Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween? HUMBUG!!! or Sorry, Dylan

October is my hell-month on the job. My ordinary workplace dream, time spent wandering a pretty site with funny cats, is replaced by a month of dealing with the public and running all over the site for hours, making sure that the site is ready for the influx of people, and then running all over the site to make sure that the place is cleared and closed.

Aunt Snow, who has been waging a one-woman campaign against beauty deficit disorder, put up a post commemorating Dylan Thomas' centenary. In her post, she linked to Poem in October. Well, I have my own October poem:

Eyes are droopy,
Feeling poopy.
Get no sleep,
I won't weep.
One more weekend,
Then I'm free, friend.

You know your life has taken a nutty turn when you actually look forward to November.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Handsome Drake

This year, I was ecstatic to note that a pair of wood ducks chose my principal worksite to raise a family. Longtime readers may recall that I am partial to the birds, which are often considered the handsomest of the North American waterfowl. I had noticed a couple of the ducks on the property last fall, probably mid-migration, and I was happy to see that we had a spring-to-fall presence of the ducks.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw the drake foraging with a bunch of other ducks and geese. The wood ducks tend to be shy, so he led the other birds on a pell-mell run to the pond on site. He's the handsome bird on the left-hand side:

Ordinarily, the geese would linger on land, cropping grass, not fleeing unless one were to actively chase them. The handsome drake, though, is shy. I haven't seen much of him, more frequently coming across his gal pal and their ducklings. I think this winter, I may cobble together a nesting box to attract additional wood ducks to the site.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: Sandy Anniversary

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn for this month's Secret Science Club lecture. This month's lecture featured physicist and atmospheric scientist Dr Adam Sobel of Columbia University. Two years ago, Dr Sobel delivered a lecture on the science of Superstorm Sandy in the aftermath of the storm. On the two-year anniversary of Sandy, he returned to the Bell House to discuss people's reactions to scientific predictions.

Dr Sobel jumped right into the topic, showing a slide depicting the October 24th GFS forecast, a deterministic model of weather conditions. This particular model showed that the jetstream had dipped far south, and the 10/24 model produced by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts was an accurate model of the actual course of the storm. On the Wednesday before the storm hit the NY metro area, models indicated uncertainty about the eventual landfall- storms are chaotic systems so slight changes in the characteristics will result in larger eventual changes. On Thursday, the five-day forecast produced by the National Hurricane Center was dead-on. Dr Sobel noted that weather forecasts are great scientific achievements resulting from steady progress. Better computers allow forecasters to make better models, therefore they make better predictions.

When Sandy made landfall, it was a post-tropical storm- it was by no means a weaker storm, but it lacked the symmetry typical of tropical cyclones. Tropical storms are symmetrical and are warm at their center, they gain their energy from the warmth of the ocean. Winter storms are asymmetrical and get their energy from the jet stream- the temperature difference between the pole and the equator give them energy. Sandy was cold at the center- the storm was a merging of a tropic storm and a winter storm. The wind speed was 65 knots, which placed it firmly in Category 1 of the Saffir-Simpson scale. The storm was vast, with a huge area of winds and a worse storm surge. Because the storm was post-tropical, the National Hurricane Center did not issue hurricane watches or warnings north of Virginia. Under NOAA's rules, a hurricane advisory could not be issued due to the nature of the storm, a policy which has been changed. Gale warnings were made, though. On 10/27, then-mayor Michael Bloomberg held a press conference urging New Yorkers to stay indoors and to avoid low-lying areas, while warning of MTA shutdowns.

Sandy was characterized by its dramatic storm surge, basically a slow pileup of water. While the local officials did many things right, they did not issue evacuation orders on Saturday due to the lack of hurricane advisories. Dr Sobel noted that the water gets high no matter what the storm is called. NOAA's current policy is to issue hurricane warnings even if dangerous storms are not technically hurricanes.

On Sunday, 10/28, evacuation orders were given for evacuation zone "A" and the transit system was shut down. There were attempts to protect infrastructure- the electrical signals in threatened subway tunnels were ripped out and certain adits to the system were boarded up. There was a partial pre-emptive shutdown of the power grid. No evacuation orders were given to nursing homes.

Ultimately, Sandy resulted in 117 deaths in the U.S. and 50-65 billion dollars in economic damage. Most of the loss of life occurred in low-lying areas such as barrier islands, which Dr Sobel characterized as "glorified sand dunes". Among the slides depicting the destruction wrought by the storm, a picture of Mantoloking, NJ was particularly scary, as was a photo of the Hoboken, NJ PATH station.

A perusal of the NYC inundation map reveals that every area that flooded was wetlands, landfill, or barrier islands. Dr Sobel noted that the original coastline of lower Manhattan was Water St. He wryly noted that the idea that there would be flooding in Lower Manhattan shouldn't have been shocking.

