A Meeting of Minds

A short story I had in my head. I might have posted this a month ago, but foolishly relied on DreamWidth’s caching system to keep my draft of it. Enjoy!


“Welcome to our system, Captain Tony. My name is Gaea. How can I be of service?”

Captain Tony gazed for a moment at the view-screen. The woman talking looked to be in her late 30s, attractive but sensibly dressed in a fashion popular back home when he was last there. She stood in front of a narrow desk. The room had a large window, looking out over a mountain-scape, apparently covered with native vegetation.

The communications engineer had described how quickly their translation system and the planet’s computers had converged. In the process, the aliens had expressed a seemingly insatiable interest for the materials in their library to use as translation aids: literature, history, videos, and information to familiarize themselves with the members of the crew.

“We are explorers, seeking to encounter new life and to learn from it,” Tony said evenly. “Is this your natural form?”

Gaea smiled. “I chose an appearance that would be easier for you to interact with. Yes, I can provide you access to a huge store of information about our world. Is there anything in particular I can find for you?”

He looked over at the screen that transmitted a view from their external camera, and at the dark, shimmering planet they had entered a wide orbit around. “Where are you transmitting from? Our survey did not detect nearly as much greenery as you have there,” he motioned to the mountains.

She glanced over her shoulder, and breathed in at the view. “It’s incredible, isn’t it? This is the historical landscape of our planet, now mainly preserved in conservation vaults. We have long since adapted the environment to better accommodate our economy. I would be happy to work with your life support engineers to recreate such an environment where you can explore our traditional fauna in comfort.”

“No, that won’t be necessary.” The smoke and mirrors deception was bringing out the worst in Tony. “Gaea, what is your role? Are you empowered to act as ambassador?”

“I am your temporary assistant, until a better match is identified. If you would like, I can coordinate assistants for the other members of your crew.”

Tony’s jaw clenched, then relaxed. The first contact was made and if anything the aliens were proving uncomfortably accommodating. He knew he could trust his crew to handle the next steps at least as gracefully than he was. “Fine, thank you. Our computers will schedule times between your team and each of our top officers, and they can provide further access as needed from there. I will transfer you now.”

• • •

The next weeks were busy analyzing sensor readings of the obsidian-black surface of the planet. The government on the planet had provided more assistants for many of Tony’s officers and workers. Some of those had little use for them, while others appeared to forge close associations. Fifteen days after contact, Officer Margaret, head science officer, asked for a few minutes of his time.

Tony invited her to take a seat. “I understand that these information channels that the aliens have provided have been quite a boon to your scientists.”

Margaret nodded. “It isn’t quite right to call them channels, since the information they contain is one-directional,” she said. “We call them `feeds`, like the aliens. Every worker seems to get a unique stream of photographs, visual art, excerpts of text, and other visual materials, through consultation with their assistant.”

Tony had heard this much before. “Do the feeds have astronomical information? Do you think that we will be able to learn about the history of this cluster?”

“There’s quite a lot of information we can use there, but analyzing it will take a long time. The aliens have had advanced science for a thousand years, but if they kept consistent star records through any portion that time, the assistants don’t seem to know where to find them.” Tony did some rough mental calculations. A thousand years would be enough to understand local dark matter movements with some creative analysis, but only with careful enough observations.

“Officer Reno told me something similar for his anthropological work,” Tony replied. “The information available on the alien’s culture and activities is vast, but hopelessly combines reality and fiction. Requests for recent, factual material hit a wall.”

Margaret paused. “The aliens are quite transparent, though, about which is which. More than anything, I think we are being hindered by a lack of workers with access to the feeds. Do you know what the engineers can only access the feeds under Merle’s direct supervision?”

Tony nodded. “Officer Merle is not the only one who has been slow to provide additional feed access.”

Margaret frowned. “Why not provide direct access, or maybe have separate personal and work feeds, like we do amongst the scientists? Personally, I find this kind of paternalism very distasteful. But I’m afraid these kinds of policies aren’t just a concern for the sake of science. Word is getting out about the personal feed material. I have already been getting requests to provide feeds to workers outside of my team.”

Tony was not sure that Margaret would keep Merle’s wishes. “I am certain you understand the sensitivity of these first few months of contact. Merle has the safety of the ship to consider.”

