Monday, December 13, 2010

Wooly Worms

Country folk believe you can predict the severity of the winter by the bands of color on the wooly worm (Pyrrharctia isabella, the larva of the Isabella Tiger Moth). Wooly worms are brown and black, and may be found with alternating-colored stripes.

The wider or thicker the brown band (which is usually in the middle), the milder the winter is expected to be.

Last winter the wooly worms were solid black, predicting a cold, snowy winter - which is exactly what we got.

This year the reports are a little more mixed, with a little more brown being seen on the wooly worms - although the reports are mixed. The official Wooly Worm web site, hosted by the Wooly Worm Festival held every October in Banner Elk, NC, has a more detailed and fine-grained worm-based forecast. It says:

Based on the width and order of the caterpillar's black and brown stripes, Jack's forecast for the coming winter (starting with the winter solstice on December 21) says there will be cold and snow through the holidays and on into late January. There will be a bit of a warming trend in the last week of January and first week of February with a chance for ice. February will continue cold, becoming extremely cold in March. The weeks leading to the spring equinox on March 20 will see the winter close with lots of snow.
Checking the Farmer's Almanac, we find a similar prediction:

Old Man Winter doesn’t want to give up his frigid hold just yet, but his hold will mostly be in the middle of the country.

According to the 2010 Farmers’ Almanac, this winter will see more days of shivery conditions: a winter during which temperatures will average below normal for about three-quarters of the nation.

A large area of numbingly cold temperatures will predominate from roughly east of the Continental Divide to west of the Appalachians (see map). The coldest temperatures will be over the northern Great Lakes and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. But acting almost like the bread of a sandwich, to this swath of unseasonable cold will be two regions with temperatures that will average closer to normal—the West Coast and the East Coast.

Perhaps the Farmer's Almanac uses wooly worms? I certainly wouldn't be surprised.

Another source says the wooly worms in West Virginia are all black. Perhaps the wooly worms are regionally precise? I have also heard that some all black ones were seen around here, as were some with a thick brown middle band, which indicates a warm spell in the middle of winter.

Comparing with scientific sources, the UAH global temperature anomaly shows a global average slightly cooler than last year for the last few days, but pretty close to the average for the last several years. This gets us back to the basic issue that local climate and global climate can be very different things, and we don't necessarily know exactly what that means. Last winter was one of the coldest in the modern record in the US, Europe, and China, but was warmer than average globally, because there were large areas in the higher latitudes (Northern Canada, South Pacific) that were significantly warmer than average.

So far it feels colder than usual around here and it isn't even winter yet. The forecast for tonight is 15 degrees F. Tomorrow it is supposed to be 13 deg. F. In many recent years past we have had shirtsleeves weather in December - but not in the last 3 or 4 years. Apparently it isn't just me: there have been a record number of new weather records this month, mainly for low temperatures and snowfall: check out this chart.

So what can we expect for the rest of the winter? (Actually, "the winter", since it is still fall.) According to the wooly worms it will continue frigid until at least late January.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Very Large Globes

Longtime readers (if there are any still around) may remember my fascination with Juan Trippe's globe:

To review, Juan Trippe, when he was the head of Pan Am, had a very large antique globe in his office in the Chrysler Building. He used the globe and bits of string to plan out Pan Am's pioneering routes around the world.

That globe is now in the Smithsonian Institution, where I saw and reported on it in 2008. Close examination revealed it to be a "Malby's Terrestrial Globe", which was not terribly significant to me at the time, but probably should have been:

Markings on the globe indicate it was manufactured in "18*4" - the third digit had been obfuscated by wear. I theorized at the time that it was manufactured in 1884 or 1894, but that was incorrect.

Thomas Malby was a globe and chart maker in London who first estabilished his business in 1810. In 1849, he re-issued the 36" 1825 Addison globe "for the Great Exhibition", which was held in 1851 (in partnership with the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, or SDUK). Reportedly Malby sold these globes until 1862, after which they were sold by James Wyld, another famous 19th century London globe maker.

There are quite a few Malby globes to be found around the world, but the giant 36" models are very rare, and very valuable. According to the University of Utah, who have two of them, there are only eight left in the world (three in the US and three in the UK, in addition to the two at Utah, according to them). I'm not sure this is correct.

Yesterday I was at the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, and was very surprised to see a 36" Malby globe in the library there. Perhaps more amazingly, a 36" Malby globe was recently sold at auction in New York - for $103,700. Including the Juan Trippe globe, that's three right there. Here are two more - although they are listed as "by James Wyld", they date from 1860 and I believe Wyld globes were actually made by, and labeled, Malby in 1860.

So Juan Trippe's globe would appear to probably be dated 1854, which is when Malby's big globes were at their most popular. (Here's an advertisement for them from 1850.) While there are probably more than 8 of them still in existence, they are still incredibly rare and valuable.

Globes are not cheap under any hardly any circumstances. The closest modern analogue to the large Malby globe is the 32" Replogle Diplomat - which runs around $8000 new. Someday when I have $8k lying around I'm going to get one so I can play Juan Trippe at home...

