Best speech of 2007

Obama's speeches and inflections seem to be from another era. This is one of the best political speeches I've heard in a long time (and I use the word "heard" loosely -- people living in Oklahoma don't matter in national elections, thanks to the electoral college and all that):

In his speeches, Obama seems to be going for the FDR style. Not a bad role model --- FDR changed the whole paradigm of how politics works in this nation. His New Deal was followed by four decades of prosperity. The American century was American in large part because of FDR.

Just because Obama talks like FDR doesn't mean he's going to be as effective as FDR, of course. He is wrong on some issues (for example, universal health care is impossible without mandates), but he's still the best choice on offer in 2008.

Visitor Map

There is at least one community database to take the network (IP) address that web requests are coming from and make an educated guess about geographic location. This is how web searches and weather queries can return localized information.

Google has a nifty feature by which they use such a geolocation database and project visitor counts onto a map of the world. The map on the left, for example, was created from last month's visitors to this blog. The big circle in the center of the US corresponds to Norman, which (as expected) has the greatest concentration of readers of this blog. The world-wide extent of my readership is a sampling artifact: over the last month, the two most visited posts were on Tata Jaguar and on Google Android -- I would venture that if I were to filter those two posts out, the map would be far more concentrated, and make much more sense.

A weather application on Android

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague and I decided to see what this whole Android craze was about. After all, if Microsoft dismisses it as:

It really sounds that they are getting a whole bunch of people together to build a phone and that's something we've been doing for five years

it can't be all bad, can it?

My colleague downloaded the Android toolkit for Java and the two of us banged up a client to this NWS web service. Took about an hour to have an application that would display a 6-hr forecast at the user's location (Even without a GPS chip, Android is capable of triangulating to get within 300m of the user's position, which is sufficient for weather applications ...). The whole process turned out to be as easy as pie ... although a professional effort would have to make the output be graphical instead of text. T., if you are reading this, perhaps you can post the code we banged out?

Our interest is, of course not in building a cell-phone application, but in serving our gridded nowcasts -- similar to how we currently serve out nowcast products over the entire country to Google Earth clients -- so that you can one day get personalized nowcasts on your Android-enabled phone.

St. Nicholas' Christmas traditions

A couple of weeks ago, when I wished a friend "Merry Christmas", he hesitated a little and then came back with "Happy Holidays to you too!".  Another friend was a bit more direct: "Do you celebrate Christmas?," he asked.  He is agnostic, so I when I told him that I felt Christmas wasn't particularly Christian, he understood that I was not referring to religious conservatives' talking points.  "Ah, Saturnalia!," he exclaimed.  Exactly ... Christmas as celebrated in America is quite pagan. And being Hindu, paganism is something I can quite deal with.

This oped in the New York times traces the origins of a couple of the Christmas traditions.

First, the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas:

... the Dutch Christians of [New York City] ... kept alive an old memory — that a kindly old cleric brought little gifts to the poor in the weeks leading up to the Feast of the Nativity ...

The elves who help Santa Claus:

The new Santa also acquired a host of Nordic elves to replace the small dark-skinned boy called Black Peter, who in Christian tradition so loved St. Nicholas that he traveled with him everywhere ... the real St. Nicholas first came into contact with Peter when he raided the slave market in his hometown and railed against the trade. The story tells us that when the slavers refused to take him seriously, he used the church's funds to redeem Peter and gave the boy a job in the church.

And the tradition of hanging stockings at the fireplace:

And what of the ... stockings and little shoes that had been hung up to dry by the fireplace? ... Nicholas had heard that a father in the town planned to sell his three daughters because his debts had been called in by pitiless creditors. As he did for Black Peter, Nicholas raided his church funds to secure the redemption of the girls. He dropped the gold down the chimney to save face for the impoverished father.

There is quite a bit that has been lost in the translation from the Dutch St. Nicholas to the American Santa Claus, don't you think?