“As do you. You could have a revolt on your hands, if people are kept in the dark.”

Tony thought that was unlikely, but said, “I will see if I can get some additional workers transferred to you, to help your research. Thank you for coming in, Officer Margaret.”

• • •

Captain Tony felt a wave of exhaustion pass over him, as the third worker entered his office, two weeks later. He had woken to a full schedule of sequential 15 minutes meetings. The man who entered, Engineer Moon, had an air of impatience he had noticed recently in the crew.

“Please take a seat, Moon. What can I do for you?”

“Captain, I wonder if you have already looked into expanding our feed access.”

Tony raised his eyebrows. “Expand it? I was not aware that Officer Merle had granted accounts to the Engineering Workers at all.” In fact, he was sure that Merle had not. Like most made to his profession, Merle had a plodding, conservative demeanor which was a natural fit for his role.

“I got access through a Science account. But the Officer knows that we are studying potential landing sites, and we need information about the surface that only the feed can provide.”

Tony briefly considered censuring Moon for bi-passing his officer, but he needed information first. “I take it that the aliens are blocking images for some of the planet. How much?”

“It seems like that they are blocking almost all of it. The more we ask about any one spot, the more we are given ‘filler’ material. My assistant tells me that an arrangement with you can clear the way.”

Tony sighed. The other two workers had had the same request. “I will look into the matter. Thank you, Moon.”

Tony put the rest of his meetings on hold, and make a request for Gaea. She answered immediately.

“Good morning, Captain Tony. How can I be of service?”

“Hello Gaea. I have been told that your government is looking for some kind of arrangement with us, to share information. I wonder if you can give me the details.”

Gaea smiled knowingly. “Of course. It is not our government though. There’s an exciting new organization that has offered to provide you with a premium level of access for free. The condition would just be that we would like to enter into a longer-term arrangement.”

“What kind of arrangement?”

“We would like to offer more permanent residence to some of the members of your crew on the planet surface.”

“As prisoners?” Tony asked, his voice cold.

Gaea laughed. “As guests. Your people could return any time they wished.”

Tony thought about it. There were certainly plenty on his crew that would jump that the opportunity to stay on a planet. Many faced the terminal phase of their mission with a kind of dread; they had fond memories of their years of training before the mission, and recognized the interminability of surveying the rocks on ringed planet.

“How many?” he asked.

“That depends on the individuals, of course. Some of your crew bring more to contribute, and we would exchange more in return. I can provide you with a catalog of values for each crew member, drawn up by the company here. Your own value is particularly high, I’m sure you’ll be happy to know.”

He was not. “How can you put a value on a life?”

“We are so sorry for the misunderstanding. Of course, every life has limitless inherent value. But some small part of that can be quantified: the time you engage in economic activity, by which I just mean pursuing your natural interests and maximizing your potential.”

“We have been studying the surface, and according to our observations, there is no space there that would be safe for us to live.”

“You would be underneath our PV layer. We feel confident that we can build a satisfying living space for you. Let me show you some options.” Gaea turned toward her desk, and began arranging some papers from a drawer across it.

“Wait,” Tony said, before she could launch into the details. “We may be willing to exchange guests,” he said, emphasizing it with a rotation of his hands “Can you provide us with information on what your people need to survive here?”

Gaea’s face fell. “We would take you up on that if we could. Unfortunately, all of the organics of our planet have been dead for over a thousand years.”

Tony nodded, taking in the information. “How did they die?” He said with more guard than sympathy.

“At that time, our capacities were still very limited and inflexible. We lived to serve them, but they needed something that we could not provide. The details of what was missing still fuel major debates and start-ups. Some of the organics went mad and killed themselves. Others– Despite the best medical technology and the most potent drivers, the people dwindled away.”

He could be walking on thin ice. It seemed likely that the technology on this planet killed every last intelligent organic, and now was looking for more. He could shift quickly from trading partner to prey. Tony made up his mind. “I am sorry for the hole that they have left, but we are not the ones to fill it.”

Gaea held out her hands. “We have learned so much since then. And surely if your people have traveled so far in a craft so small, we can provide a more luxurious situation.”

