Where Hurricanes Come From

Sitting in Chicago yesterday, observing low clouds rushing south on a gusty northerly breeze — part of the larger circulation of what was left of Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of miles away — my brother John asked something like, “How do hurricanes get started?” I fumbled for a few minutes talking about some of the ingredients that go into a hurricane — warm, warm ocean water, the little atmospheric disturbances that sometimes kick off the big storms, and weak wind shear (vertical winds) that allow the storm’s circulation to get moving. But I realized, gee, beyond those haphazard scraps, I don’t really know.

The question itself is kind of profound, because a quick look through some online references show that while more and more is understood about the process, even supercomputer-wielding climate scientists can’t give a final answer to how the storms start. Obviously, hurricanes get lots of attention from serious science; the lack of complete understanding says a lot about how complex weather processes are.

A few “how hurricanes form” links:

–If you love the Socratic method and aren’t afraid of brushing up against a little high-level science talk, the National Hurricane Center has an insanely long list of frequently asked questions about the storms. To zero in on hurricane origins, go to the basic definitions page and check out “how do tropical cyclones form?

–Lots of more basic explanations are available, including at How Stuff Works. NASA’s kids site has good pages on how hurricanes are created and how they move.

Flying Home

Heading back, watching the night unfold, watching the towns approach, slide past,

right-angle layouts, the bright stitching of main streets against invisible landscape.

I can guess the names of the bigger towns: Rockford. DeKalb. Galesburg. Iowa City. Cedar Rapids. All maybes. Nothing big enough to suggest Des Moines or Omaha. Then the smaller towns. Some I’ve passed through, others are just names I’ve picked up along the way. Dyersville. Grinnell. Ottumwa. Story City. Stanhope. Storm Lake. Then across the invisible Missouri: Grand Island. McCook. Hastings. Ogallala.

But most without any names that I know, though I’d love to learn them. All down there somewhere in that thinning web of settlements as we move west, each town throwing its main-drag strands of light into the dark. Island universes in uncounted numbers.

[Translation: United Flight 385, Chicago to Oakland. Took off 8:45 p.m. CDT, landed 10:45 p.m. PDT.]

A Day in Greater Chicagoland


We drove from Dad’s place on the far North Side out toward Joliet, southwest of the city, to find the spot where the Des Plaines and Kankakee rivers come together to form the Illinois.

The first 99 percent of the route is straightforward: If you like, you can drive to within a few miles of the spot on Interstate highways. But we got off the expressway and took side roads to follow the dual channels of the Des Plaines and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The side roads weren’t pastoral lanes; we drove past one tank farm and refinery and generating plant after another. Eventually we turned away from the Des Plaines and drove west and south through brand new subdivisions — some half built, some just surveyors’ markers outlining streets and lots for homes that will go up next year; one neighborhood with a long curving boulevard of fresh asphalt and a giant new playground and not a single home even under construction yet. We eventually passed through a place called Minooka, which must have been a quiet little crossroads once. We crossed a highway at a strip mall called Mallard Point and drove south about a mile to a T intersection where we met my brother John, his wife, Dawn, and their two kids (Sean and Leah) who had driven over to meet us from my other brother’s place).

After wandering around on a couple of country roads, we finally figured out that the road to the confluence depicted on one of our maps was actually the towpath to the old Illinois and Michigan Canal — the link that in the mid-19th century connected Chicago and Lake Michigan and all points east to the Mississippi River and the interior of much of the United States. We hiked down the path for maybe three quarters of a mile, to where the conjoined rivers go through a lock and dam. A little short of the confluence, but close enough for today. Everyone was still smiling on our way back to the cars.

Reality TV


Watching the relentlessly turgid cable news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, I wonder: How long until Mark Burnett, the brain behind CBS’s "Survivor" franchise and many other reality TV series, gets into staging programming for natural calamities (or potential calamities) like this? Don’t laugh. Roone Arledge made his name in sports television for ABC and wound up taking over the network’s news division. The next logical step is to bring Burnett’s sense of drama, character, pacing, and production values to set-piece stories. To the extent that Arledge and many others have pushed news toward entertainment — an old development — both producers and consumers long ago started to make this shift.

Of course, most of the people doing electronic news are bad at both  journalism and entertainment. So the problem for Burnett would be he’d have to undo much of what news divisions have undertaken to appeal to their audiences: the flimsy veneer of theatrics laid over every square inch of a story like a hurricane. He’d have to find a few good Jeff Probst types to act as team leaders/anchors, and a bunch of adventurous and photogenic amateurs to send to the beaches to get blown all over the place. Maybe he’d set up competitions to decide who gets what storm-coverage assignments: winners of a challenge might get to stay inside a well-fortified four-star hotel while losers would have to ride out the storm on the beach.

As cheesy as this all sounds, it would almost be preferable to watching the news pros knit their brows and search for words to convey what a horrible spectacle nature is unleashing.

Random Reading

A product of random reading:

On September 4, 1886, the Chicago Tribune critiqued a pamphlet on a now-forgotten political scandal by a now-forgotten writer: ""The pamphlet on the Paine Bribery Case and the United States Senate, by Albert H. Walker, is plainly the effusion of a crank."

Mr. Walker was an attorney, author of a textbook on patents, who apparently took himself very seriously. The Tribune’s choice of words prompted him to sue for libel. Walker filed a declaration in federal court in Chicago that said the Tribune had published the remark "to cause it to be suspected and believed that plaintiff was a man of crude, ill digested, ill considered, and wild ideas and aims, and to be supposed to be without skill, tact, adequate information, or common sense." Furthermore:

"… to publicly characterize the plaintiff as a "crank," and thus to publicly impute to him sundry qualities, aims, and methods highly inconsistent with usefulness and success as a lawyer and author, … plaintiff has been greatly prejudiced in his credit and reputation, and caused to be considered an unreliable and injudicious person, and destitute of those qualities on which the earnings of a lawyer or a serious author depend; and has been greatly vexed and mortified, and has been deprived of divers great earnings which would otherwise have accrued to him in his professional duties, and divers great royalties which otherwise would have been paid to him on sales of his books."

