For the last few years I have lived on the East side of an island with a mountainous interior, and missed one of the most vital pairs of events in the world. At about 6:30 on a morning not long ago, I watched the Sun inch above the horizon to illuminate the summit of Mauna Kea, followed by a gentle avalanche of sunlight down the slopes and into full daylight. Then, beginning at about 5:45 that night, after a two-hour drive and reunion with family members, we all relaxed on a marble lanai cantilevered over tide pools as the Sun completed its trek and faded out. Long after the upper limb of the Sun had vanished, the clouds unmasked their true delicate hues, usually overwhelmed by the direct glare of the Sun.

Seeing sunrise and sunset in the same day may not be such a big deal, except that it is one of the classic examples of events that we take for granted. In fact, sunrise is taken so much for granted that sunrise is an oft-cited definition of the Bayesian inference. Right up there with the phases of the Moon, the incremental changes in the daily motion of the Sun continue their dance, waiting for us to notice some day.

Yesterday was one of those—the winter solstice.

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I told you to read the book

22 December 2006

Researchers in Japan have video of a giant squid alive and, if not in its actual bathypelagic habitat, then at least in the open ocean. This video is from the same team that got still photographs of Architeuthis last year.

The full article at LiveScience is good. But the book by Richard Ellis is still the most comprehensive description of the massive critters, and fine writing besides.

I can’t claim to have read as much history and philosophy of science as some I know, but I am still interested by the occurance of events which seem to beg (or fit neatly into definitions of) philosophical statements. Reading Dr. Free-Ride yesterday, I greatly enjoyed the comic a student drew in response to a question about von Fraassen’s categories of observable and unobservable.

In the comments of the post about the comic, Dr. Free-Ride and PZ Myers engage in a brief discussion about the privileged epistemological position of the senses, and some cases-in-point occurred to me. I can think of three instances where corporate (though somewhat blue-collar) opinion asserted the existence of a phenomenon against either the direct refusal or at least cold indifference of scientific ‘evidence.’ The magnanimous acceptance of these phenomena after ’empirical’ detection by somebody with a PhD seems in direct proportion to the degree of the snub prior to it. Thus, we don’t even get to the problem with observations (which goes back to Popper) about whether I see colors the same way you do, we’re hung up on whether you find me at all credible as an observer.

Whatever, anyway.

The first case is from the Apollo 11 mission, where Buzz Aldrin reported seeing bright flashes while his eyes were closed, or while wearing a blindfold (for sleeping, I think). During experiments on later missions, all the astronauts were able to see the flashes under similar conditions. While the exact mechanism remains obscure, the consensus seems to be that cosmic rays, which are all over the dang place, produce some sort of reaction (maybe Cherenkov radiation, maybe not) when they hit our eyes. This was predicted, and I don’t know to what degree the predictions differed from the observed, but it’s still pretty neat, I think.

Another example of disagreement between observers and theoreticians is the ‘discovery’ in the late 1980’s and early 90’s of colored rays zapping upward from the tops of thunderstorms. Coming in two main colors and shapes, these are now classified as jets and sprites, and they are understood to varying degrees, depending on who you talk to. The interesting part to me, though, is that these red sprites and blue jets were described at least anecdotally by pilots and other observers for a long time prior to the 1980s. As with the next example, they may be the kind of things that, exciting as they may seem after the fact, may be less relevant to the observers’ current situation than some more mundane phenomena.

Last on our list of cryptometeorologica today are rogue waves, thoroughly understood by sailors to be real for about as long as there have been sailors. With the true arrogance of the archaic, however, rogue waves finally arose from the deep and presented irrefutable proof of their own existence on three decidedly modern occaisions: two during the winter of 1994-1995 in the North Atlantic and North Sea, and another in 2001 in the Southern Ocean where two ships about 1000 km apart were struck during the same storm. Note that unlike tsunamis, rogue waves don’t happen near land and therefore suffer from a dearth of observers. New satellite data, pressure sensors, and the like have improved detection of these babies, but just stop for a moment and imagine. Blue water sailing with no land in sight, and normal waves–not necessarily during storms, even–running two to four meters in height (about that of a stoplight). Now, picture a twenty-five to thirty meter wave bearing down on you. While the number of ships actually lost to these waves in the last twenty years is not as high as some accounts give, it is still a pretty impressive thing to consider.

