Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reverse Abrupt Climate Change

Jeri posed an interesting question in the comments for the "Where Have You Been" map post, to wit: What would cause dramatically abrupt global warming.

The obvious answer was also referred to at "Standing on The Shoulders of Giant Midgets": the sun. (Good name for a blog:) Even a moderate change in solar activity could not just cause global warming, it could turn the Earth into Mars pretty fast. And it happens sometimes - it could happen tomorrow, because of internal mechanisms in the sun that we have know knowledge of nor understanding about.

Another answer, from my very limited knowledge of paleoclimatology, is that sometimes it just happens - has happened - and current science really isn't sure why, although a change in the solar activity cycle is one of the best theories.

Most of the known abrupt climate change events cause global cooling, not warming: shutdown of the Atlantic conveyor (aka "The Day After Tomorrow", a favourite topic from my old blog) or perhaps a bolide/meteor impact (aka "Deep Impact", or an ELE - Extinction Level Event). But the fossil and ice core record shows abrupt warming as well as abrupt cooling - the end of the Younger Dryas event in 9600 BC is the most recent and one of the most dramatic examples.

It is likely that major abrupt changes in ocean currents are a major contributing mechanism - just as the shutdown of a warm current (like the Gulf Stream) would cause global cooling, shutdown of a cold current (like the N. Pacific/California current) would probably cause abrupt warming, turning California into a hot, moist climate like Florida, as well as changing the whole circulation of weather in the Northern Hemisphere. Other than geologic phenomena involving thermal activity deep in the earth's core, the likely culprit behind such big changes in thermohaline circulation would again be solar activity.

Now for a gratuitous oceanography link.

This page at Woods Hole talks about abrupt climate change. Here's a quote:

Most of the studies and debates on potential climate change, along with its ecological and economic impacts, have focused on the ongoing buildup of industrial greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and a gradual increase in global temperatures. This line of thinking, however, fails to consider another potentially disruptive climate scenario. It ignores recent and rapidly advancing evidence that Earth’s climate repeatedly has shifted abruptly and dramatically in the past, and is capable of doing so in the future.
That's the real science. Our whole world could go "poof" tomorrow and we might never know why. (OK - That's a little bit of an exaggeration, but only a little.)

Woods Hole goes on:
Fossil evidence clearly demonstrates that Earth's climate can shift gears within a decade, establishing new and different patterns that can persist for decades to centuries. In addition, these climate shifts do not necessarily have universal, global effects. They can generate a counterintuitive scenario: Even as the earth as a whole continues to warm gradually, large regions may experience a precipitous and disruptive shift into colder climates.
That's the "Day After Tomorrow" scenario again, based on changes to thermohaline circulation.

Here's a link to a scientific paper from the Russians on this subject. It says that
long-term solar cycles (hundreds and thousands of years) can cause surprising and abrupt climate change when those cycles begin and end, by affecting global climactic processes, including thermohaline circulation. In other words - the abrupt global warming scenario could be caused by the beginning or end of a normal, non-extreme, solar cycle.

Another scenario is the onset of a Bond Event (no, not the remake of "Octopussy"). Bond events are the recent name for the Holocene-era analogues to
Dansgaard-Oeschger events, or abrupt climate changes that occur every ~1470 years. When was the last Bond event? 1400 years ago. Likely causes of Bond events? Solar activity and "reorganizations of atmospheric circulation".

Here's an informative graphic:

Note where we are on the graph relative to the temperature.

So if I were to write a science fiction story about this subject, I would use a huge and unforseen increase in solar activity coinciding with the now-impending end of the Bond Cycle to cause a major change in thermohaline circulation - increasing the velocity of warm (northerly) currents and decreasing flow of southerly currents. Southerly currents are caused by sinking of water cooled by evaporation. Increased warmth caused by greater solar output could increase high-latitude humidity, decreasing evaporation and accelerating the effect.

Would this, could this, really happen? Science apparently isn't sure, although it is feasible, which is why it would be good science fiction.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Somehow, A Georgian Accent Fits this Song

When I was a kid, I liked the English version of this song. However, since I learned the Russian lyrics, I can't listen to this:

without cringing. As they say in Physics, "not even wrong":

You rode on a troika with sleigh bells,
And in the distance lights flickered..
If only I could follow you now
I would dispel the grief in my soul!

