Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Claims About the Nationwide Popular Vote, US Presidential Election

Hillary Clinton's apparent lead in the nationwide popular vote continues to grow as previously uncounted ballots get included. As the additional votes pile up, so do comments about unfairness in the US election system, since these votes will make no difference in the outcome. People are repeating their calls for repeal of the electoral college system. Although we need to work through this debate (again), I think our biggest problems lie not in the electoral college, but in the primary election system, but I digress. In full disclosure, I must admit that I personally could not get myself to vote for either of the leading candidates, and I did not favor any of the third party candidates either. I think we as a nation can do better.

I posed one contrarian view providing some reasoning for retaining the electoral college:

The point of this posting is to comment on how some Clinton voters argue that the system is unfair since she seems to be leading by millions of votes nationwide. If the election were held again, they might claim, given the same vote margins, but with the conclusion determined by the popular vote, that she would have won and would even have had a substantial mandate. This perspective is understandable, but not on firm logical ground.

The popular vote situation in the electoral college system would not be the same as the popular vote in an election set up from the start as one to be decided by the popular vote. There may be millions of conservative voters in Washington, Oregon, California, Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts (for examples), who didn't bother to vote in the present system because they did not see their votes as making any difference, because large majorities in these states vote for Democrats. One could claim the same thing about left leaning voters in red states. More such people may have voted in a different system. My point is that in the present system, the popular vote nationwide is meaningless and possibly misleading. Only if the election were posed from the start as determined by the nationwide popular vote would we actually know what that vote would be. These same claims would hold true if the tables were turned.

Both candidates ran knowing the electoral process. That framework determined their efforts and the outcome. For better or worse, Trump won in that framework.

We should be spending more of our time concentrating on how to make the nation function well regardless of who is leading it.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Paris Climate Agreement and the United States Election Result

Many people who are concerned about climate change view the election of Donald Trump with trepidation. He has denied that climate change includes a substantial response to human activities, arguing that it is a hoax, and he has vowed to open up more federal lands to oil and natural gas drilling. He will probably withdraw from the recent Paris climate agreement. Yet, even if he did all of these things and more, in terms of outcomes actually relevant to the portion of climate change induced by human activities, the talk may be all bark and little bite, and I think the fear is more political than based on facts. My reasoning is that market forces are already changing the carbon emissions patterns of the United States economy. Trends in the costs of different forms of renewable energy, trends in how we use renewables together with fossil fuels, and changes in the types of fossil fuels that dominate the market reduce the depth of my concern.

Most renewable energy sources are intermittent. In order to absorb their production into the electricity grid, we need either the capacity to store the energy when it is produced to release it when it is needed, or we need some backup energy supply that can respond quickly to make up the difference when renewable energy sources are insufficient. When renewables and storage are cheaper than fossil fuels, market pressures will phase out fossil fuels, in spite of any government action (or lack thereof). Some fossil fuels are dirtier than others. Natural gas is on the whole cleaner than coal, even after accounting for leaked methane. Natural gas power plants can also respond far more rapidly than coal power plants to volatility in electricity generation rates from renewables. The cheap natural gas available now due to the fracking boom offsets the market for coal and makes assimilating renewable energy into the grid easier. In fact, some renewable energy firms have used natural gas to allow them to guarantee to grid managers a certain amount of energy production: They provide renewable energy when it is available, and they make up the difference when renewables are insufficient by using fast response natural gas power. Eventually when low cost storage becomes available, the need for electricity from natural gas will diminish.

I am not worried about a dramatic increase in coal production or oil drilling in the Trump presidency, even if he relaxes federal constraints on drilling on federal lands. For now, a glut of oil production has made the price of oil so low that there will be little incentive for oil companies to rapidly expand to new fields. In the meantime, continued investment in private sector battery research for electric cars may lead to the breakthroughs needed to solve the renewable energy storage problem. Thus I think that the best way for government to catalyze transition to a market driven by renewable energy is not to fight fossil fuels, but to invest in development of energy storage technologies. When renewable energy is truly cheaper, the big money will move that way. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

A Discussion of the Young Science of Seasonal Forecasting

Every fall, clients expect private sector meteorologists to make forecasts for the upcoming winter season. These forecasts are intended to provide useful information about the average outcome over the season, such as whether it is likely to be warmer or colder than normal. Such forecasts can be difficult to make, and many forecasters make predictions based on tenuous claims.

Seasonal forecasting is complicated because the average weather in the upcoming season depends both on signals evolving on seasonal or longer timescales, such as El Niño and climate change, and on signals that were originally acting on short timescales but that cause longer lasting changes in the state of the atmosphere or ocean. Phenomena like El Niño provide a kind of anchor pattern to which the weather can often return throughout the season, occasionally allowing skillful predictions to be made on a seasonal level.

In contrast, relatively brief weather events like major midlatitude storms, hurricanes, or Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO) events can displace warm air from its normal locations to higher latitudes, leading to blocking patterns that can sometimes hold on for weeks at a time, influencing weather around the world. Wind stress associated with weather events can also give the ocean a "kick", thereby moving warm or cold water around. Such "kicker" events can make conditions after them different from conditions if they had not occurred (such as by amplifying or breaking down El Niño). They can move the climate into a new state. Most such transitional events are not usually predictable more than a couple of weeks in advance. Events that can alter the subsequent mean state of the seasonal climate are characteristic of nonlinear or chaotic systems. The best we can hope for in predicting such events beyond part of the next month is to correctly predict whether such events are more or less likely under certain background conditions.

Seasonal forecasters use both global climate models and statistical methods in their quest. Climate models are usually not good at predicting weather event-driven changes in the mean state, but they are good at maintaining the present state. Statistical methods, including data mining in large climate datasets, allow us to find relationships between different signals across the climate system. For example, strong El Niño conditions might be correlated with reduced snow cover in Canada, which then affects the temperature in Canada and the United States. Correlated signals like Canadian snow cover extent and eastern United States temperature can sometimes be applied to make predictions. When the ground is covered with snow, sunlight gets reflected back into space. Snow also creates cold air by emitting longwave radiation into space.

