Category Archives: natural-world

Europe chills and Greenland warm

This passionate posting over at Daily Kos caught my attention.  So I’m trying to understand the  fundamentals  a bit more and ignore the passion.  The first image shows a warm current of ocean water sweeping up the west coast of Greenland.  The posting suggests this is tied up in the recent snows in England and makes the usual suggestive tie to global warming.  All in all it made me curious.

This first map shows the major currents of the North Atlantic.  If you look at the eastern sea board of the US you’ll see the gulf stream, in warm red, flowing up the coast.  Below that a cold blue stream of water flows south.  The Gulf stream begins life in the Gulf of Mexico, while the cold current begins along the coast of  Labrador.

You’ll notice that the Gulf stream pumps a lot of warmth into the ocean around England, Iceland, Norway.  The trade wind plays a key role in that.  (Read about the North Atlantic Oscillation to get a feel for the drivers of those trade winds.)    The winds sweep west to east across the seas south of Iceland drawing warmth from the Gulf stream depositing it into British Isles, and Europe.

The second map shows the currents in more detail.  You can see that some of of the gulf splits off and is drawn up around the tip of Greenland and then along up the west coast of Greenland.

These days we have  satellites  that can report on the  temperature  of the sea’s surface, so called SST.  And that can then be plotted either by  temperature SST, or by how much the temp has varied from the usual SSTA. In the alphabet of worry A is for  anomaly.  The third map shows how much the surface temp. is anomalous compared to the seasonal average.  Uou can see the current that wraps the bottom of Greenland is about one degree warmer than usual.  That map is for Jan 6th.  You can keep an eye on it if you want, there are some cool animations there, but not of the anomalies.

But I suspect that this happens when ever they get a serious round of cold weather in Europe.  It does presumably increase the ongoing of glacier retreat along west coast of Greenland.

The nightmare scenario is that the Gulf stream stops warming Europe.  But the story above starts with a cold spell in Europe; not the other way around.  I can build scenarios with positive feedback loops in them using only the above; but they seem pretty  tenuous  and uninformed to me.

Assumption of Generality

I gather that the term ‘Assumption of Generality’ is used in behavioral psychology to highlight the presumption that if our experiments observe a pattern of behavior in one species we are likely to observe that pattern in other species.

For example here is a typcial behaviorist experimental setup.  You put a pigeon in a cage with a button.  If the pigeon pokes the button she get’s a reward.  Then for the next 30 seconds the poking the button doesn’t do anything, but after that another poke gets the pigeon another reward.  In a sense this setup allows us to see if the pigeon has a pocket watch.  A sophisticated pigeon might learn to poke the button exactly every thirty seconds.  What actually happens is the pigeon learns not to poke the button immediately, but as time passes it give it another try, and as the 30 second mark approaches the pigeon starts hitting it more or for frequently.  The rate the pigeon hits the button is said to be scallop shaped; since frequency of pecking rises as the deadline approaches.

If we accept an assumption of generality then we would expect different species placed into a similar experiment to act in a similar manner.  Or to put it another way that they all have similar time keeping skill and  heuristics.  And indeed we do, almost.

Now for years and years I have been a huge fan of practical  behaviorism.    There are plenty of great and useful books on how to use it in everyday life to make things work better and avoid stupid feedback loops with the people around you.  You can find some pretty amazing videos of what people have trained various animals to do.  It’s clear from those that assuming generality has merit.  I had limited success once training a fish, but other people have had amazing success.

But wait a second!  Why had I never heard about the contrarian data about the Assumption of Generality.  Apparently, at least as far as that experiment above, we know that humans, and a few animals, don’t behave in the manner of pigeons.  If you put a human in that experiment they  behave in one of three ways.  You do see the scallop pattern.  You also see to two time other time keeping heuristics.  One is a kind of  rhythmic  pattern, where the animal just hits the button every few seconds.  The second scheme the animal first adopts a mode where he doesn’t hit the button at all, and then switches to a mode where he hits it a lot.

That second scheme is as if the animal takes a walk, knowing that it will be a while before the button works again the animal finds an activity that will provide a reasonable substitute for setting a timer.  This allows him to apply his mind to another activity during the interval.  The rhythmic behavior is similar, he finds something he can use as a metronome and then he can treat the button pushing as a background task.  In both cases the animal has a assembled a more symbolic, or digital time keeping heuristic.

In any case it seems to me  bizarre  that having read over decades discussions of behaviorism and it’s application to problems in various venues that not once did I happen upon the concept of  “Assumption of Generality” and that at least in some scenarios it’s known not to hold.

Stepping back, it’s way common for people to assume that what ever works the systems they are familiar with comprehend drives the other guy’s system.