Things to not give an Indian grandparent

Sundar is making a list of the stuff to give to hard-to-buy-gifts-for parents, in-laws and grandparents. Another aspect of the immigrant experience ... there are several points to balance: it should not be available in India, should work there (for example: 110V applicances are out), should not violate the elderly's concept of what's appropriate (harder than it sounds), should not depend on a computer (texting is more popular than email in India because most folks don't have broadband access), should not be too expensive (after converting dollars to rupees, although with the booming Indian economy now this rule's not inviolable).

I think that some one should make a list of the things you should not give even if it is something you enjoy. These are lessons I have learned from the unalloyed look of annoyance from the intended recipient. Feel free to add to this list in the comments.

1. Dark chocolate. I love chocolate with 70-80% cocoa. Apparently, it's an acquired taste.

2. Rolled (old-fashioned) or steel-cut oats. Also an acquired taste. Just buy the quick-cooking stuff.

3. Home-baked cakes and cookies. "Not at all sweet."

4. Henckels or Wustof's knifes. "Too expensive. And besides, an aruhamanai is a lot more convenient and can be used without standing up."

5. Watches whose face and wristband is not gold-hued. "Silver looks cheap. Who wears silver?"

6. Dark-hued shirts. "It's okay for youngsters like you but old people like us have to look decent."

7. Electric shavers: "Not smooth enough". "Give it a few weeks." "But I look like a rowdy"

Cookies for the carolers

Every year, some neighbors of ours go caroling as a family. It's a wonderful tradition. They have fun singing and they bring cheer to all of us whose homes they carol in front of.

"Let's make cookies for them this year," I suggested to the wife and so we did. We made four batches of cookies and the kids had fun cutting them into shapes and decorating the cookies with a cream cheese frosting.

That evening, however, we were entertaining. We were too lazy (what with all the cookie rolling, cutting and decorating) to make a dessert. And we did have a whole lot of cookies. Why not serve those and save a half-hour?

"Oooh, whole wheat cookies and only half the sugar!," exclaimed our guests. I bit back from mentioning that these were shortbread cookies(*) and that the frosting was pure cream cheese. The cookies were such a hit that a couple of guests packed a dozen cookies home.

We were left with about two dozen cookies now.

Every time the fridge door opened the next day, another shortbread cookie vanished.

By the time the carolers showed up, on Sunday evening, we were down to about a dozen.

So if you are one of our neighbors, and are reading this now, this explains the slightly bedraggled cookie tray that you had to pick your cookies from. We had better intentions. Honest.

(*) Shortbread cookies are cookies that have nearly as much butter as flour.

An Oklahoma conversation

I walked out of the airport in Oklahoma city towards the Airport Express shuttle.

"Oh, hello," said the driver pleasantly, "you live over on 48th, don't you?". It's a sign that you are traveling a bit too often when a random Airport Express shuttle driver recognizes you and can drive you home without you having to give him directions.

"Give me a minute," he said, "the OU-Gonzaga game is gonna be ending soon." So, we sat in the airport parking lot and listened to the radio commentary. "We're up by two and have the ball," he told me by way of explanation. OU missed the shot. "Eeew," we said together and waited tensely as the commentator said that Gonzaga had rebounded and was driving up.

"They need to take a 3-point shot."

On the radio, a Gonzaga guard pulled up and made a shot ... and it was blocked and an OU player got it and threw it downcourt and now there was only 0.2 seconds left on the clock. OU won! We cheered and then he started the shuttle van and we were on our way.

"So did you have any damage because of the ice storm?," he asked me.

"No, our elms are still pretty young. They doubled down from the weight of the ice, but snapped right back up."

"Not everyone was that lucky."

"People in older neighborhoods lost a lot of trees," I agreed.

"We're having company over the holidays, so all Tuesday, I was out clearing out the fallen trees. My daughter sent my grandsons to come help."

"Good for you, to have young fellows to help you do stuff."

"My wife's parents lost power for a day, so they came and stayed with us."

"I hear that 150,000 people in rural Oklahoma still don't have power," I remarked.

"Yes, but rural folks can take care of themselves better. So, OG&E has been working on the built-up parts."

"That's true about rural folks. I have a friend in Noble who said he simply went out and cranked his generator when the power went out. I don't think I would have ever had a generator."

