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.

1 Million Years of Stream Flow Data

The 9,322 gauges in the GAGES II database are picked for having over 20 years of reliable streamflow data from the USGS archives. Combined, these gauges represent over 400,000 years of data.
They offer a detailed sketch of water availability over the past century. But they miss the opportunity to describe a even fuller portrait.

In the AWASH model, we focus on not only gauged points within the river network and other water infrastructure like reservoirs and canals, but also on the interconnections between these nodes. When we connect gauge nodes into a network, we can infer something about the streamflows between them. In total, our US river network contains 22,619 nodes, most of which are ungauged.

We can use the models and the structure of the network to infer missing years, and flows for ungauged junctions. To do so, we create empirical models of the streamflows for any guages for which we have a complete set of gauged of upstream parents. The details of that, and the alternative models that we use for reservoirs, can be details for another post. For the other nodes, we look for structures like these:

Structures for which we can infer missing month values, where hollow nodes are ungauged and solid nodes are gauged.

If all upstream values are known, we can impute the downstream; if the downstream value is known and all but one upstream values are known, we can impute the remaining one; if upstream or downstream values can be imputed according to these rules, they may allow other values to be imputed using that new knowledge. Using these methods, we can impute an average of 44 years for ungauged flows, and an average 20 additional years for gauged flows. The result is 1,064,000 years of gauged or inferred streamflow data.

We have made this data available as a Zenodo dataset for wider use.

A new year, new resolutions

I love new years resolutions, and the constant inventiveness that goes with learning how to change one’s behaviors. It’s a time to think about who I want to become, and how to rebalance the weights on my path. This year’s crop has a couple things for socialization, a couple things for exercise, and a big one for building out my online presence:

  • Learn the names of everyone at GRI by the end of January.
  • Take a dance class with Flame.
  • Try out a “tracking your steps” app (suggestions welcome!).
  • If I don’t exercise before an opportunity to have dessert, I must refuse.
  • If I haven’t contributed to a social media by the end of the day, I have to do it before sleep.

The last one is going to be distributed mostly between this blog, my professional blog, and Twitter, and will range from simple reposts to longer contributions to personal messages. When I reunited with my coin system, I’ll drive it that way.

The “if-then” form of the last two is a perversion of a good idea recently suggested somewhere (but I can’t find where): rather than set up a behavior change as a continuous demand, identify a situation where the problem occurs and decide on a new course of action when presented with it.

J² Honeymoon Trip: The Good Parts Version

November 7 – November 22, 2017

Johanna and I just returned from two weeks in South Africa and Tanzania: two weeks of early morning flights, of summer temperatures, of relaxation and ignoring emails. We packed in a little of everything: city walking, beach lazing, exquisite meals, museums and galleries, a cooking class, a snorkeling trip, and a day-long safari. Here are a couple of the highlights.

South Africa, Part 1

South Africa is bursting with Brooklyns. In Jo’burg, there was Maboneng, with design studios and bookstore-studios; to Melville, with its rows of crafty bars. In Cape Town, we found Woodstock, with a steampunk clothing store, a factory turned into lifestyle shops, and the Streetwires Artists Collective, half the space populated with the artists loudly work-socializing.

Our first museum attempts were stymied. The Museum of African Design was closed and the Johannesburg Art Gallery was being reappointed (but it didn’t stop us from getting into its empty halls). We had much better luck with the galleries of Rosebank (SMAC, CIRCA, and Everard Read) with impressively museumesque collections and staging.

Our cooking class was in little Prince Albert, in the middle of the desert 4 hours east of Cape Town. We arrived at 2am, meeting our host at an abandoned gas station, and following him down empty dirt roads. The next morning, we got a personal lesson from an innovative chef, making focaccia with candied figs and olives; stovetop smoked eggplant; upside-down beat pastry; and beat and chocolate cake.