With many interacting variables, however, it can be difficult to determine cause and effect. Usually real weather events respond to multiple interacting causes, some contributing more than others. Snow cover may be reduced because the background pattern favors import of warm air over the continent, which can sometimes continue even after a snow event. If an assumed cause (such as extensive snow cover) is present, but another major factor such as strong southerly wind is also present, using the snow cover alone to predict upcoming temperature patterns would lead to a bad forecast. During strong El Niño events, a rogue storm event might increase Canadian snow cover, contributing toward lower temperatures, but import of warm air characteristic of El Niño can overcome these cooling effects and even melt the snow. Without taking the likelihood of import of warm air into account, a forecaster might suggest a long-term shift in outcomes across the season due to increased snow cover when one might be unlikely.

It is easy and occasionally useful to blame a warm or cold weather event on climate change, El Niño, abnormal Arctic Ice cover, snow extent in Siberia, the distribution of rainfall in the tropics, the North Atlantic Oscillation, sudden stratospheric warmings, tropical cyclone recurvature, the Pacific decadal oscillation, the Madden Julian Oscillation, or many other possible mechanisms. Many forecasters have their favorite indicator. My favorite is organized rainfall patterns in the tropics. I emphasize this indicator not because I think that it causes every major outcome in the atmosphere, but because it constitutes a well-defined energy source that leads to stationary or propagating waves that communicate outcomes to different parts of the world. Tropical rainfall also includes many signals that tend to favor certain sizes, propagation speeds, and lifetimes, implying some level of consistency from event to event. Yet, although rainfall in the tropics does drive changes in patterns in atmospheric circulation, it also responds to that circulation, complicating forecasting because the quantity often labeled as the "effect" can lead to changes in the thing we labeled as the "cause".

Another scientist might prefer to track snow cover in Siberia as a favored indicator in a seasonal temperature forecast. When cold air is available in Siberia, it can be displaced across the frozen Arctic Ocean into Canada, leading to an available source of cold air for the eastern United States. Yet, the presence of snow cover in Siberia does not necessarily imply that cold air will ultimately reach the eastern United States for any extended period of time. The winter of 2015-2016 was an excellent example of an exception (at least considering the season as a whole). Snowcover accumulated early in Siberia, but that winter was the mildest on record across much of the eastern United States. That winter, the structure of the El Niño response pattern favored both extensive snow cover in Siberia in October and warm outcomes through most of the winter in eastern North America.

Many seasonal forecasters fall into the trap of identifying a tracer signal of future outcomes, while not understanding the different pathways whereby different outcomes can occur. Scientists like simple explanations. This type of reductionist thinking often leads to good understanding, even in climate science. In a linear system, the total is just the sum of the parts. On the other hand, in a nonlinear system like the atmosphere, reductionism can occasionally lead to large errors. Brief weather events can sometimes kick off long lasting changes. Interacting signals in the climate system can lead to outcomes that are different from the simple sum of the signals.

Bottom line: When considering a seasonal forecast, think about the arguments being made, the level of confidence in those arguments, and alternate pathways to different solutions. Skill of even the best forecast techniques is relatively poor. In the end, no matter how well informed your seasonal forecast might be, anticipate that occasionally, weather events will alter the signal over the course of the season, leading to seasonal averages that are different from what you anticipated. That outcome does not necessarily mean that the forecast was not based on good information--it might just mean that unpredictable signals in the climate system led to a different outcome.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

A Simple Argument in Support of the Maligned Electoral College

I don't often delve into political questions in this science and education blog, but from time to time I think it good practice to examine arguments for or against certain controversial political questions. My intent is to provoke or enhance debate on the topic.

The electoral college is the somewhat convoluted process of selecting the President of the United States. Each state gets the same number of votes in the process as they have senators and representatives in congress. The rules guarantee each state at least 3 votes, which implies that people in less populous states are represented better than people in more populous states. Wyoming voters get more impact per person than voters in New York. This difference helps make it possible for someone to win the election without winning the nationwide popular vote. The system has thus been maligned as undemocratic.

The enhanced clout of the small population states is not sufficient to allow individual small states to dominate an election because their total number of votes remain well below those of individual populous states (For example, Wyoming's 3 votes to California's 55). If the small states voted in a way that was random with respect to each other, they would usually cancel each other out to irrelevance. On the other hand, when many small states together agree, the effect of their extra weight is constructive and it acts to protect their collective rights. I think it is a work of genius, even if it seems undemocratic.

The Senate in the US Congress provides each state with equal representation regardless of population, while the House of Representatives provides representation roughly proportional to population. Why should the senate be the only branch of government that gives equal weight to the small states as to the large ones? Why shouldn't the selection of the chief executive give them similar benefits? Many people think it is unfair to grant small states additional protections. Yet, many of the same people think it is fair to protect low income taxpayers with lower tax rates than for the wealthy, or to provide underrepresented demographic groups with scholarships and other support for education.

I see the electoral college system as a just another systemic protection of an underrepresented group of people from the tyranny of majority rule.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

From Premature Babies to the Gift of Freedom of Thought: At Talk at the Yacon Village Unschooling Conference

Today I gave a 45 minute talk to a group of unschoolers at the Yacon Village community center on Colonie New York. I decided to relate a couple of my main points here.

Isaac Newton's early life was difficult. His father died a couple of months before his birth. His mother claimed that he was so small that he could fit into a quart jar. She subsequently remarried and left Isaac in the care of her own mother. Isaac claimed that he could never forgive her. Isaac hated his stepfather. After his stepfather died, his mother resumed his care. He went to school during his 12th through 17th years. The next part I thought was a variation on the Dead Poet Society movie script. His mother decided that he was supposed to be a farmer. Isaac hated farming. Now imagine the delays in the progress of our science and mathematics if his mother had had her way. Sometimes we as parents or teachers really do not know what is best for the future of our children and our students, even when we think we do. It is unwise for us to quell their core aspirations and pack their lives with our own aspirations for them.