"Most rural folks are on propane anyway, so they have heat."

"Won't do them any good if they went hunting. All the meat's gonna spoil," I suggested.

"Yeah, never thought of that."

The tall tale waitress

I went out with a couple of colleagues to a restaurant today (I'm in Washington DC) to celebrate having survived a bout of food poisoning. Well, not quite celebrate. I didn't drink because I didn't want to risk upsetting my stomach again.

"You are so lucky that you guys are done with work," our waitress informed us, "This is my second job, so here I am."

"So what do you do in your first job?," my first colleague asked, rising to the bait.

"I teach mentally disabled children, and then I come here and work four hours."

"Well, at least then you get to go back to your boyfriend, while we have to be here the rest of the week," he observed.

"Oh, I'd better not have a boyfriend," she countered, showing us her ring, "I'm married. My husband is a fire fighter. He also works two shifts."

Then while serving us the food, she informed my colleague (who she'd identified as being the most amenable to her charms) "my dad's in the military, so I'm used to being poor."

I couldn't take it any more at that point. "And I suppose you walked all the way to work today."

"Actually, yes," she said, "and my shoe lace broke.". She paused a bit, grinned and asked, "You guys are going to give me a $100 tip, aren't you?".

"Well, I can buy you a new shoe lace" said the third colleague who'd also been quiet up to that point.

The two of us wanted to leave her a typical 20% tip, but the first colleague overruled us.  He added enough to the pot to make it a 35% tip. Her tall tales worked.

Holiday letter

Our holiday email this year was a lot easier to write, thanks to the blog ... Here it is (with redactions to make it suitable for the Internet):

S1 has started kindergarten -- a source of great pride, incidentally -- and is at the age where he trusts but wants to verify. S2 is in her sweet-little-girl years -- we know it won't last, but we're still enjoying it any how. The kids are now old enough that we did a couple of road trips this summer -- to Chicago and to Washington DC. It was a lot of fun. Perhaps a bit more fun in retrospect than in real-time ... A. and I went to Australia and visited the Great Barrier Reef this year (our 10th wedding anniversary). It was the trip of a lifetime, but maybe for the 20th we'll go this route instead. The whole family also went with a couple of neighbors to a Nature Conservancy managed park here in Oklahoma. S1 and I went together to a couple of OU football games. Getting him started early!

Work continues to be interesting. Sometimes it even helped us plan day trips. Professionally though, my recommendations sometimes turned out to be not too welcome.

I've picked up bridge again -- it's a source both of elation and deflation. After ceramics last year, A.'s gotten interested in pottery now -- her soup bowls are now the subject of fierce contention at home. Also ... I've resumed writing a blog.

Is a Tata Jaguar any worse than Ford Jaguar?

After years of being unable to make a profit off Jaguar, Ford is trying to sell it. One of the interested buyers is Tata, a highly profitable Indian firm that runs several luxury brands including Taj hotels and Tetley Tea. They also make cars and trucks.

So where exactly is this fellow, a leading Jaguar dealer, coming from when he informs the Wall Street Journal:
"I don't believe the U.S. public is ready for ownership out of India" of a luxury-car brand such as Jaguar, Mr. Gorin said in an interview. "I believe it would severely throw a tremendous cast of doubt over the viability of the brand."
Later in the article, he tries to make it an equal opportunity offense, observing:
I don't mean to be negative towards anyone. I don't think we could have a Chinese-owned Jaguar either.
Oh, well. Okay then.

Draining the central United States

I navigated to the New Orleans News Ladder, the blog of someone who commented on my last post (about New Orleans). Regular readers know that I love maps, so this map on his blog immediately caught my eye.

The map link doesn't show up well in my response, so here it is.

One hears once in a while that the Mississippi-Missouri system drains the central United States, but the visual impact still startles.

Three views of New Orleans

The American Meteorological Society's annual meeting in 2008 is going to be in New Orleans. I'm running a AI competition at the meeting, so I'm going to be going. New Orleans was, of course, hit by Hurricane Katrina. Louisiana's dysfunctional state government let the situation get totally out of hand and FEMA's tepid response didn't help any. If the same disaster had hit North Carolina or Florida, there wouldn't have been anywhere near that amount of human suffering. And one thing that got lost in the aftermath was that the weather forecast for Katrina was about as good as they come. But I digress ... I was going to make a point about three views of New Orleans.