Two of the worst-hit areas were Breezy Point in Queens, which was ravaged by a wildfire as well as by flooding, and Staten Island's Oakwood Beach.

Half of Manhattan was affected by a power outage and there was substantial flooding as a result of a fourteen foot storm surge. Gasoline supply chains were disrupted for weeks in the region.

Wise short-term decisions that saved many lives and much property were made, such as zone A evacuations and the measures taken to protect the subway system. The region's infrastructure, though was unprepared to withstand the storm... the South Ferry subway station, renovated in 2009, was totaled, needing $600 million dollars in repairs.

Dr Sobel then went over damage estimates from old storms, mentioning a 1992 nor'easter which flooded PATH stations. In 2011, Hurricane Irene resulted in flooding, mainly in New England and upstate New York.

Sandy was a rare event, but no scientific assessment indicated that it was an impossible event. The timing of Sandy was particularly bad- the fourteen foot storm surge coincided with a five foot high tide. In contrast, the thirteen foot storm surge from the 1821 hurricane which hit NYC hit during low tide.

Dr Sobel then brought up the role of availability bias in our reaction to storms. If a particular issue isn't pressing, people tend not to pay much attention to it. If something happens all the time, there's no need to really think about our responses to it, it becomes the "new normal". It often takes catastrophic events to inspire actions meant to mitigate damage.

He brought up the Dutch response to the 1953 Delta Flood which resulted in approximately 1800 deaths and massive economic damage. The Dutch government responded with the "Delta Works", a system of flood barriers. The Thames flood barrier was modeled on the Dutch Delta works. In 1938, the hurricane known as the Long Island Express slammed into the Northeast, resulting in approximately 600 deaths. The estuary cities of Stamford, CT, New Bedford, MA, and Providence, RI were flooded. In the 1960's a hurricane barrier was built to protect Stamford.

Dr Sobel touched on plans to protect New York City from flooding, asking "What will happen post-Sandy?" He brought up PlaNYC, a blueprint for stability and resiliency for the city. He noted that there were no plans for great storm surge barriers in New York harbor- the plan relies on local flood walls and the elevation of infrastructure.

The lecture then moved on to the topic of climate change. Dr Sobel noted the Bloomberg headline: "It's Global Warming, Stupid." He noted that it's hard to pin one storm on climate change. Human influence is not clearly detected in any upward trend in storms- there is a lot of natural variability. Currently, it is thought that climate change may result in fewer tropical cyclones, but that the intensity of storms is likely to increase, on average. Little is known about storms like Sandy, which was peculiar due to its route and its tropical/winter storm hybridization. There is a clear link between global warming and sea level rise, though. This has a bearing on flooding- in the old Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, each category of storm was typically categorized by three feet of storm surge. Sandy, however, was characterized by Category 1 winds and a Category 3 storm surge. With climate change, it's not unreasonable to jack up storm surge predictions one category. With sea-level rise, weaker storms will still result in higher surges.

Dr Sobel then stated that willful denialism of climate change is the most acute problem that we face in reacting to storms. Denialism makes taking long-term steps and unfamiliar risks to deal with storms. Availability bias is as much of a hindrance as a help. We can't wait for the problem to be compounded, though. He then ran down a quick summary of long-term predictions about weather events- the effect of climate change on tornadoes is largely unknown, but heat waves will definitely be more frequent, as will be coastal flooding. Climate change will probably simultaneously result in more droughts and more flooding. We will probably have fewer snowstorms.

The Q&A after the lecture was short and fast, and the Bastard in the audience didn't get to blurt out a question (for the record, he also had to pee like a racehorse by lecture's end). There was an interesting question about the lack of tropical cyclones in the Southeast Pacific and the South Atlantic- the climate is just not right for cyclones to form, a cold sea surface and strong wind shear combine to prevent this from occurring.

After the lecture, Dr Sobel was signing copies of his new book, Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future. The lecture itself was another triumph for the Secret Science Club- a timely exploration of a topic which has been on the minds of many New Yorkers, two years after one of the worst disasters the region has ever faced.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Thousand Dollar Bottle?!?!

My friend Peter has been in town for the past couple of days. He has been residing in San Diego for a while, but his parents still live in Yonkers. The family visited Prague, where Pete's parents were born, for a family reunion, and Peter stopped in New York to visit friends.

Over a decade ago, Peter wanted to learn everything there was to know about a very, very, very specific subject that had little-to-no practical value. He finally settled on the whiskys of Islay. He purchased a bottle from each of the distilleries located on the island, and tracked down a bottle from the Port Ellen distillery which had just closed. It was a bottle of the 1980 vintage 18 year-old whisky:

Back in the day, Peter had arranged a tasting for a bunch of us, with bottles of each of the whiskys and water and ice if we didn't want our whisky neat. I usually drink my whisky with the tiniest "teardrop" of water- dip the finger in a glass and add one drop, please. In the course of the event, we partook of the 1980 18-year Glen Ellen. On Sunday, a bunch of us got together and Peter busted out the bottle, which is about half-full.