My own early life was arguably not as difficult as Newton's, though we had a few similarities. I was born several weeks early, and might even also have fit into a quart jar. Neither of my parents had Bachelor's degrees, and from when I was about three years old and older, my father worked as a farm hand in the small town of Oakley Idaho. Before I turned four, I developed a fascination for nature. One day when I was around that age I found a 5-gallon bucket half filled with ashes from our wood burning stove. I remembered that plants grow from seeds, and I figured that popcorn kernels were seeds, so I would try my hand at growing them. I found some unpopped kernels in the bottom of a large bowl of popped popcorn, and I told my mother that I was going to plant them!  I'm sure she thought it was ridiculous, but she smiled and waved me on. I toddled out to my bucket of ash, buried the seeds in the ash, watered them, and a week or so later, sure enough, two corn plants began to grow. I continued caring for the two plants through that summer, and they actually provided two small ears of real popcorn. My parents did not try to stop my daring experiment. My parents and neighbors expressed astonishment. They started calling me the little professor, and the nickname caught on through my community.

The moral of my story is that parents, teachers, and the education system as a whole should extend age dependent freedoms to children and not attempt to cram them into a one-size-fits-all curriculum. Parents and teachers should aim high in general expectations, but should keep out of the business of specific expectations. We do not know the future, and our expectations of it are likely to be far off anyway. Society owes children challenge and intellectual stimulation, not heavy external controls and confinement. If the children knew freedom now, they would deal with it better later in life. The challenge to us is to help them grow into it.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Some Comments on "Saving Science"

Recently, Daniel Sarewitz, professor of science and society at Arizona State University, posted an essay on Saving Science at http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/saving-science . It is long, though I think it is worth the read. Others have offered their perspectives on his points, including  https://andthentheresphysics.wordpress.com/2016/08/21/saving-science/ and Judith Curry at https://judithcurry.com/2016/08/22/dan-sarewitz-on-saving-science/

I think that Sarewitz raises some valid points of concern, but he makes some broad sweeping generalizations that I think are unsubstantiated and at times myopic. Although I cannot possibly address all of my concerns about his assertions here, I hit a few points that I think are most important.

Vannevar Bush stated

"Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown."

The crux of Sarewitz's argument is that financing the free play of free intellects is not productive and often yields results that turn out to be wrong. He advocates for managed science with planned outcomes in technology or applications, a concept that many define as engineering. He argues that when managed for a specific outcome in the presence of a pressing need, science (er, engineering) yields the greatest outcomes. Although I agree that many of the most transformative ultimate outcomes of science have followed such enterprise, history suggests that without the free play of free intellects, most such ventures could never have been conceived in the first place. I argue that today's science has too little rather than too much free play. Free play today is often overly constrained by imposed goals and social pressures, sometimes including too much drive to conform to pass peer review.

Yet, what modern technology or innovation of science did not have at some point at its roots the free play of free intellects?

The Manhattan project yielded the atomic bomb and nuclear energy technology. This project was clearly more engineering than science, managed for a specific outcome, following the ideal supported by Sarewitz. I argue that this project would not have had a context to begin without the works of free-playing predecessors, many of whom simply wanted to understand nature and could not have imagined what kind of applications would ultimately grow out of the understanding the physics of matter and radiation that they gave us. This point does not support Sarewitz's suggestion that all scientific ideas should have a clear trajectory to positive direct impacts on fulfilling human needs before we should consider them for funding. Fundamental research from the play of the intellects often needs further development in planned projects to yield such outcomes. Pondering on the results of the playful projects often yields the planned ones. Projects like Manhattan are not, for the most part, new ideas, but development of old ones, refining them to fulfill the needs of society.

Some people might see the outcomes of both free and managed science during the first half of the 20th century as wildly different from the outcomes of more recent science. Yet, we might perceive recent science as more wrong than science of the past because our recollection of the science of the past is biased toward the positive and well supported conclusions that we retain from the past. Science that was wrong then has since been supplanted or neglected and has thus been forgotten.

The science of today will in the same way as in the past filter into the future, leading to some grand leaps forward, while much of it that is ultimately deemed less relevant or wrong will eventually fade into the ether. I do not see it as problematic that many new ideas are wrong. Some ideas are right, and I argue that fact will ultimately make the scientific enterprise worth it.

Sarewitz is troubled by the constant debates and changes of prevailing views in evolving branches of science. He raises a nice example in the conflict in dietary science, which recently has undergone a refreshing transformation. I suggest that the process of arguing through the literature, discussing stark contrasts between different views in light of evidence, is not a flaw in science: It is science itself! Scientists need to work to educate the media and the general public that peer review, although perhaps the best preliminary sifting process we have, is only a first step in the process of scientific discussion that ultimately yields high confidence conclusions. Whether a field finds a new direction based on newly published science depends on how the original authors and other scientists interact with the new material, often over many years. The public and the media need to recognize that science is not simply a list of facts emerging from peer review. I give peer reviewed results deference over statements not subject to such review, but I don't see peer review as infallible. I see the process of open review and discussion after publication as far more important than the peer review itself.

Direct management to generate new and fundamental ideas to yield specific outcomes is difficult, because we do not yet know what those ideas will be or how they will pan out. We need new ideas, even if most of them eventually turn out to be wrong. Most ideas of the greatest scientists of the past were also wrong and were ultimately discarded. Although science is far from perfect, it is a winnowing process that gradually blows out chaff, however frustrating and sometimes drawn out the process might be.

The type of managed science or engineering that Sarewitz supports is also needed, but such projects need bases to work from. Free play of the intellects provides those bases. Our own collective actions and inactions serve as the filter that will yield the best of today's science to fulfill the needs of the future world.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Minecraft and Children's Free Play

Early Thursday evening I sat down at a table at the Yacon Village Community Center, pulled down a book from the shelf, and just listened to the children play. Yes, I was spying on them. They were cooperating in a minecraft world. I don't really know exactly what they were doing, but listening to them led my memory back to my own childhood.