What we expected would be a two hour drive turned out to be a 5 hour one, with an misplaced mountain range blocking the road. But that furnished us with our first encounters with tiny antelopes, baboon families, and guinea hens. The biome shifted from desert to savanna to forest to coastal brush. And we passed the oldest post office in South Africa, a tree first used for letter-leaving in 1501.

We spend two nights at a beach spa hotel in Arniston, a town at the site of its namesake disaster, the second worst boat wreck after the Titanic. James clambered over rocks and through a tunnel to reach a huge sea cavern. The entrance to the ocean was half-filled with each wave, causing the cave to darken and then boom as the wave spread out. Then we hurried to the southern-most point on the African continent, marked by a plaque that read, “<- Indian Ocean | Atlantic Ocean ->”.

On the way back to Cape Town, we ate at the exquise La Colombe, on a mountaintop overlooking vine-covered hills and groves. The most memorable of the dozen courses were the enchanted forest and the taste test. The enchanted forest was a contrived picnic, hosted by the Mad Hatter himself, regaling us with the most recent events of the land. One of the three deserts was a tray of five confections, accompanied by a card to match up which was salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami.

Cape Town also had the best museum we explored, the Zeitz MOCAA. The Zeitz is a bold contemporary art museum, with a disturbing number of artists younger than us.

Tanzania Excursion

We were able to carve out 5 days in Tanzania, grabbing some cheap tickets from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam, and then back to Jo’burg.

We arrived in Dar late, a crowded around counters to give away our passports and crisp $100 bills, in hopes of a visa stamp. It seemed to be a case of first push, first serve, but every passport was collected before anyone could leave. Over an hour after we arrived, a woman exited the enclosed office with a small pile of passports, calling names. We weren’t in the first pile, and another 20 minutes passed, and the prayer calls and roosters started before we could fall asleep.

The next morning, we woke up at 4:30am, thanks to James’s internal alarm which realized that his external one was set for 15 minutes after our flight was to depart. We taxied to the airport, over a craggy road better suited for the donkey that passed us, past women tending open flames in sheds with neither roof nor walls. Our plane to Zanzibar had 8 seats, including the captain’s, and an aisle 6 inches wide (and yet, two people passed me while I had my leg in it).

We stayed on Chumbe, an eco-reserve island made of fossilized coral. There are four lofted cabins for staying the night, each with a hammock and a mosquito-netted bed. One rope tied to the wall can be used to let more light in… by lowering away the wall of the cabin. The chalkboard of activities included snorkeling through the island-wide stretch of (mostly dead) coral, a nature walk featuring strangler figs and rhino rocks, and a night-excursion to see the pillow-sized coconut crabs when they emerge.

The next morning, we retraced our steps to the car, and ended up on a personal spice tour from a friend of the driver. The best part was the tour guide’s knife-wielding friend, who would continuously grab leaves and twigs and widdle on them. At the end of the tour, he presented us with crowns, bracelets, 2 necklaces, a tie, and two bags, from his craft.

One night, we went out to House of Spices, an excellent rooftop restaurant. Alas, we forgot to bring enough cash, and they had no way to take cards. Leaving Johanna as collateral, I went out looking for a reputedly closeby ATM. It was a dark night, but the streets were alive with vendors with roasting stands. I asked 6 people, and each said, “An ATM? Oh, huh, I guess we probably have one of those around here somewhere.”

Johannesburg, Part 2

Perhaps the most awesome experience was our all-day safari, when we returned to Jo’burg and drove to the eastern border of the country. The safari was coordinated by our hotel, Bushwise Lodge on a wildlife sanctuary. We drove into Kruger National Park, and no sooner signed releases than were surrounded by impalas, the main feed-species. Close behind were lions, hyenas, crocodiles, wild dogs, a leopard, and fellow prey like wildebeests, buffalos, zebras, giraffes, and elephants.