And Malby's? They're still in business in London, now known as the London Name Plate Manufacturing Co., Ltd. They no longer make globes (as far as I can tell) but the company is run by the 7th generation of the Malby family. Cool... Now if we could just get them to make more 36" globes!

Monday, November 1, 2010


This past weekend I visited Dallas and Dealey Plaza. I had always wanted to go there, to check it out for myself. It was very interesting.

I've never had a big opinion about JFK conspiracy theories although I tended to believe the basic premise that Lee Harvey Oswald did in fact shoot JFK.

Whether he was part of a larger conspiracy, whether well organized or not, I've been pretty agnostic. There are a lot of facts that seem to point to a conspiracy: Oswald's defection to and redefection from the Soviet Union, his relationship with Cuban radicals, the trip to Mexico City, etc etc., not to mention his own subsequent assassination by Jack Ruby.

At Dealey Plaza I just wanted to check out the geometry of Oswald's shot and see if it made sense to me. There have been many, many conspiracists who said the shot was "impossible" and I wanted to see for myself.

My impression was that the shot was far from impossible, although Oswald, who was only a mediocre shot in the Marine Corps, was somewhat lucky with the perfect headshot.

Similarly there has been a great deal of controversy about the Zapruder film, alleging it proved the shot could not have come from the 6th floor of the Texas Book Depository. After standing in Oswald's perch on the 6th floor, looking at the "X" on the pavement where the fatal shot hit JFK, and standing on the spot where Zapruder made the film, it looked like it all made sense to me. The Zapruder film shows an explosive exit wound that looked to me to correlate with the trajectory from the 6th floor of the depository. The earlier frames also seemed to be consistent with the earlier shot from the same location, which hit JFK in the back and also hit Governor Connally.

While lurking on the grassy knoll, I met a very interesting man who claimed to be an eyewitness to the assassination, 13 years old at the time, who was across and up the street from where Zapruder took the film. He said he was sure he saw a shooter on the grassy knoll, that a part of Kennedy's skull was blown backwards, behind the car and across the street, and that nearly all the witnesses at the time believed the shooter was on the grassy knoll. He then went on to relate many of the more wild and unbelievable facets of the conspiracy theory, such as that Oswald, Ruby, J.D. Tippitt, etc, all knew each other in Dallas before 22 November 1963. I have no idea whether anything he said was true, but he told a good story.

So my individual objective observations seemed to support, to me anyway, the basic premise of the assassination: that Oswald, on the 6th floor of the school book depository, fired three shots in about 6 seconds and hit Kennedy twice, killing him instantly with the (probable) third shot.

But like everything with the Kennedy Assassination, there are an awful lot of puzzling bits of evidence. To me the poor ballistics analysis has always been problematic. Oswald probably fired three shots, but where did the third (or most likely second) shot go? Something hit witness James Tague, but I've never seen a good analysis of how that bullet got to where it was. (Fascinatingly (to me), Tague, like practically every witness who has made statements that I've heard of, reports facts contrary to the Warren Commission report and may believe in a conspiracy involving a shooter on the grassy knoll. I have no idea if that means anything other than they all see financial gain in promoting a conspiracy.)

There are just so many strange facts about the case - like why did Oswald visit the local FBI office and threaten FBI agent James Hosty, warning Hosty to stay away from his wife? And why was he not arrested for making the threats? And why did the FBI destroy the written, threatening note that Oswald left for Hosty?

Who was the strange man who presented Secret Service credentials to Dallas Police Officer Joe Smith in the parking lot behind the grassy knoll in the seconds after the assassination? No official authority has ever provided an explanation for Officer Smith's testimony, as there were no known Secret Service agents on the grassy knoll, and especially none dressed in casual clothes, as Smith reported.

What about the other strange bullets and cartridges found near Dealey Plaza? Not that I necessarily believe any of them have anything to do with the assassination, but it is strange.

Ultimately, I have to stick with Occam's Razor. If there was a massive conspiracy, it would have had to have been unimaginably massive, and it probably would have come out by now. If there were other shooters, they were way closer to JFK than Oswald and apparently didn't hit anything - and there would have had to have been a massive coverup to conceal the evidence of their presence.

A lot of weird stuff went on - destroyed evidence, coercion of witnesses, botched investigations, etc. - but I think the explanation for it all is probably typical government incompetence and arrogance, not an organized conspiracy. Finding the magic bullet on Connally's stretcher was particularly strange.

I think if there was a conspiracy, it probably involved Oswald as the shooter with "guilty knowledge" about his plans and general strangeness among the various government agencies who had been interested in him before November 22nd. The FBI, particularly, behaved very suspiciously, but then again J. Edgar Hoover was in charge and they behaved oddly most of the time.

But ultimately I'm agnostic. I wasn't there, and it's hard to tell what happened years later. Like most stuff of this ilk, I think the discussion says more about us today than about what happened then.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

While we're at it...

The New Seekers were the reformation of the The Seekers, who I consider the greatest folk band of all time.

The Seekers were all-Australian, and are still revered, and still active, with the original lineup, in Australia. They featured the best guitar lineup in all of folk music, with Keith Potger's 12 string and Bruce Woodley's rhythm, and Judith Durham singing lead vocals always looking like she wasn't trying very hard.