My neighborhood friends got together on Saturdays and through the summer to play games, and build forts, treehouses, and rafts. I relish those memories, and I have been saddened at times that my own children have not been able to do many of the same things. When we moved to the Albany area, we chose a rural neighborhood that we found out later had few children their age. Even if we had such children around, though, I think today's culture would not support their ability to play freely and largely unsupervised. I understand the drive to keep children safe, and I support it to some degree, but when we take it too far, it comes at a high price. Without free play, children lose opportunity to learn how to deal with people with whom they might disagree and to learn other social skills. Free play teaches them how to negotiate and how to deal with criticism.

My mind wandered back to Yacon Village and the Minecraft world. I realized something exciting: The children were free playing in Minecraft in nearly the same ways I recall my friends and I playing in the fields. Minecraft cannot provide the physical benefits of such play, but the types of interactions I heard between the children, including their conversations and decisions, were similar. 

One of the problems I see in the world today is a general lack of willingness for people to listen to and converse with those with whom they disagree. I think that the way children have been raised in recent decades has contributed to their tendency to want to be protected from differing viewpoints. Yet, I think that all is not lost for future generations. My experience listening in to Minecraft time proved to me that children can still learn to function positively. 

Monday, July 4, 2016

Independence Day Weekend: Hiking and Cherry Harvest

Today I harvested and pitted three gallons of dark red carmine jewel cherries. That's probably a tenth of the total crop. I have toiled since early spring to control fungus and keep the insects, birds, squirrels, and chipmunks out. These cherries are one of the many crowns of human ingenuity. Specialists at the University of Saskatchewan have been working for more than 50 years to create a sweat and tart cherry that can handle their brutal winters. They bred more common cherry varieties with a wild cherry from the Himalaya Mountains and selected the offspring with the best fruit for multiple generations, providing us with a tasty result that nature could not and would not provide. I love artificial selection: Our hunter gatherer ancestors would be shocked at the good things we eat. The wild animals know it too--They take my fruit over wild berries whenever they can.

I have seven bushes presently in production, each near 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide. I gather the fruit by the gallon and run them though a commercial pitter, pack them in quart bags, and settle them into a deep freeze. 

Besides the fruit picking, Sunday morning, I jogged 11 miles around my neighborhood, then I hiked the White Rock trail along the Taconic Crest to the Snow Hole with my 13 year old son. Here are a few pictures: 

The snow hole typically has several feet of soft snow left over in July, but last winter had far less snow than average, so all that was left was a small pocket of ice in the bottom of the hole. It was refreshingly cold down there, though. The ferns, mosses, and plant and animal life were remarkable. After finishing the hike, my smartphone beeped at me congratulations: My most active day since I purchased the phone over a year ago. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Yacon Village Science Club Summary June 23, 2016

Every Thursday afternoon I volunteer to lead the science club at Yacon Village, my wife's home education community center in Colonie New York. I decided to occasionally post summaries of the science club meeting here as part of my blog. The purpose of the club is to provide opportunity for children and teens to meet to discuss and occasionally do science. We don't have the resources of a university or even a high school science lab, but the lack of systemic constraints on our activities allows us more flexibility to focus on topics of interest to the kids. This year our focus has been on the history of science, beginning with ancient Greeks and Egyptians through the modern age. A week ago Thursday, the topic was the deep oceans, and we covered sea floor spreading, continental drift, flips of the earth's magnetic field, and life at deep sea volcanic vents. This week's topic was ecosystems, including topics in geology and adaptation and evolution of life.

Image from dailymail.co.uk

A beautiful example of semi-isolated ecosystems are the Tepuis of northern South America (see photo example above). Tepuis are remnants of an ancient plain that was uplifted evenly by tectonic forces, then eroded away at the edges, leaving isolated wooded mesas behind. Surrounded by tropical forest, but jutting up to a mile into the sky, the flatlands topping the cliffs experience a cool moist climate and are home to unique species. Looking to the distant future, the same erosive forces that made them will ultimately eliminate them. 

We finished the meeting with a video from National Geographic about a scientist and a team of assistants who traveled to a Tepui by helicopter to collect samples of a rare tree toad:

Monday, May 30, 2016

My Orchard is My Summer Hobby Laboratory

With spring semester over, my work time focuses on research and publication of results. When I'm not playing with my kids on my personal time, I work in my orchard and grape vineyard. Most of the pictures I have posted in my earlier blogs were from the orchard, so I thought I would include a little discussion about it. I have enjoyed gardening since I was four or five years old--It made a nice laboratory for a young scientist. Now, it yields tasty fruit along with struggles, frustrations, and some victories. I gave up vegetables a few years ago in favor of fruits, which tend to be more valuable and much tastier than the ones from the store.

Eight years ago, I planted my first pawpaw trees. This is my first pollinated pawpaw!  Several fruit have set so far this year. One of my trees is a seedling, which makes it a bit of a gamble in the pawpaw world--named grafted varieties produce more reliably tasty fruit, but once in a while a seedling turns out to be a gem. I have never actually tasted a pawpaw. Pawpaws are the largest fruit native to the United States. Some wild or seedling pawpaws have been described as insipid, but many people describe good ones as tasting like banana-vanilla custard. Mine should ripen in the fall. Fingers crossed.

The oldest vines in my grape vineyard are maturing, and I'm expanding the vineyard with new vines. I grow concord and table grapes. My favorite table grape variety is Somerset:
Four year old Somerset seedless grape vine nearing bloom.

Second year Somerset seedless grape growing its trunk. I also grow seedless canadice, mars, and a new variety called ticked pink.

Grapes take a lot of work to get tasty fruit year after year. They need to be pruned back hard during the dormant season, and I also thin the fruit clusters and the flowers within the clusters near bloom time (I comb them out with a hairbrush). I treat the young fruit clusters with gibberellic acid, a natural plant growth hormone that can be extracted from kelp, to stretch the clusters and expand the berries. Seeds in seedy fruit produce similar hormones that cause the fruit to grow, but seedless varieties often need a little help. I also girdle the vines above the first shoots to force more sugar into the fruit, while still allowing sugar from the lowest shoots to get to the roots. I end up with large fruit that taste amazing.

