Smoke

smoke.jpg

We have a fire in Southern California, and everyone gets to share in the fun. Above is a map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Satellite Data Processing and Distribution (original here) showing the extent of smoke from the Station Fire in the mountains north of Los Angeles (and from a series of fires burning in the mountains of British Columbia). Here’s a snippet from the Smoke Text Product (actual name) put out by NOAA’s Satellite Services Division:

Monday, September 1, 2009

DESCRIPTIVE TEXT NARRATIVE FOR SMOKE/DUST OBSERVED IN SATELLITE IMAGERY
THROUGH 0400Z September 2, 2009

Southern Canada/North and Central Plains/Midwest:
Remnant smoke was seen covering a very large portion of southern Canada,
the Northern Plains, most of the Midwest, and parts of the Great Lakes
region. Most of this smoke is remnant from multiple large wildfires
that have been burning in southern British Columbia over the past few
days. Smoke stretched west to east from British Columbia to south Quebec
just north of Vermont, as far north as central Hudson's Bay, and as far
south as the Central Plains where it has been mixing with the dense smoke
from the southern California wildfires.  Several areas of moderately
dense to very dense smoke were present, mostly along and north of the
US/Canadian border with one of the largeest areas of very dense smoke
northwest of Lake Superior and another over southern Alberta/southern
Saskatchewan.

For more on how the smoke situation is evolving across the country, see NOAA’s Air Quality Forecast page, then check the smoke forecasts accessed through the table on the left side of the page. (NOAA’s graphical forecast pages are awesome, but they require either a tutorial or a lot of time just messing around with them — the latter is my method — to discover everything that’s there).

Mascot Caterpillar

aniseswallowtail061409.jpg

Last year, Kate started using anise swallowtail butterflies as part of the biology unit in her second-grade class. As the name might suggest, the anise swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon) are partial to anise (fennel) plants and their relatives; in some areas, the go for citrus, too. Our neighbor has a healthy stand of fennel in one corner of his yard, and the last two springs the plants have hosted anise swallowtail eggs and larvae (caterpillars). The one pictured here is apparently in its fifth and final “instar” (larval stage) before becoming a pupa (or, as I’ve always thought of it, “going into its chrysalis”). It’s an amazing little street-side biology lab we have here. (Oh, yeah: And you get a dollar if you can tell me what that little brown spheroid at the caterpillar’s posterior end is.)

Further reading:

UC Irvine Butterflies of Orange County: Anise Swallowtail
Berkeley’s Anise Swallowtails
Butterflies and Moths of North America: Anise Swallowtail
Wikipedia: Anise Swallowtail
Wikipedia: Butterflies

Dogs, Wolves, Us

The New Scientist site is carrying a story headlined, “Dogs aren’t stupid wolves; they are much smarter.” Sadly, the oddly headlined story (“much smarter” than what? stupid wolves? whoa!) is just a come-on for a feature in the print edition of the magazine and only the first paragraphs appear online. But people aren’t stupid subscriber-sheep, and someone somewhere has seen fit to post the entire text of the article in a Usenet group.

The gist of the article is that dogs’ close association with humans over the last 100 centuries or so has endowed them with some “remarkable mental skills.”

“Domestic dogs evolved from grey wolves as recently as 10,000 years ago. Since

then their brains have shrunk, so that a wolf-sized dog has a brain around 10

per cent smaller than its wild ancestor. That was one

reason why animal behaviourists felt dogs were merely simple-minded wolves. It

has become clear, though, that despite the loss of brain volume, thousands of

years spent evolving alongside humans have had a striking effect on dog

cognition.

“For one thing, researchers are increasingly convinced that dogs must possess

some sense of right and wrong in order to negotiate the complex social world of

people. A pioneer in this area is Marc Bekoff from the University of Colorado at

Boulder, who has spent decades watching animals at play. He has championed the

idea that in many social species, including dogs, one of the functions of

rough-and-tumble play is to develop a rudimentary sense of morality.