The Seekers produced what I consider the greatest single ever in the history of folk music in 1965 (The Brits agreed - it was the #1 single in the UK that year). You can't play this song loud enough, and the band seemed to understand that - they're practically shouting on the studio versions. It was written by Dusty Springfield's brother Tom for the Seekers and was a #4 in the US and of course #1 in Australia as well.

Here it is... crank it up:

Target Commercial

You've probably been wondering about the song in the most recent Target "Back-to-School" commercial...

It's "Free to Be", by the New Seekers, the early-70s reincarnation of the great Australian 60's folk band The Seekers, featuring the very appealing Scottish vocalist Eve Graham. The New Seekers had several hits on both sides of the Atlantic, including "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing", which was originally a Coca Cola commercial, but the "Free to Be" song was originally the theme to a 1974 Marlo Thomas children's TV special.

The song has enjoyed a cult following since then, even though it was never an actual release by the New Seekers. Enjoy:

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Pond

The Pond was a very-little-known Army intelligence unit operating under non-official cover in World War II and after, before it was absorbed into the fledgling CIA.

Recently the archives of the Pond, which were discovered in a barn in 2001, have finally been made public by the National Archives.

I wrote about the Pond and the fascinating story of its archives in my old blog, which sadly is now gone, after the CIA journal "Studies in Intelligence" published an article about it - until now practically the only information ever revealed publicly about the Pond's existence.

Now the documents are finally available - I had doubted they would ever be public. There is a lot of explosive history in these documents, particularly related to the pitched battle between the Pond and the CIA in the late 40's and early 50's. The Pond (supposedly) identified many Soviet agents in the US and Western Europe and fought to have those people investigated, while the CIA sought to dismiss, cover up, and protect those same people, many of whom were much later identified as real Soviet spies. For this reason alone, because the CIA had control over release of the Pond's documents, I expected they would disappear forever.

Of course we don't know what the CIA removed from the records before forwarding them to the National Archive. Presumably they removed everything embarrassing to the CIA, which could have been a lot.

Many people today are making the argument (obliquely) that the Pond is exactly the model we should be using for foreign intelligence, relying extensively on non-official cover vs. the embassy-based cover favored by the CIA.

The record - which may or may not be further bolstered by the Pond documents - however, is that the intelligence bureaucracy hates "non official cover" or "outsourced intelligence collection" and will normally do whatever it takes to eliminate it, as was done with the Pond.

The documents are, so far, only available by going to the National Archives and looking at them but I am hoping someone will put them on the web. Also there should be some good books coming out based on this newly-released information. I can hardly wait...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Water Temperatures

This summer has been hot. It feels much hotter than last summer, although last summer was one of the coldest in decades in some places. This summer, however, feels a lot hotter than last summer, and perhaps hotter than usual.

I observe temperatures through a variety of non-scientific means. One of my favourite, and least scientific, is the temperature of my swimming pool in North Carolina. Water changes temp a lot slower than air, so it's a good medium to "smooth out" daily and weekly fluctuations.

This summer, my pool got hotter than usual quicker than usual - it was up to the high 80's in early June, which was a notable spike. I expected it to stay hot because of the heat wave that has hardly been broken since then. But something strange happened: it dropped back to the high-70s/low 80s in late June, where it has been for the last several days, even though the daytime temps seem hotter than usual to me. I absolutely don't know what this means or how it happened.

Last year the pool never got above the low-80s all summer, whereas two years ago it went to the high 80s in mid-June and stayed there until September. It seems like its been hot, but the pool doesn't seem to know it.

Another thing I look at is sea surface temps in the Florida Keys. I expect it to be mid-high 80s in July and this week it's been 82-84 - seemingly a couple of degrees cooler than usual. I looked at historical data, however, and the temps are actually very close to historical averages for this week in July, according to the data I found. Unfortunately, NOAA's weather stations are notoriously unreliable in the Keys and a lot of data is missing, which is very frustrating. There does, however, seem to be a warming trend since 1988, which is the first year of data for the stations I looked at (SMKF1 and SANF1). The chart below would seem to indicate that warming trend is strongly indicated by the global average.

Lately I've learned about how temperatures are measured and studied. The "UAH" global temperature average is the community standard. "UAH" refers to the University of Alabama at Huntsville, where they work hard to keep track of these things, mainly relying on NOAA satellite data, which we have only had for about the last 30 years.

Here is a helpful interactive chart from UAH on recent temperature trends. It shows 2010 as warmer than usual even for recent years, which is strongly suggestive of a warming trend, although the graph has turned down in the last few days and we are now (as of this week) a little cooler than last year and about the same as the last few years' average. Interestingly, this is just for sea surface temperature. If you go up in the atmosphere, the picture changes dramatically. 2010 is colder than many recent years at higher altitudes (play with the altitude selector on the left side of the UAH interactive chart to see it). I have absolutely no idea what this means or why it is so - maybe someone else does?

But I am hoping my unscientific observations of temperature are correct and the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico are a little cooler than usual because that will probably mean a comparatively benign hurricane season. Every year recently the Colorado State University predicts an "active" hurricane season but 2008 and 2009 were extremely quiet - well below average. As hurricane season is coming right up, we shall soon see...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


The extraordinary events of the last couple of days involving General Stan McChrystal have provided unusual insights into how the US government works and how random unpredictable happenings can change history.