Growing grapes in a humid climate is a constant battle against fungus and insects. I put up a temporary electric fence in August to keep out the varmints. I grow the vines through deep wood chip mulch so I don't need to worry much about weeds.

I mount the vines on an 8 foot high trellis, much higher than most commercial vineyards. Benefits of the high trellis include raising the buds above the coldest air layer, which resides right at the ground level on cold winter nights and in the spring. I have had buds close to the ground break in the spring and freeze on cold nights, while the buds high on the trellis are often unharmed. The high trellis also prevents the vines from dragging on the ground. 

I raise apple trees, including disease resistant varieties, liberty, freedom, sundance, enterprise, and Zestar. I favor disease resistant varieties because of a disease endemic to my neighborhood called cedar apple rust. It is caused by a fungus that lives one stage of its lifecycle in apple trees and the other stage in cedars.  

Getting great apples is a battle against nature. Besides pruning and thinning the apples, I fight insects and wildlife. This year, four of my best 8-year old apple trees were completely girdled by voles next to the soil level. Starving voles chew the bark off in the early spring, seeking the tasty and nutritious cambium layer just below the bark. I thought my trees were old enough to be immune, but I could not have been more wrong. I learned the hard way to protect all the trees with hardware cloth. My deep mulch, while apparently healthy for the trees, also makes a nice home for voles. The girdled trees have leafed out and bloomed. Most apple experts suggest that without treatment, the trees would not be able to get sugar from the leaves into the roots. The roots then gradually lose their stored sugar. After running out of sugar, they cannot pump water and nutrients up to the treetop, which then dies. So, without surgery, I might possibly get a final harvest before the trees die. Some apple growers girdle their trees on purpose in oder to force sugar into the fruit instead of the roots, but they keep the girdled section narrow so that it quickly heals over. Mine would not have healed on their own. 

The objective of my surgical technique is to establish a new pathway for the tree top to feed the roots. I tried some approaches that have never been reported in the apple literature (at least as far as I know). I pruned off some lower branches, pealed off the bark, and stapled it to cleaned sections of the girdled bark to bridge between the remaining bark above and the root cambium below, with "up" in the same direction as it was on the original branch. A month later, several sections of the stapled bark remain alive, and it is thickening, suggesting that a new conduit between the tree and the roots is being made. In addition to the bark grafts, I performed traditional bridge grafts. Bridge grafts are made from young branches that are spliced under living bark above and below the girdle. I tried it both with sticks collected from the tree above and with pencil-thick root segments collected from another tree (note the reddish colored graft on the right side of the trunk in the picture above). The use of a root segment is another experiment, as all the experts suggest using sticks collected from above ground.

One successful project this year (so far) is carmine jewel tart cherries. The bushes are 7 years old and about 8 feet tall. They are covered with green cherries: 

These bushes laugh off our Albany New York winters. The most difficult parts of raising these cherries include fighting off fungus and removing the pits from the ripe fruit. Fungus control involves cleanliness, such as removing rotting fruit and cutting out sick branches. It also involves spraying the dormant plants in the winter with copper sulfate to kill spores from the year before. I spray fungus control before and after rainy periods. Harvest is in early July.

Finally, my hardy kiwi is nearing bloom (here is a picture of the fruit from last year):
These fruits practically grow themselves, but I prune them back hard in the winter and tip the new growth in the summer so the vines don't wind around each other. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Climate Change and Violent Tornadoes

Climate change induced by human activities apparently leads to many conditions that affect people and the natural world negatively. Negative aspects of climate change dominate the media, and understandably so, as some negative outcomes are likely to be painful. Many activists emphasize the negative aspects because they might lead people to take greater action. Yet, informed people should realize that not everything gets worse. Recently, Bill Nye tweeted "More severe weather. More suffering. Let's all take climate change seriously."  I strongly agree with the need to take climate change seriously. Yet, his focus on severe weather may be backwards!  During the tornado season, we all see the pictures, and they seem to create the feeling that this year is always worse than last. Yet, how do violent tornado outbreaks really trend over time? Data posted at the National Climatic Data Center website gives us clues:


Although F1+ tornadoes do not show much trend over time,

F3+ tornadoes actually show a pronounced and statistically significant downward trend (trend line not shown). Keep in mind that the way we observe tornadoes has changed over time. We are likely to identify more tornadoes given today's technology than we did in the past. The most intense tornadoes, however, are the most likely to have been observed and recorded, and they seem to be declining with time.

Study of the effects of climate change on severe weather is a young field. One major problem is that climate models do not simulate severe weather, so it is difficult to perform experiments to diagnose the causes of changes over time. Regional models embedded in climate models might be helpful. In any case, we can suggest hypotheses that might explain these changes. One possibility, for example is that climate change might reduce the size of temperature differences between cold Arctic and warm tropical air masses that meet over the plains of the United States that favor violent tornadoes. Tornadoes rely on the wind blowing from different directions at different heights, a condition that can be reduced if these temperature differences weaken over time.

My bottom line is that there are plenty of good reasons to take action on climate change. Yet, we should be honest and not claim that one of those reasons is to reduce violent tornado activity. Given the data, it would be astonishing if climate change were actually increasing activity in these severe storms.