“The fact that play rarely escalates into full-blown fighting shows that animals

abide by rules and expect others to do the same. In other words, they know right

from wrong. Bekoff argues that this is a survival adaptation that allows animals

to smoothly navigate other social interactions.

“Friederike Range from the University of Vienna, Austria, takes the concept of

dog morality even further. In a series of experiments, her team rewarded dogs

with a food treat if they held up a paw. They found that when a lone dog was

asked to give its paw but received no treat, it would persevere for the entire

experiment, which lasted 30 repetitions. However, if they tested two dogs

together but only rewarded one, the dog who missed out would make a big show of

being denied its treat and stop cooperating after just a few rounds. ‘Dogs show

a strong aversion to inequity,’ says Range. ‘I prefer not to call it a sense of

fairness, but others might.’ ”

Fascinating. I don’t know how the resident dog in these parts comes down on the fairness question. But he has shown a strong disapproval of profanity, which he no doubt has observed is associated with human emotional states he has no desire to be around.

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King Philip Came …

A couple of acquaintances–fellow dog owners whom we sometimes encounter up at the neighborhood middle school–both teach in the biological sciences at UC-Berkeley. This morning, one of them was complaining that incoming students don’t know some of the basics, such as the Linnaean taxonomy scheme (you know–the “genus/species” one that breaks down the world of living organisms into related groups). I’d have to plead guilty to that myself, though I’ve got some notion of how it works. Anyway, one of these teachers said there’s a well-known mnemonic aid for remembering the scheme and keeping its levels in order. It’s the phrase, “King Philip Came Over From Germany Stoned” (or alternately, “…Came Over From Germany Seeking Victory”). And the order the phrase prompts is: kingdom/phylum/class/order/family/genus/species/(variant).

Here’s an example of the scheme in action: the Pacific chinook (or king) salmon, also known as Oncorhynchus tshawytscha:

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Cordata

Subphylum: Vertebrata

Class: Actinopterygii

Order: Salmoniformes

Family: Salmonidae

Genus: Oncorhynchus

Species: Oncorhynchus tshawytscha

A favorite trivia bit related to this name: Although we think of the chinook salmon as one of the great, emblematic, wild species of North America’s Pacific coast (and the name chinook originated with a Columbia River tribe) , the species name “tshawytscha” actually comes from a native word for the fish on Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula. European biologists first encountered the fish there in the 18th century (the species names for chum, sockeye, and pink salmon as well as for steelhead trout also have roots in Kamchatka or Russia).

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Old Business

I’m always a little relieved to discover that I’m not the only person in the world with procrastination and lack-of-work discipline issues. We watched the movie “Adaptation” again; we saw it on DVD around the time it came out, but I didn’t remember it well, and I certainly didn’t recall how much it dwells on the scriptwriter’s neuroses and lack of productivity. One passage, a voiceover as the writer sits down to his assignment, is perfect: “To begin… To begin… How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. So I need to establish the themes. Maybe a banana nut. That’s a good muffin.”

So, after having gone to the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, here’s something new on the procrastination/discipline front: a Wednesday op-ed from The New York Times on the biology of willpower. The basic take is this: We only have so much self-control; if you spend it on one thing–getting your writing assignment done on time–then you won’t have as much left over for that other good habit you want to pursue, like working out. But that’s not the end of the story. If you understand you’re working with a limited store of self-control, you can manage the supply; and the researchers say that practicing this kind of control is a form of exercise: it actually helps you develop more willpower:

“… It can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower cannot cover all the efforts that are required. Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success.

“Focusing on success is important because willpower can grow in the long term. Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another.

“In psychological studies, even something as simple as using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks can increase willpower capacity. People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework. Other forms of willpower training, like money-management classes, work as well.”