The best story I've seen about what happened is here. It points out how the eruption of the Icelandic volcano (I'm not even going t0 try to cut-and-paste the name of the thing) gave Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings access to McChrystal's staff that he would not otherwise have had. The volcano erupted, grounding flights, and hosing up McChrystal and staff's travel plans. Subsequently the reporter got to spend a lot more informal time with the staff than he would have otherwise.

The staff sunk McChrystal. The general himself did not say anything incriminating to the reporter that I could tell from the article. There were some third-hand, un-attributed quotes along the lines of "McChrystal is believed to have thought" something incriminating. The most incriminating quotes were attributed, generically, to the staff. Most of the most incriminating statements - if they are true at all - apparently came from staff officers while they were drunk in Paris. The big impression I got from the article was that his staff was unbelievably arrogant to -allegedly- say the things they did to a reporter. I heard it said today, by a couple of guys who know most of that staff personally, that they are the best we have, the most combat-experienced, and the most sophisticated at fighting the war against al Qaeda. Some of those guys must be feeling pretty bad this week, both for their own careers and for their boss.

I had wondered how a guy who was apparently as smart as McChrystal could have made such an obviously stupid mistake. The story about the volcano really made sense. He had a plan to limit his risk associated with the Rolling Stone reporter, and his plan was derailed by fate. It's amazing how often random chance can divert the course of history.

The selection of Petreus to replace McChrystal is also interesting. In one sense it is probably obvious as the best thing the White House could do to get out of a bad situation. Petreus has a great reputation, is politically way more savvy than McChrystal, and in fact is considered an architect of the counterinsurgency doctrine that McChrystal advocated and implemented in Afghanistan. From one angle the response could be "thank goodness - he's the best guy available". On the other hand, milblogger Cdr Salamander has a salient perspective. Salamander points out this is a demotion for Petreus, who started the day as McChrystal's boss. Now who does the President nominate to take over CENTCOM? What does that guy think? I'm now, technically, superior to someone who was previously in my job? Who got demoted for doing his job too well?

This is not a huge deal - operational combat command is a more desirable job than COCOM Commander, which is a big diplomatic-staff-administrative-bureaucratic pain in the butt, so probably Petreus is not professionally too upset, although personally he was probably looking forward to a less painful PERSTEMPO than he's now going to get.

The other factor is that Afghanistan is a tough, intractable problem. I'm not sure there is a whole lot we can do that will solve the inherent problem that Afghanistan is not a real nation-state in any sense we understand, and no matter what we do it's going to be painful until the day we leave, then go downhill from there. If you were Petreus, wouldn't you rather end your career on a high note - as the victor of Iraq, followed by a successful COCOM Command, then move into some civilian leadership position, rather than risk being known as the unlucky guy who presided over final failure in Afghanistan?

Possibly Petreus will pull off a miracle and make lasting progress in Afghanistan, but I'm not sure who would bet on that. I don't know what to expect. Petreus is plainly brilliant, and brilliantly political. I had dinner with him last year and came away very impressed - but more so at his political acumen and leadership than warfighting sophistication. But I also know that a great deal of his success in Iraq came from his incredibly brilliant staff, most of whom are not available for Afghanistan. The one guy I'd watch for is H.R. McMaster, who seems to spend most of his time at think-tanks when he's not winning major battles.

Ironically, most observers agree that McChrystal had to go, even though they supported him and not the President, because he put the President in an untenable position. If the President didn't get rid of him it would significantly erode the integrity of the chain of command, which is ultimately a bigger deal even than the war.

I semi-sort-of-almost wonder if McChrystal in the back of his mind almost hoped to go out this way, and consequently didn't worry as much as he should have about allowing the Rolling Stone guy to get too close. He has reportedly always been kind of a wild-and-crazy guy, prone to do unpredictable things. Years as a senior combat leader may have given him a kind of fatalistic don't-give-a-shit attitude, which reportedly he may have already had a little bit. He might have seen the way things were going in Afghanistan and felt like it might be OK to go out with a big splash early than hang on and be associated with possible eventual failure. This attitude may have been exacerbated by truly understandable combat fatigue. The guy has been fighting hard without a break since 9/11 and had reportedly tried to retire before he got the job in Afghanistan.

He will now remembered as a courageous and tireless warrior who made legendary contributions to the war against terrorism and went out under wacky circumstances that probably ultimately weren't his fault, other than he was a blunt, plain-spoken soldier who didn't pay enough attention to public affairs and politics. It's interesting. I predict something more interesting will happen, related to Afghanistan, before we're done there.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

More Covers

Since I ended the last post with a famous Chinese song recorded by a Japanese pretending to be Chinese, it's probably appropriate to open this post with a Chinese singer recording the same song .... in Japanese (and Chinese):

This is Yamagushi Yoshiko's Japanese version of the song from a 1958 Japanese film:

As I mentioned in the last post, this is a Chinese standard covered by many artists.

