A Few Fun Links & Disaster Movie Idea

Fun if you like science and weather.

Here’s a New York Times feature on the snow in California. Cool science, great pictures. Here’s another one, with more information on Dr. Painter and his team who do all this great science geek stuff from an airplane, measuring snowpack and water content.

(Aside: Whenever I read about California in the NYT, I get this sort of Dr. Livingston vibe, as if they’ve sent civilized people out into the dangerous wild to gather intelligence on primitive but remarkably sophisticated (meaning: like New Yorkers) tribes. Not as much as I get when reading about the South – there, the vibe is more like: Surprisingly human-like Southerners may be our closest living relatives, after dolphins and Californians. But I digress…)

Observation: in these articles, it is acknowledged that only with the advent of the super high tech NASA/CalTech level gizmos Dr. Painter employs do we have any realistic idea of how much water is in them thar hills. This has only been going on for a few years. Useful records only go back to about the 1980s.Before that, we have guys with poles spot checking here and there, and then guessing about snowpack and water content over an area of thousands of square miles with variations in elevation of 10,000 feet or more – problematic, to say the least.

In the accompanying graphs, 1983 shows up as the record year, with this year close behind. (A couple more storms set to roll in this weekend, a couple more feet of snow expected, so 2017 may end up a record year after all. However, these are of the typical cold and relatively dry Gulf of Alaska variety, and not the warm and wet Pineapple Express flavor we’ve mostly gotten this year.) Yet, as that article from yesterday that Mike Flynn alerted us to, 1861 is the record year – I’ve seen 252% of ‘normal’ snowpack thrown around for that year, which must be a ‘reconstructed’ number, unless there were some pretty dedicated (and widespread) prospectors and Miwok doing science as a hobby.

Good Data is Hard to Find. I might need to get that put on a T-shirt.

Yea, there’s snow.

Believe it or not, I often edit these posts down, as – and I know you won’t believe this – I tend to ramble. A little. Yesterday, I cut a section wherein was speculated how the California water system would have to fail if we were to have another year with 1861-1862 level storms. Turns out, all we need are 2017-level storms: Melting record snowpack could flood LA Aqueduct and Owens Valley. Owens Valley, of Chinatown fame, is on the eastern slopes of the southern Sierra. Mulholland & Co pretty much drained it dry to supply water to L.A. Now, with all that beautiful snow perched in the mountains set to melt over the next six months (ski areas are planning to stay open into the summer this year), that valley – and the L.A. aqueduct that runs through it and on to L.A. – looks to get flooded.

If a 160% or so snowpack can take out much of L.A.’s water supply, imagine what a 250% snowpack and the associated rains might do. Oroville Dam, which has been dramatically in the news lately, is one of dozens of dams on dozens of reservoirs around the state. All the major ones rely on run-off from the Sierra. This year, they all filled just with rain, and are now frantically dumping water so that they have capacity for the snow melt. In a 1861-level event, all those reservoirs would be wiped out by the first few weeks of rain alone – leaving the snow melt to keep the flooding goings for a few more months.

And sewage treatment for 38 million people? Gone. No drinking water, sewage everywhere. Dead bodies will start piling up – hey! Sounds like the Enlightenment view of the Middle Ages!

There’s a pretty good disaster flick script in there – well, better than Sharknado, at least… Lonely hydrologist tries to warn everybody.  Lovely young mom in a troubled marriage lives on a small lake in the Sierra. Stupid politicians. Greedy developers. Cop and his best buddy fireman in some small farming town. 5th generation fisherman on the Bay. North Beach stripper with a heart of gold. The rains and snow start. People get trapped, dramatic rescues, tragic deaths. Rising waters push a tangled flotilla of boats and ships down to the Golden Gate, where they get stuck, restricting water flow and flooding – Berkeley! Yes!

Image result for sharknado
Hmmm. Sharks would kick it up a notch…

(Unfortunately, the parts you really want flooded are up in the hills. And nobody wants to flood the library. Fiction! We can do anything!) Silicon Valley under 10′ of water. Day of reckoning: Hydrologist surveys the damage, casts accusing eye on politicians and developers. Lessons Are Learned.