(1) The AMS meeting has an organized tour of the levees, the damage, etc. This makes me intensely uncomfortable -- the differentiating line between that and gawking at OPS ("other people's suffering") is not that clear to me. I'm definitely not going on that tour no matter how scientific the organizing committee makes it sound:

After having watched the television coverage of this horrific event, you likely have many curiosities about the magnitude of what the disaster has done and also many unanswered questions as you struggle to comprehend the aspects of human suffering ... You will gain a greater understanding of evacuation processes, levee systems, and the city's battle with coastal erosion ... The tour will drive past an actual levee that breached and see the resulting devastation that displaced hundreds of thousands of U.S. residents. The direct connection between America's disappearing coastal wetlands, oil and gas pipelines, levee protection, and hurricane destruction will be explained. After this tour, you will have a better understanding of events pre- and post-Katrina in the "rebirth of New Orleans."

(2) The latest issue of American Airlines' flight magazine -- I flipped through it having run out of other reading material while sitting 2 hours on the runway in Dallas -- has a short travel article on New Orleans. Their website is so disorganized that I can't find it online. The gist of the article seemed to be that even though a couple of hotels downtown were still closed, there were still some really posh hotels that the traveler could stay in and that New Orleans was as much a party city as ever. Not as awful as the AMS tour of broken levees, but the very act of leaving the elephant in the room unmentioned speaks for itself ...

(3) Today's USA today (the passenger beside me had a copy) had an article on New Orleans too. "Katrina's wrath lingers for New Orleans poor " blared the headline.

Acidic oceans

When the wife and I went to Australia in August, we visited the Great Barrier Reef. I joked to whoever would listen that we wanted to see the reef before it bleached out due to global warming. But at the back of my mind was the belief that even if the Great Barrier Reef disappeared, coral reefs themselves would not completely disappear. There are wonderful, unspoilt reefs now in Indonesia, and those reefs would probably move a couple hundred kilometers north, to places where the ocean temperature is currently a degree or so too cold.

This article in Science disabused me of that notion. Turns out that increasing carbon dioxide will do to the oceans what pollution did to the Great Lakes. The oceans will become acidic and this side-effect of carbon pollution will kill off the coral reefs. By the end of this century, there will be no coral reefs anywhere worth seeing.

We really do need a carbon tax.

Too easy to cancel school

The ice storm we had on Monday brought down a bunch of trees and felled several power lines.  We're ok, but friends who live in leafy neighborhoods didn't fare so well.

One of my colleagues bought a car on Saturday. His new car and old car (he was planning to use it for parts) were both parked on their driveway.  A tree limb fell across the driveway, totaling the new car, but leaving the old car pretty much unaffected.  Insurance is covering it, fortunately.  Some other friends have spent the past two days clearing out all the fallen branches.   Half the traffic lights in the central (older) part of town are still out.  Our daughter's daycare lost its power and hasn't got it back yet.

The school district took this as the excuse to cancel school for three days in a row.  Monday, I worked from home, but I couldn't keep doing that. I'm currently subsetting and processing several hundred gigabytes of satellite data for a rainfall nowcast validation experiment. Such work doesn't travel very well, so Tuesday and Wednesday, the kids have come to work with me. The 5-yr old pretty much occupies himself, but the 3-yr old needs attention periodically.

"It's so easy for them to cancel to school," I commented to a colleague.

"And so hard for us to cancel work," he empathized.

