Writing and reading

Not all readers are writers, but all writers are readers.

I don’t manage my reading time very well. I spend too much time scrolling thru my twitter feed, the epitome of ADD-style reading. It’s like reading a newpaper by just scanning all the headlines. (Guilty as charged.) I save my deep, slow reading for books – the ones made of real paper pages that I turn by hand, but I’m not always diligent about setting aside blocks of time for book reading. There is an in-between side of reading, though. Before the internet, it was magazines, but now that reading side of my life is fulfilled with reading blogs.

I currently am following 37 blogs with my WordPress reader.  A few are written by IRL friends, a few are fairly mainstream with lots of followers, but most are personal blogs similar to mine that I have just stumbled across. Many of them are inactive, actually. I do occasionally go thru and cull the list, but sometimes I don’t want to delete a blog that has gone inactive. I don’t actually know these people, but I am still curious about what happened to them. Why did they suddenly stop blogging? Maybe they will start again and open this weird, electronic window into their life.

But, as is often the case, I have digressed. What I really wanted to write about tonight is The Last Word on Nothing. I’m pretty sure that I have mentioned this blog before, but it is has remained my favorite internet read every since I discovered it. It is science-y, yet personal. It covers any and every scientific field. It is interesting, well-written, and (this is important) each post is just the right length to satisfy my in-between style reading brain.

Why should you read it?

First, maybe its tagline will grab you like it grabbed me:

“Science says the first word on everything, and the last word on nothing” – Victor Hugo

Not enough to hook you? Ok, how about this paragraph where they describe themselves:

Our writers live in London, Yellowknife, White Salmon, New York, Mexico City, Portland, Baltimore, Madison, the central California coast, Washington, D.C., and Cedaredge.  In their day jobs, they write books, teach science writing, and roam widely over the earth to meet deadlines for ScienceNatureNew ScientistScientific American, High Country News, Smithsonian, National Geographic, and many other magazines. By night, they write for you.

“By night, they write for you.” That line got me. Still not enough to make you check it out? Then hear my plea.

I am a science person and I fervently believe that everyone should be a science person. Actually, I believe that everyone IS a science person, you just have to be exposed to the truth and beauty and facts and process and history and research and passion that is science. What you’ll get from reading The LWON is a glimpse into all kinds of different science, posted by great writers who just want to share their passion. It’s not targeted at PhDs or experts, it’s written for you and me and all of us.

They post M-F with a weekly recap on Saturdays. You can also follow them on twitter @TheLWON and on facebook if one of those social media platforms is your preferred method for finding out when and what they are posting. Check them out. Keep reading, keep learning and enjoy yourself while you’re at it.

Geeking Out

Neighborhood Update: Water continues to recede. There’s a lot of activity as more houses become accessible and dry enough to actually begin cleaning up/salvaging/tearing out.

I need to point out one thing to those of you who don’t live in Houston: This long-term flooding situation is especially awful/weird/unbelievable because Houston drains very quickly. Flooding rains and street flooding in Houston is common, but it rarely lasts pasts the actual rain event. Even most of the areas that flooded during Harvey drained within a day or two. We are in the unusual situation of being flooded by releases from the reservoirs that usually protect us.

Personal Update: Still not doing much of anything to help. Still somewhat waiting to be asked. Still not proud, but still being me. Husband is heading downtown to work everyday. He sets his own hours to stay away from the worst traffic during his commute. There is still no bus service in this part of town due to all the road closures. Milo the guard dog has developed some sort of fear of the kitchen…which is especially odd since that is the place where his food, water, and bed are. Stella the emotionally needy dog is coming by for an extended stay soon. She will keep me busy and test my sanity levels in a different way.

And now on to geeking out.

I can’t help but be fascinated by all the facts, all the numbers, all the stats, all the science, and all the engineering around all of this.

The weight of all the water caused the earth to temporarily depress 2 cm here.

Irma is so strong that it was picked up by equipment used to measure earthquakes.

The advances in satellite imagery, forecasting, and modeling are AMAZING – and yet mother nature still can be unpredictable.

