon us. It is (and has been) a bitterly cold winter in Europe, after all. However, if this year is anything to use to predict some likely occurrences in a warmer climatic future, then I hope that people are paying attention. What starts as "nice temperatures" turns into "bad weather" as the high level of heat energy in the atmosphere brings about earlier and more intense storms than what our experience has led us to expect. In the Ann Arbor region, this meant a tornado touching down in Dexter, combined with intense rain (over 1" of rain in 1 hour at Ann Arbor airport) and hail, which caused flooding in Ann Arbor (as both storm and sanitary sewers became flooded beyond capacity), massive erosion along rivers (as they "endeavored" to accommodate the massively increased flows of water), and felled trees (thus knocking out electricity for thousands as well as destroying more property).

Looking more regionally, we have seen the start of one of the earliest tornado seasons on record. According to
In the U.S., tornado season tends to move northward from late winter to mid-summer. In Southern states, tornado season is typically from March to May. In the Southern Plains, it lasts from May to early June. On the Gulf Coast, tornadoes occur most often during the spring. And in the Northern Plains, Northern states and upper Midwest, peak season is in June or July.
As of March 20st, the number of tornadoes in the US reached 285, which is almost tied for the most tornadoes on record by NOAA. (As a contrast, in a year that is at the 50th percentile, we wouldn't reach 285 tornadoes until roughly the end of April.) When looked at through the light of all the record temperatures, it's not too surprising that so many tornadoes are happening, but it's also very little consolation that warmer temperatures means better times.

Removing keystones and cornerstones from ecosystems

Within the field of conservation ecology, the concept of a "keystone species" is pretty central. It is based on ideas from ecology about inter-species interactions while drawing upon the visualization of a bridge's key-stone, representing the fundamentally important pinnacle stone of an arched structure. Appropriately - for the imagery - keystone species tend to be near or at the top of the "food chain"*; oftentimes being predators. The idea is that keystone species act as a limiting pressure on other species, diminishing the possibility of explosive growth (and eventual collapse) of a species in the system (as well as potential negative outcomes from such a boom and bust).

For example, wolves are considered to be a keystone species in many of the North American ecosystems, acting - alongside other large predators - as mediators in population growth among prey species, such as deer, by - to put it bluntly - killing them, which means that there are fewer fawns come springtime than if there were no wolves. This reduction from the potential deer population means that the existing deer will not likely be in such strong competition with each other to find food (and that their food sources will not be over-exploited). Conversely, if you remove wolves and other predators (and ban hunting or trapping), the deer population will boom for a few years, and then - as they outstrip their food source - will suffer massive starvation-induced die-offs. In short, it's the wolf population that keeps the ecosystem in "balance".

There is emerging a complementary concept of "cornerstone species", in which species that are low on the "food chain"* provide an essential and foundational role in the ecosystem. Although there is come question - at least in my mind - of whether this is yet another example of terrestrial systems appearing to be top-down mediated, while marine systems seem to be bottom-up mediated, I think that this concept has its own merits in understanding the functioning of ecosystems (both for pure science as well as for conservation goals).

In the linked press release, the researchers "analyzed the impact of removing seaweed and sessile animals, such as mussels and barnacles, from the rocky shores of Northeastern’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, Mass. The experiments were designed to mimic naturally occurring changes in biodiversity on rocky shores." They found that the removal of these relatively rare species caused "major declines in the abundance and diversity of animals, such as snails, crabs and other mobile animals".

It seems to me that we are finding that - not too surprisingly - that ecosystems are interactive and controlled by various links throughout, in linear and non-linear manners. If we can recognize this point about how ecosystems function, then it seems to me that our collective actions on the planet are randomly removing portions of the system without any real idea about what consequences will come about. If our ecosystems are like structures, we may well end up removing both the keystones that hold up the ceilings, but also the cornerstones that firm up the walls. This is why ecology should be studied as an applied science, to understand how our actions will have an impact upon everything else that is connected to them (and onward out from that connection, ultimately back to us).

We understand only dimly the course of impacts that removing a top predator has on an ecosystem. We understand, too, only dimly the impacts of removing a key producer has on an ecosystem. However, the total, linked effects of the removal of so many different things from so many different parts of so many different ecosystems as well as the introduction and cross-movement of so many other parts of ecosystems across into novel locations remains - as a whole - invisible. In other words, as much as we know of the direct impacts that wolves have on North American ecosystems, we remain ignorant of the indirect ecosystem impacts, and we know next to nothing about the direct and indirect impacts of species loss and species invasions across the globe.