We are so, so doomed. Even without the movie.

Time to Leave California!

Mike Flynn links here to a nice write-up in SciAm about the epic California Winter of ’61 – 1861, that is. I’d noticed that, for the few places with records that go back that far, rainfall and snowpack records in California were set in the 1861-1862 rainy season. I didn’t know, until I read the article linked above, that that storm was an epic of even greater than Biblical proportions: it rained for *43* straight days and nights.

(above: typical California weather. Don’t let them tell you otherwise!)

To sum up: every 100 to 200 years or so, over the course of a few weeks, epic ‘atmospheric rivers’ flow into the West Coast, hit all those lovely mountains, and dump feet upon feet of rain, turning all those lovely rivers into raging torrents and the Central Valley into a lake, washing people, animals, farms, etc. into the Bay, flooding Sacramento (there’s alway a bright side) under 10′ of water – and so on, all up and down the coast.

OK, I give! Uncle! Public service announcement:

Do Not Move to California! We Are So, So Doomed! 

On the bright side: Sacramento gets flooded out! Uninhabitable for months! Well, OK, there are the 1.4 million people who are not politicians and courtesans who live there, so maybe not so bright. Man’s gotta dream. On a similar let-God-sort-them-out despicable fantasy don’t-really-wish-this-on-anyone vein: only part of Hollywood is in the hills – the rest is getting washed out into the Pacific! My hometown of Whittier is nicely nestled in the hills above the San Gabriel River, so it’s probably safe. But then again, so is Beverly Hills – well, you can’t have everything.

So sorry, that was mean of me. Really, I don’t wish harm on anyone – that’s why I’m warning you all to Stay Away! Don’t Do It! California is a Death Trap!!! I will be softly weeping at our fate as I try to console myself sipping fresh lemonade out in the hammock on the back lawn under the shady walnut trees in perfect 75F weather  all the rest of the spring. I promise!! It’s the least I can do. No, really.

A curious thing: all this doom and gloom only came together in the last couple decades – since 1998. Before then, the existence and nature of ‘atmospheric rivers’ and the periodic nature of the intense rain and flooding had not been known, nor had it been recognized as a basic feature of the planet’s climate – the same thing happens along the west coasts of Europe, Africa and South America, and even in the Southeast – the flooding in Tennessee a few years back was caused by atmospheric rivers arising in the Gulf of Mexico.

But wait – that means that no climate models had these mechanisms incorporated in them. Seems a rather serious omission, like omitting ocean temperatures and cycles. Hard to see how meaningful and useful predictions can be made, lacking as the models did such a dramatic and important mechanism.

At about the same time, satellites carrying the new Special Sensor Microwave Imager were for the first time providing clear and complete observations of water-vapor distributions globally. The imagery showed that water vapor tended to concentrate in long, narrow, moving corridors that extend most often from the warm, moist air of the tropics into the drier, cooler regions outside the tropics. The tentacles appeared and then fell apart on timescales from days to a couple of weeks.

The above quote tells us that the technology needed to start to understand atmospheric rivers wasn’t in place until 1998 or so. But the article elsewhere also says (as required by law, it seems) that the epic storms they sometimes cause will become worse because of global warming. Um, didn’t we just say we’d not noted their existence until less than 20 years ago, and have not even had one cycle through to study them, and that we’re not exactly sure what makes them go? An inquiring mind might want to know how, in such a sparsely populated factual environment, we could even have a hint which way changes in global temperatures would affect atmospheric river formation and intensity. Ya know?

I’m expecting 2018 or 2019, tops, as The Year California Washes Out To Sea. Why, one might ask? Well, intense weather tends to travel in packs – having one really wet year increases, it seems, the likelihood of another. And we’re due. And if we’ve learned anything from this last election cycle, one should start panicking as soon as possible and not let the lack of any real evidence slow you down.

I’m getting more lemonade.


