Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Understanding Quantum Mechanics

"I've had a whole career without knowing what quantum mechanics is."
    -- Stephen Weinberg, quoted in Lost in Math by Sabine Hossenfelder
(Hossenfelder considers Steven Weinberg the "greatest living physicist.")

Sunday, June 17, 2018

When Global Warming Touches Home

Note 6/17/18: this post had been inadvertently deleted; I'm restoring it from Chrome's cache. It was originally posted 6/1/18.
This wild week we've had an emergency situation in the Willamette Valley of Oregon -- the city of Salem (primarily), but also Stayton (where I live now), Turner, and other communities who get their water from Detroit Lake and the North Santiam River it feeds.

There was an algal bloom found in Detroit Lake on May 8th, one that produces dangerous toxins that can cause harm to children under 6 years of age, those with compromised immune systems, and pets. They say healthy adults aren't at risk.

It's been confusing, and the government hasn't handled this skillfully or competently. On Tuesday evening we all got a warning on our smartphones, a noise I'd never heard my phone make before -- a reverse 911 call, I guess -- saying there was a Civil Emergency Alert. That's all it said, very nondescript.

I suspected it was about the water situation, about which the Salem newspaper had sent out a notification an hour or two earlier. (What people without smartphones knew, I have no idea.) But it wasn't really clear -- I did actually wonder for a little bit if the Big Earthquake had hit, or something.

That message was, we know now, a mistake -- an default emergency message sent out by emergency managers or their systems. About 20 minutes later another squawkish message arrived saying it was about the water.

Except the link it directed everyone to, as did my town's (Stayton) Facebook posting, pointed to a cityofsalem.net site that was unreachable, overloaded with traffic.

So there were two big mistakes in a row -- an emergency message that said nothing and so was confusing, and a link to a government Web site that was overloaded.

Not exactly encouraging for when the Big One hits here (the expected M9.0 earthquake).

(For a brief time I did wonder if maybe the first emergency message was about something other than the water situation. It's hard to resist. My biggest worry about the big upcoming M9.0 eq is that it will hit precisely in the middle of January when I am in the shower -- and left not just wet and cold, but disconnected from my eyeglasses, without which I am like Piggy in Lord of the Flies.)

Once everyone was told it was about somewhat poisonous water, the stores naturally had a run on bottled water. (Strike 3?) I was fine with drinking out of the tap, but replaced my cats' water bowl with distilled water, which was all I had on hand. (It tastes lousy, but is at least wet.) Today I was able to replace that with bottled spring water.

The governor called a state of emergency. The National Guard has started distributing free water to anyone who comes to one of their 10 sites they set up around -- though to me they've seemed pretty shy about telling us where those places are (Strike 4).

Oh, and make sure you have containers for the water, because we all happen to have 5 or 10 empty one-gallon jugs lying around, right? (Strike 5.)

Some people have definitely overreacted, but in the last day or so the big stores around seemed to have worked hard to get lots of water into their stores. Like truckload after truckload.

Meanwhile it's come out that Salem officials knew about the toxicity at least four days before they informed the public. Sweet.


The algae bloom was first found up in Detroit Lake -- on the western slope of the Cascade Mountains -- on May 8th. That's relativity early in the season. They have often occurred here in May and June, but have never before shut down water systems.

Now people are asking questions about this algae bloom:
Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett is calling for an investigation into the toxic algae bloom at Detroit Lake blamed for fouling the city’s water supply.

Toxic algae blooms have been a common occurrence at the reservoir east of Salem, which serves as the source of the city’s water supply.

But this year is the first time those toxins have infiltrated Salem’s water supply at levels high enough to cause harm to vulnerable residents.
What might be a factor in the increasing number of algae blooms?
Bennett pointed to factors such as fire damage, fire suppression practices, historic logging activities and weather conditions as potential culprits.
What the mayor didn't mention was...global warming.
"I think it's fair to say that factors associated with global warming — hotter and drier conditions and a rapid snowmelt — could definitely increase conditions that cause algae blooms," said Rebecca Hillwig, natural resource specialist with the Oregon Health Authority. "There's a lot of factors to consider, but it's fair to say that we have the potential for more of these type of issues in the future."
Salem has warmed about 2.3°F since 1948, and Oregon as a whole (a pretty large inhomogeneous area, to be sure) has warmed by 2.7°F since 1895. I don't have data for Detroit Lake, but I wouldn't be surprised if they're similar.

Maybe at least a few people here will start to grasp what global warming means -- for them personally, if not for the larger world. If not this time, then maybe next. At least it's nice to think so.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Trees and Moon

A great night-sky picture from my friend Jim, who I met here in Oregon a few  years ago and got to know, but who then moved to New Hampshire, where he now lives just across Lake Winnipesaukee from where I lived in Gilford for several years in the late 1990s until about 2003!

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Does global warming make tropical cyclones stronger? « RealClimate

Does global warming make tropical cyclones stronger? « RealClimate
A must-read at RealClimate:

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Book: The Efficiency Paradox, by Edward Tenner

In the mail: The Efficiency Paradox: What Big Data Can't Do, by Edward Tenner, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

From Publisher's Weekly:
Historian Tenner (Why Things Bite Back) argues that supposed advances in technological efficiency can actually be self-subverting in this reasoned antidote to a culture increasingly obsessed with doing more with less. He starts by examining the history of innovations premised on efficiency, first seen in continuous production models such as Ford’s assembly line, and more recently in the rise of digital platform companies, which are “based less on the organization of machines and human labor than the gathering, analysis, and exchange of data.” The book then segues into hot topics such as rideshare apps, GPS, and self-driving cars. Tenner demonstrates how systems such as these, which are premised on efficiency, reduce serendipity, stifle learning, and limit humans’ ability to respond when malfunction occurs; they also, he argues, create substantial lost opportunity cost in the long term. Tenner also addresses the fallacies of big data and how random initial advantages from algorithms (such as Google’s PageRank, which attempts to deliver information that people want rather than what they asked for) can hide the long-term codification of systemic bias. Tenner is no luddite; he evaluates the positives and negatives of technology through a strong base of evidence rather than nostalgia or personal anecdote, and debunks some of the most popular concerns about automation. Tenner’s insightful study of the effects of information technology on society warrants close attention.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Question About Human Vision and Missiles

Consider, say, a missile, 5 meters long and 1 meter in diameter. After it's launched, at what speeds could it be tracked by the human eye? What's the upper limit on that speed? Viz., when does the missile become effectively invisible?

(I know the diameter might not be realistic. I just wanted to make it an easy number.)

This is tangentially related to an article I'm working on.

Note added 5/27: I think my query was somewhat ambiguous, because the ability for the eye to track something depends on how far away it is. (Not too far, but not too close.) You can assume any distance you want.... For that matter, make any assumptions you want about size of the object being viewed.... What if the starship Enterprise (or Voyager) dipped into a planet's atmosphere? When could you see it and when would it be moving too fast to catch?

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

James Chadwick Accidentally Went Into Physics

Image result for james chadwick neutron

"...James Chadwick, the discoverer of the neutron, had studied physics only because he was too shy to point out that he had mistakenly waited in the wrong line when matriculating."

From Warped Passages by Lisa Randall