Without keystones or cornerstones, a structure would have to be greatly simplified, making it prone to collapse at any perturbation. While I recognize that buildings are not ecosystems (nor vice versa), I think that the analogy holds; a greatly simplified ecosystem will be neither robust nor resilient, and our position within that ecosystem will become evermore imperiled. (And this will be in addition to habitat loss due to changed climate and sea level rise, with some projections of the latter as being up to 70ft.)

* "Food chain" is a term that has some scientific problems associated with it, since the recycling processes of decomposition don't fit well within the one-way concept. Interactions are better described along the lines of a "food web". However, that conceptualization also has problems associated with it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

On writing: it takes constant practice

Ira Glass on Storytelling:

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

I think that it's true with any type of writing. (Including my dissertation.) Gotta set more deadlines, gotta set more goals, gotta write more pages.

Gotta. Do. It.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Ahh, St. Patrick's Day.

Let's celebrate the myth of the saint driving the snakes out of Ireland.

He was so good that there isn't even fossil evidence that snakes were on Ireland. (Not too surprising, though, considering that it's an island and - well - island biogeography.)

Still, let's also celebrate with a pint of GUINNESS! And a pint of Murphy's! And some whiskey!

But men in plaid kilts playing highland pipes? THAT'S for St. Andrew's Day! (C'mon America, get it right!)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Storm washouts in Saginaw Forest

The berm that acts as a pathway between the south and north sides of the property and runs along the western property line has washed away (again).

There are also some other areas where the trail has been somewhat eroded:

... and the roadway is becoming (again) gully-city:

And all that erosion has stained the water,

...and it's still coming out of the creek looking like milk-tea.

On the plus side, the lake seems to be draining nicely, dropping about 10 inches over the past 14 hours. (That's a loss of roughly 0.6 acre-feet/hour.*)

Buuut... it's getting very humid out there, what with all the sun and lack of much cloud cover. Who knows: it might dry out relatively quickly and the frogs might have infiltrated into the standing pools in sufficient numbers to eat up lots of the mosquito larvae. (See? I can be optimistic.)

*Assuming Third Sister Lake is 10 acres.

Round up your friends for a GUINNESS

Tomorrow is St. Patrick's day. Time to round up your friends for a GUINNESS!

Mmmmm.... GUINNESS....

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Well THAT was a lot of rain...

Well, THAT was interesting! A massive storm cell passed over Saginaw Forest at about 6:00 pm today,

March 15th storm

dumping a boatload of rain on the property and inundating the little creek...

...and causing erosion on the paths. It even raised the lake level about a foot!

Right now, the water is not far below the level of the footbridge...

...and is maybe a finger's breadth below the level of the dock.

SHEEESH! that was a lot of rain.

I'll be making rounds tomorrow morning to check whether there was more damage on the property, but right now all the land down near the lake is very squidgy. (Heh, my spell-checker apparently recognizes "squidgy" as a word.)

And the spring's just beginning...

On a positive note, the willows are starting to blossom - their feathery buds are just peeking through... so that's nice. The frogs are happy (although Prof. Berven's student assistants aren't too happy) in all that new standing water. And, happily, the cabin suffered no discernible problems.

Let's hope that the frogs eat up all the mosquito larvae...

Pink light doesn't exist...

... well kinda:

h/t: Andrew Sullivan

So, if "pink" is actually "not green", then does that make Komen's Race for the Cure (aka, the pink ribbon campaign) actually anti-environmental (since environmentalism is based on the color green)? Or does it mean that environmentalism is somehow against breast cancer?