“Men really need sea-monsters in their personal oceans. For the ocean, deep and black in the depths, is like the low dark levels of our minds in which the dream symbols incubate and sometimes rise up to sight like the Old Man of the Sea. An ocean without its unnamed monsters would be like a dreamless sleep”

From Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez, a good book in its own right; the same quote used as an epigram in The Search for the Giant Squid by Richard Ellis. Everyone should buy and read that bookit is superlative.

I read in the Hawai`i Tribune-Herald today that one of the new County Councillors is calling for greater citizen involvement in disaster response through volunteer time and preparedness training. It is a funny coincidence, then, that there are already about 300 citizens of Hawai`i County who have put in a considerable number of volunteer hours in training for incident management and response for hazardous materials, emergency medical, wildland fires, search and rescue, and other such specialized skills. These citizens are volunteer firefighters in the twenty-odd volunteer companies of the Hawai`i Fire Department.

In a country where 80% of all firefighters are volunteers and the average value of one hour of volunteer time is about $18, and a county where growth is patently overwhelming almost all aspects of the budget and infrastructure, it would seem in everyone’s best interests to cultivate the established organizations and people who are poised to respond to emergency incidents and disasters of all sorts. Nationally, the class of rubber-meets-the-road first responders are overlooked in funding, training, and planning, yet they are frequently the ones who bear the brunt of responding to incidents. As Doug Carlson has repeatedly stated over at his blog about disaster response in Hawai`i, greater accountability is needed. That can begin by streamlining the mishmash of State Civil Defense, Federal Emergency Management Agency, County Civil Defense, Hawai`i Fire Department, Hawai`i Community College, and the plethora of other local, state and federal agencies responsible for employing and training first responders here on the island.

For an island which is expected to be able to survive unaided for one to two weeks after a major incident, we don’t seem to be able to talk to each other very well.

And don’t look to Big Brother for guidance. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ just reprinted the Federation of American Scientists’ analysis of the information available from FEMA at Ready.gov, and it isn’t good. Emergency response begins locally, and if you are concerned about it, drop by your local fire station and offer to volunteer. There’s sure to be something you can do.

A day for veterans

5 December 2006

Courtesy of TP.c, I found today Bill Moyers speech delivered on 16 November: his Message to West Point, a stirring and erudite lecture, invites discussion on the meaning of freedom and the role of the Army in the United States.

This talk caused me to reflect on veterans I know: my grandfathers, one of whom was career Army and served in Korea and Germany and the other who missed the Pacific Theater in WWII by what seems like a few minutes, my uncles who served in Vietnam and suffered many of the awful consequences thereof, and my friends in uniform now, some at home and some abroad.

One good friend who wasn’t in uniform when I knew him was Jonn Altonn, a retired newspaperman and WWII Navy veteran. I got to know Jonn when he volunteered every Saturday for several years leading tours to the summit of Mauna Kea. Remembered for his often garish suspenders, his constant sense of humor and fund of jokes, and his supra-octagenarian sharpness and activity, Jonn passed away a little more than a year ago. One day on Mauna Kea, I sat with him at lunch, and asked him about his time in the war. Jonn served on several ships in the Pacific, but the experience he said had made the sharpest impression was his time on the light cruiser Atlanta, including its sinking at He hadn’t been to any reunions, and hadn’t even told his family about those experiences until very recently, and as Bill Moyers says and others I’ve talked to reiterate, that isn’t uncommon.

Sitting there safe and well-fed in the bright sun magnified the gravity and drama of Jonn’s harrowing description of escaping the burning, sinking ship amid strafing fire and torpedo attacks. It also reminded me that if he was happy to be there now, I should be too. I don’t have either the power of eloquence or the trauma of experience to talk about how to consider the people who have fought and will fight for us, but I think it is important to take a moment to do so.