Walker also noted that since President James Garfield’s assassination in 1881 at the hands of Charles J. Guiteau — widely described as a crank — "the word … has obtained a definite meaning in this country, and is understood to mean a crack-brained and murderously inclined person, and is so used by the public press."

The court wasn’t moved by Walker’s entreaty to help him recover his reputation. It granted the Trib’s motion to dismiss Walker’s claims, resorting to Ogilvie’s Imperial Dictionary to support its finding that "the word would seem to have no necessarily defamatory sense." In fact, the court’s opinion (Walker v. Tribune, 1887) suggested Walker get a thicker skin: " It is no libel upon a man who has entered the field of authorship to underrate his talents."

Despite the trauma of being called a crank by no less an august organ than the Trib, Walker managed to make a living afterward. His patent textbook went through at least four editions. He lectured on patents at Cornell. And he wrote one of the first books on the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, still circulating today.

Today’s Good News from Iraq

By way of Iraq Coalition Casualties, I note this press release from the U.S. Central Command about an incident in Operation Fight ‘Em Over There:


The release describes an incident in which U.S. troops shot and killed two apparent intruders at a U.S. base in Iraq; a third person was wounded. Nothing unusual there — I hear there’s a war on. But the release goes on to say:

“The professionalism of the men and women, who quickly responded to this incident, prevented any harm to the more than 9,000 Air Force, Army and Coalition members on and around this installation,” said Col. Michael J. Nowak, 407th Air Expeditionary Group commander.

“Security forces personnel flawlessly executed their job in service to the nation and met the challenge of providing force protection of the installation’s perimeter,” he added.

It’s nice that, while war is still hell, the boss takes time out to give the troops a pat on the back for a job well done. I wonder if this is a first in glowing media alerts for well executed killings. I wonder if, in the same spirit of tellin’ the folks back home about the job we’re doin’, Central Command will tell us more about shootings like this one. And this one.

Today’s Good News from California

The good news from the Golden State is that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s poll numbers are down. Not that that has any huge significance in the cosmos or even in the world of California politics four months from now. It’s just nice to see our thumping lumpish bully-boy demagogue — oh, did I say I don’t care for his act? — have a rough time selling the rubes on his patent potions for what ails him and his buddies.

The amazing thing in the latest poll results from the Public Policy Institute of California is that Schwarzenegger somehow manages to lag behind Bush in the overall approval rating among adults surveyed: 38 percent approval for the president, 34 percent for the governor. It’s a stunning achievement, really, for anyone this side of the BTK killer to trail Bush in a popularity contest.

So, since people don’t love Arnold this month, the initiatives he’s forcing on the voters by way of a special election in November are all hurting. Specifically: an initiative to increase the time it takes public-school teachers to get tenure from two years to five; a measure to create a special reapportionment panel so the Legislature can’t gerrymander things anymore; and new budget rules that would give the governor more power.

But, and this is a big but: Arnold still has two months and change to make people love him again. He’s a Hollywood guy. He’ll have lots of money to spend on wooing us and convincing us that he’s our best friend, and we are our own worst enemies.


So, I’m nearing the three-month mark in this law school job (every day a new record for longevity). It’s interesting getting to know the campus again, walking it every day. Interesting to see the students; last time I was up there on an every day basis, I was one of them — a little older than most, actually, but still, within a few years of most of the people in my classes. Now — well, I can hardly ignore the fact pretty much all the students are bracketed by my kids’ ages — 18 and going on 26. I don’t feel a full lifetime away from who I was the last time I was in class (something to do with a senior thesis, I think; never got finished). But in simple age terms, that’s what I am.

That’s not what I started out to say, though. What I started out to say was this overheard snippet, a guy to a couple friends walking down Bancroft Way: “Ted had a press conference the other day. He said Longshore‘s the man.” Translation took a couple of seconds: Football season’s here, and the fans are talking about it.

P.S. And, a lifetime away or not, Nate Longshore is about as fine a sports name as you’ll find occurring in nature.

P.P.S. Pending gridiron excitement: Illinois vs. California in beautiful Memorial Stadium. The last time these squads tilted, the Fighting Illini (caution: politically incorrect) hunted, killed, and skinned the Golden Bears (government notice: extinct hereabouts).

‘Brute Force’ Meets ‘Great Escape,’ Iraq Style

A great read in the Washington Post on Wednesday about one of the major detention centers for suspected insurgents in Iraq. The tale is complete with a “Great Escape”-style tunnel, a breakout foiled partly by satellite surveillance, and a prisoner insurrection of surprising scale and skill:

“On the fourth day of the riots, the Americans called in a Black Hawk helicopter, the video showed. The helicopter descended over the camp, the force of its rotor flattening the tents that hadn’t already been burned down by the detainees. Bulldozers and 200 heavily armed soldiers encircled the compound. The Shiite prisoners finally gave up, complying with a list of demands that included handing over their weapons: the remaining floorboards and cinderblock rubble.

“Little was left of the camp; it smoldered, smoke mixing with the stench of overturned portable toilets the detainees had used to barricade the entrance. Heaps of garbage, rocks and used tear gas canisters littered the yard.

“It was the end to what had been a sobering period for the Americans, coming just days after the tunnel was discovered in Compound 5.”