Obviously not, since our associations with the color pink with breast cancer awareness and green with environmentalism are completely social constructions that don't actually have anything to do with the physical properties of color. In fact, Michael Moyer points out - and if you remember your basic physics about the electromagnetic spectrum - there is no such thing as a "color circle" (sorry artists):
The classical electromagnetic spectrum extends from a wavelength of zero meters all the way up to infinity. How is one to connect those two ends? And even if one could, adding two (or more) invisible wavelengths together would never produce something visible. Infrared light plus ultraviolet light is just that—a combination of infrared and ultraviolet. They do not average out to yellow.
Furthermore, Moyer makes the scientifically astute point that all colors are actually just interpretations of physical stimuli:
On a more fundamental level, however, Krulwich is right. Pink is not out there, because no color is really “out there.” The world is full of electromagnetic radiation, and the only intrinsic properties that this radiation possesses are physical ones such as wavelength and intensity. Color, on the other hand, is all in your head. “Color is not actually a property of light or of objects that reflect light,” wrote the biologist Timothy H. Goldsmith in his 2006 Scientific American article What Birds See. “It is a sensation that arises within the brain.”
Not as romantic a notion as Krulwich's idea of color (and - presumably - the idea of color drawn from history), but technically correct. However, whether we can draw humanizing and creative understanding about ourselves and our universe from such explanations is - IMO - what the humanities ought to be doing, instead of trying to fit physical phenomena into historical ideas of human perception. (Still, doing it this way is very tempting, and the next time I see a pink anything, I'll be thinking, "not-green".)

BTW, if someone wears pink on St. Patrick's day, does it negate the green that he or she might also be wearing? (I mean, does green and not-green equal zero?) ;-)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A comparison of years

This winter was weirdly warm. As a piece of evidence showing how different it has been this year, consider the following:

March 14, 2012

March 13, 2011

March 12, 2010

April 6, 2009

Automated driving

I was discussing the benefits of fully automated driving with a friend of mine the other week. What I think he couldn't quite grasp was how it would look if all the cars were automated. If we have driven, we have all likely witnessed poor driving decisions made by people that have resulted in accidents or near accidents, both of which have an end result of causing back-ups (and the possibility of related accidents). Also, people fundamentally cannot make instantaneous decisions based on knowledge of the entire network (or even a regional portion of the road network). Things are getting better, with smartphone navigation having information about traffic congestion, and even providing alternatives that circumvent it, thus wending our way toward network-smart driving.

However, even with this, it would be difficult to maximize the potential efficiency of a four-way intersection. Especially if each direction had five lanes of traffic. We currently rely on traffic lights and patterns to try and move people through the intersection. However, even with these rather crude measures, people still manage to balls it up. But what if it were automated?

Well, it would look something like this:

Pretty cool, right? Kinda scary, but pretty cool. "What about pedestrians?" you might ask. Well, there are cars that already take into account various "obstacles" that exist on the road, as well as navigating within lanes and keeping in relative motion with respect to other vehicles. In fact, Google uses one for its street mapping:

And its operation is pretty cool, too!

UPDATE (April 2, 2012): Steve Mahan - a 95% blind man - is out testing one of Google's self-driving vehicles!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

I wanna get this...

Well, maybe I want to get this.

On days when I'm tired, it's raining, or the ground's icy, I would want to have this. This all-in-one wheel conversion to make an electric bike. It would make it easy to convert from my comfortable middle-distance touring-esque bike (that can average 20+ mph on the flats) to an around-town runabout (with a 20mph limiter).

What I like about it is the modularity.

... and the music.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Michio Kaku: How Physics Got Fat

If Michio Kaku is saying that scientists need to engage the public, then you know that the separation of science and policy is likely a load of bunk. True, it can mean that scientists can make bad engagement actions, but this does not mean that all scientists should just sit outside policy and pretend that the Cold War funding mechanism still exists.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Multiple lyric mashup!

Whence the term donnybrook

I saw the title of an article - "Social Media And Rush Limbaugh's Donnybrook" - and it made me realize that I didn't actually have a firm idea about what a "donnybrook" actually was.

Off to World Wide Words. And here I find the entry:
We are in Ireland, in what was once a village on the high road out of Dublin but which is now one of that city’s suburbs. King John gave a licence in 1204 to hold an annual fair there.

By the eighteenth century it had become a vast assembly, held on August 26 and the following 15 days each year, a gathering-place for horse dealers, fortune-tellers, beggars, wrestlers, dancers, fiddlers, and the sellers of every kind of food and drink. It was renowned in Ireland and beyond for its rowdiness and noise, and particularly for the whiskey-fuelled fighting that went on after dark. A passing reference in, of all sober works, Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution of 1867, gives a flavour: “The only principle recognised ... was akin to that recommended to the traditionary Irishman on his visit to Donnybrook Fair, ‘Wherever you see a head, hit it’.” The usual weapon was a stick of oak or blackthorn that Irishmen often called a shillelagh (a word which derives from the town of that name in County Wicklow). The legend was that visitors to Donnybrook fair would rather fight than eat.