Decision Making Paradigm

Of all the places one would be wise to seek intellectual consistency or at least transparency, what I here call one’s decision making paradigm would seem most important. You’re faced with a dilemma, conundrum, poser – how do you decide? Do you always follow that rule, or are there various rules depending on the nature of the quandry? It seems an honest man with any intellectual pretension at all would first of all be able to explain his position here regarding how he makes decisions. If one were to be honestly skeptical of anything, the purity and reasonableness of the mechanism by which your choices are made would have to be #1 on the list of things to be skeptical about. To do otherwise is slavery or hypocrisy.

Image result for kronk emperor's new grooveI ask today because of the cultivated silence on this issue, a silence in which is hidden how this is supposed to work, by those who don’t like Magisterial authority. OK, so you don’t think the Magisterium can really, truly teach – there are other ways of arriving at truth, or a better understanding, or whatever unstated goal you may have. Got it. Now, tell us how you decide what the issues are that fall outside of Magisterial competence, and how you arrive at your position once you’ve shed the Church’s teaching authority.

It is not an anti-intellectual stance to accept the Magisterium’s teachings even when I don’t understand them or see that they are right. The intellectual stance, the most rational stance of all for a Catholic, is to say: of course I, one tiny, ephemeral man, cannot hope to have as good a perspective as a Church that comprises a couple of billion people living and dead and which has lasted 2,000 years. Her authority is attested to by saints and scholars far more holy and smart and better educated than I. Therefore, I am not abandoning my intellect or my conscience when I choose to follow the teachings of the Church. Rather, my submission to her guidance is the highest exercise of my intellect and will I’m likely to ever make, and my conscience would torment me if I were to place it above the Conscience of the Church.

So, how about it? If you are trying to overturn millennia of church teachings based on something other than simply not liking them or as the price for getting to sit at the cool kids table, spell it out. If you’re cherry-picking – you know, asserting the Apostles didn’t have tape recorders, so we can never know exactly what Jesus said, but only apply this to positions you don’t like – people are going to see that you’re, frankly, lying. If “He who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” got garbled sometime between 30 AD and 60 AD, and Christ really didn’t say or mean it, what about “blessed are the poor” or “turn the other cheek” or that bit about my neighbor maybe being a stinking Samaritan? While we’re at it, all men are brothers in Christ seems a bit of a stretch, and that whole eye of the needle thing is clearly just a gloss by the envious lazy no-accounts. No tape recorder, see?

So, those Catholics disputing the Magisterium’s authority: Give us your method, its limits, and explain how you are consistently applying it to the teaching you love as well as those you don’t.  Otherwise, I call brood of vipers, point to the millstones, and otherwise attempt to shame your weak, pitiful and lying behinds.

Little Planets Found Around Little Star

Man, I am just a killjoy. So, let’s get the positive out of the way: it is way cool that 7 little – as in, not gas giant – planets were found around a ‘nearby’ in the sense of unimaginably and unreachably distant, star.

Almost got through a paragraph without getting snarky. Oh, well. Seriously, exoplanets are fun. If they ever actually find any sign of extraterrestrial life, that will be fun, too! But finding cool little planets isn’t the same as finding signs of extraterrestrial life. Oops, there I go again.

Let’s go with the NASA press release, to see Our Tax Dollars at Work: NASA Telescope Reveals Largest Batch of Earth-Size, Habitable-Zone Planets Around Single Star. Wow, the artist’s rendition, which seems to be required by law to accompany any NASA press release no matter how scanty the information, makes it look like what we have here are 7 very attractive and detailed – friendly, even –  little earth-sized planets!

An Artist’s representation. Of something or other.

That looks like fun. Here, let me play:

Some other artist’s rendition. Every bit as accurate! Except maybe for the fish.

But enough with the attempts at humor, at least until some other funny thought strikes me. The opening paragraphs state:

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. Three of these planets are firmly located in the habitable zone, the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water.

The discovery sets a new record for greatest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system. All of these seven planets could have liquid water – key to life as we know it – under the right atmospheric conditions, but the chances are highest with the three in the habitable zone.