***

And speaking of procrastination: Here’s something held over from a week ago. Robert Fagles, the most recent great translator of Homer and Virgil and others, died last week (here’s the New York Times obit; and here’s a little side-by-side comparison of his translations compared to past masters of the art–Fitzgerald, Pope, and Chapman). Nothing to say, really, except to take note of someone who was a superb storyteller in his own right.

“… They harnessed oxen and mules to wagons,

they assembled before the city walls with all good speed

and for nine days hauled in a boundless store of timber.

But when the tenth Dawn brought light to the mortal world

they carried gallant Hector forth, weeping tears,

and they placed his corpse aloft the pyre’s crest,

flung a torch and set it all aflame.

“At last,

when young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more,

the people massed around illustrious Hector’s pyre . . .

And once they’d gathered, crowding the meeting grounds,

they first put out the fires with glistening wine,

wherever the flames still burned in all their fury.

Then they collected the white bones of Hector–

all his brothers, his friends-in-arms, mourning,

and warm tears came streaming down their cheeks.

They placed the bones they found in a golden chest,

shrouding them round and round in soft purple cloths.

They quickly lowered the chest in a deep, hollow grave

and over it piled a cope of huge stones closely set,

then hastily heaped a barrow, posted lookouts all around

for fear the Achaean combat troops would launch their attack

before the time agreed. And once they’d heaped the mound

they turned back home to Troy, and gathering once again

they shared a splendid funeral feast in Hector’s honor,

held in the house of Priam, king by will of Zeus.

“And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.”

–Robert Fagles: “The Iliad,” Book 24

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Old Business

I’m always a little relieved to discover that I’m not the only person in the world with procrastination and lack-of-work discipline issues. We watched the movie “Adaptation” again; we saw it on DVD around the time it came out, but I didn’t remember it well, and I certainly didn’t recall how much it dwells on the scriptwriter’s neuroses and lack of productivity. One passage, a voiceover as the writer sits down to his assignment, is perfect: “To begin… To begin… How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. So I need to establish the themes. Maybe a banana nut. That’s a good muffin.”

So, after having gone to the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, here’s something new on the procrastination/discipline front: a Wednesday op-ed from The New York Times on the biology of willpower. The basic take is this: We only have so much self-control; if you spend it on one thing–getting your writing assignment done on time–then you won’t have as much left over for that other good habit you want to pursue, like working out. But that’s not the end of the story. If you understand you’re working with a limited store of self-control, you can manage the supply; and the researchers say that practicing this kind of control is a form of exercise: it actually helps you develop more willpower:

“… It can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower cannot cover all the efforts that are required. Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success.

“Focusing on success is important because willpower can grow in the long term. Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another.

“In psychological studies, even something as simple as using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks can increase willpower capacity. People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework. Other forms of willpower training, like money-management classes, work as well.”

***

And speaking of procrastination: Here’s something held over from a week ago. Robert Fagles, the most recent great translator of Homer and Virgil and others, died last week (here’s the New York Times obit; and here’s a little side-by-side comparison of his translations compared to past masters of the art–Fitzgerald, Pope, and Chapman). Nothing to say, really, except to take note of someone who was a superb storyteller in his own right.

“… They harnessed oxen and mules to wagons,

they assembled before the city walls with all good speed

and for nine days hauled in a boundless store of timber.

But when the tenth Dawn brought light to the mortal world

they carried gallant Hector forth, weeping tears,

and they placed his corpse aloft the pyre’s crest,

flung a torch and set it all aflame.

“At last,

when young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more,

the people massed around illustrious Hector’s pyre . . .

And once they’d gathered, crowding the meeting grounds,

they first put out the fires with glistening wine,

wherever the flames still burned in all their fury.

Then they collected the white bones of Hector–

all his brothers, his friends-in-arms, mourning,

and warm tears came streaming down their cheeks.

They placed the bones they found in a golden chest,

shrouding them round and round in soft purple cloths.