I'm not a huge fan of Teresa Teng (鄧麗君), the first singer above, but she is revered by many Chinese signers. I much prefer Tsai Chin's (蔡琴) Chinese version:

Teng and Tsai Chin both sing with slight Taiwanese accents, this is Zhang Yan's (张燕)version with a Beijing accent. You only need to listen to a few bars of her version and Tsai Chin's to get a feel for their different handling of Mandarin:

Tsai Chin recorded what is probably my favorite Christian rock song, mostly because neither I nor several Chinese people I know realized it was a Christian song until it was pointed out to us, and those, I would submit, are the only kind of Christian pop songs worth listening to (otherwise, crack open a hymnal):

Finally something I just stumbled across. While I'm not a great fan of Yamaguchi Yoshiko's 1930s somewhat nasal singing style (preferring the jazzier sounds of her 1940s recoding such as Tokyo Serenade) How can you not link to a song called "Please Stop Smoking Opium My Darling"?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Chasing Origins

It seems to be music week in the UCF, and since I have not been posting recently, but this has been sitting in the queue unfinished, I thought I should publish it.

I live in a household of three languages, only two of which I speak. What Hokkien gets spoken (between my wife, MIL, SIL, various Aunts and my wife's best friend in town) goes entirely over my head. But, like the man who was turned into a newt, my Mandarin is getting better. Largely through song.

I'm constantly exposed to stuff via my wife that's actually useful in my day job because I work in Asia a good deal. As a smarter than average High School and college kid, I used to despise pop culture, but as an older and wiser adult I see its value. Having a social connection to people, an instant one, breaks down barriers. And one activity every decent adult should be engaged in throughout their lives is in breaking down barriers.

So I've gone from rolling my eyes at my wife's taste for 70s and 80s mandopop to actually appreciating it. And using it. Much as it pains me to admit it, I can actually sing several Chinese songs as karaoke.

But being much more historically oriented than my wife, now and then I find some nuggets she overlooks being in the culture and accepting things, rather than looking at them with fresh eyes as I do.

Many melodies in mandopop are recycled. Weirdly to Westerners, some of those recycled melodies are hymns brought to China by missionaries. One of my wife's favorite song's melody is largely based on "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood" and another one - and I don't know why Disney never sued them - is pretty much entirely the theme song from "Davy Crockett", at a slower tempo. I kid you not.

But there are other influences, too. Despite the lingering hatreds from 50 years ago, Japanese culture pervades the East. Their aesthetic in clothes and music, especially. We were just back in Taiwan for Chinese New Year. My wife warned me not to wear black. Chinese people wear bright colors at New Years, she says. Well, they did 30 years ago when she left. Today? Not so much. I like black. I wore it. I fit in better than she did. She was the only one in a lot of photos wearing a red jacket. The blacks, grays, and muted browns of Tokyo's streets also adorn the figures on the streets of Taipei, Taichung and Tainan.

But the Japanese influence music, too. Not just the infusion of J-Pop since the 80s. This influence goes back a long way, all the way back to the origins of mandopop in Shanghai.

One of my wife's favorite singers is Tsai Chin (蔡琴), who has a lot of Chinese standards in her repertoire. This one, 意難忘 (Unforgettable Feeling) is one of her favorites:

Indigo street lights
Blink on the street corner through my lonely window,
My eyes focus on the moonlight
The stars are sparkling and my tears are flowing
My tears are flowing
My tears are flowing
No one knows who I am,
啊 ~~ 啊 ~~
Oh--, Oh--
Who is singing "Oh"?
A distant place gently brings on longing for you
Longing for you
I love to sing that song
You are my reverie
The two of us should be together
We're close by each other but poles apart.
Why don't we see
This life has ended in tatters
My tears are flowing
My tears are flowing
No one knows who I am
啊~~ 啊~~
Oh-- Oh--

It was originally recorded in Chinese by the early-60s mandopop star Mei Dai (美黛).

It's worth noting that when Mei Dai recorded her version, mandopop had been branded "pornographic" by the prudes running the Cultural Revolution on the Mainland. The center of Chinese music had shifted from Shanghai to Taipei and Hong Kong by the 50s, a blow from which Mainland music has yet to fully recover.

But I was looking for things related to this kind of music the other day and I stumbled upon the origins of this song. It's not Chinese at all.

It's Japanese.

The original title is "Tokyo Serenade" (東京夜曲), and it was originally recorded by Li Jichun in 1949:

The night passes under the blue lamp
A hand pulls the curtain back
Shedding tears to the starry sky
A stream swirls
That song is for
Whomever will sing
Tokyo Serenade

I start to knit with white wool
あなたのジャケツに 頬寄せて
I gather your jacket to my cheek
My thoughts follow the crimson to dark
They vanish to dark forever
Alone I listen to the
Tokyo serenade

Two people each reminisce
Of the fragrance of the Rose in Odakyu
やさしいソファーに 燃える身を  
On the simple couch my body burns
投げて夢見る 夢の果て
Throw away my dreams
With a sweet sigh?
Tokyo Serenade

The song was recorded in Tokyo, as the Nationalists were not really disposed to promote a lot of Japanese culture in the wake of losing the Revolution.

So what was Li doing in Japan? She had appeared in several Japanese propaganda films in the 40s, and was tried for treason by the KMT in 1946. Before she could be sentenced, it became apparent to her fans (and the KMT) that Li was not as Chinese as her stage name might indicate.