Excerpts from Al Gore's Speech in Oslo

Excerpts from Al Gore's Nobel acceptance speech:
One of the very first winners of the Prize in chemistry worried that, "We are evaporating our coal mines into the air." After performing 10,000 equations by hand, Svante Arrhenius calculated that the earth's average temperature would increase by many degrees if we doubled the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.
But unlike most other forms of pollution, CO2 is invisible, tasteless, and odorless--which has helped keep the truth about what it is doing to our climate out of sight and out of mind. Moreover, the catastrophe now threatening us is unprecedented ­ and we often confuse the unprecedented with the improbable.
We must abandon the conceit that individual, isolated, private actions are the answer. They can and do help. But they will not take us far enough without collective action.
... most important of all, we need to put a price on carbon--with a CO2 tax that is then rebated back to the people, progressively, according to the laws of each nation, in ways that shift the burden of taxation from employment to pollution. This is by far the most effective and simplest way to accelerate solutions to this crisis.

A familiar view unfamiliar

This is the photograph that caught my attention . It's the view from the bottom of stairs leading down to a temple pond or up to a temple. Many Indians carry food with them to temples and have a picnic lunch. The stainless steel "carrier" that the old lady is carrying probably just that. So, this is a view that I've encountered hundreds of times. Yet, it got me. I never quite "saw" it before.

Maybe it's living in super-patriotic Oklahoma. But the red-and-white stripes and their obvious parallel with the American flag were startling.

I encountered the photograph via this blog by a Mumbai art director. That's where I saw these engrossing paintings as well. The paintings borrow their sense of proportion and layout from the Tanjore style of paintings but avoid the Tanjore paintings' over-the-top gold overlays. And somehow, these paintings of ordinary country folk add dignity to the people they portray.

Taking the umbrella for a test drive in freezing rain

The three-year old developed a fascination with umbrellas this summer when we had enough rain to make 2007 the wettest year on record. So, when I saw a cute ladybug one in Chicago a couple months ago, I brought it back for her. She's been hankering to use the umbrella since then, but the weather didn't cooperate. No rain since the time I bought the umbrella.

Until today ... only the temperature is hovering around 32F (zero celsius) and so, we are getting freezing rain. The rain that fell overnight has iced up. The grass crunches as you walk on it. One of the elms in our front yard has doubled over from the weight.

But the 3-year old woke up, took one look through the window and squealed that she wanted her umbrella. I didn't have the heart to object.

Santa among the dinosaurs

The local natural history museum ("the world's largest apatosaurus") had a Christmas party yesterday evening. Kids could have a picture taken with Santa and make paper Christmas tree ornaments. I took the kids there -- beats taking them to the mall!

The 5-year old was quite talkative all the way.

"How far is the North Pole?," he asked.

"About 5000 miles," I told him.

"How long does it take Santa to get here?"

"If he comes in a sleigh that flies through the air, he can get here really fast."

"That's a fake Santa," he said a little later, while we were in line.

"Why do you say that?"

"Santa wears white gloves, not red ones."

"Maybe he has two pairs of gloves?"

A couple of kids dressed as dinosaurs came walking by. "That's a velociraptor," he enthused. "Looks like a T. Rex to me," I suggested. "No, it's a vel-o-ci-rap-tor," he insisted.

"Can't tell him any different," smiled the guy in line behind me.

"He is wearing regular glasses. Santa doesn't wear regular glasses."


The possible fakeness of the Santa didn't stop him from asking Santa for a Transformer. The 3-year old asked for a baby doll.

Later, in the car, coming home, he wasn't willing to let the matter drop.

"It was not a real Santa," he said, "the real Santa doesn't talk, he only says 'Ho Ho Ho'.".

Working at home

Years ago, pre-kids, I used to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. It felt good to be doing something with my hands and the only other thing I would have done on a Saturday morning would have been to sleep in.  Whatever I know about building houses, I learned at Habitat ... which is to say ... not much.  One thing I did learn, though, was to be thankful that I did such work only half a day a week.  Five days a week, I had interesting work, done sheltered from the elements, and not involving manual labor. It's a wonderful thing.

What brought this back to mind was that we are getting wood floors installed in our home. The wife's wanted wood floors for a long time (we had wood in all our formal areas, but now we're converting all the bedrooms as well). Why? Her allergies had been getting worse year-after-year. So, as one of my friends put it, she essentially came home with a prescription for wood floors. Pity that Aetna won't cover it.

While the installers are working, the wife and I have been taking turns working at home.