Things I’m liking…

stationI’m liking these thin skinned vaults.  People used to do amazing things with bricks and tiles, and  folks at MIT are working to bring it back.  In the US we have a lot of amazing tile/masonry buildings via the work of Guastavino.  And, have look at these mostly abandoned  buildings in Cuba, also  via satellite.  One contributor to these techniques falling out of favor was rising labor costs, but also a lack of tools for doing the structural analysis on them and, in turn, a lack of building codes.  There are thrust lines that flow thru these arches, and they had better stay inside the masonry, otherwise it’s going to crack.  A single layer of tiles might be only an inch think; so best to know what your doing.  The folks at MIT think they have that problem solvedThese building suggest their right.  Try it yourself.

From Aspen Aerogel, click to enlarge.

From Aspen Aerogel, click to enlarge.

I’m also liking Aerogel insulation.  When I was a kid it was well know that the down of goslings, preferably from a Scandinavian goose, provided the worlds best insulator.  Man had yet to create a better tangle for capturing air and frustrating heat.  Nature is still  doing well in that race and  I still own a down winter coat.  But, it was lie.  In the 1930s chemists invent this stuff Aerogel.  It’s a solid consisting of nothing but fibers of silica.  It’s rigid, almost transparent, quite brittle, and extremely expensive.  But it’s practically opaque to heat, so NASA wanted to use it and they funded a mess-o-research.  These days you can buy small insulating panels of it so when you ship whatever in dry ice you only need to put but a tiny bit of ice in the box and it will stay cold for days.  You can get insulating batts of this stuff in various forms for around 3-4$ a square foot from Aspen Aerogel.  But  those aren’t as perfect an insulator as the solid blocks.  You can also buy it in granular form for poring into spaces (Cabot).  Not  as fine an insulator as the insulating batts this stuff can be nearly transparent so it gets used in skylights, exterior wall panels, and inflated or tension roofing.  You can also buy a slice of it wrapped up into liners for your shoes, a pad for sitting on the cold bench at the game, or for keeping your hot laptop from scalding your legs.  My favorite application is in these personal air heat exchangers.

There is a nice overview of various kinds of insulation here, which shows that the aerogel products have some near competitors; not mentioned though are these delightful batts of wool insulation, I like ’em.

I like this video demonstrating the hyperbolic discounting problem.  But the popular articles about this experiment are horrible.  They don’t actually explain how universal the problem is nor do they bother to give any hints on how to deal.  In this video the only means left to these kids is manipulation of attention, and even that was incredibly limited.  I assure you, this experiment would work just as well on adults.

Oh, The Temptation from Steve V on Vimeo.

And, I’m liking my name sake, I need to make a visit.

Damn Ice Dams

This is picture of a small portion of my late 19th century house.  This is a bit of the unfinished portion of my attic.  The shot is taken between two of the rafters.


The half inch thick lumber that forms the roof is shown, along with a few roofing nails that have come thru from the other side.  Below you can see the floor of the attic and a small drift of insullation left behind from when it was blown into the side walls.  Somebody, probably the contractor, did the right thing and raked it away from the eves.  At the very bottom you can see into the box that forms the eves.  We had rebuilt some years ago, which is why the wood in there has that coat of white primer on it.

Each year this portion of the room forms a vicious ice dam.  It rains onto the entrance porch and leaves a glaze of ice.  It was the there one of the days the agent showed us the house decades ago.

Ice dams form because the snow on the roof melts. That happens because the roof is warm, it shouldn’t be warm.  The water then flows down till it gets to a cold spot, often the eves, where it freezes.  Maybe you get a dam maybe you just get icicles.  We mostly just get icicles.  That’s good, since if you get damns the water on the warm part sometimes forms pools that work their way thru the roof and damage the interior.  That’s bad because it implies that my eves are being warmed, presumably by warm air traveling up the wall cavities.

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

I tried to address this problem when we had the roof done and the eves repaired.  The textbooks prescribe that you need to get cold air to flow up the interior surface of the roof.  Entering thru vents in the eves, and exiting thru a vent along the top of the roof.  When we had the roof done a decade ago that’s what we bought.  The eve vents are little one inch holes filled with little aluminum widgets that let the air in and keep the bugs out.

I have another picture like the one above with the lights turned off.  The problem is, it’s entirely black.  No light, and so I presume, no air is getting in from outside.  There are five pairs of rafters in the portion I was inspecting today.  In only one of them is light leaking in.  I feel a slight cold draft in that one, just as I should.

My vacuum cleaner’s hose isn’t long enough to reach into these cavities.  What to do, what to do?

Walk in the Woods

Mimi posts so I don’t have to:  Walk in the Woods.

The mushrooms were excellent.  Lots of single mushrooms, so that was fun.  That collection of logs covered in mushrooms, those are puffballs.  That was the only place we saw a bunch that might have been worth eating; though those were just pass their prime.  And, so far all the puffball’s I’ve tried have been unremarkable, Wonderbread(tm).

