27 February 2010

Pacific Ocean Tsunami Warning

There has been a massive earthquake in Chile, magnitude 8.8.  It has resulted in a tsunami warning from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center  for the entire Pacific ocean basin.  As I write, it is 1910 UTC on the 27th, past initial arrival time for many locations.  But not past first arrival for many.  The predicted arrival times are also available (keep an eye on the site for updated information!).  Tsunami can be dangerous for hours after first arrival time as different waves arrive.  Tsunami does not necessarily equate to disaster, some of the wave heights being observed are less than 1 meter (3 feet).  But if you're near the Pacific Ocean, it is definitely time to get informed and take appropriate action.

h/t Phil Plait

See All of My Faults Are Stress-Related: How big was that EQ? Magnitude vs intensity in Chile and Haiti Kim Hannula's blog, shearsensibility, for informed discussion of what magnitude means. 8.8 is far bigger a quake than the 7.0 that hit Haiti.

What is training?

It's easy, but wrong, to think that training is what you're doing when you're working out in the gym, or running outside, and so on.  That misses some important parts of what your body is doing -- normally, during exercise, and following exercise.  I've constructed a casual sort of diagram to illustrate what happens:
If you do nothing, your fitness declines over time.  (At least for those of you over about 30-35.)  What's happening is that your body has very strong 'use it or lose it' tendencies.  It is always tearing down muscle and bone, for instance.  It is always, also, building muscle and bone.  As you get older, though, the 'build' tendency declines, and the tear down takes over.  For some good descriptions of the processes, and places to read deeper, see Younger Next Year, by Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge, MD.

The main signal to your body that it needs to do more building is to use it.

22 February 2010

Dare to ask a question!

I sometimes browse the referrals to my site, and was surprised to see someone commenting that they 'dare not' post here.  Most peculiar.  Unless the author of that comment is incapable of writing without profanity, or can't staying on topic (and his comment there showed no such signs), they certainly may 'dare' to post here.  At least as far as I'm concerned.  If there are employer-based reasons, well, that's out of my hands.

It's a while since I've put up a 'question place' note, so here's one for current questions.  Be daring, ask a question!

Which sources to trust?

Weeding sources is my tag for articles about deciding which sources to trust.  I'm far from the only person who considers this an important topic, of course.  The articles I prefer are, like mine, ones where there's some detailed effort to look at what a source doing and what is dishonest.

Lately Tim Lambert at Deltoid has been taking up the question of a journalist -- Jonathan Leake -- and paper (The Times, in the UK) and their reporting on climate.  The Rabett has written up a nice summary of Tim's posts on this theme.  The upshot being, Leake and The Times are unreliable sources, both for making up things and for not correcting their errors.  But see Tim's researches that establish those points.  Much more work there than Leake is putting in to his artifices.

20 February 2010

Setting goals for your workouts

One of the more important things coaches do is set goals for their athletes.  If the coach is more of my type, it's a matter of helping the athlete choose good goals.  I'm writing here on the principle that you're your own coach. 

Good goals are opportunities for successes.  Each success helps invigorate you, and encourage you towards your next goal.  This gives us some guidance on how to select goals.  One part is, there should be a progression of goals.  Rather than have one major goal, for instance 'run a marathon', you should have a number of goals that build towards the bigger one.  In this case, it could be something like 'run a 5k', 'run a 10k', 'run a 15k', 'run a half-marathon', and then, finally 'run a marathon'.  (I strongly recommend this if you're contemplating the 'run a marathon'.)  Break down the big goal in to a series of stepping stones.  That gives you successes along the way, and some positive feedback to encourage you.

A second aspect comes from considering the 'opportunity for success'.  When I was racing regularly a few years ago, I ran the mile in 5:51.  I was both happy and sad, mostly happy, with that time.  The reason being, I had multiple goals for my time that day.  The optimistic goal, which was probably achievable if I had paced myself better and not gotten some bad personal news a few minutes before the race, was 5:40.  My realistic goal, something that I figured I should be able to reach if I didn't race particularly stupidly or get particularly tangled up in a pack, was 6:00.  And my conservative goal, which should have been hard for me not to reach even if I had run stupidly and did tangle in a pack, was 6:10.  Ok, I didn't get the optimistic goal (which was probably too optimistic, given the others).  But I did beat the conservative and reasonable goals, so a success.  And some feedback on how to race the mile better.  That was my first mile race in over 20 years.

Results, though, are a little dicy as goals.

16 February 2010

Do I have to be good in math to be good at science?

The short answer: No.  Before the longer answer, here's the full comment/question from the teacher:

Question:  Do I have to be good in math to be good at science?

The reason I ask this is that many scientifically inclined students I know are not going to pursue science as they get older because they perceive themselves to be less than stellar in math. This is a shame. And a waste.  Please stress to the young, hormonally-infused people who read your blog (not the adults-one hopes they've figured it out already) that science is a process, just like running, and eating and IMing on the phone. And math is a tool -- a really great, useful tool -- that's part of the process.