If you look at the collectors' prices for Port Ellen scotch, they range from hundreds of pounds to thousands of pounds. If it had remained unopened, Peter's bottle would probably have been worth about $750-800. Sharing the bottle was worth a lot more, and he'll be bringing the bottle back with him to San Diego, where one of his co-workers is a Scotch aficianado. The whisky is a rarity, and it will be a treat for this guy to try a nip of such a nonesuch.

I take a pretty dim view of "collectors", probably due to the sort of people who hoard comic books and toys, driving up the prices so that families with little kids can't afford them. Toys were meant to be played with, books to be read, and whisky to be drunk. If Peter had held onto the unopened bottle, he could have sold it at a handsome profit, but the stories that he'll be able to tell about sharing the scotch will friends are so much more valuable.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Tactful Tactic

During our nighttime events, we light our sites with lanterns in order to provide a certain atmosphere to the proceedings. Along the path to the parking lot, the lanterns are secured to their stakes with plastic zip-ties to discourage theft. Needless to say, there are occasional attempts to walk off with a lantern.

Last Friday, some asshole cut the two zip-ties and walked off with a lantern. One of our contracted parking valets, seeing the guy carrying a clearly stolen lantern, intercepted him and grabbed the lantern, saying: "Thank you, sir, for picking up the lantern that fell to the ground."

It was a perfect response, unexpected enough to unbalance the guy, tactful enough to let him leave chastened but with some semblance of dignity (though clearly looking like a total thieving asshole to any witnesses.

The valet who pulled off this coup is an immigrant from Latin America, his English is okay but not fluent- but certainly good enough to navigate a particularly prickly social encounter while yielding the best possible result. The valets who work for our parking contractor deal with the public all the time, encountering dicks and d-bags on a regular basis. They are all post-graduate students in the study of human nature... an education that a lot of overprivileged natives never get.

I love these guys.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Silent Hollow

This being the Halloween season, I'm up to my keister in work, so I typically set up posts in advance and use the "scheduling" option. I also rely a lot on posting videos. This being the Halloween season, and me living in the Hudson River Valley, I typically put up one or two posts about Sleepy Hollow this time of year. Today's post features Edward D. Venturini's 1922 silent film The Headless Horseman, an adaptation of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow starring Will Rogers as Ichabod Crane. The film is overlong, and this particular video has a repetitive soundtrack, but it captures nicely the "Dutch vs English" subtext in the original story:

At the fifty-seven-and-a-half minute mark, there is a brief shot of laughing African-American children watching Ichabod Crane dancing... this seemingly out-of-place scene is actually straight out of Irving's original:

And now the sound of the music from the common room, or hall, summoned to the dance. The musician was an old grayheaded negro, who had been the itinerant orchestra of the neighborhood for more than half a century. His instrument was as old and battered as himself. The greater part of the time he scraped on two or three strings, accompanying every movement of the bow with a motion of the head; bowing almost to the ground, and stamping with his foot whenever a fresh couple were to start.

Ichabod prided himself upon his dancing as much as upon his vocal powers. Not a limb, not a fibre about him was idle; and to have seen his loosely hung frame in full motion, and clattering about the room, you would have thought Saint Vitus himself, that blessed patron of the dance, was figuring before you in person. He was the admiration of all the negroes; who, having gathered, of all ages and sizes, from the farm and the neighborhood, stood forming a pyramid of shining black faces at every door and window, gazing with delight at the scene, rolling their white eye-balls, and showing grinning rows of ivory from ear to ear. How could the flogger of urchins be otherwise than animated and joyous? the lady of his heart was his partner in the dance, and smiling graciously in reply to all his amorous oglings; while Brom Bones, sorely smitten with love and jealousy, sat brooding by himself in one corner.

While certainly not up to modern standards of propriety, this passage is pretty tame by the standards of Irving's time. I'm willing to cut "Uncle Wash" some slack regarding his racial attitudes- he was a product of his time, and in comparison to most of his contemporaries, he seems to have been innocuous. More importantly, this passage underscores the fact that people of African descent have been part of the American fabric since before the U.S. existed. The heart of "Sleepy Hollow Country" is Philipsburg Manor Upper Mills, a food-processing complex (featuring a mill, a dairy, and a bakehouse) that was operated by twenty-three slaves (listed by name along with the cattle and silverware on an inventory drawn up by a probate court when Adolphe Philipse died intestate). Irving makes mention of the mill-pond on a couple of occasions in his story:

The schoolmaster is generally a man of some importance in the female circle of a rural neighborhood; being considered a kind of idle gentlemanlike personage, of vastly superior taste and accomplishments to the rough country swains, and, indeed, inferior in learning only to the parson. His appearance, therefore, is apt to occasion some little stir at the tea-table of a farmhouse, and the addition of a supernumerary dish of cakes or sweetmeats, or, peradventure, the parade of a silver tea-pot. Our man of letters, therefore, was peculiarly happy in the smiles of all the country damsels. How he would figure among them in the churchyard, between services on Sundays! gathering grapes for them from the wild vines that overrun the surrounding trees; reciting for their amusement all the epitaphs on the tombstones; or sauntering, with a whole bevy of them, along the banks of the adjacent mill-pond; while the more bashful country bumpkins hung sheepishly back, envying his superior elegance and address.

The end of the story describes the re-routing of the roadway to its current position by the Philipsburg Manor millpond:

The old country wives, however, who are the best judges of these matters, maintain to this day that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means; and it is a favorite story often told about the neighborhood round the winter evening fire. The bridge became more than ever an object of superstitious awe, and that may be the reason why the road has been altered of late years, so as to approach the church by the border of the mill-pond. The school-house being deserted, soon fell to decay, and was reported to be haunted by the ghost of the unfortunate pedagogue; and the ploughboy, loitering homeward of a still summer evening, has often fancied his voice at a distance, chanting a melancholy psalm tune among the tranquil solitudes of Sleepy Hollow.

While I prefer the Walt Disney version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, even though I'm no Disney fan, this silent version of the "legend", with all of its flaws, does include an African-American presence which has largely been erased from the history of the North.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Woman's Place Is in the Dojo

I don't usually flaunt my blog at other people's websites, but I'm posting a link to the comment threat on Amanda Marcotte's post on the doxxing of Felicia Day. In her piece, Ms Marcotte writes about a depressing trend in all too many "fandoms":

But still, I recognize exactly the phenomenon she’s talking about and it happens to a lot of women who have interests in stuff outside the female ghettos of fashion and domestic arts. (Mine would definitely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, be music fandom.) The desire for camaraderie with your fellow hobbyists outweighs nagging doubts you have that many of the men in your world think you don’t belong or that you deserve to be put in a second class position, forever having to defend your right to be treated like an expert compared to men who are simply assumed to belong. You decide those men are outliers or, if they are relatively quiet about their beliefs, you convince yourself that you’re being paranoid. Hell, if you worry about it out loud, you may even be told you’re paranoid. Often by other women who, like you, are so eager to believe that men welcome your presence that you may overlook evidence that suggests otherwise.

It's infuriating and depressing, so I figured I'd put up a feel-good post to alleviate some of the frustration that many people are feeling in this era of #gamergate foolishness.

Last Saturday, we had a special guest in the dojo to teach our students:

The woman in the blue gi with the blonde ponytail is one of the top-ranked judo players in the world... she won the gold medal in her weight class in the London Olympics (while I'm not posting her name, there aren't too many Olympic gold medal winners, so a little research will show you her stellar record). I snapped a picture of her teaching a bunch of seven-and-under girls zenpo kaiten, or forward-roll breakfalls. She taught four classes for us, boys and girls ranging in age from six to fifteen. After each class, she let the kids dogpile her while touching her gold medal... it was quite a sight to see her jovial face peering out from a passel of children, her smile shining brighter than the medal.

Also in the picture, from left to right: the gent sitting on the windowsill is a good friend of our gold medalist, visiting from London. The gentleman in the white gi next to him is a dear friend I jokingly refer to as "Morocco's George Clooney"- he visited Shanghai on business and a bunch of the locals took him for the real deal. The woman in the red polo shirt is one of our soccer coaches, who hails from Argentina... her daughter is one of the rolling students. The gentleman to the left of our guest Olympian is the father of one of our students. The imposing gent to the right is a dear mentor of mine, also from Morocco ("Berber Badass" would be a good nickname for him). On the uttermost right, that cascade of hair belongs to one of the teenaged counselors who shepherd the kids from activity to activity... I have known this young woman since she was small enough to fit in a peanut shell. I know you're not supposed to play favorites, but it's hard not to, and she has always been close to our hearts. The Italian guy and the Brazilian guy aren't in the picture because they are off to the right sparring. The other Olympic gold medal winner is also off to the side, teaching an adult student. Gentle Jimmy G. from Jersey hasn't arrived yet, he comes in on his lunch break to get his fight on before returning to work.

So there you have it- an amazingly competent, dynamic woman who excels in a largely male milieu of international scope, teaching a bunch of young girls with gusto and humor. The haters can go stuff their precious game controllers up where neither Sol nor any alien sun shines. The good guys want women to be fearless.