They quickly lowered the chest in a deep, hollow grave

and over it piled a cope of huge stones closely set,

then hastily heaped a barrow, posted lookouts all around

for fear the Achaean combat troops would launch their attack

before the time agreed. And once they’d heaped the mound

they turned back home to Troy, and gathering once again

they shared a splendid funeral feast in Hector’s honor,

held in the house of Priam, king by will of Zeus.

“And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.”

–Robert Fagles: “The Iliad,” Book 24

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Comets

The San Francisco Chronicle landed on our doorstep this morning for the first time in a couple of months; we actually canceled it, which is a subject worth a site unto itself, and I think the Hearst Corporation is trying to sneak back in (“You didn’t really want us to go away, did you?”); yesterday, we got a subscription offer: six months for fifteen bucks.

Anyway, the Chron materialized out of the predawn mist today. On the front page is a story about Comet Holmes, blogged here several days ago, and I wasn’t nearly at the leading edge of the Holmes enthusiasts. So yes, they’re a little late to the comet-gazing party. On the other hand, we’ve been pretty well socked in the last several evenings in the Bay Area, so no sightings from here. A couple nights ago, though, I took a quick trip up to the Sierra with my neighbor Piero, and the night sky was brilliant and clear: the comet was very bright, though you still had to know what you were looking for to find it (one apparent reason: the comet’s tail is extended directly away from Earth; so what you actually see is an immense cloud of illuminated ice and dust apparently being blown off the comet’s body).

The Chron’s story, while waxing expansively on Comet Holmes’s stunning emergence from nearly invisible object to celestial wonder, treats the phenomenon as something of an imponderable — just one of those things that astronomers scratch their heads about. The truth is, even the better-informed articles on the subject, like one last week in the Boston Globe, make it clear that no one really has a clear answer to why the comet is behaving the way it is. But there’s a range of speculation out there, and as long as you’re having your veteran science reporter write up the comet, and as long as readers are likely to be curious about the why of what they’re seeing, you might as well relay the best-educated guesswork in the field. The Chron’s story gives a couple lines to that near the end, but only after dutifully including notes from a local observer who calls the comet “amazing!” despite having his view obscured by trees and clouds.

Even if the story isn’t particularly well done, it does convey the wonder of seeing this thing that’s been invisibly sailing through space forever and suddenly reveals itself. I suppose that’s the best sort of encounter in journalism or literature: a story that uncovers an absorbing person or place or phenomenon that has been proceeding on his/her/its way for years and suddenly commands attention.

One case in point from today’s New York Times: a front-page story about the high school football team in Smith Center, Kansas — hey, I rode my bike into Smith County last year! In a high school with about 150 kids, in a town of just under 2,000, the team has won 51 in a row. In winning all 10 of its games so far this year, the team has outscored opponents 704-0. In one game, they scored 72 points in the first quarter. It’s a great tale.

Of course, in a sense, the Times can’t leave well enough alone. Landing in a symbol-freighted landscape — it’s small-town America, it’s the Great Plains — the Times investigates just how this juggernaut came to be and what it means. They find a coach who’s been on the scene for generations. And naturally, I suppose, they find that the lessons the coach teaches and that the kids and townsfolk learn isn’t really about football, it’s about life:

“None of this is really about football,” [Smith Center coach Roger Barta] added. “We’re going to get scored on eventually, and lose a game, and that doesn’t mean anything. What I hope we’re doing is sending kids into life who know that every day means something.”

Yes, of course. But presumably, the coach for the team that suffered that 72-point first-quarter stomping is trying to send kids into the world with some constructive ideas about living life, too (“Boys, sometimes you’re the windshield, and sometimes you’re the bug”). Presumably, too, Coach Barta has some athletes on his squad who are especially adept at administering lessons in blocking, tackling and execution to opponents. But the Times doesn’t mention any ot that. Instead, it insists on seeing not a gridiron story — not important enough to its elite audience, I imagine — but a wondrous and somewhat mysterious comet — why, after all, doesn’t the same story unfold everywhere? — glowing out there under the evening lights on the prairie.