Her real name was Yamaguchi Yoshiko ((山口 淑子 - I'm using the Asian convention of last name first for real names), and she was a Japanese born to Japanese settlers in Manchuria, picking up a surname from one of her father's Chinese blood brothers. Classically trained by an Italian soprano married to a White Russian living in China (a common state of affairs in the Warlord Period), she became quite famous in the Shanghai singing scene. You can get a taste of the singing world of Old Shanghai, with Western opera, Jazz, and Beijing opera styles all blended together, in this old recording of Yue Lai Shang (夜來香), a Chinese standard first recorded by Miss. Yamaguchi (also covered by Mei Dai and Tsai Chin, among many others):

After returning to Japan she restarted her singing career, went to America to start in a few B movies, returned to Japan, hosted a TV show and then wound up as a member of parliament. She's still around, too, one of the last living witnesses to the flowering of modern Chinese pop culture in Old Shanghai. She has always felt a little bit uneasy around Chinese since the war, and never got over her guilt for the propaganda she filmed.

But the Chinese still love her music. I won't be so trite as to say music (or love) conquers all (despite most 1960s and 70s Chinese pop singers being able to sing in Japanese, the Chinese certainly didn't copy the lyrics to this song to include Tokyo as the setting...) , but it sure does go a long way to breaking down barriers.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Corporations in Space

Leonardo da Vinci is a one of a series of case studies anyone who wonders why we don’t have space travel right now should consider. Because Leonardo da Vinci was an idiot. Well not really. More like an idiot savant. Unnecessarily ahead of his time. What I mean by that last crack is that he pretty much epitomizes the American criticism of people who live a life almost entirely of the mind: “if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich”?

Leonardo once “designed” a helicopter.

There was no motive force in the world that could have turned his invention fast enough to get it off the ground.

If Leonardo had used his considerable talent to think about pumps instead of flying machines, I have little doubt that he was smart enough to have produced a working steam engine. Many, many years before the first one was actually put to use in a mine. He would probably have had to solve some metallurgical problems along the way, but he would have found a ready buyer in mining operators even in his day. He could have become completely free of rich patrons for his art had he made that engine. That steam engine would not have powered his helicopter either, but it would have sped the invention of an actual helicopter by over a century.

But Leonardo had too much of an artistic temperament to think about mundane things like mines and metallurgy (beyond sculpture). So he produced pretty pictures of helicopters that never did anyone any good at all.

Infrastructure matters.

Going on to a somewhat more relevant and modern example, computer networks could have been invented and linked back in the 50s. But why? The computers they would have linked could not do much, the telecom links would have been unreliable with huge data losses, and the maintenance costs of the infrastructure would have been staggering.

Computers could have been linked in the 60s, and in fact the Space Program made some tentative steps in that direction, because of the present need of the program and because the money was there for upkeep. ARPANET was conceived in 1962 or so. But a civilian version would have charged too much to be of any commercial use because of the paucity of customers. Ditto for the 70s.

ARPANET started to transmit in 1969, and the DoD underwrote the costs. This began to build telecom infrastructure.

The PC market exploded in the late 70s and early 80s and suddenly there was an end-user infrastructure and a growing customer base. Remember the old modems with a 2 cup cradle for an old telephone handset? That led to Compusoft and the rest of the early internet. But without that PC and telecom infrastructure, the internet would have been stillborn. Sure, in some alternate universe a Telecom could have seen it as the wave of the future (ATT? HAH!) and created a network by brute force. But it would have been a commercial failure, and paradoxically, that failure probably would have made capital gunshy and delayed the development of a real and useful Internet by a decade or more.

We would have sent packets into the ether and stranded them there.

Most high technologies need a nutrient-rich environment in which to grow. Infrastructure has to be in place, and the costs have to eat only a small amount of GDP. They can’t be too tricky to maintain, or customers will do without or find a replacement. They can’t suck at public resources too badly. Most ideas never get off the ground, and people are not willing to give up a significant chunk of their standard of living in order to take a risk on something that has a high probability of failure, as most new ideas do. Payoff has to be relatively short term (within a few decades) in order for a business to find that technology profitable.

The costs are too high, the timelines for development too long and risk of failure too great for a business to take a chance on many complex technologies.

Sometimes, the government has to nurture the technology along until it is mature enough for free enterprise to take over. But visionaries in government are few and far between (and seldom in positions of power), so human progress is slower than it otherwise could be.

Space travel is definitely one of these complex technologies I’m talking about.

We, as a human race, achieved it before we were really rich enough to take advantage of it. We pushed the infrastructure hard, but it couldn’t stand the strain over the long haul. We were in a 1950s computing world, and we demanded that Cisco develop fiber-optic links between our vacuum tube monsters. They did, but it cost us an arm and a leg. Even my favorite redneck Country Rock group talked about “too many lives we spent across the ocean, too much money we spent up on the moon”.

We sent our hopes and dreams to the moon and stranded them there.

We were too early. Mankind wasn’t rich enough to afford the moon. I’m not sure it is, even now.

Jim’s essay on space travel is food for thought, and I definitely share his Libertarian-leaning sentiments about commercial space flight.