****After posting this commentary, after some communication with experts in tornado data, I now understand that prior to 1977, intensity of tornadoes was biased to higher values relative to estimates of intensity of more recent tornadoes. This adjustment eliminates the downward long-term trend. At the same time, this change does not seem to suggest a trend upward, suggesting that it remains inappropriate to claim that violent tornadoes become more active with climate change.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Spring Plastic Removal Day, Organic Agriculture, Roundup, Mulch, and Worms

Yesterday I celebrated spring plastic removal day. Every fall, I wrap my house in a bubble by enclosing my 3/4 wrap-around porch in greenhouse plastic. It provides a sunroom for the winter and cuts down on our home heating costs. I usually take the plastic down around May 1. It feels liberating the next morning to look out on my orchard in the front yard, from inside the house, without the plastic distorting the view. I keep an orchard of about an acre, with blueberries, raspberries, elderberries, aronia berries, hardy kiwis, tart cherries, pawpaws, table and concord grapes, apples, pears, apricots, and peaches. The cherries, apples, pears, and pawpaws are in bloom right now, and the hardy kiwis and table grapes are beginning to leaf out. Warmth in early March encouraged the plants to start waking up early, and that warmth was followed by an unusual cold snow event that destroyed most of my peach blossom buds. Out of 7 peach trees, we might only have 2-3 peaches this year!  That's 4 years in a row with basically no peach crop. The Albany area is borderline for peach production, though climate change is gradually making it better. The peach buds start to winter kill around -15F. Last winter was Albany New York's warmest on record (blame a combination of El Niño and climate change), but it also included the coldest individual night in more than 10 years.

I planted my orchard in soil with insufficient potassium and phosphorus for healthy fruit production. The people who contoured the land 16 years ago neglected to collect and replace the topsoil, leading to depression of these nutrients. I have been working for years to build the soil back up. Soils with insufficient concentrations in potassium, phosphorus, and boron can increase plant sensitivity to winter damage. I am rebuilding the soil with a thick layer of composted wood chip mulch along with potassium sulfate and mono ammonium phosphate. My soil is now full of worms and teaming with life.

I manage my orchard with a combination of organic and conventional techniques. I choose my pest and fungus control methods based on what works and what has been shown to be safe, not based on urban (or rural) legends or an assumption that organic is always best. Some people are dogmatic against use of chemicals, as if the word "chemical" itself implies something dangerous. Modern chemicals, hybridization, and genetic modification demonstrably increase the productivity of agriculture and allow us to feed the modern world. Anyone who argues otherwise is ignoring the evidence in favor of dogmatism. I like to make my pest control decisions based on evidence. It is true that some types of pests are just nuisances. A hole in an apple can be a minor problem (unless you want to store the apple for several months, because the holes encourage rot). Yet, some insects can completely destroy a whole crop, and some fungal pests can kill plants, make the fruit unpalatable, or produce natural chemicals that are toxic to humans and other life. Those toxins might be natural, but so is rattlesnake poison.

I reclaimed my orchard area from a wild meadow that was full of noxious weeds. Roundup weed killer can be a gardner's best friend in preparing a landscape for planting, but once the orchard is growing, it is difficult to use Roundup without damaging the crop plants. Over the years I have used organic techniques to replace the need for Roundup weed control. These techniques include flaming seedling weeds with a propane burner and building up a thick layer of composted wood chip mulch.

I'm not opposed to wise use of Roundup, however. I have read some interesting studies that have been interpreted to suggest that it is allegedly dangerous to humans. These studies claim, for example, that Roundup caused the death of human liver or umbilical cells in a petri dish. The culprit ingredient is the adjuvant, or the substance that causes the chemical to stick to the leaves of plants.
These studies, along with the numerous websites that repeat their claims, neglected to report that this component of Roundup is the same compound that allows baby shampoo to produce suds!  This same compound can be derived naturally from coconuts and from fats obtained from meats. Related compounds are frequently applied in organic agriculture as insecticidal soaps because they disrupt cell membranes, leading to death of soft-bodied insects. It is thus no surprise that this compound kills human cells in a petri dish--it disrupts the lipid bilayers of human cell membranes in the same way that baby shampoo cuts grease. Yet, to suggest that this component of Roundup is dangerous to humans as applied in fields is patently ridiculous, given that those who eat coconuts ingest it without complaint. It is no more dangerous to you than baby shampoo. Although injecting fully concentrated baby shampoo into your blood might be deadly, coming into external contact with it is not harmful. I'm not claiming that all components of Roundup are definitely safe. My point is simply that many people who make specific claims that it is dangerous often rely on misleading information from studies that have not been completely honest about the context in which their studies imply that Roundup can cause harm to humans. The majority of people who believe the claims of anti-Roundup websites do so because the website views are consistent with their pre existing biases.



For the sake of those who might consider my future offer of fruit from my orchard, but who might be opposed to Roundup use, please rest assured that I don't spray it anywhere close to my grape vines and fruit trees, else it would kill them too.

Monday, April 11, 2016

On Nature, Sheep, Chemistry Sets, and Hide and Seek: A Movement in Home Education

I previously posted the blog issue below on another website last year, and decided to post it here with some revision:

Some of my earliest memories from when I was a young child are of lying on my back on the lawn watching clouds, birds, and insects. I played across the countryside, in the fields and around the buildings that housed the farm animals and machinery. My siblings and I, along with neighbor children, built forts of wood, rafted on logs and milk jugs, and played hide-and-seek in the corn fields. As I grew older, I enjoyed gardening, hiking, biking, and fishing, and I read popular books and science texts. As a teen, I fed sheep and helped irrigate crops to earn money to support my travels and to save for the future. My family lived in moderate poverty, but we never went hungry. Neither of my parents holds a Bachelors degree. My father is a farm worker. My mother worked in a hospital cafeteria. My home was rural, and with our limited resources, I had little access to movie theaters, malls, and the like. As I grew up, my parents sacrificed their own wants to buy me a chemistry set, microscopes, telescopes, and other equipment to satisfy my curiosity. They did not show me how to use any of it—they left that to me, and it probably advanced my education more than anything else they could have done. Compared with most children of today, my life had relatively little structure imposed by the adults around me. My parents occasionally instructed me on safety and provided some guidelines, but they left my mind unfettered.

The most structured part of my life was public school, held in the nearby small town of Oakley Idaho. Most of my class time consisted of highly structured curricula, but I was granted more self determination than most. My senior year, three other students and I requested that we be provided a calculus class. It had not been taught there for decades. Since the school did not have teachers to spare, we were granted space in a classroom where a math teacher also taught an algebra class. He provided us about 10 minutes of his time each day, and we figured out the math largely by ourselves at our own pace. We probably learned it better than most students with full-time instructors because we were granted responsibility for our own learning.