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Getting It Straight

The New York Times ran a nice little commentary Tuesday on the factual reliability of Wikipedia, the collaborative online reference to everything, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the hoary compendium of everything worth knowing. The Times mostly recapitulates the findings of a study published last month in Nature that compared science entries in the Wikipedia, which depends on community writing and editing, and Britannica, which relies on subject experts for its authority. An encyclopedia open to all comers to add to and alter at will would seem fraught with risk and likely to be rife with errors compared to a work created under strict editorial control. But the Nature study sampled 42 entries in both works and found that Wikipedia articles contained four errors per article on average; Britannica articles contained an average of three errors.

I’ve made my living in a media culture that believes in the importance of accuracy and quality and refinement — qualities best obtained, it is widely believed, by employing someone like me. At the same time, I’ve lived in terror of the blind, witless blunder that makes it into print; either under my name or worse, by my hand under someone else’s name. The fear comes from having learned that editorial perfection is a moving target: The state of knowledge on most subjects is ever evolving and changing. One minute someone has never had sex with that woman, Miss What’s-Her-Name; the next they’re apologizing for the sex they had with her. Follow that? It’s not so different, really, from trying to keep your facts straight on politics, history, religion, science, or theories of modern marketing. The best you can do is aim to be correct at a given moment and be ready to reassess your work the minute you see it out in the world.

So it’s not surprising to find the Encyclopaedia Britannica isn’t the unassailable tower of knowledge some of us might like to believe it is. What’s more surprising, to me, is that the masses, turned loose on a universal encyclopedia project, don’t do so badly. The Times’s commentary has a nice simile for how it works:

“It may seem foolish to trust Wikipedia knowing I could jump right in and change the order of the planets or give the electron a positive charge. But with a worldwide web of readers looking over my shoulder, the error would quickly be corrected. Like the swarms of proofreading enzymes that monitor DNA for mutations, some tens of thousands of regular Wikipedians constantly revise and polish the growing repository of information.”

“Thousands of regular Wikipedians” is the key. Editors are important. It’s just that they don’t need a special license or a paycheck from a publisher to do the work passably well.

Bloggers on the Storm

What I said about the best weather reading in that last post? I want to amend it: Weather Underground is publishing a couple of hurricane blogs that are great fun for storm geeks.

One is from meteorologist Jeff Masters — actually, Dr. Jeff Masters to you and me. The other is from Steve Gregory, identified as a weather forecaster.

Both blogs are discursive and have lots of good show and tell (maps, charts and other graphics) that you don’t encounter on the National Hurricane site without a lot of drilling down, if then.

Masters has a comparatively sober and reserved tone to his description of the weather. Gregory is a bit on the overmodulated “you won’t believe this!” end of the spectrum. Tonight, he’s predicting what the next hurricane hunter mission will encounter before it gets there based on what he’s seeing in satellite pictures. He sounds very confident even though his last prediction turned out wrong.

Stick with Masters for the facts. Gregory’s good for the wild speculatin’ we expect on the Net.

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The Discussion

Wilma

The best weather reading out there — and I know one person in Napa who will back me up on this — is the forecast discussion produced several times a day by regional offices of the National Weather Service (for the San Francisco Bay Area, you can find it here). What’s good about it is that, even if it gets a little technical, you’re reading a real forecaster (as opposed to the TV kind) explain all the factors that go into the weather outlook.