What NASA thinks the tax-paying public is most likely to be wowed by is: Alien Life! Therefore, it deploys the terms “habitable zone” (three time), “liquid water” (twice) and  “life as we know it” in the first two paragraphs. The opening ends with a suggestion that there’s a chance – a pretty good chance, right? – that such conditions as would make a planet ‘habitable’ are right here on all 7 planets, but: “…the chances are highest with the three in the habitable zone.” So, one might suppose there’s a better than decent chance of life on those 3 planets in the habitable zone. Pretty exciting, eh?

One has to read all the way to paragraph 11 to discover that the star is an “ultra-cool dwarf”, which, while it sounds kind of cool, ultra cool, even, has some drawbacks: such stars are so cool for stars that their habitable zone is very, very close to them as opposed to stars like the sun. Planets must be very close, in other words, to potentially have the right temperature range for liquid water to exist on them.

Such close orbits present a problem: “The planets may also be tidally locked to their star.” At the very least (and some celestial mechanic out there please straighten me out on this if I’ve misunderstood) this means these planets orbiting close to such a star would be subject to tidal forces that strongly tend to slow down their rotation, sometimes, as is the case with our own moon, ‘tidally locking’ the smaller body so that it rotates exactly once per orbit. Sometimes, as with the roughly similar-sized Charon and Pluto, *both* bodies get tidally locked. Sometimes – and I don’t think this is very well understood (1) – the smaller body will fall into some sort of resonance period – 3 revolutions for every 2 orbits, as is the case with Mercury.

Full tidal locking would result in a planet with one relatively scorching side and one freezing side. If there were an atmosphere, it would tend to heat up and expand on the sunward side, and flow to the night side, where it would cool and maybe even freeze. If liquid water evaporated, it would suffer the same fate. I would imagine that, over time, like a few million years, the atmosphere would get thinner and thinner on the sunlit side until the ice on the dark side could evaporate into space – atmosphere and ice would be lost.

Be that as it may, a tidally locked planet seems very unlikely to be ‘habitable’ if we mean ‘life as we know it could live and develop there.’ (2)  Like the economist with one foot on fire and one foot in a block of ice, on average things might be OK, but in practice they are not. The situation would be more complicated but not much better on any planets with resonance periods like Mercury – really slow rotational periods allow the sunward side to get hotter and the night side to get colder than a quicker rotation, which could result in the same situation as fully locker planets – it might just take longer. (3)

Enough of my pessimism. I can only think of one tidally locked planet in SciFi, a throw-away world in the third (I think) Foundation book, with stations on the thin twilight zone. I’m sure other have done it, too. It would much fun to make up a way, somehow, that an advanced civilization could develop on such a world….

But don’t hold your breath over TRAPPIST-1, even if that’s a pretty cool name.

  1. Meaning: I’ve given it a shot, but don’t understand it as well as I’d like. In a bit of astronomy/egomaniacal irony, the entire Universe revolves around ME! The Omphalos Wikipedia: “Mercury is tidally or gravitationally locked with the Sun in a 3:2 resonance,[15] and rotates in a way that is unique in the Solar System. As seen relative to the fixed stars, it rotates on its axis exactly three times for every two revolutions it makes around the Sun.[a][16] As seen from the Sun, in a frame of reference that rotates with the orbital motion, it appears to rotate only once every two Mercurian years. An observer on Mercury would therefore see only one day every two years.”
  2. This is granting the as yet unevidenced principle that life will just ‘arise’ whenever conditions are ‘right’, given enough time. Let’s see example #2 of life – you know, extraterrestrial life – before we start generalizing principles, shall we?
  3. Some of the other articles I perused called ultra cool dwarf stars ‘overlooked’. I kind of doubt that – you’d focus on stars around the size of the sun, because that’s where planets can end up in the Goldilocks Zone without getting tidally locked – as we know from our own planet.  Planets around much smaller stars will have that problem; much bigger stars tend to blow up well within the several billion years it is assumed to take for life to develop. So, if you’re looking for another earth, you’d look around stars that look like another sun.


Can’t Get Enough Weather-talk!

Update: Here is the map of the current drought situation in California:

from the United States Drought Monitor web page.