As Donnybrook progressively became a residential suburb of Dublin, the fair became more and more a nuisance until a campaign was got up to have it closed; in 1855 the rights to the fair were bought up by Dublin Corporation and it was suppressed. It was around that time that its name started to be used to describe a brawl, at first in the form like Donnybrook fair but then elliptically.

And here's a "fighting song" ;-)

Friday, March 09, 2012

Happy Birthday, Amerigo Vespucci!

On this day in 1454 (or perhaps on a different day, since calendrical reform wasn't really fulfilled yet), Amerigo Vespucci was born.

Who? The guy whose name was given to the Americas (based on the Latinized version of his name - Americanus), which is why we don't call the continent(s) "Columbiana" or something similar. (Wouldn't it have been interesting to call it "Eriksonia"?)

So just what does "Amerigo" mean? Well, it's the Italian version of Emmerich. "Emmerich"? Yeah, I don't know anyone named "Emmerich", but it apparently means one of the following:
  • "Universal power"
  • "Work power"
  • "Home power"
So, "America" is a Latinized version of an Italianized version of a German name that could mean of of three things about power.

FOXNews correctly explains why presidents don't control gas prices ... in 2008

Question: Who said this back in 2008:
So the next time you hear a politician say he or she will bring down oil prices, understand it's complete BS. If Americans want lower prices, cut back. Sell those SUVs! Ride a bike when you can. If every one of us bought ten percent less gasoline, prices would fall. Fast. That's what the candidates should be saying. We need a smart leader that's honest, smart, courageous, and willing to explain dubious associations. That's what we need.
Answer:  Bill O'Reilly.

Wow... FOXNews is actually right on this one:

But where are these comments today? The pundits at FOXNews now want to sell the story that Obama isn't doing good things for gas prices. Andrew Sullivan makes some points about the some of the points brought up by commentators on this subject (including Barack Obama). The block quote from Jared Bernstein is a good one:
The United States holds only a couple of percent of known global oil reserves, and we produce less than 10% of total crude.  These are binding constraints that no president can change.  I’m not suggesting that our domestic production has no effect on prices.  But oil is a global commodity and most of it is under the land of other countries.  Our contribution to supply will always be a drop in the bucket and will thus generally be a matter of cents on the gallon, not dollars.

UPDATE (3/22/2012): In a discussion on Facebook, a friend of mine posted the following, which cited a comment by GOP presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich:
Newt was saying that he could get gas down, today on NPR. "We have the potential of producing more oil than any other country", or something along those lines.
To this, I replied:
Well, we are producing more oil now than any time during the past 10 years. We are also using less oil now than during the last gasoline price spike (in 2008).

Newt is implying that the government needs to open up more federal lands to drilling. However, the amount of additional oil that the US could produce - in comparison to increased demand and available reserves in OPEC countries - is rather small, and - due to international trade agreements - we have to sell that additional oil on the world market (and not be able to have a special "American price" for sales only in the US).

HOWEVER... other countries are using more oil and the oil we are pulling requires more refining. Oil speculation markets have also developed since 2008.

And that's just for oil. The price of gasoline is affected by additional factors, including refining costs and transportation costs. The latter is - of course - a bit of a positive feedback system: the more gasoline costs, the more it costs to transport it, thus driving up the cost of gasoline. The costs of refining, though, are a little bit more complicated. Refining requires refineries (duh), and these operate on industrial economies (there was a maximum of 150 in the US in 2008). Our diminished fuel consumption since 2008 has meant that 9 of the nation's oil refineries have shut down/made idle since 2008. If the GOP want to diminish gas prices, they need to pay for oil refineries to start back up again... but that's not really the free market, right?

There is a very fast way to bring down gas prices: have the government pay a subsidy on the price of gasoline (this could be instead of or in addition to the monies allocated to oil and gas companies themselves, which has little evidence of lowering the price of fuel in any appreciable manner). Of course, that openly smacks of socialism (especially since it's effectively what Hugo Chavez's government - the GOP's modern-day socialist boogey-man - does), so that straight-forward and guaranteed lowering-of-gas-price measure is a no-go.