I earned a bachelors degree in physics, paid for by a combination of academic scholarships and government financial aid, and I went on to achieve a PhD in meteorology. Now, as a professor at the University at Albany, I teach students in atmospheric and environmental sciences applications of advanced statistics and mathematics. I have observed several things over the years about how today’s students learn. The vast majority of our students came through the public school system, where their time was almost constantly structured by the adults around them. These students were systematically trained following meticulously prepared curricula in basic math, English, science, and social sciences. Most of them were conditioned over many years to follow instructions from a teacher—to do what they were told, when they were told, and how they were told. The public education system perpetuates the belief that excellence in science and math education comes through carefully planned stepwise pathways to a single correct answer that students can repeat in homework exercises.

Although to a lesser extent than in the past, the system continues to depend too much on repetitive training in techniques or algorithms. These approaches can sometimes lead to well-trained technicians, but they cannot effectively help students learn to innovate in the modern world. Although most of my students are intelligent, my university classroom experience shows that they tend to have difficulty with formulating questions themselves when presented with a problem, and they have even more difficulty laying out plans for answering those questions. I mean no disrespect to them in pointing out these problems: The system was imposed on them. Most parents came through similar schools, so that they do not usually see the negative consequences of over-imposed curriculum structure. True critical thinking usually involves viewing information that raises questions, deciding how to pose those questions, and then devising approaches to attempt to answer them given too little or too much information. It then often requires testing the answers with other information. Some approaches lead to results that are clearly wrong, motivating students to reformulate the questions or to revise their assumptions. When given the chance, students would forge different pathways to different answers to different questions, thereby yielding better real understanding of the focus topic. I think that it is insulting to both students and teachers that those who design the curriculum in the public education system seem to think that children are not smart enough to work through problems from beginning to end with wise mentoring. Those who design the curriculum pre-construct too many of the steps in advance. I conclude that their lack of confidence in the children, parents, and teachers leads to the over imposition of structure in the learning process. I’m not suggesting that teachers and parents should not plan in order to achieve positive learning outcomes, but for real success in education, opportunity to truly think and to err must be extended to students, and student errors while they learn should create new learning opportunities rather than lead to negative judgments from teachers and peers. Teachers together with students and parents must also be allowed to vary the curriculum to fit individual needs, with activities planned consistent with the emotional, physical, and cognitive maturity of the child.

My experience with today’s students suggests that one of the most important ingredients to encourage development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills is more unstructured learning and playtime during childhood. Teachers and parents tend to fill children’s time with pre defined study materials and extracurricular activities, granting the children insufficient freedom in learning and playtime.

Sometimes it seems as though the education system and many parents are in a race to see who can get their kids to do the most piano, soccer, or homework, as early in childhood as possible. Totally free time for teens is often associated with negative social and learning outcomes, but that finding is in no way motivation to micromanage student learning time. My experience suggests that too much structure in teaching and extracurricular activities can yield lack of independence and poor critical thinking skills. Even in math and science classes, teens benefit when we strip out detailed structure and instructions and let them help pose questions and solutions.


Children who are too often told exactly what to do and when to do it tend not to develop confidence in their abilities to solve real problems themselves. Compounding the problem, most parents and teachers think that it is easier, less stressful, and more rigorous to impose high levels of structure on the learning process. Although I agree that most youth need some externally imposed curriculum structure and motivation from adults, they also need mentored but otherwise unstructured learning in order to mature. I believe that by consistently managing the minute details of the learning processes of our children that we sacrifice too much of their childhoods and then ironically they remain overly dependent on others into their adult years.

My experience suggests that providing children with substantial learning time with less structure imposed by adults could help alleviate many of these problems. I do not advocate simply letting them wander all day entirely unsupervised, but to gain the greatest benefit in education, they must have a sufficient level of freedom in the learning process. They must learn to not let others do all of the thinking for them. Parents who act as mentors by learning to ask children leading questions and expose them to new ideas, but who then give them flexibility to think about those ideas and make mistakes, are most likely to achieve the greatest academic success.

The quest to improve academic outcomes in our children and teens has led the public education system to rely too heavily on standardized testing and over-structured worksheets and rote exercises. Sure, some testing of older children is a necessary part of molding teaching to their needs (as long as it is used for that purpose), but the system seems to assume that the answer to improvement of education is more testing, less recess and unstructured time, and shorter summer vacations. It is no surprise that many children become bored, apathetic, and lose the will to learn!


More parental involvement in the education of our youth is necessary to overcome these problems. Although not for everyone, my wife and I have found effective opportunities for our children in home schooling. Home education provides far more flexibility in designing educational projects in which the children themselves can be granted leading roles. The idea of home education seems daunting to many parents, and many don’t feel qualified to teach. I believe that most children do not need trained instructors in math and reading to learn these subjects effectively. Our 8-year old son, for example, learned to read fluently when he was 4 and 5 years old without any structured curriculum. As we read to him his choice of stories every night, we would occasionally point out words and sound them out. Along with the reading, we also helped him learn the alphabet and basic phonics. He apparently gained many of his more advanced reading skills from playing computer games that he selected himself. We did not force his progress.

Beyond reading, we teach our children math concepts by integrating them into our daily lives, such as when shopping, or at play in designing buildings in Minecraft games. Motivated by construction of his Minecraft server, our 13-year old son learned to code in Java through experimentation and online courses. With today’s online resources, almost any parent could effectively motivate this kind of learning, and sometimes the children might actually gain advantage if their parents are not experts.

We have not always worked with our children this way. We imposed reading curriculum on our oldest two children when they were 3-5 years old, but in retrospect, we think it negatively impacted our relationships with them. Luckily, our curriculum did not lead them to rebel and to dislike reading as happens with some children. Some parents are afraid that home education might lead to socially backward children. I myself have met a few socially backward homeschooled children. Such children often have backward parents. I have also met many socially sophisticated home-educated children. Most homeschooled children are more self-confident than their public-schooled peers and less driven by peer pressure. No education approach is perfect. The public school system also produces some backward children and suppresses several modes of healthy social development.