By the long road, in the moon light,
And with this song that flies off, ringing,
And with this ancient, this ancient seven-string,
That has so tormented me by night.

But it turns out our song was futile,
In vain we burned night in and night out.
If we have finished with the old,
Then those nights have also left us!

Out into our native land, and by new paths,
We have been fated to go now!
...You rode on a troika with sleigh bells,
[But] you've long since passed by!

[Translation by the Pitt Slavic Department]

Although the English Lyrics are in no way faithful to the original, there is a similar feeling of pathos, albeit in a completely different context.

If you really need to hear it with a Russian accent, here is Dyatlov and Pogudin's version, which is closer to the tempo I first learned:

Eхали на тройке с бубенцами,
А вдали мелькали огоньки...
Эх, когда бы мне теперь за вами,
Душу бы развеять от тоски!

Дорогой длинною, погодой лунною,
Да с песней той, что в даль летит звеня,
Да со старинною, да с семиструнною,
Что по ночам так мучила меня.

Да, выходит, пели мы задаром,
Понапрасно ночь за ночью жгли.
Eсли мы покончили со старым,
Так и ночи эти отошли!

В даль родную новыми путями
Нам отныне ехать суждено!
...Eхали на тройке с бубенцами,
Да теперь проехали давно!

I was thinking about one of Ilya's comment on my Bout posts. Russians take an awful lot of pride in the richness of their arts and language. Certainly from my point of view Russian classical music and literature is more complex and more illuminating of the human experience than pretty much anything Americans have yet produced.

And yet, I would rather live here than there, and I've done the traveling to make that more than an idle statement. It seems that the dictum that one must suffer for art applies to cultures as well as individuals. Voluminous output of great art is often a band-aid on a wounded culture. Art constitutes the dreams of a culture, and a society or a person without dreams would not be fully human. But the difference between a medicine and a poison is the dose. Dreamers who don't get their head out of the clouds often wind up following some pretty nasty pieces of work. That's how cults, either of religion or personality, are born.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Return of the "where have you been" meme

...the CW Personalized Map Of Europe

Look What the Cat Drug Out of Youtube

I really do get that some ideas look better on paper than on the screen, and that once you're well into making a turd, it's hard to shut down production because of all the sunk costs. But someone greenlighted this:

Seriously. What. The. Fuck?

John the Scientist's First Law

...of getting your fat ass back into fighting trim:

It ain't a good workout until your hands shake and you get the dry heaves.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Oooh That Smell

In the one of my travel updates I intimated the olfactory experience that is Asia. Japan is unique among Asian countries in lacking the olfactory extremes of the rest of the continent. Not that the smell of incense in the absence of the smell of pot emanating from Japanese temples isn’t charming and exotic to American noses, but incense is the least of the olfactory intrusions in the rest of Asia. Indeed, I have also mentioned exotic foodstuffs in the past, but if you were thinking “Limburger” when I used that phrase, you were an order of magnitude or so off of the malodorous reality of certain items that Asians eat with alarming regularity.

So in the spirit of better communication, the word for today is Tsou Dofu (臭豆腐 the ou is a long “o” with a slight rounding of the lips at the end of the sound) – usually translated as “stinky tofu”. It is confusingly transliterated as Chou Dofu. I have a running feud with the rest of the world for using utterly stupid systems of transliteration of Chinese into English - the first sound in Chou Dofu sounds like the last consonant cluster in “rents” not the first consonant cluster in “cheese, what is that smell?”

Back in 2001, the food critic at SF Weekly pretty much described my attitude towards this stuff better than I could. In fact, I think that this excerpt is probably the reaction of any sane, non-Chinese person who comes in contact with Tsou Dofu:

It was a stink that could make other stinks recoil in horror, a stink so mean it
could beat a man senseless, drink his whiskey, then run a marathon through
manure in his best suit. It was so dense we could almost see it hovering over
our table during the brief period we spent acquainting ourselves with stinking

Yep, that’s the smell I remember. For you Terry Pratchett fans out there, the memory of the odor of Tsou Dofu is the smell that creeps into my brain when Terry describes the odor of Foul Ole Ron. When I first encountered this culinary delight on the streets of Taipei, one of the Chinese in my party, well, let's be blunt here - it was my wife - insisted on ordering it. Actually she insisted on following the smell to the vendor. The smell reached us first when we were several blocks from the source, and I asked naively: “who is frying dog turds”? The smell took on several layers of richness as we approached, and I insisted on remaining upwind while the delicacy was purchased and consumed away from the proximity of the vendor. I did consume a small piece at this point, and came to the conclusion that the smell and the taste are intimately related, and that this is an acquired taste that I have no intention of acquiring.