We weren’t allowed to exit the jeep, except in special double-electrified basecamps. That didn’t stop the monkeys from stealing apples right from our table, or a baboon from swooping away a bag of leftovers. The jeep didn’t seem like so much projection, the two times that nearby elephants sized us up for an playful charge. We watched as a lioness waited for her friend, and then the two of them stalked away together. We saw a leopard leave some uneaten, bloody remains in a tree, and later hyenas come for their share. We watched as a swarm of a dozen crocs drilled into a bloated water buffalo, spinning to rip out its entrails.

One of our last stops was the Cradle of Humankind, a series of caves with some of the best Australopithecus excavations. The poor creatures fell in by chance or were dropped in by predators, waiting until mining was finally invented to set them free. Dripping stalactites lined the walls and ceilings that arched high above our heads. The water table, 60 m down, led to an underwater river with maggots and the ghosts of its first explorers. Johanna was visited by many biting ants and was ‘over it’ before the tour even started.

On our last full day, we went to Pretoria, seat of Apartheid. We skipped those monuments, in favor of Freedom Park, a winding path upwards to a series of spaces for contemplation. It had an excellent-looking museum, reminiscent of the Native American Smithsonian, but we raced through it to get to the gardens before they closed. The next day, though, we explored the Apartheid Museum, filled with video clips and wire-cage rooms. The most disconcerting part was the disney-like amusement park directly oppose it.

Our last night, we hit up a jazz bar called the Orbit, on their open-mic-like night. On stage was something between a band and a “guy and friends”: the pianist, drummer, and bassist stayed up, while the MC/band-leader orchestrated a series of improvisations. The first few improvizations started with one instrument or singer, but the last was the highlight. He brought up a singer without a song, who waited as the music converged a little, and then added some lyrics, made up on the spot. Five minutes in, he brought up a second singer, while the first was still going, and the two started playing off each other. The audience was on the edges of its seats for over half-hour, as the group of them played oscillated from beautiful chaos to islands of coherence. At a certain point, tension appeared between the singers, with the first (a black woman) starting to sing-chant “I love black.” The other (an Italian man), responded with a liturgy about how there were so many different kinds of people. Eventually they made up, with the woman chanting, “Zion,” and the man joining in.

From there, it was back to Boston, to Springfield for a first Thanksgiving, to Lowell for a second one, to the visa office to finally give away our passports, and then to Cape Cod to finish off the best vacation of 2017. See the rest of our photos here!

An allegory for life

It’s said that the universe follows natural law, but it seems to me that the real force behind the big events in life is allegory.

A few years ago, I was bemoaning my poor memory while wandering around Nice, France. This came to a head as I treated myself to a prix fixe menu, and resolved to practice committing more to memory. I looked at the awning above me to start with the name of the restaurant I was in. As it turned out, the restaurant was called “Memoire”.

Allegory has a way of creeping up on you. Reading books slowly over several weeks is a good way to realize the allegorical nature of life. You recognize yourself in the book, start seeing new developments of the book reflected in your own life, and realize that you are walking in lock-step, hoping the book ends well for you.

Periods in which much is changing are prime targets for allegorical forces. Flame and I are going through just such a period now, preparing for our trans-Atlantic move, a new city and a new job for me, and moving back in together.

Two months ago, my parents sold the last house I lived in with them. They were trying to downsize, with their emptier nest, but accidentally got a bigger house. Now they live 20 minutes away from that house, in a different state (Ah, New England), and are happy to be out of the city.

Two weeks ago, my childhood neighborhood in California was burnt to the ground. Thankfully, my grandmother and uncle, despite getting mandatory evacuation orders (which the uncle ignored), are safe along with their homes.

I am convinced that the universe is trying to tell me something. Something about leaving home, as I am preparing to do.

Travel has always been a good way for me to uncover the allegorical conspiracies around me, so I suspect that this is all just a prelude. Tuesday, we start out on a two-week honeymoon to South Africa and Tanzania. A little beach time, a little safari, a little good food, a little exploration we haven’t planned yet. A lot of leaving one temporary home and acclimating to another. I just hope it tempts the gods to spill their secrets, because I am slowly reading some works of military history, and I don’t think those will end nearly as well.

Sustainability, Engineering, and Philosophy