Some keys to social and academic success in home education are to find a support community and to participate in service, play, and educational activities outside of the home. Through such activities, many families who choose home education ultimately develop better-adjusted children than those who come through the public schools, in part because they interact with people across the full age spectrum instead of mainly children their own ages, and their activities are not overly controlled by fiat of seemingly infallible adults as in public school. Universities frequently accept home educated students, and they tend to have better academic outcomes than traditionally educated students. As part of her effort to facilitate such activities, my wife has recently started the Yacon Village homeschool community in the Albany New York area. At least for now, Yacon Village only serves those in the local community, but similar communities are popping up around the United States and other countries.

Yacon Village is named after a plant that I grow in my home garden for its sweet syrup. Yacon Village provides support for home education along with a welcoming secular atmosphere conducive to less-structured, mentored learning experiences and social activities for older children and young teens loosely supervised by their parents. The Yacon Village community organizes classes based on student-centered project-based learning and it offers unstructured space for play and learning. Students and their parents organize field trips and clubs and invite instructors from the community for training in computer programming, writing, science, entrepreneurial activities, and other programs of the community’s choice. Many of these programs are just beginning, and the students and their families will influence the direction of its ultimate success. Yacon Village is not a school and is not a complete substitute for school. It has no full time professional faculty. It is intended to help fulfill unmet educational needs of home educated children in ways that will allow more of them to gain the advantages of homeschooling without losing too many of the advantages of the public schools. The community is seeking new member families, and it also seeks sponsors for field trips, project fairs, kids’ markets, and student membership. Your sponsorship of students would lower costs for participating families and would help broaden the diversity of participants, and sponsors will be recognized in the facility and on its website. Beginning this organization has come at substantial expense, and its ultimate success depends on participation and funding. Help us transform education as part of a broader movement toward student-driven excellence!

For more information, visit http://www.yaconvillagecommunity.org/ Contact Jeanette Roundy, the director, at roundywaves35@yahoo.com.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Dogmatism in Science and Public Perception of Science

Over the last few weeks I have not had much personal time, but I have managed to take a few minutes here and there to peruse Internet sites from antivaxers, climate change deniers, anthropogenic climate change extremists, people against conventional agriculture, people opposed to genetically-modified crops, and activists opposed to nuclear energy. Given the polarized political environment, I have sought to understand how good people come to conclusions that could be so apparently inconsistent with evidence. All of us have drawn conclusions based on false pre conceptions, and the confirmation bias leads us to accept flawed or inconclusive evidence for our beliefs and to reject good evidence against those beliefs. Each of us cannot possibly understand the details of every important issue. In that light, it is easy to understand why political views have become so correlated with some vexing beliefs, such as why many political conservatives reject the role of human activities in climate change or why many on the left tend to question profound evidence with respect to the safety of genetically modified crops. Quite simply, we are dogmatic creatures.

Science has transformed the world, but it does not completely obliterate dogmatism from the layman or the scientist, nor does it efficiently convince the masses to discard cherished and harmful beliefs. Eric Hoffer put it well: “An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of stuffing anything into an empty head.” We reject correct principles not because we are stupid, but because our preconceptions are wrong. None of us is immune. Science and logic are partial treatments, much like taking over-the-counter cold medicine can alleviate some symptoms without curing the cold. When scientists reach conclusions, they might not have considered all aspects of the problems, and biases might mislead them. Scientists are not completely immune to these biases, and false conclusions similar to those perpetuated over decades or centuries in the past can still occur today (though it is apparent that the extent to which we are wrong tends to decline with time). Peer review, which is simply the act of requiring other sets of eyes beyond the original authors to view and consider conclusions, helps treat the problem but can also perpetuate it when reviewers can be equally dogmatic. Yet, I see science as the best way we have to reach correct conclusions.

My opening comments included both climate change deniers and anthropogenic climate change extremists as dogmatic. Both sides see the other as dogmatic, but not themselves. Both sides perpetuate some false claims in support of their views. I use the term "denier" here carefully. Scientists should be skeptical (that's core to being a scientist), but a denier is different: Deniers reject evidence contrary to their beliefs. Any such contrary evidence is often treated as part of a conspiracy. I see laypersons who are climate change deniers as more egregiously dogmatic, but that in no way lets pundits on the other side off the hook, some individuals among whom can be just as bad or worse. Yet, as I see it, most climate change deniers are not simply evil people lying for money (although a few of them might be). I think that most of them actually believe their claims. Perhaps it is easier for them to swallow when they combine rubbish with a few correct claims. For example, their argument that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has some benefits to some people and to some biological systems. Similarly, not all scary claims raised by proponents of the concept of anthropogenic climate change will ultimately prove to be true, and recent science has suggested that some of them are false. For example, some types of violent storms, such as the strongest tornadoes, might be becoming less common with time. Moderate intensity hurricanes may be becoming less frequent as well (though many studies suggest that the frequency of the strongest hurricanes may increase). The narrative that all things will get worse for all people and for all ecosystems is a fetish of the media and left leaning politics. 

We are all prone to dogmatic views. It is wise to take a step back and to ask ourselves why we believe some of the things we do, and to not simply demonize those who believe differently. That the crowd seems to agree with us is an insufficient argument in support of a belief. Oftentimes, those who are most sure of themselves are most wrong.  A nice quote, perhaps poorly attributed to Mark Twain says it well: “Education: The path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.”  I have personally undergone a profound transformation in the ways I view the world, based on relaxing my level of surety in my beliefs. It has led me to a better sense of self, and a more positive view of others. Science education, similarly, should include at its core the notion that science is not simply a set of conclusions or concepts with which most scientists agree, but a turbulent quest for understanding in light of evidence, seeking for wherever that evidence might lead.