But I’m not sure we are out of the government-funded cocoon stage for space flight technology, and if we aren’t, it’s as if we’re asking commercial enterprise to build an Internet to connect transistor-based late-1960s UNIVACs. I’m not sure that computer infrastructure would have been big enough to justify the costs. Just as I’m not sure that the space travel customer base is big enough to absorb the development costs. Maybe it is. But if it isn’t, the resulting failure may set us back more than if we let NASA bumble along a bit longer.

I think Jim talks too glibly about the age of sail as an example. Building a sailing vessel, or even a fleet of them, was in no way as resource intensive as building a space program. In the language of business, the barriers to entry were high, but not astronomically (HAH!) so.

Not true for space travel.

Even with the lower barriers to building a wooden ship or two in the Age of Exploration, governments under-wrote a lot of the costs, as one of Jim’s commenters noted.

The first companies out there are going to look like government-sponsored monopolistic rapists, very much like Hudson Bay or East India. Commercial space exploration is not going to be pretty.

I really don’t care about that, though, my major concern is that when people talk about private enterprise, they don’t talk about what, exactly, space is going to provide that isn’t cheaper to get (or get a substitute for) down here. The only business plan I see at the moment is tourism. NASA has not turned up any useful process that creates things in low G environments that people really want down here, and NASA has been trying to find such a technology for decades.

I know, I've been involved in some of those experiments. I could make something nearly as good as the space polymers I was involved with for much less than what it cost to make them on the Shuttle, even with NASA underwriting the transportation costs - bench space was pretty nearly infinite in my lab compared to a cramped Shuttle cargo bay.

But, like Jim, I think space travel is necessary for the survival of the race, and I want my grandkids (at least some of them) off Earth. My genes are selfish that way.

I just don’t have enough information yet to be as happy as he is about the lack of vision in our government. Maybe he’s right. I hope so.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Hold on science fans... this should be interesting.

"Overunity" is a term that is roughly analogous to perpetual motion, e.g. a mechanism which violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics - and is therefore impossible according to our current understanding of the universe.

That doesn't stop people from working on it, however, with sometimes interesting results.

Most people understand that our carbon-fueled world has a finite, and short, half-life. We're going to have to come up with alternative sources of energy, and alternative ways of living, in the pretty near future. An added benefit is that the Saudis will go broke as long as we don't mortgage our entire civilization to them first (OOPS - too late!).

There have been many recent legendary figures who allegedly invented a "perpetual motion machine"... one of the most famous recent ones was Edwin V. Gray, who produced several supposed overunity devices and was the subject of a great deal of interesting conspiracy theory.

It is a familiar story: ordinary guy invents machine that threatens energy industry and is mysteriously suppressed or done away with (the Ed Gray story has all of that). The story has repeated itself so many times, in so many ways, that it is tempting to believe it. Especially since the equities in the energy status quo are the greatest in the history of humankind. Most of the wealth in humanity comes from control of energy sources, primarily carbon. Consequently that's where most of the power is. The people who control access to carbon energy buy and sell whole governments, including ours.

So while I don't think that any proported violations of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics have any legitimacy at all, it is possible to build a more efficient engine. In fact, it isn't even hard. But for reasons that look a lot like conspiracy theory even to the most sceptical, consumers are generally not allowed access to the most efficient choices.

For example - a diesel electric hybrid would be significantly more efficient that gasoline hybrids on the market today. But so far you can't buy one. Toyota, Nissan, and Volvo have promised diesel hybrids, but they are yet to appear. (Nissan also promised "supercap" battery technology in their hybrid, 7 years ago. Where is it? Volvo's version is a station wagon that gets 120mpg, scheduled for introduction in 2012, that they DON'T plan to sell in the United States )

So while "overunity" is certainly a myth, according to our current understanding of physics, improvements in efficiency that would almost certainly seem revolutionary or miraculous are almost certainly possible - they are happening "out there", just not for us.

One approach to great improvements in efficiency that I can't quite figure out are hydrogen generators. The idea is that a small electrolytic hydrogen generator can produce hydrogen gas to augment the ordinary fuel-air mixture in your car, greatly increasing gas mileage using only water as the (augment) fuel. These gizmos are also called hydrogen boosters and there are lots of web sites, with plans, formulas, etc.

My big question is whether these small hydrogen generators can realistically add efficiency... John maybe you can help me with the chemistry here. They only use a very small amount of water - on the scale of ounces to pints - during normal operation. It seems improbable to me that you can produce enough hydrogen to really augment the fuel of the vehicle without using a lot more water, and a lot more electricity (which has to come from the car) - which would add weight, use more energy, and decrease the efficiency of the overall system.

I'm very interested to figure out what the real chemistry is behind these gizmos.

Quick Weather Update

For those who haven't noticed, the Mid-Atlantic has shattered records for snowfall that date back to the 19th century.

The previous record in Washington DC was the winter of 1898-1899, with 54.5 inches. As of 2 PM today, Washington DC's total is at 54.9 inches, and we're not near done yet.

Baltimore and the western DC suburbs have recorded much higher totals, at 72.3 and 63.5 inches, respectively.