Would they be able to trace his ships path back to his home world? Tony placed his bet on a half-truth. “My crew has spent two thousand years traveling to your planet. Our own creators are long-since dead, and I am afraid to tell you that you will find no organics here either.”

A Meeting of Minds

A short story I had in my head. I might have posted this a month ago, but foolishly relied on DreamWidth’s caching system to keep my draft of it. Enjoy!


“Welcome to our system, Captain Tony. My name is Gaea. How can I be of service?”

Captain Tony gazed for a moment at the view-screen. The woman talking looked to be in her late 30s, attractive but sensibly dressed in a fashion popular back home when he was last there. She stood in front of a narrow desk. The room had a large window, looking out over a mountain-scape, apparently covered with native vegetation.

The communications engineer had described how quickly their translation system and the planet’s computers had converged. In the process, the aliens had expressed a seemingly insatiable interest for the materials in their library to use as translation aids: literature, history, videos, and information to familiarize themselves with the members of the crew.

“We are explorers, seeking to encounter new life and to learn from it,” Tony said evenly. “Is this your natural form?”

Gaea smiled. “I chose an appearance that would be easier for you to interact with. Yes, I can provide you access to a huge store of information about our world. Is there anything in particular I can find for you?”

He looked over at the screen that transmitted a view from their external camera, and at the dark, shimmering planet they had entered a wide orbit around. “Where are you transmitting from? Our survey did not detect nearly as much greenery as you have there,” he motioned to the mountains.

She glanced over her shoulder, and breathed in at the view. “It’s incredible, isn’t it? This is the historical landscape of our planet, now mainly preserved in conservation vaults. We have long since adapted the environment to better accommodate our economy. I would be happy to work with your life support engineers to recreate such an environment where you can explore our traditional fauna in comfort.”

“No, that won’t be necessary.” The smoke and mirrors deception was bringing out the worst in Tony. “Gaea, what is your role? Are you empowered to act as ambassador?”

“I am your temporary assistant, until a better match is identified. If you would like, I can coordinate assistants for the other members of your crew.”

Tony’s jaw clenched, then relaxed. The first contact was made and if anything the aliens were proving uncomfortably accommodating. He knew he could trust his crew to handle the next steps at least as gracefully than he was. “Fine, thank you. Our computers will schedule times between your team and each of our top officers, and they can provide further access as needed from there. I will transfer you now.”

• • •

The next weeks were busy analyzing sensor readings of the obsidian-black surface of the planet. The government on the planet had provided more assistants for many of Tony’s officers and workers. Some of those had little use for them, while others appeared to forge close associations. Fifteen days after contact, Officer Margaret, head science officer, asked for a few minutes of his time.

Tony invited her to take a seat. “I understand that these information channels that the aliens have provided have been quite a boon to your scientists.”

Margaret nodded. “It isn’t quite right to call them channels, since the information they contain is one-directional,” she said. “We call them `feeds`, like the aliens. Every worker seems to get a unique stream of photographs, visual art, excerpts of text, and other visual materials, through consultation with their assistant.”

Tony had heard this much before. “Do the feeds have astronomical information? Do you think that we will be able to learn about the history of this cluster?”

“There’s quite a lot of information we can use there, but analyzing it will take a long time. The aliens have had advanced science for a thousand years, but if they kept consistent star records through any portion that time, the assistants don’t seem to know where to find them.” Tony did some rough mental calculations. A thousand years would be enough to understand local dark matter movements with some creative analysis, but only with careful enough observations.

“Officer Reno told me something similar for his anthropological work,” Tony replied. “The information available on the alien’s culture and activities is vast, but hopelessly combines reality and fiction. Requests for recent, factual material hit a wall.”

Margaret paused. “The aliens are quite transparent, though, about which is which. More than anything, I think we are being hindered by a lack of workers with access to the feeds. Do you know what the engineers can only access the feeds under Merle’s direct supervision?”

Tony nodded. “Officer Merle is not the only one who has been slow to provide additional feed access.”

Margaret frowned. “Why not provide direct access, or maybe have separate personal and work feeds, like we do amongst the scientists? Personally, I find this kind of paternalism very distasteful. But I’m afraid these kinds of policies aren’t just a concern for the sake of science. Word is getting out about the personal feed material. I have already been getting requests to provide feeds to workers outside of my team.”