I’ve learned that nowadays, dams and reservoirs are designed in part with a metric known as Probable Maximum Flood (PMF). Barker-addicks was designed prior to that metric coming into use, but even so, they think Harvey might have blown apart the current PMF modeling criteria.

I’ve read more about the history of the reservoirs and also followed closely how the Corps of Engrs handled/are handling everything before during and after the storm. We went to a short talk at the reservoir several years ago. Everything is 100% consistent with what the head of operations told us then. There’s going to be lawsuits and investigations and blaming, but the engineer in me says that they acted properly and that everything performed as it should have.

I finally have a clear definition of the poorly named “100 year flood” statistic. Not that a flood of some magnitude is expected once every hundred years, but a flood that has a one percent chance of happening in any year.

Does something that seems as huge (in my little world) as Harvey make a dent on a big scale? What is the effect on landfill lifetimes from this amount of trash and waste? Is the amount of new building materials needed to rebuild Houston a drain on natural resources or just a boon to those economies? Are there going to long-term environmental impacts to the Gulf of Mexico from the run-off?

Here’s one of my favorite sentences trying to put some perspective on the quantity of rain that Harvey produced:

The 19 trillion gallons of rain in the past few days over Texas would raise the entire Great Lakes 11.66 inches. That’s almost a foot of water over the entire surface of the largest fresh water lake system in the world.

I’m afraid that politics and emotions are going to take center stage in the aftermath of Harvey when what we really need to focus on are facts and science.

That being said, I’m ending this disjointed post with one link, not to a set of facts, but to an emotional essay. Human emotion is always part of the equation, no matter how geeky we are.

Hot and Cold

Summer has a vise grip on Houston. The heat and humidity are relentless, oppressive, and will not abate until sometime in October. Any rain that falls will be graciously welcomed by the plants, but will only add to human misery with mosquitos and heavy “air you can wear.”

So what better time to follow the news from Antarctica about the imminent collapse of the Larsen C Ice Shelf. I was only vaguely aware of this phenomenon, I remember hearing the odd news tidbit, but I’ve doing a little internet research.

Ice shelves are thick sheets of ice that float on the water but are connected to land. They form when a glacier reaches the sea, but the water is cold enough that the flow just continues out into the ocean. We’ve all seen videos of icebergs forming or calving off from a glacier. This is where the water isn’t cold enough to keep an ice flow from melting, so the glacial ice falls and breaks off instead of continuing to flow. Ice sheets will naturally vary in size year to year. Small pieces at the sea edge regularly calve off, and the thickness will vary with temperature and the amount of glacial flow. The largest ice sheets are around the continent of Antarctica.

Photo from the National Snow & Ice Data Center nsidc.org

The Larsen Ice Shelf used to be much bigger, but Larsen A disintegrated in 1995 and a section of Larsen B roughly the size of Rhode Island broke off in 2002. Last November, scientists photographed a rapidly growing rift, or crack, on Larsen C. This crack has grown at an unprecedented rate and scientists are expecting a section the size of Scotland to break off soon. (“Soon” being a very subjective term.)

By NASA photographs by John Sonntag – http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=89257, Public Domain, From wikipedia

So then what happens? Well, no one is sure since this will be the largest ice shelf collapse ever observed. Since the ice is already floating on the water, there won’t be an immediate effect on sea level. Again, ice shelves do grow and shrink, but the Larsen Ice Shelf is unlikely to recover from a collapse of this size. It’s a huge compounding of effects. The rift was at least accelerated by climate change. Warmer air and water temperatures directly contribute to this type of calving. Sea ice floating near the shelf, which helps protect the shelf, continues to diminish. Once the shelf collapses, the flow of the glacier into the water will likely accelerate. All this melting ice will cause sea levels to rise. Which will further damage and reduce the size of ice shelves. Less snow and ice cover in and around Antarctica will contribute to rising air temperatures. Which cause….need I go on…and on and on and on…?