I expect Washington DC could get another 10-20 inches this winter, totally blowing away all previous records.

My favourite quote:

Conditions were so bad that snowplows were advised to get off the roads.

Typical 21st Century Washington DC quote:

"This snow reminds me of when I was driving tractor-trailers in Saudi Arabia, and the sandstorm starts and you can't see the roads," said Syeed Zada, 55, a plow driver for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Very old people compared this winter to 1922 and 1910. Most people said it was by far the worst in their lifetime. This is a great big bullet for my collection of "global cooling anecdotes".

Of course weather is not climate. Aggregated weather trends are climate. So if we have an "Al Gore" winter next year then it could shift the trend line back towards normal. On the other hand, if we have another cold, snowy winter, like the last couple of years, then the climate trend line shifts farther south, towards ice age and away from global warming.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Currier and Ives

Dr Phil referred to the Currier and Ives prints of winter scenes in the 19th century in the comments to the previous post. That reminded me how much I like Currier and Ives prints, even though Currier and Ives were kind of the "Wal Mart" of 19th century lithography and I think there are much better examples of the art out there.

But I found this neat site that has a lot of their prints:

The earlier discussion was about how 19th century engravings showed a colder, snowier world than we now live in. Here are some examples:

"A Spill Out on the Snow"

"American Homestead Winter"

"Winter Morning in the Country"

"Maple Sugaring"

I have been postulating that we are headed for a Currier and Ives future - colder winters with a lot more snow - because of the cycle of low solar activity that is just beginning. I've been watching for anecdotal evidence that this is true, and I've seen quite a bit for the last couple of years. This year, a lake I've only ever seen slightly frozen in the last 40 years was frozen hard enough to walk on (or ice-skate) after the recent early-January cold snap. The second half of January has been much more average or typical (here in NC anyway) but the Farmer's Almanac (my new best friend) is predicting a snowy February.

Maybe it will be time to bust out the sleigh that has been collecting dust in the back of the barn for 100 years!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A new Maunder Minimum?

The Maunder Minimum was a period of anomalously low solar activity that occurred between 1645 and 1715. It corresponded to the coldest part of the "Little Ice Age", which occurred between approximately 1400 and 1850.

During the Little Ice Age, and particularly the Maunder Minimum, the earth was substantially colder than it is today. Glaciation increased markedly, winters were historically harsh, and major ocean areas and seas froze over.

There is some debate (mainly from the Global Warming crowd) about whether there is a correlation between solar activity and climate, but in the case of the Maunder Minimum, it would be one hell of a coincidence.

The Little Ice Age followed the Medieval Warm Period, during which temperatures were substantially warmer than they are today. Unlike the Maunder Minimum, we do not have great observational data on solar activity during the Medieval Warm Period, although studies of solar activity cycles suggest it was much higher than during the subsequent cold period.

The Medieval Warm Period was famous for its disappearance from IPCC data after the advent of the Global Warming craze:

Data now shows that global warming ceased about 10 years ago and global cooling is accelerating, corresponding almost perfectly with the end of a period of very high solar activity. Here's another fun graphic:

Could this theory (that drastically diminished solar activity has ended global warming and is responsible for abrupt global cooling since 2007) be wrong? Could we still be experiencing global warming despite all evidence to the contrary? I'm still looking for science supporting global warming that still holds up.

Although I understand it is in no way scientific, I'm very much fascinated by anecdotal evidence. There are great descriptions about how warm it was during the Medieval Warm Period (descriptions of Scandinavian settlements in Greenland sounded like they were in Central Europe) and the Little Ice Age (ports that have been ice-free since the beginning of the 20th century (like New York) were completely closed by ice for entire winters). I love the old illustrations of life in the 19th century, showing routine travel by sleigh in the mid-Atlantic states, ice skating on lakes that haven't frozen at all in my lifetime, etc.

I certainly noted apparent warming in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Years went by with no snow in many places that previously had lots of it. The tropical ocean was nearly 10 degrees warmer in the winter months than it is now.

But in the last 7-8 years I've noticed cooler weather, with a dramatic drop in the last 2. I used to live in the tropics and for years would scuba dive during the winter in a thin wetsuit. The ocean temperature would bottom out in the low 70s in January, then rise steadily. Since 2006 the temps have dropped steadily and are now around 65. (This is based on NOAA automated observations at Key West). My swimming pool in North Carolina was apparently 10 degrees cooler for most of the summer of 2009 than it was in 2008.

In Washington DC there has been more snow by the end of December 2009 than I have ever seen (possibly since 1969, but I was pretty young then so I'm not sure). The ski areas on the east coast have more snow by the end of December 2009 than they did at any point in the winter throughout the 1980s and 1990s. There were many years where there was almost no snow on the ski areas in North Carolina - at one point we thought they might go out of business. This year they already had more snow base by late December than they did by late February last year - and last year was the best I had seen since perhaps the 1970s.

Although this is all anecdotal, these anecdotes seem to be repeated around the world. 2008 was the coldest winter in China in 100 years. Britain expects 2009 to the the coldest winter in 100 years.

I have an increasingly strong feeling that it will be cold and getting colder for at least the next generation and in a very few years "Global Warming" will be one of the biggest jokes of our lifetimes.