Splitting hairs? I don't think so. I've got a few 5th graders who I've shared your blog with, and they were enjoying themselves until they hit the math and freaked out. Nooooooo, I say, fear not the many zeros and exponents. It all makes sense as you practice it (even I can say that).

So ... address my question. My 5th graders will thank you. And, of course, so will I!

I whole-heartedly second everything the teacher said.  The 'enjoying themselves until they hit the math and freaked out' is also not limited to the 5th graders. I've heard from some distinctly older folks about this too.  It's why I'll be making some changes to my posting practices.

For the students, there are two different questions to think about.  One is, what does it mean to be 'good at math', and the other is 'what am I doing when I'm doing science?'.  I'll share some of my thoughts and invite students and teachers to share theirs as well.  Questions, as always, welcome.

A short introduction to the metric system

We do use the metric system, or, more specifically, the Systeme Internationale, in doing science.  This causes no grief for any countries outside the US.  But about half my readers are in the US, so there is a constant issue about using the scientific units to talk about scientific topics.  (I'm sufficiently native that when discussing non-scientific topics, I do normally use feet/fathoms/rods/miles/....)

For the use of readers who tend to freeze when seeing metric units, here is a quick and dirty guide.  Emphasis on quick and dirty.  It will not be accurate, but it will give you the right general sense.  Good enough, at least, for Science Jabberwocky purposes.  It should also do for the non-US readers who are baffled when I use only the Imperial units.  (I try to avoid that, but probably lapse.)

15 February 2010

iPhone climate app

A site I haven't listed yet, but should, is Skepticalscience.  They've now made a iPhone app from their web site materials.  App is at:


Their introduction of the app is here:


Main page is, naturally  http://www.skepticalscience.com

If anyone is an iPhone user and gets the app, let us know what you think.  I have heard good things already, but I don't think from the local readers.

 This reminds me of a couple things ...

14 February 2010

What to do when you're snowed in?

For some reason, snow is on my mind lately.  Since it's time for a weekend warrior* post, what can you do when, for whatever reason, you can't get out for your usual workout?  The wrong thing is to do nothing.  That way lies never getting out again.  On the other hand, pretending that you can go ahead and do your usual workout is also not a good idea.  Granted I could dress for a run in the current weather (near freezing, light winds).  But I really can't run through 2-3 feet (50-100 cm) snow, and I'm absolutely not going to go running down the sort-of plowed parts of the road (with the cars taking uncertain aim at me -- folks here are not used to driving on snow, and there's almost nothing you can do about the ice that is increasingly common).

So, what to do?  Well, first off, prehabilitation exercises are a good idea.

12 February 2010

Cloud-temperature feedback

In my three feet of global warming note, I mentioned that two processes in the climate system are a) warmer temperatures -> more moisture in the atmosphere, and b) more moisture -> more severe storms.  A commenter followed up wondering how warming could actually take place, if a) more moisture -> more clouds and  b) more clouds -> cooler temperatures.

A key word there is if.  Although warmer temperatures are observed to lead to more moisture in the atmosphere, it isn't clear that more moisture actually leads to more clouds.  Section 3.4.3 of the IPCC report gives you an overview of the literature on the topic.  Depending on which scientific paper you read, it's more cloud, less cloud, or more over one surface type and less over another.  In other words, an area of significant scientific debate.

It's also a question whether more clouds mean cooler temperatures.  If you're from a cold weather climate, you've experienced that on clear days you get a nice warm daytime temperature, but also a blistering cold nighttime.  Because of those very cold nights, cloudy days can actually average warmer than a sunny day.  The daytime isn't quite as warm, but the night time is far warmer.

Let's take a deeper look in to the relationships between clouds, in particular to look at the feedback on temperature.  You'll notice that the commenter's question is about a feedback -- we start with temperature, and processes occur which ultimately lead to an effect on temperature.  What I'd originally talked about was a straightforward chain.  One thing causes another, causes another.  But no effect on the term or process that started us off.  We'll ultimately get back to the simplest climate model, as it can help shed some light on the question as well.

10 February 2010

Three feet of global warming

Now that that idiotic line is out of the way, let's do some thinking about what we should expect from climate change. I've been calling it climate change, rather than 'global warming', since at least 1993. A major reason being that there is more to climate than temperature, and changing temperatures affect more than just how hot it gets.

One of the things that temperature affects is how much water can be in the atmosphere. The hotter it is, the more water vapor you can have in the air before it starts to form a cloud. So one very simple expectation that we could have on climate is that warmer = more humid (absolute humidity that is). Since there's more than temperature to climate, we don't really expect it'll work out that simply everywhere, all the time. But it tells us one line of research to take -- look to see what has been happening to atmospheric moisture content.

Jeff Masters has written this up at his blog on the Weather Underground, and I'm relying partly on his notes in my write up.