But what is it? Well, obviously bean curd is the key ingredient, and it is fermented for months in a salty stew that includes shrimp and several vegetables. “What is the flavor?”, you ask. The first site I came to when I Googled this stuff years ago was from a vegan writing a paean to this bona fide all-vegetable delight. All I can say is that if you have been reduced to using this stuff to get protein, perhaps it's time to re-introduce animal products into your diet. I didn’t detect any bleu cheese taste that the vegan mentioned in this stuff, although the chili paste that came with mine might have drowned out that particular flavor. Fermented cat's pee in a sponge cake medium is more the impression that I got.

But people actually eat Tsou Dofu voluntarily. It is so popular that scientists in Taiwan actually get grant money to study it. I’m so glad I found that abstract, my life was incomplete before I learned that you can use the level of ammonia in the fermentation vat to measure the progress of the reaction. One line from the abstract really rolled my gut:

Moreover, it is easy to be contaminated with pathogens and maggots during the
open-type fermentation.

So, tonight, three years after I originally wrote this piece for my old blog, I get a look at Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods, Taiwanese edition. Take a look at the video in that link. Start at about 2:25 in and Zimmern gets a taste of what he thinks is Tsou Dofu, but which looks to me as if it's normal fried tofu that was maybe dipped once into the Tsou ferment. He thinks it's delicious. If it was Tsou Dofu, I think he's nuts. Best quote from the early part of the segment? "It's a good thing this this isn't "Smell-O-Vision". But then, at about 5:00 into the segment, he goes to a real establishment that makes its own product. Now we'll see if he thinks the real deal is delicious.

So, at around 6:45 in, he gets served authentic Tsou Dofu. At 7:15 comes the actual taste. This is a man I've seen eat live, wrigging grubs from a rotten tree. And he can't get this stuff down. His reaction is pretty much exactly what mine was upon tasting this for the first time. Take a look at his face when he pops it into his mouth. My wife and I were ROTFLOAO. His simple, heartfelt declaration of "that is absoultely horrifying" is pretty much what anyone with a functioning olfactory system should say.

I have eaten this stuff on two occasions. (No more than a mouthful each time: I’m crazy, not dumb). Both times were from a street vendor with probably no hygienic oversight from whatever passes for a USDA in Taiwan. Excuse me while I go wash out my mouth.

Yeeeck, that’s better.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Random Thoughts from a Weary Traveler

Despite their frenetic mode of locomotion, watching hummingbirds is a supremely peaceful activity.

You have to censor about the first five things that come to your mind when you walk in on a 5 year old kid duct taping a 3 year old kid to the Play Doh table.

My father-in-law is a tough old bird. He was reminiscing about the War recently, which he is not wont to do. Of 150 men in his company, he is one of 3 who survived. Of over 600 men in his battalion, he is one of 17 who survived. Of those 17, he was the only one whose rifle’s serial number matched the serial number of the rifle he was issued.

If the GMD had a couple of thousand more soldiers like my FIL, they might have won the war.

Finding a child left behind in Communist China in 1947 is even harder than it sounds. Up until very recently, Chinese kids were given a “milk name” (乳名) which was then changed in late childhood. (In today's China, parents are given a month to come up with the real name). A high school and / or college name might also have been changed to another “courtesy name” name as an adult. See the “Names” section of the article on Jiang Jieshi (蔣介石) aka Jiang Zhong Zheng (蔣中正), known in the west as Chiang Kai-Shek*. If all one has is a milk name and one of the three most common of the 100 surnames (each of which are borne by almost 10% of the Chinese population), one is in for a long search.

(*I’m not even going into the idiocies of translators who use a poor transliteration system (Wade-Giles) of a Mandarin pronunciation of a last name (Chiang for Jiang) and a transliteration of a Cantonese pronunciation of the courtesy name (Kai-Shek for Jieshi) neither of which was Jiang’s native language of Northern Wu.)