Don’t let trump’s twitter feed distract you from following the news from Antarctica. It’s interesting. It’s important. And maybe it’ll help take your mind off the temperature outside.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larsen_Ice_Shelf   Love me some wikipedia.

https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/quickfacts/iceshelves.html  Quick facts on ice shelves from the NSIDC.

http://www.dw.com/en/antarctica-larsen-c-breakoff-could-have-dire-consequences/a-39489181 A rather dismal (tho I believe valid) take on the situation.

http://www.projectmidas.org/  The latest news from MIDAS, a scientific group keeping a close eye on the rift.



First, we wonder

I’m not a space geek.

As I’ve written here on numerous occasions, I am a small-world person and there’s not much further away from my small world than outer space. I’m not the one who is prepared to argue, for or against, the merits of spending money and resources on space travel and exploration. Cost/benefit analyses make my head hurt. Why does an economist have the ultimate determination of something’s worth?

I’m looking forward to some star gazing under dark skies next week. While some will look up and imagine a future in the stars, I will look up and feel a pull to the past. I am fascinated by the story tellers of past cultures who named the constellations and invented reasons for the stars in the sky.  I marvel at the minds who looked up and were driven to understand the workings of our solar system.  It’s what humans have always done. First we wonder, and then we want to learn and explain why.

NASA has recently been releasing pictures of Jupiter taken by the Juno spacecraft. I may not be a space geek, but I would be happy with these photos hanging up as artwork all over my home.

Who could look at that picture and not wonder, and not want to understand what you are seeing? The picture gallery linked to above is only a small part of the NASA site on the Juno mission. A person could spend hours (and hours and hours) bopping around the NASA website learning way more that I, the non-space geek, have any desire to learn. But, wow, NASA does an incredible job trying to connect with people on the web. In my quick skim, here’s one thing that caught my eye in the mission overview:

In Greek and Roman mythology, Jupiter drew a veil of clouds around himself to hide his mischief. It was Jupiter’s wife, the goddess Juno, who was able to peer through the clouds and reveal Jupiter’s true nature. The Juno spacecraft will also look beneath the clouds to see what the planet is up to, not seeking signs of misbehavior, but helping us to understand the planet’s structure and history.

I love that NASA gives a nod to the story tellers of the past while operating in a future that would have been inconceivable to people even just 100 years ago.

Here’s a link to a short and readable National Geographic story summarizing some of the first scientific findings from Juno.

I’m not a space geek, but this is all pretty damn cool.

First, we wonder… but that is only step one. We are human, we always want to take step two.

Don’t knock it

Are you familiar with those Nyquil ads where a woman a woman earnestly says, “I’m sorry, I need to call in sick today,” and then the shot pans to the child in the crib? Followed by the tagline, “Moms don’t take sick days, moms take Nyquil.” (There’s a dad version, too, I’m happy to report.) I realized that’s one of the great things about being retired from working and an empty nester – I totally called in sick from life yesterday. It was just a nasty cold, but I had chills and fever all day and basically never left the couch. Happy to report that I am on the mend today, but still taking it easy.

The upside for you, oh loyal Thoughts From the Back readers, is that I don’t have the energy to pull together the full ranting post that I had planned for this week. So I’ll just summarize:

It’s not that I don’t like big corporations. I’m totally a capitalist kid. BUT don’t ever, ever think that a corporation has any soul, heart, or social conscience.

Here is a rather long tale about the scientist who discovered the connection between leaded gasoline and lead in the environment. Mental Floss headlined the story, “The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of.” I found it absolutely fascinating. As often happens in science, this wasn’t the issue that Clare Patterson started investigating, he was actually trying to determine the age of the earth. As often happens in our country, it became a political battle between corporations and a government agency, the EPA, to decide what to believe and who should be protected. Eventually, the EPA banned lead in gasoline and no one denies that it has directly resulted in a dramatic decrease in the amount of lead in the bloodstream of the average American.

Not only is the story of Clare Patterson a tale about corporations protecting themselves, it is also a tale about how important federal oversight can be. The Trump administration’s efforts to cripple agencies like the EPA is dangerous.

Clare Patterson might be the most important scientist I’ve never heard of, but I feel like he might just be one on a very long list. I feel optimistic about the future knowing that there are other scientists working today to find other truths.