07 February 2010


Even if you're not around here (Washington DC area), I gather several folks have heard about our weather.  Having been reminded by JG that not everybody has seen snow, I caught some video of the flakes in action.  And being reminded of Nakaya's work on ice crystal types, I have a still that attempts to catch a few snow crystals.

Snow crystals on my coat sleeve:
Be sure to click on that to see full size.  One thing to notice, aside from the fact that many have already melted, is that most are little needles.  Some of the needles have clumped together, like the one near the loose thread in the middle of the photo.  If you look carefully, you can see that the needles have little balls on their ends. The little balls are liquid water cloud droplets that froze instantly onto the needles as the needles fell through the cloud.  It's called riming, even as it happens to a single snow crystal. (Riming is a serious hazard for aircraft taking off or landing in near-freezing conditions.)

Morning snow (small snowflakes):

Afternoon snow (bigger snowflakes):


05 February 2010

Running progression

Let's suppose that you have decided to become a runner, and are looking at how to progress from being a walker to being a runner.  The first part should not be neglected.  Before heading off to becoming a runner, you should work on being a good walker.  I'm not referring to speed for this, or for pretty much anything else I say.  Rather, it is consistency that matters.  Before starting on your running program, I think you should be comfortable with regular healthy walking.  So you should be comfortable with going out 4-5 times per week and walking for 30 minutes before considering doing running.

Most people, runners perhaps more than most, like to ignore walking as a means of exercise, and as a requirement for fitness.  The thing is, walking really is a good exercise in its own right.  Depending on your current condition, it will get your pulse up nicely.  If it does, then it is already giving you good aerobic exercise.  Regardless of that, it is a weight-bearing exercise.  If your aim is health, then these are your primary concerns.  If walking gets your pulse up to the 65-75% level (see my heart rate calculator for some estimates of that), then it is sufficient.  In fact, more than sufficient -- it is likely the safest, healthiest, way for you to get your pulse in to that aerobic training zone.  Running means a big increase in your landing forces -- several times body weight.  If your body hasn't yet adjusted to the forces involved in walking, running can be an invitation to injury.

Walk before you run is a very good training idea.  If you're finding it somewhat embarassing, or whatever, to be working on your walking, feel free to supplement it with strength work, prehabilitation, flexibility work, or just telling yourself that you're not merely walking -- you're scoping out good routes to go running on.  But walking really is the starting point.  I'd post a progression if I knew of any.  (Contributions?)

But then there's running.

04 February 2010

The Elements

John Wilkins has a short note linking to a research article on the invention of the periodic table.

There's also this nice animation of Tom Lehrer's song "The Elements":

The reason for the moderately large number of elements discovered since the original song is that the original was done in the early 1960s. 

03 February 2010

A heuristic for stratospheric cooling

I mentioned in the climate fingerprinting post that if you have more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we expect the stratosphere -- the upper atmosphere -- to get colder.  That, naturally, brought on the question 'why'.

I'm far from the first person to make the comment, or to attempt to write up a description of how it works on a blog.  Recently the Stoat took a swipe, or rather referenced a prior attempt and one by Realclimate, and the Rabett has also had a go.  Plus, I'm sure, there are a raft of other efforts in existence.  Yet the questioner is still asking.  That being the case, and having seen prior efforts make the attempt to describe the full situation that you have, I'll aim for a simpler version.

This will be a heuristic description.  It will be capable of being made rigorous, in the sense that you can take the heuristic and put solid math behind it.  But it will be incorrect in many of its details.  The merit of such heuristics is that even though they are incorrect in details, they lead your intuition in the right directions, such that you can then work with and understand the version of the argument that is completely correct in its details.

02 February 2010

Snowflakes and climate

This weekend's snow put me in mind of a climate change reality.  As I've mentioned before, weather will still happen.  But that can be hard to picture.

So picture this: It's snowing fairly hard.  We're getting 1-2 inches (2-5 cm) accumulation per hour of fairly fluffy snow.  There's a breeze from my left to right.  The climate for these snowflakes, namely what we expect to see, is a steady fall with some steady motion from my left to right.  If I just look at the general picture, that's what I see -- the climate.  If I focus in on a particular snowflake, I see it moving in all directions.  Sometimes it's moving extra fast, compared to the others, down or to my right.  But sometimes I see the snowflake move to the left, or even up, completely against what we expect from the climate.

That is the weather.  (At least for the purpose of the example it's weather, in specific detail, it is turbulence.)  Even though every snow flake does average -- its climate -- moving down and to my right, the weather, the short term motions, can be in the opposite direction.  If you look closely enough, every snow flake spends some time going opposite its climate direction.

So it goes with climate.  While the general tendency is one thing, there's no surprise that if you look at the earth for short periods (like years, rather than the meaningful 20-30 years) you'll see the opposite of the long-term expectation happen.  Sometimes the snowflake moves upwards.