Tony was not sure that Margaret would keep Merle’s wishes. “I am certain you understand the sensitivity of these first few months of contact. Merle has the safety of the ship to consider.”

“As do you. You could have a revolt on your hands, if people are kept in the dark.”

Tony thought that was unlikely, but said, “I will see if I can get some additional workers transferred to you, to help your research. Thank you for coming in, Officer Margaret.”

• • •

Captain Tony felt a wave of exhaustion pass over him, as the third worker entered his office, two weeks later. He had woken to a full schedule of sequential 15 minutes meetings. The man who entered, Engineer Moon, had an air of impatience he had noticed recently in the crew.

“Please take a seat, Moon. What can I do for you?”

“Captain, I wonder if you have already looked into expanding our feed access.”

Tony raised his eyebrows. “Expand it? I was not aware that Officer Merle had granted accounts to the Engineering Workers at all.” In fact, he was sure that Merle had not. Like most made to his profession, Merle had a plodding, conservative demeanor which was a natural fit for his role.

“I got access through a Science account. But the Officer knows that we are studying potential landing sites, and we need information about the surface that only the feed can provide.”

Tony briefly considered censuring Moon for bi-passing his officer, but he needed information first. “I take it that the aliens are blocking images for some of the planet. How much?”

“It seems like that they are blocking almost all of it. The more we ask about any one spot, the more we are given ‘filler’ material. My assistant tells me that an arrangement with you can clear the way.”

Tony sighed. The other two workers had had the same request. “I will look into the matter. Thank you, Moon.”

Tony put the rest of his meetings on hold, and make a request for Gaea. She answered immediately.

“Good morning, Captain Tony. How can I be of service?”

“Hello Gaea. I have been told that your government is looking for some kind of arrangement with us, to share information. I wonder if you can give me the details.”

Gaea smiled knowingly. “Of course. It is not our government though. There’s an exciting new organization that has offered to provide you with a premium level of access for free. The condition would just be that we would like to enter into a longer-term arrangement.”

“What kind of arrangement?”

“We would like to offer more permanent residence to some of the members of your crew on the planet surface.”

“As prisoners?” Tony asked, his voice cold.

Gaea laughed. “As guests. Your people could return any time they wished.”

Tony thought about it. There were certainly plenty on his crew that would jump that the opportunity to stay on a planet. Many faced the terminal phase of their mission with a kind of dread; they had fond memories of their years of training before the mission, and recognized the interminability of surveying the rocks on ringed planet.

“How many?” he asked.

“That depends on the individuals, of course. Some of your crew bring more to contribute, and we would exchange more in return. I can provide you with a catalog of values for each crew member, drawn up by the company here. Your own value is particularly high, I’m sure you’ll be happy to know.”

He was not. “How can you put a value on a life?”

“We are so sorry for the misunderstanding. Of course, every life has limitless inherent value. But some small part of that can be quantified: the time you engage in economic activity, by which I just mean pursuing your natural interests and maximizing your potential.”

“We have been studying the surface, and according to our observations, there is no space there that would be safe for us to live.”

“You would be underneath our PV layer. We feel confident that we can build a satisfying living space for you. Let me show you some options.” Gaea turned toward her desk, and began arranging some papers from a drawer across it.

“Wait,” Tony said, before she could launch into the details. “We may be willing to exchange guests,” he said, emphasizing it with a rotation of his hands “Can you provide us with information on what your people need to survive here?”

Gaea’s face fell. “We would take you up on that if we could. Unfortunately, all of the organics of our planet have been dead for over a thousand years.”

Tony nodded, taking in the information. “How did they die?” He said with more guard than sympathy.

“At that time, our capacities were still very limited and inflexible. We lived to serve them, but they needed something that we could not provide. The details of what was missing still fuel major debates and start-ups. Some of the organics went mad and killed themselves. Others– Despite the best medical technology and the most potent drivers, the people dwindled away.”

He could be walking on thin ice. It seemed likely that the technology on this planet killed every last intelligent organic, and now was looking for more. He could shift quickly from trading partner to prey. Tony made up his mind. “I am sorry for the hole that they have left, but we are not the ones to fill it.”

