Politically Strange Weather Year

It’s raining here right now. No, not drizzle – you can hear the rain dripping off the eaves. Shhhhh, the National Weather Service web page doesn’t know about this yet. For my area, they’re forecasting an iffy 30% chance of rain tomorrow, and patchy fog today. But what’s the forecast for the next 10 years, or 100?

Today, maybe we’ll get enough of the wet stuff I won’t have to water. The American Southwest could use more of this stuff. According to a randomly selected chart, “Cool-season Precipitation in the Southwestern USA since AD 1000“, precipitation follows a roughly 10-year cycle and (alarmingly) we are nearing a peak of a good cycle.  The paper is posted by  the University of Arizona (tree ring research), and copyright by the Royal Meteorological Society.
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Morning Report

Hot Enuf

Hot Enuf

Yep, that reads 105 in the shade , and it will be over 110 by mid-afternoon. It’ll get hotter through the weekend.  They say it’s due to a high pressure cell over the Phoenix area, but what else would we expect in Phoenix in July?

In other news, the latest Scientific American has a feature article on biofuels.  It’s “good-bye Corn” and “hello Grass” – the switchgrass weed or even plain old lawn clippings can be made into large-scale biofuel resources. This is important: not only does it look bad when the wealthiest nation is diverting corn, a nutrient and water-hungry worldwide food resource, into biofuel — it’s an inefficient way to replace coal and petrochemicals.

Biofuels should be looked at as the stopgap they are, and not as a way to reduce our contribution to global climate change.  While importantly reducing our dependence on increasingly scarce world petroleum reserves, biofuels contribute to the CO2 greenhouse buildup just as rapdly as more familiar products from Shell, Exxon and Chevron. It would be a leap of the imagination to expect electric cars in every garage by tomorrow morning, but the sooner we are able to regard the internal combustion engine as a “legacy device”, the better.

We can’t just stop using legacy fuels and devices, we can only transition with all deliberate speed.  At the moment I am grateful for anything that keeps the AC running here. Opening the windows at night is no good when it only gets down to 88F at night. I would like a device that costs under $10 and  converts sunlight directly into a heat pump. But who wouldn’t?

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Schrödinger’s Cat and Less Famous Felines

  • Amazing science, heard on the ra-didio the other day: folks with insomnia, and others who subsist on too few hours of sleep each night, tend to put on the pounds – compared to skinnier counterparts who get in their traditional eight hours a night. What about the obvious fact that “fat cat” sleeper A is presumably eating or snacking an extra couple of hours or so every day, compared to sleeper B, who by definition is fasting? The radio report just didn’t say.
  • The December Scientific American did a bit on Hugh Everett, who first (and controversially) proposed that the split between quantum physics and classical physics was needless. In the quantum world, the mathematical position of a particle in space and time may have either of one or two states, depending on its interaction with an observer. Superposed particle waves might be said to exist in two states at once. In the classical “macro” world that we know, an object may be at position A, or B, but never both at the same time.
  • You may think this pure twaddle, but as it turns out that math of the quantum world works beautifully, while the math of the classical world falls flat, in describing and predicting actual experimental quantum results. Everett’s way to reconcile this monstrous theoretical contradiction was to postulate alternative universes, where both macro states exist at the same time, but in parallel and diverging worlds. For this effort, Everett was theoretically lynched in absentia by the scientific community.
  • After being egged on by Albert Einstein, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger hatched up his famous Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment. A geiger counter is rigged to detect the decay of a subatomic particle. If the particle decays, the geiger counter triggers release of a poison gas, which kills the cat. If the particle doesn’t decay, the cat lives. But, if in the quantum world we have to entertain the possibility of a particle in two different states at once, don’t we have to admit to the possibility of a dead-and-alive cat existing in both possible states at once?
  • My brother (who is neither as famous as Schrödinger or Einstein singularly, nor as both at the same time) was grudgingly adopted by a stray cat sometime in the 1980’s. People would say, “Oh, what a beautiful cat you have! What’s its name?” My brother would answer, “That’s not my cat”. They would say, “Yes, but what is the name of the cat?” And he would answer, “That’s not my cat“, for that indeed turned out to be the name of the cat.
  • As mean and hurtful as it sounds, there’s still more than one way to skin a cat (but not my cat). Happily, unless your cat is about the size of a subatomic particle, it can still only be skinned, so to speak, one way at a time.