"So," the foreman asked me, "do you work some days and your wife works other days?".

"No," I told him, "since we have internet access, we can pretty much work at home if we need to. I've been working from home since you guys are here. I go to the office every afternoon so that I can talk to my colleagues."

"Must be nice," he said, "I can't do that with my job."

"Not unless you want to keep installing a new wood floor in your home every week."

A neat map

We have a 1860 map of Asia hanging in our living room. It's from the centerfold of a book and the neat thing about that map (besides the arcane naming of countries and British colonies) is that it was made in New York. In 1860, most maps of Asia would have been made in Europe. But this map was commissioned by the U.S. Congress and drawn in New York.

Here is another map that gets its value from its association with America. Of course, it's a million times more expensive than the one in our living room. In fact, it is the most expensive art item that the Library of Congress has ever acquired -- so expensive and treasured that it is stored in a vault similar to the one that houses the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Why would the Library of Congress pay $100 million dollars for this map? Because, it's the first ever map that carried the word "America". And of course, the name was a mistake. It was made by Waldseemüller, a German cartographer who mistakenly thought that Amerigo Vespucci had discovered America.

Raising kids

It is better, according to a set of University of Pennsylvania researchers, to praise a kid for working hard than to praise him/her for being smart:

If you praise the kid for being smart, he/she will be more reluctant to undertake challenges; the kid is more likely to test limits if they are praised for their effort.  When I was in school, the kids who got good grades without much effort were admired; the ones who worked hard were put down as "slogs". Yet, in life, the successful people are those who can pick themselves up after a disaster and keep going.  Being risk-averse gets you nowhere.

Weather prediction by crowds

There's this new site called (cool pun in the name) that aims to do for weather forecasting what the election futures markets are doing for political forecasting (they've typically done better than individual journalists or networks at predicting election results).

Since a lot of weather information is available freely (it's collected or produced by the US government), the concept is not that far fetched.  One of my friends does weather forecasting for energy trading and his constant refrain is that he doesn't have to be right -- he just needs to be better than the models.  So, the real question is whether a bunch of amateurs and weather enthusiasts can outperform the models when they (by necessity) will rely on them.  One thing that humans (especially crowds) are good at, and that computers are not, is at assessing the probability of different scenarios. 

Bottom line: I would expect the site to do somewhat worse than a typical weather forecaster on "normal" days and somewhat better than a typical weather forecaster on harder forecasts.  To the meteorologists: feel free to comment.

Rain and Taxis at Washington Dulles

Flew into Dulles airport today evening and found the line for taxis snaking all around the concourse and doubling back.

"Why is so crowded?," wondered the lady behind me in line.

"It's always like this when it rains in DC," I informed her with my best weary-traveler tone of voice.

"But why?," she persisted, "if it's not raining, how do all these people get home?"

That had me stumped. It's a good question. Why do the lines get atrocious whenever there is rain? To give you a perspective of the problem, the line's usually under a dozen on normal days. On a rainy day, it tops a couple hundred.  And yet, people who're going to take a taxi from the airport are going to take a taxi, right? It's not like they're going to walk out on the Leesburg turnpike and trudge home because it's a sunny day ...

Thinking more about this (I had over an hour to think about it) ... it's not the airport that's the problem. When it rains, folks in downtown DC who'd have normally walked or taken the metro probably decide to take taxis. And since taxis make more money on multiple short trips, that's where the taxi drivers go.  And so, there are fewer cabs to service the airport. That's my hypothesis anyway.

Boil them alive

Perhaps I am ignorant, but I had no idea that each silk thread involves the boiling alive of a silkworm cocoon, before the adult silkworm emerges.

Once the worms happily eat their way to 10,000 times their weight at hatching time, which only takes them about a month, they have enough energy to spin their cocoon ... Then the cocoons are steamed or heated to a higher temperature to kill the worms inside them ... great care is taken to ensure the worm does not hatch into a moth because then the long silk thread filament that the worm have made its cocoon out of will get broken.