Here is the rain situation in California forecast for 5:00 p.m. today:


I believe this is a problem meeting its solution (1). That band of heavy rain is dumping a forecasted 3″-6″ in the flats, a foot or more in the hills, all the way from Santa Barbara to San Diego and Baja California (2).  More rain over this weekend. The press is calling it ‘epic’  and ‘torrential’ and probably dragging out their thesauruses for even better words. I’d suggest ‘apocalyptic’ or even ‘the Ragnarök of rains’. I suspect there are legitimate reasons they don’t let me write for the papers.

Texted my kids who live down there, and, yes, they are wet.

I recall as a child reading Raymond Chandler stories, which seemed to involve rain in LA when not talking about Santa Ana winds, and wondering: huh? In my first 18 years, there was *1* year of memorable rain. Setting a story in rainy LA as if it were completely normal struck me as odd.

Also as a child – probably a teenager – found a large book in the Whittier Public Library that was a hydrology study from, I think, the 1920s, making the argument (with lots of cool maps and charts (3)) that Something Must Be Done about all these floods. So, on an intellectual level, I understood that it sometimes rains A Lot in LA, but lacked the personal experience to confirm it.

My sample, it seems, may have been skewed.

Updating the Update: Here’s what’s going on at the moment, per Weather.com: 

Actual rain at 3:50 p.m. LA is getting hammered. 
  1. even if the problem is calling “we planned our water system based on an insufficiently large sample size of ‘normal’ weather”  a “drought” – because Nature was done with the drought last year, when we got an average amount of rainfall – but all the (unnatural by definition) reservoirs and pumped out groundwater reserves had not yet been refilled.
  2. It’s a little too bad about Baja – it’s mostly a dusty desert and the infrastructure isn’t very good, and lots of people live in less than tight housing (and, sadly, a lot live under tarps and pallets and cardboard). It will turn a dusty mess into a muddy mess, at best, for a whole lot of people. They need the water, but it’s better if they don’t get it all at once.
  3. My hopeless geekiness is showing. Yes, I spent enough time looking at an hydrology study in the public library 45 years ago that I remember it to this day.

Some Links

A. The Statistician to the Stars makes the point: In our society, the use of force is reserved to those who govern

What do we call those people in a society who are licensed or allowed to use violence?

No hints this time. We call these the people in charge.

Image result for berkeley riots 2017
People in charge exercising their power. 

So, must we assume that hooded thugs and the college administration that effectively encourages them are the people in charge? If you find yourself in Berkeley, you’d better.

B. Mike Flynn, among other interesting things, spells out some of the difficulties in attempting to argue with post post moderns. It’s hard, when the sneer and eye-role have replaced premises and logical deductions as the foundation of higher reasoning – a perfectly predictable if unintended consequence of Hegel’s pitching enlightenment over logic as the one true path (or, at least, the express lane) to Knowledge. Which is how you end up with gender theorists, say, having greater standing in the academy than, say, chemists.

Well worth reading, and also following the links, which I will not duplicate here. Also, I think Mr. Flynn wins the internet for a day with:

Democrats have not been this riled up since the Republicans took their slaves away.


C. And here is Orvan Ox talking about modern name calling on Sarah Hoyt’s blog, and how it inures one to a certain manipulative shaming after a while. My comment:

The real threat here is that constantly being slurred does tend to make one hate the slurrer. The more inappropriate and stupid, the better – I mean, the more it tends toward making one dislike the name-caller.

Thus, while the name-calling will increase immunity among some, it may actually create that which it incorrectly names. If I wanted, for some reason, society to be racist and misogynist, continually calling it that might tend to make it so.

This would be merely a crazy paranoid idea. Then you read a little Gramsci and Alinsky, and the idea that something so convoluted and sick could be attempted starts to seem almost inevitable.



Books, Question, Dumb Stuff, Writing

Books: On John C. Wright’s general recommendation, got Writing the Breakout Novel, which I’m now reading. It is being helpful so far.

Also got Mike Flynn’s Captive Dreams. Been meaning to for a while. Now to find time to read it.

Also also, got Recovering a Catholic Philosophy of Elementary Education for when I get back on the education reading wagon.