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Old and New

Remember the Ice Man? This is the unfortunate neolithic hunter who died in the Alps some 5,300 years ago, becoming entombed in glacial ice until recently, when he was discovered by some hikers as the ice thawed. He became the world’s most perfectly preserved specimen of early european man, and the object of much study in the scientific community. We know what he ate, in which valleys he traveled enroute to his alpine ice grave (due to microscopic pollens found only in specific locales), what he wore, and now, the medical or forensic cause of death.

Forensic examination and CAT scans showed that he was shot in the back by an arrow. The human back is a particularly unfortunate way to be bushwhacked when you are alone, as you cannot reach the wound site to staunch blood flow, or, possibly, pull out the arrow. Once we realized he was bushwhacked, and hadn’t simply fallen into an ice crevasse as first speculated, the question was: was this the fatal wound, or did he carry the arrow into the mountains?

The CAT scan showed that the arrow hit an artery, maybe two, causing an aneurysm and massive hematoma (blood loss). It appears our Ice Man died within a few minutes of being struck down. A remarkable job of modern forensics on a 5,300 year old crime scene.

Driving home after work yesterday afternoon, I slowed down eastbound on the San Mateo Bridge instead of accelerating around what looked like a local bottleneck in the fast lane. Good thing. Seconds later, traffic came to a stop in all three lanes. I turned on the radio to see what was going on. In time, KCBS reported that “The Hayward Accident” was almost cleared. Finally, on land in the East Bay, I saw the mop-up in the opposite, westbound lanes. Our lanes were blocked only by rubber-neckers. For once, instead of being irritated, I saw why.

They had loaded one of the vehicles onto a flatbed. It had been a medium-size sedan of some kind. The front and back ends looked like aluminum foil tinsel that had been run through a shredder, or, if you will, a threshing machine. This vehicle wasn’t just smashed. It was cut to shreds. The passenger compartment was mostly intact. I never found out what happened, but memory of what I saw should make me a more cautious driver.

Speaking of threshing machines: about the time of Ice Man, contemporaries in warmer climes were figuring out how to domesticate wild grasses to produce foodstuff such as wheat and barley. As explained in the August 2007 Scientific American, in the domestication of cereal grains our ancestors favored annual grasses, perhaps because of bigger seeds, and we have favored annuals ever since. It started the annual cycles of cultivation, plowing, fertilization, tillage and harvest that we understand so well today. It also forced the hand of natural selection, favoring the grasses that bore the characteristics we favored for foodstuffs and ease of processing.

All this agriculture displaced huge land amsses populated by perennial grasses, such as found on the prairies of North America. It turns out that perennials are very much an Al Gore kind of plant. Perennials grow roots down to a depth of one or two meters, as opposed to perhaps a few inches to a foot for annuals. They require far less fertilization and irrigation, actually enrich the soil in which they grow, and make for an agriculturally much richer soil medium with a better texture and more nutrients for other plants in the ecology. To grow perennials, you do not need to resort to the expensive and destructive practice of turning and churning the soil every spring, nor of saturating it with nitrates and phosphates that ultimately poison the water table, and the soil does not blow or wash away as in modern fields.

It would seem that perennials are miracle plants that have been burned and plowed under for our more wasteful annuals. Indeed they are. Alas, we have spent five thousand years improving the annual seed stock through “natural” selection (the ones we plant are the ones that thrive) and through modern agricultural breeding and genetic research. Make no mistake, without modern plant hybridization, we could not produce or sustain ourselves much beyond near-starvation levels. It will take a while for science to come up with perennials that can produce comparable crops yields. But we have accumulated more agricultural and botanical know-how in the past 50 years than in the previous 5,000.

It won’t just be agribusiness that benefits from eliminating the enormously wasteful and polluting expense of plowing and fertilizing, but small farmers and poor sustenance farmers world wide. This could be the next big thing, comparable to the original domestication of plant foodstuffs. Imagine giant, cost-effective plains of cereal grasses, deeply rooted in their own moisture-preserving thicket of stable topsoil, stitched and bound together into a nutrient mat by those same root systems, that just keep producing and producing and producing … the Energizer Bunny of agriculture.

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