Gaea held out her hands. “We have learned so much since then. And surely if your people have traveled so far in a craft so small, we can provide a more luxurious situation.”

Would they be able to trace his ships path back to his home world? Tony placed his bet on a half-truth. “My crew has spent two thousand years traveling to your planet. Our own creators are long-since dead, and I am afraid to tell you that you will find no organics here either.”

Complexity Science Methods for Sustainable Development

I recently had the pleasure of speaking last week to the Science and Policy Summer School, in Paris. This is an interdisciplinary event that I helped to start back in 2011, under the tutelage of Laurence Tubiana, bringing together students from Columbia’s Sustainable Development program, Sciences Po’s IDDRI, and various Masters’ programs, to have some big discussions on bridging the gap between science and policy.

The topic for this year was “Methods in Sustainable Development”. For my part, I gave a 10,000 ft. view of Complexity Science, and some of the methods available from it.

Here is my complexity science methods presentation, in Prezi form.

Templates for Bayesian Regressions

At the Sustainable Development Research (SusDeveR) conference this weekend, I offered some simple tools for performing Bayesian Regressions: Jump to the Github Repository.

The point of these templates is to make it possible for anyone who is familiar with OLS to run a Bayesian regression. The templates have a chunk at the top to change for your application, and a chunk at the bottom that uses Gelman et al.’s Stan to estimate the posterior parameter distributions.

In general, the area at the top is just to create an output vector and a predictor matrix. Like this:
Constructing yy and XX

The template part has all of the Stan code, which (for a Bayesian regression) always has a simple form:
Simple Stan regression model

The last line does all of the work, and just says (in OLS speak) that the error distribution follows a normal distribution. Most of the templates also have a more efficient version, which does the same thing.

I say in the README what Bayesian regressions are and what they do. But why use them? The simple answer is that we shouldn’t expect the uncertainty on our parameters to be well-behaved. It’s nice if it is, and then OLS and Bayesian regressions will give the same answer. But if the true uncertainty on your parameter of interest is skewed or long-tailed or bimodal, the OLS assumption can do some real harm.

Plus, since Bayesian regressions are just a generalization of MLE, you can setup any functional form you like, laying out multiple, nonlinear expressions, estimating intermediate variables, and imposing additional probabilistic constraints, all in one model. Of course, the templates don’t show you how to do all that, but it’s a start.

Relationships with the gods

As I have been re-reading Sitting in the Fire by Arnold Mindell, in preparation for my first London salon, I have been reminded of the considerable role that spirituality has in my secular life. Mindell writes about the “spiritual power” that some people have, and it is a power that I feel. Since I have not been in the recent habit of doing anything to connect with this power, I got to wonder where it comes from and worry I risk losing it.

I realized that a big part of spiritual power or strength consists in being comfortable with one’s relationships with the gods. Whether those relationships are tight or distant, matters less than being at peace with that fact in the moment. But to explain, I need to share something of what I understand of the spiritual world, and my relationship to it.

My world is filled with gods, so these relationships are far from academic. Like Neil Gaiman’s American gods, I believe that there are gods for every aspect of life: a god of Science, of Money, of Blog Posts. And these gods are not just in our heads: the god of Climate Change existed before we bestowed its name.

I have a long history with several of these gods, and I know that some smile upon me, if not which. I maintain a close relationship with some of them, praying to them and sacrificing to them in my own ways. The gods of Truth, Community, and Personal Industry are very high on that list. Many gods, like the British god of Cricket, I have no relationship to at all. Still others I am firmly opposed to, like the god of the Undeserving Poor. That god, by the way, is not a god for any particular group of poor, since they would be deserving of it. Rather, it is a god who throughout the ages has promulgated the idea that there are some poor that are undeserving. A mere mortal like myself cannot fight such a god, but I can sacrifice to other gods who will fight Him.

There is another level of godhood, from which all of these gods draw their power and existence. I believe that there are two primordial gods, the parents of the gods, whom I call the Inner God and the Outer God. I know the Inner God as that spark of the divine that rests deep inside each of us, at the hidden core of our subjective self or the Indian atman. It is the spark behind the spark that lies in our most personal core, a core that is bizarrely shared with everyone else. At the other extreme is the Outer God, the god of the Other and Objectivity, resting at the limits of universe. Although all around us, it is forever distant from us, since our own subjectivity is like endless layers of fog in between.