The other way is to remove speculation from all fuels. Of course, natural gas companies would love this idea, since natural gas speculation is one of the reasons why its price has been driven DOWN over the past year. Oil companies would hate the idea, since its prices have been driven up. (Of course OPEC can change how much oil they are producing to have some influence on this sweet money-train that they're living off of right now -- at least those OPEC countries that are stable.) However, since there are fewer oil-producing states than natural gas producing (and potentially producing) states, the senate is unlikely to pass a ban on all fuel speculation. Plus, for the GOP, that's against the free market, so it's a no-go.

Yet another way is to stop trying to declare war on Iran, to get out of Afghanistan, stop pissing off OPEC countries (which is different from "being nice to OPEC countries"), and help with stabilization efforts in Libya and Egypt. (We should help with the former because they produce a serious amount of oil and we should help with the latter because of the position of primacy that Egypt holds in the region, the fact that they have historically been our strongest ally in the region, because they control major shipping routes into Europe - which houses many, many of our strong allies - and because a stabilized, democratic Egypt is likely to move toward government reforms in the greater Middle East, likely to our long-term benefit.) Of course, this goes against the "bomb Iran" rhetoric that hasn't cooled since 2008 (which is part of the fueling - pardon the pun - of the oil price increases caused by speculation; a war with Iran - or even a destabilization in the Persian Gulf (combined with a lack of stability through the Suez) - will definitely raise the price of oil, and the speculators are betting on it). Of course, many conservative Americans apparently don't understand the difference between "not pissing off countries for no really good - or advantageous - reason" and "appeasement of dictators", so cooling one party's jets about "bomb Iran" is not a likely go-ahead strategy during a campaign year.

So what are the options that a divided, highly partisan government can pass - in an election year, no less - to lower the price of gasoline at the pump? We can't drill more oil and hope to see a diminution (heck, even if we open all the oil fields today and require drilling ASAP, the turn-around time is too long to see much of an impact before election time). We can't have an exclusive American market for oil. We can't force oil refineries to re-start. We aren't likely to pass a subsidy for gasoline. We aren't likely to stop or highly regulate the fuel speculation market. We aren't likely to help increase political stability in the one region of the world producing a significant amount of oil.

So... we are left with individual options that won't work for everyone (drive less, buy a more fuel efficient car, bike and walk more) and presidential candidates who are lying through their teeth. Hey, it's just like O'Reilly said back in 2008! Who'da thunk it?

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Happy International Women's Day!

Let's celebrate the successes, advances, achievements, and contributions that women have made to society and continue to make in society.

However, there still is a major area in need for improvement at the most basic levels.

The hidden potential of women is - unfortunately - something that continues to remain untapped.

Think about the possibilities that come when all adults are able to have opportunities to recognize their potential: it will be a world significantly different from the one in which we live in today.


Wednesday, March 07, 2012

T-Rex bites and sitting elephants

Q. What does a Tyrannosaurus rex's bite and a sitting elephant have in common?

A. 57,000 Newtons.

Check it out:

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

How to talk to aliens

Bill Nye shows us how to talk to aliens (that happen to understand English):

I really like Bill Nye.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Canadian outdoor ice hockey affected by climate change

Well, it seems that even the strength of the Canadian winters are becoming evermore mild, and this spells a slow and wet demise of outdoor ice hockey traditions in Canada.

From PhysOrg we get the following:
As warmer winter temperatures restrict ice from freezing over, researchers believe the ice hockey stars of the future will have limited access to the frozen lakes and backyard rinks that have helped shape the careers of some of the greatest professional players, such as Wayne Gretzky; the Canadian considered to be the greatest of all time who started skating as a child on a rink in his backyard.

Their study, published today, 5 March, in IOP Publishing's journal Environmental Research Letters, calculated the annual start date and length of the outdoor skating season (OSS) from historical weather data across Canada and recorded how these have changed since the 1950s in tune with global warming.

Of the 142 meteorological stations studied, the researchers, from McGill University and Concordia University, found that only a few of the weather stations showed a statistically significant trend towards earlier start dates of the OSS; however, a much larger proportion of stations showed a statistically significant decrease in the length of the skating season over the past half century.

The largest decreases in the skating season length were observed in the Prairies and Southwest regions of Canada. By extrapolating their data to predict future patterns, the researchers envisaged a complete end to outdoor skating within the next few decades in areas such as British Columbia and Southern Alberta.