A silk sari then involves the boiling alive of hundreds of thousands of worms. This is very ironic, because silk plays a part in many Hindu ceremonies. The best Indian silk is made in Varanasi and Kanchipuram, both cities with very active temple cultures.  Some Hindu temples forbid people from bringing in leather purses.  But none, as far as I know, forbids silk saris.

The next time I see a holier-than-thou vegetarian wearing a silk sari (or even a silk tie), I will have a nice factoid to mention.

Oklahoma immigration law: what's changed?

The big news in Oklahoma is a highly restrictive law (touted as the most restrictive law in the United States) that enforces checking of legal status in the United States before issuing a driver's license or renewing an expired license.

I'm not sure what has changed to warrant all the hoopla.  When I moved from Ohio in 1995, I went to get my Oklahoma license and was told that my Ohio license was not enough; they needed to see my passport and visa.  I had to go back home and dig them out.  That was not an isolated incident. Four years ago, when it came time to renew my license, I went to the tag agency to get it renewed. "Are you a U.S. citizen?," I was asked and when I said I wasn't, I was told that I could get my license renewed only at the DMV.  That time, I had to show my green card at the DMV.

One clue may be in this article that ran in a local paper, where someone is quoted as saying:

"I guess what bothers me is there was nothing out that warned a person about this. We thought the bill was all about immigration, we didn't think it applied to us."

"Didn't apply to us" indeed.  Perhaps what has changed is that the law used to be discriminatory -- if the person looks like a foreigner, ask for proof of legal status, but if they look like they belong, no problems.  And now, perhaps, the discretion (and the potential to do ethnical profiling) has been removed.  Just guessing, though.

If you know what exactly is new about this law, let me know. Because in my experience at least, you have always had to show proof of legal status before getting a driver's license.

Yipee doo!

My partner and I had the highest handicap in the bridge club yesterday, i.e. on the numbers, we were lousiest team playing. That part is not a surprise -- half the players in the club I play in are life masters and 5 of those playing yesterday are rated even higher than that.  Meanwhile, this close to the holidays, several of the weaker players didn't show up.

But (and the reason for this celebratory post!) ... we came in first even without the handicap. How great is that?

Another reason to plump for Obama

My cousin has mentioned that his son (a lawyer and former teacher in a NYC inner city school for AmeriCorps) works for the Chris Dodd campaign. But seeing Hari's name at the top of an attack memo is jolting just the same:
The lack of candor with which Senator Clinton answered many of the questions posed to her at the recent Democratic Presidential Candidates' Debate in Philadelphia has had a significant impact on public perceptions of her "honesty."
Senator Clinton is perceived to have least what they say they want most: honesty. As such, these findings pose a significant hurdle for Senator Clinton to overcome in a general election and are telling to the issue of "electability."
Kid's not getting a job in a Clinton administration, I'd say -- the lady has a reputation for bearing grudges. An Obama one, maybe ... So now, I have a personal reason to hope Obama beats Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire ...

Our Pontotoc Ridge Hike

On Saturday, we went to the Nature Conservancy-managed Pontotoc Ridge Preserve and had a blast of a time. The preserve is part of the cross timbers, a belt of ancient forests that cuts across the Southern Great Plains, and consists of untilled land. We've been members of the Nature Conservancy a few years now -- the pragmatism of the organization compared to the typical left-wing environmental groups -- really appeals to me. Thus, rather than push reluctant governments to classify land as parks, they buy land outright or pay for conservation easements. A good way to preserve nature in marginal areas ...

I also like the Nature Conservancy because they hire knowledgeable, friendly people who really love the land and love to show it off. Last year, we drove from Norman to the JT Nickel preserve, a 3-hour drive which turned out to be 4 hours and so we missed joining the tour group. "No problem, " said the young man when he came back from leading his tour, "I'll take you to see a nice waterfall on the property". And he led the way in his truck.

Saturday too was one of the Nature Conservancy hikes and this year too, we had knowledgeable, friendly guides. The manager of the preserve led the tour and was accompanied by another Nature Conservancy worker who'd done most of his work in South America. A botany professor from a local college happened to be part of the tour, and was able to point out most of the trees, plants and what was unique about them. For the first time, I actually know what I saw!