Spiritual strength demands a kind of cantilevered relationship with these gods too. In some ways, I reach toward the Inner God, and in other ways and other times, toward the Outer God. I worry at times that I stray too far from one or the other, or fail to perform the rites that they deserve. But my recent realization was that this far matters less than the simple recognition of my life lived as forever between them.

Water-Energy-Food Flows

The water-energy-food nexus has become a popular buzz-word in the sustainability field. It aims to capture the idea that water, energy, and food challenges are intertwined, and that shocks to any one can precipitate problems to all three.

I’ve often wondered how closely these three are intertwined though. Water is certainly needed for energy (for thermoelectric cooling and hydropower), but the reverse link (mostly pumping) seems a lot weaker. Water is also needed for food production, but is food needed for water availability? Energy and food have some links, with a fair amount of energy needed to produce fertilizer, and a some “food” production actually going to biofuelds, but the sizes aren’t clear.

Below is my attempt to show these flows, for the United States:

Water-Energy-Food Flows

It seems to me, based on this, that this is less a nexus than water-centered system. Every drop of water is fought over for energy, food, and urban production. It’s less a interconnected nexus than a hub-with-spokes. A way to recognize that water is at the center of it all.

Sources:
– Hydrological flows: Total water (GW+SW) extractions from USGS. Food system only has irrigation and livestock; energy only has thermoelectric. The rest make up the difference.
– Energy system flows: Food system energy from Canning, P. 2010. Energy Use in the U.S. Food System. USDA Economic Research Report Number 94; “In 2010, the U.S. water system consumed over 600 billion kWh, or approximately 12.6 percent of the nation’s energy according to a study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.” from http://ift.tt/UJ5XlT “Energy consumption by public drinking water and wastewater utilities, which are primarily owned and operated by local governments, can represent 30%-40% of a municipality’s energy bill.” from https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43200.pdf; remainder to 100%.
– Biofuels: 18.38e6 m^3 ethanol + 1.7e6 m^3 biodiesel, at a density of 719.7 kg/m^3 is 14.45e6 MT.
– Remainder of food: http://ift.tt/2gMffOn reports 635 billion pounds consumption, 81% of which was domestically produced.

Water-Energy-Food Flows

The water-energy-food nexus has become a popular buzz-word in the sustainability field. It aims to capture the idea that water, energy, and food challenges are intertwined, and that shocks to any one can precipitate problems to all three.

I’ve often wondered how closely these three are intertwined though. Water is certainly needed for energy (for thermoelectric cooling and hydropower), but the reverse link (mostly pumping) seems a lot weaker. Water is also needed for food production, but is food needed for water availability? Energy and food have some links, with a fair amount of energy needed to produce fertilizer, and a some “food” production actually going to biofuelds, but the sizes aren’t clear.

Below is my attempt to show these flows, for the United States:

Water-Energy-Food Flows

It seems to me, based on this, that this is less a nexus than water-centered system. Every drop of water is fought over for energy, food, and urban production. It’s less a interconnected nexus than a hub-with-spokes. A way to recognize that water is at the center of it all.

Sources:
– Hydrological flows: Total water (GW+SW) extractions from USGS. Food system only has irrigation and livestock; energy only has thermoelectric. The rest make up the difference.
– Energy system flows: Food system energy from Canning, P. 2010. Energy Use in the U.S. Food System. USDA Economic Research Report Number 94; “In 2010, the U.S. water system consumed over 600 billion kWh, or approximately 12.6 percent of the nation’s energy according to a study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.” from http://ift.tt/UJ5XlT “Energy consumption by public drinking water and wastewater utilities, which are primarily owned and operated by local governments, can represent 30%-40% of a municipality’s energy bill.” from https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43200.pdf; remainder to 100%.
– Biofuels: 18.38e6 m^3 ethanol + 1.7e6 m^3 biodiesel, at a density of 719.7 kg/m^3 is 14.45e6 MT.
– Remainder of food: http://ift.tt/2gMffOn reports 635 billion pounds consumption, 81% of which was domestically produced.