Their definition of the beginning of the OSS is the last in a series of three days where the maximum temperature does not exceed -5°C – it takes several cold days to lay the initial ice on the rink. Subsequently, the researchers counted the number of viable rink flooding days to estimate the season's length at each of the 142 stations.

Canada appears to have taken more of a hit from global warming compared to other countries in the world: since 1950, winter temperatures in Canada have increased by more than 2.5°C, which is three times the globally-averaged warming attributed to anthropogenic global warming.

The paper can be found here.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Reality is awesome!

Been reading some more from Greta Christina's Blog, and I have to say that this article is - for me, right now - a good one.

Truth is not boring.

This morning, I woke up and drove out to hike up Squaw Peak (now renamed as Piestewa Peak) with my cousin. It was a really fun trip, since I had never hiked the peak before, and a week of doing exercises indoors really had me hankering for a short morning hike. As we walked up, looking at all those who were also driving to this uninhabited parcel of land in the residential lands of Phoenix in order to climb up and down this bit of granite, I joked that in a few hundred years, when archaeologists were examining this site, they would wonder what religious significance such a climb would have held for the people of today. I mean, it obviously gets far more traffic than most houses of worship do on a daily basis, and there is almost nothing at the top other than a view of the surrounding landscape. Perhaps they will think of the people of today as partaking in a piece of nature worship; a daily pilgrimage to a site for nature communion.

This is the reality - amongst all the people who are there to make a trip for reasons of exercise, I ask, "Why on the side of a hill?" One can exercise in the city, at a gym, or by pounding the pavement. Why rise early, drive several miles, fight for limited parking, and then spend a few hours climbing up and down the side of a hill? It is, I believe, precisely because it is a communion with nature. A re-connection, no matter how brief, with something that isn't totally man-made. And that's okay. That's good, even.

It's okay that it isn't the soaring cathedral of El Capitan. It's also okay that it is a forest of great sequoia trees. It's further okay that it's a pathway that is traversed by several hundred people every morning. It is real. It is tangible. It is somehow more true to me than any house of worship.

Sure, I can go to the historic cathedrals in Europe, the temples in India, etc., and marvel at their grace and architectural majesty. (In fact, I do love going to old churches to see the interesting things that people could accomplish without the aid of modern-day technology or mathematics.) However, such things are fundamentally different from the reality of the natural world (or even those things that are "mostly natural").

(Okay, so it's a stretch to link my thoughts about hiking Piestewa Peak with that of Greta Christina's thoughts about the amazingness of reality, but it's in there somewhere, and perhaps I should - in future - eat after hiking and before writing a blog entry.)

Friday, March 02, 2012

Temporal Distortion

Temporal Distortion from Randy Halverson on Vimeo.

Description from Vimeo:
What you see is real, but you can't see it this way with the naked eye. It is the result of thousands of 20-30 second exposures, edited together to produce the timelapse. This allows you to see the Milky Way, Aurora and other Phenonmena, in a way you wouldn't normally see them.

In the opening "Dakotalapse" title shot, you see bands of red and green moving across the sky. After asking several Astronomers, they are possible noctilucent clouds, airglow or faint Aurora. I never got a definite answer to what it is. You can also see the red and green bands in other shots.

At :53 and 2:17 seconds into the video you see a Meteor with a Persistent Train. Which is ionizing gases, which lasted over a half hour in the cameras frame. Phil Plait wrote an article about the phenomena here
There is a second Meteor with a much shorter persistent train at 2:51 in the video. This one wasn't backlit by the moon like the first, and moves out of the frame quickly.

The Aurora were shot in central South Dakota in September 2011 and near Madison, Wisconsin on October 25, 2011.

Watch for two Deer at 1:27

Most of the video was shot near the White River in central South Dakota during September and October 2011, there are other shots from Arches National Park in Utah, and Canyon of the Ancients area of Colorado during June 2011.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

iPhone video-taking trick

YouTuber "onemeeliondollars" has a fun little video about using his iPhone to take video of zoo primates. He goes on - at the end of the video - to show that the same basic function could be used on "higher order" primates. ;)

I don't have an iPhone, but I think that it's possible to try something similar with my camera... Now all I would need to do is go to a zoo.

(Yes, yes, it's actually not a gorilla, but an orangutan. But it's not my video.)