Question: I use the Google news feed as “the news”, meaning if it appears there I consider it to have made the news, and if not, I don’t see it. Well? Does this seem fair? Prudent? I’m working under the assumption that Google is no more or less biased on the whole than any other means I could come up with to determine what is “in the news” at any given time.

Dumb Stuff: Speaking of which, a couple weeks back, I noticed in the news – the Google news feed, that is – that the markets, after pretty much uninterrupted gains since Trump’s election, had a few down days. Did the headlines say, as the often do, “Markets Pull Back as Investors Take Profits” or something like that? Is the Pope unambiguous? Headlines read, instead, that the honeymoon was over! Investor confidence in Trump had petered out. Sigh. Markets go up and down. If you knew why (beyond it being merely the mechanical result of people buying and selling stock), then you’d be rich – and not writing headlines. Ya know?

So now, the markets have resumed their irrational exuberance or whatever the cool kids are calling it these days. Do the headline writers give Trump credit? Like saying -“Oops! We Were Wrong About the Honeymoon Being Over” or in any way acknowledge that what they’d said a mere week or two ago was patent nonsense? Trump still appalls me, but not nearly as much as the out of control frothing attacks on him. Here’s a pro tip: Wait a bit, and Trump will do something objectively bad that you can clobber him for – every other president has. (He probably already has, but how is one to spot it among all the ravings and spittle?) Then you (the headline writers) won’t look so stupid to anyone with eyes to see.

Dumber still, I read and was writing an analysis of an essay by some Chicago reporter that was an attack on those with the temerity to point out that, wow, despite (?) a solid century or more of Progressive leadership, including lots of gun control, people in Chicago sure do seem to murder each other at a much higher rate than in other cities. We are assured the reasons for the 59% year over year increase in murder rate are complicated, and in any event invisible unless you happen to have lived you whole life in Chicago – I’m boiling it down a bit, but that’s what the residue lining the pot looks like when the boiling is done. And if you insist on pushing the question, you are by that fact alone acting with bad intent.

It was getting out of hand – there was so much misdirection (1) that I was getting pages into my analysis and was still digging yet more craziness up. So I stopped. Unless we can deal first with the facts instead of immediately playing the ‘it’s complicated, you can’t understand’ card, there is no discussion.

It seems, then, there is no discussion.

You get the idea. 

Writing: Finally, as mentioned above, I’m reading that Writing the Breakout Novel book, which is eating into my writing time, but I figure it will help in the long run. The first takeaway is not made explicitly, but reminds me of my callow youth, when I used to compose music. I discovered that – you’ll be shocked – coming up with nice tunes and pretty snippets of music was easy. Keeping fixed in mind where the whole composition was going proved much more difficult. Unless you want to write very short pieces, you have to know, on some level, where you are going before you start.(3)

Same with writing novels. I had all these cool tech and plot ideas. But where is the story going? How does it move from A to B to C? This may seem crazy, but I grabbed Jane Austen’s Emma to read, since I hear it has exactly what I’m most missing: complicated characters acting out of a variety of interest and talents toward different and conflicting goals. And it is otherwise completely different from what I’m working on.

Bottom line: I am not (yet) frustrated with the slow writing. I want to wrap up these explorations of technique ASAP, then just refuse to do any more until the book is done.

Hey, it’s a plan.

  1. e.g., in one linked article, the claim was made that more deadly weapons were now being used – I suppose they mean higher caliber? In one year? A commentator noted that Al Capone and his fellow solid Chicago citizens preferred .45 calibre Thompson sub machineguns that, at the time, were available for purchase at hardware stores. Yet, even counting the people Capone offed, there were still only 50 murders per year in Chicago, so blaming the increased deadliness on more powerful weapons seems a reach. For making this point, the commentator was called all sorts of names. Go figure.
  2. e.g., that, while Chicago’s murder rate keeps going up, cities like Houston have a flat murder count (despite a growing population) even though they have about the same racial & ethnic mix as Chicago and are about the same size.
  3. I love improve – probably what I’m best at – but those off the cuff compositions tend to meander, stick to very simple forms, or both. Or end up formless goo.