Searching for Alternate Routes

RNA viruses may well be the ultimate r-selected species.  The life cycle of an RNA virus includes a few steps.  Infecting the cell, coopting the machinery of the cell, making copies of its self, assemble those copies into viral particles.  Then the offspring need to escaping the cell, avoid the immune system, and find a new cell to infect.  If it’s that simple then it’s seven steps.

I very much doubt it’s that simple.  In fact the illustration above shows just the bit where the virus enters the cell and off it’s coat.  There is an antiviral drug that works by frustrating it’s attempt shed it’s coat.  Obviously it get’s even more complex yet again if we add in how the virus moves between host animals.

But the copy step is notable. In quantity and quality.

a typical RNA viral genome of 10,000 bases, a mutation frequency of 1 in 10,000 corresponds to an average of 1 mutation in every replicated genome. If a single cell infected with poliovirus produces 10,000 new virus particles, this error rate means that in theory, about 10,000 new viral mutants have been produced.

The quantity is high, but the quality is low.  Amazingly there is method in this madness.  The combination of high errors and high numbers creates something useful, a search scheme.

If you want to frustrate a virus then you need to shutdown, or a least narrow, the pathway through which one of the steps in the reproductive cycle.  For example, improved hygiene and increasing social distancing works by making the movement between host animals harder.  Anti-viral drugs target individual steps in the cycle.  The immune system learns to recognize the virus and pick it off as it moves between cells.  In all these case the challenge for the virus is to route around the resulting bottleneck.

Since most of it’s offspring are mutants, most of it’s offspring are sacrificed to searching for these alternate pathways.  Like most r-selected reproductive strategies the vast majority of the offspring fail in the process.  When the spider has a thousand babies it works out because takes that many to searches opportune door into the next cycle of reproduction.  When the maple tree throws off billions of seeds during it’s life that works because it needs to run that many searches to find one that let’s it pass it’s genes into the next generation.

It must be vary frustrating for the inventor of an anti-viral.  The stupid viruses can mindlessly find a route around his clever invention.  Adamantine was approved for use in 1966, by the 2005-2006 US flu widespread flu strains had routed around the hole it plugged.  I think we can assume that the route around was found quickly and what took most of the time was propogating it around the larger community of flu viruses.

There are interesting analogies to be drawn between this and the way we use r-selected designs in open source, platform, social-network, strategies.  I need to stew on that.

As with most things these days, I draw analogies twix this and my job search.  I keep trying to have the options be numerous and to try to treat the failed attempts casually.  But my species is not naturally given to r-selected tactics.

Wiped Clean

As Ike approached landfall last week the National Weather Service warned “Persons not heeding evacuation orders in single-family one- or two-story homes will face certain death.”  I was quite shocked to hear various news sources question that.    Below is a picture of a portion of the Texas shoreline, Gilchrist, Texas on Bolivar Peninsula.  Galveston is south of the channel up to Houston and Bolivar Peninsula is north.  The eye crossed the tip of Bolivar Peninsula and the regions just north-east of there got the worst of it.  I gather 400 people did not to evacuate from the Peninsula.

That photo is one of the set at the Globe’s excellent big picture feature, go look!  Anybody know the address of that house?  I suspect that Google street view and Microsoft Live have pictures of the old neighborhood.


It’s been great weather for mushrooms lately.  Dry the last few days, but yet we found all these on a short walk in our little wooded neighborhood park.

Thanks to my honey for here mosaic mojo!


Sitting in the small Vietnamese restaurant in Western Massachusetts an ominous dark cloud slowly delivered one of those marvelous downpours that sometimes end hot summer days. For the woman at the next table the sky was bright one moment; the next the windows were sheeted with water. A young man walked across the square, hood up, jacket unbuttoned, tee shirt glued to his chest.

The woman spoke of global warming to her companions: a friend and a husband. She mentioned that she thought such storms were becoming more common. She mentioned hurricanes. His counter point was that we don’t know much about hurricanes, maybe a few decades. No doubt this was only idle conversation; but I quietly leaned across my table and whispered to my wife. “This is important. Somebody is wrong on the Internet!”

I’ve been haunted by this conversation. He’s wrong. She’s right.

Finally the ghost of the stairwell was sufficiently frustrated to manifest himself, at least in virtual form. Fresh off the presses “Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate” – From the Brochure: “More frequent and intense heavy downpours and higher proportion of total rainfall in heavy precipitation events.” – “Very Likely.” From volume 3, chapter 2 of the final report: “Paleotempestology is an emerging field of science that attempts to reconstruct past tropical cyclone activity using geological proxy evidence and historical documents.”

Ah, if only. I could have leaned over and said “Paleotempestology!” Well, as we like to say around my house “Oh, tell it to the blog!”

Quake Evacuations

Someone pointed out that yesterday’s posting had a mistake, the death toll currently stands at 70 thousand, not 20 thousand.  In running down the current report lead me to this graphic.

15 Million people were evacuated!  The entire New York Metropolitian region is 18 Million!

I certainly hope that some large percentage of those will get to go home again if and when the risks of floods is mitigated.