The most striking revelation in the discussions is the degree to which forecasters rely on global models to come up with their picture of the weather over the next week. The models aren’t a secret, of course. But a large part of the discussion in any period of complex weather deals with how to resolve the disagreements among the many models, each with its own prediction about conditions 12 and 24 and 48 hours and (much) more from now, that are used to develop the public forecast. The resolution is often done by balancing a model’s behavior in various circumstances with the forecaster’s hunch about which of several outcomes might be true. It’s funny to see the TV weather folks deliver a "this is the way I see it" prediction knowing that a lot of their brow-furrowing is borrowed directly from the forecast discussion.

Now, among weather discussions, the best reading has to be the National Hurricane Center‘s tropical storm discussion. I think the reason is obvious: A lot more is at stake in a hurricane forecast, and the meteorologists wring their hands even more than usual about getting things right. But there’s another factor that makes the hurricane discussions fascinating: Tropical storm systems are so complex, with so many unknowns, that sometimes the models begin to diverge wildly on the forecast. The more powerful the storm — or the more variables to account for, such as adjacent weather systems, in figuring out where the storm is going — the more the models. At the mercy of what a computer is spitting out, the person whose name appears at the bottom of the discussion — another reason I like these writeups — sometimes is compelled to come out and say, you know, we can only guess what might happen two or three days from now with this thing.

I’ve read this kind of concession maybe half a dozen times this hurricane season, and three times in just the last couple of days in discussions of Hurricane Wilma. The statement issued at 5 p.m. EDT today was a classic — it started right into the problems with the models:

"HURRICANE WILMA DISCUSSION NUMBER  18

NWS TPC/NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL

5 PM EDT WED OCT 19 2005

"AGREEMENT AMONG THE TRACK GUIDANCE MODELS…WHICH HAD BEEN VERY GOOD OVER THE PAST COUPLE OF DAYS…HAS COMPLETELY COLLAPSED TODAY. THE 06Z RUNS OF THE GFS…GFDL…AND NOGAPS MODELS ACCELERATED WILMA RAPIDLY TOWARD NEW ENGLAND UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF A LARGE LOW PRESSURE SYSTEM IN THE GREAT LAKES REGION. ALL THREE OF THESE MODELS HAVE BACKED OFF OF THIS SOLUTION…WITH THE GFDL SHOWING AN EXTREME CHANGE…WITH ITS 5-DAY POSITION SHIFTING A MERE 1650 NMI FROM ITS PREVIOUS POSITION IN MAINE TO THE WESTERN TIP OF CUBA. THERE IS ALMOST AS MUCH SPREAD IN THE 5-DAY POSITIONS OF THE 12Z GFS ENSEMBLE MEMBERS…WHICH RANGE FROM THE YUCATAN TO WELL EAST OF THE DELMARVA PENINSULA. WHAT THIS ILLUSTRATES IS THE EXTREME SENSITIVITY OF WILMA’S FUTURE TRACK TO ITS INTERACTION WITH THE GREAT LAKES LOW. OVER THE PAST COUPLE OF DAYS…WILMA HAS BEEN MOVING SLIGHTLY TO THE LEFT OR SOUTH OF THE MODEL GUIDANCE…AND THE LEFT-MOST OF THE GUIDANCE SOLUTIONS ARE NOW SHOWING WILMA DELAYING OR MISSING THE CONNECTION WITH THE LOW. I HAVE SLOWED THE OFFICIAL FORECAST JUST A LITTLE BIT AT THIS TIME…BUT IF WILMA

CONTINUES TO MOVE MORE TO THE LEFT THAN EXPECTED…SUBSTANTIAL CHANGES TO THE OFFICIAL FORECAST MAY HAVE TO BE MADE DOWN THE LINE. NEEDLESS TO SAY…CONFIDENCE IN THE FORECAST TRACK…ESPECIALLY THE TIMING…HAS DECREASED CONSIDERABLY. …

FORECASTER FRANKLIN"

There it is: actual bitter irony; from a hurricane forecaster. "With the GFDL [Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory model] showing an extreme change … with its 5-day position shifting a mere 1650 NMI [nautical miles] from its previous position in Maine to the western tip of Cuba."

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