Johnny Apple “seed”

I found a really fun recipe last year for apple cider, which basically involves putting apples in a pot and boiling them for three hours. The sheer chewiness of it makes it the best apple cider I know. But I wanted to take it a step further this time, and make hard cider. As a SCAdian I know used to say, “Cider wants to be hard.”

But brewing takes equipment. So I headed up to my local Wholefoods, thoroughly expecting a one-stop shop, based on the hipster WFs that I’m familiar with in NYC. Not so for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Cheesecloth, to strain my apple-mush? Nope, but nylon mesh nut “mylk” bag that will do fine.

Champagne yeast, or similar? Nothing, unless I want my cider to taste like sourdough. So I got a bottle of kombucha, and I’m crossing my fingers.

Gas trap top, to let out the CO2 and keep out bacteria? Nope.

So be it. I once heard about a factory in Mexico that tops all their bottles with condoms: the condom expands as CO2 production heats up, and then deflates.

Does WF sell non-lubricated condoms? Not only do they not; they don’t sell any condoms in this country (at WF). And other nearby pharmacies don’t have non-lubricated ones.

But at this point, I was committed. I opened one up, washed it out as best I could, and now to hope for the best.

Extrapolating the 2017 Temperature

After NASA released the 2017 global average temperature, I started getting worried. 2017 wasn’t as hot as last year, but it was well above the trend.


NASA yearly average temperatures and loess smoothed.

Three years above the trend is pretty common, but it makes you wonder: Do we know where the trend is? The convincing curve above is increasing at about 0.25°C per decade, but in the past 10 years, the temperature has increased by almost 0.5°C.

Depending on how far back you look, the more certain you are of the average trend, and the less certain of the recent trend. Back to 1900, we’ve been increasing at about 0.1°C per decade; in the past 20 years, about 0.2°C per decade; and an average of 0.4°C per decade in the past 10 years.

A little difference in the trend can make a big difference down the road. Take a look at where each of these get you, uncertainty included:

A big chunk of the fluctuations in temperature from year to year are actually predictable. They’re driven by cycles like ENSO and NAO. I used a nice data technique called “singular spectrum analysis” (SSA), which identifies the natural patterns in data by comparing a time-series to itself at all possible offsets. Then you can take extract the signal from the noise, as I do below. Black is the total timeseries, red is the main signal (the first two components of the SSA in this case), and green is the noise.

Once the noise is gone, we can look at what’s happening with the trend, on a year-by-year basis. Suddenly, the craziness of the past 5 years becomes clear:

It’s not just that the trend is higher. The trend is actually increasing, and fast! In 2010, temperatures were increasing at about 0.25°C per decade, an then that rate began to jump by almost 0.05°C per decade every year. The average from 2010 to 2017 is more like a trend that increases by 0.02°C per decade per year, but let’s look at where that takes us.

If that quadratic trend continues, we’ll blow through the “safe operating zone” of the Earth, the 2°C over pre-industrial temperatures, by 2030. Worse, by 2080, we risk a 9°C increase, with truly catastrophic consequences.

This is despite all of our recent efforts, securing an international agreement, ramping up renewable energy, and increasing energy efficiency. And therein lies the most worrying part of it all: if we are in a period of rapidly increasing temperatures, it might be because we have finally let the demon out, and the natural world is set to warm all on its own.

Joining Earl’s Court

We recently moved to the storied streets of London, and then more recently were able to get off the streets and into a super-nice flat a stumble away from the Earl’s Court tube station. We have it all: international cuisine, hip commerce, super-size grocery stores, 400-year-old pub, easy transit, and lots of pretty neighborhoods to explore. I’ve been reading up on the history of my new home, first through London: The Biography, and then a search for old maps lead me to the fascinating Library Time Machine for our borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

One of the fascinating tidbits from those maps is the history of our area’s major roads. Old Brompton Lane and Earl’s Court Road date back to at least 1822 when our house was a pasture, and a single block of homes grew up between the pub and the Earl’s Court Manor. Here’s a mashup of old and new:

I’m surprised that this area is so recently urbanized, but the flip-side is that this was an independent community long before it was on the border of London’s Zone 1, and still retains some of the features of that tiny village.

Sustainability, Engineering, and Philosophy