The green spiky fruit is a Bois d'Arc. We also saw poison ivy, fish-on-a-pole and a variety of oaks and elms. I'll spare you most of the pictures except those that, like this winged elm, are simply too gorgeous to pass up. Notice the "wings" on the sides of the bark (click on any of the pictures to see a larger version). Isn't that cool?

The kids had a blast. They collected all sorts of acorns, beans and enjoyed eating the wild persimmons. Some more pictures. Wildflowers:
Pussy toes:
Persimmon seeds (the 5-year old's holding them):
Wild persimmon fruit (it's quite tasty):
I forget what this is called:
Fungi:And the thing that made the 5-year old's day ... some coyote had eaten some persimmon ...
I had enough fun that I don't mind that I had to sell my football tickets to the game that day. Though that game would have been a lot of fun too ...

Pakistan, the view from 1946

Now that Pakistan is going through one of its periodic descents into chaos, it is sobering to go back and read what intelligent and impartial observers had to say about the concept of that country.  In 1946, the Atlantic Monthly noted that the motivation for the folks pulling for the new country was power rather than any religious difference and that they didn't seem to care about the human costs of what would eventually turn into a 11-15 million population transfer:

Jinnah insists on acceptance of the present boundaries of those provinces for the hypothetical state of Pakistan. Exchange of populations and frontier adjustments, he says, could follow. No one with the least knowledge of India could suppose that these provincial boundaries correspond to any national, ethnic, or linguistic delineation.  The Pathan of the North-West Frontier Province and the Bengali Moslem are both, according to Jinnah, potential members of Pakistan. What have they in common? They have the same religion, but racially they are totally different; they cannot understand each other's language; they dress differently, eat differently, and by reason of great differences in climate and geography are engaged in different occupations and forms of agriculture.  ... Jinnah, who is far from being confused in his thinking, knows all this. It is plain, therefore, that the Hindu-Moslem conflict should be seen, not as a religious one, but as a straightforward political and economic struggle for power, with the spoils of office as prizes.

As I noted earlier, some nations (the United States, India) were fortunate in their founders and in their founding principles.  Other nations, not much so -- to this second list, you can add Pakistan.  The avarice at the heart of the country's founding has never been weeded out of Pakistan's politics.

American and Indian politics can be corrupt and cynical but because of the strong founding myths, politicians keep getting tugged back to the center.  The current Bush administration may be wedded to water boarding, but you can be sure that future generations will look on this -- as they look on the internment of Japanese in World War II -- as a repugnant practice.  The chance of a full-fledged descent to torture is quite low.  Similarly, the founding principles of fairness at the heart of India's founding will keep tugging Indian politicians away from promoting unshackled growth -- polluted air and stagnant rural economies will get addressed even if urban and industrial money leads to submerging of those principles for a while.


The three-year old was going on and on yesterday about the cookies she'd gotten at her day care.

"It was orange and yellow and had small green things on it," she enthused.

"Did you get some for me?," I asked.

"No," she said sternly, "when Appa is two years old and I am thirty five, then you can get a cookie".

I went to the post office near my building last week. Because the post office is on campus, the worker (she looked like a temporary worker) was probably a college student. The mailing charge came out to $4.60.  I gave her $10.10.  "Umm ...," she said hesitantly, "I don't know how to do this." "You need to give me $5.50 back," I told her and  she was happy to oblige.  Shouldn't she have been able to do that?

Answering Arnold's phone

The mother of all malapropisms from the leader of the gay-baiting party:

All I can tell you is when the governor calls, I answer his phone.

President Bush, last week, talking about California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger presumably in reference to sending federal aid to tackle the Santa Ana fires.

Pronouncing Dylan

I recently saw friends of ours who'd just had their baby. "How's Dylan?", I asked the proud papa.

He started to guffaw at my question. Turns out that I'd mispronounced the name. Apparently, the baby shares the name with some very famous fellow named "Bob Dylan" (don't start: I don't keep up with all the singer celebrities) and so I should have known how to pronounce the name.

Google to the rescue. Plug in "pronounce dylan" and the first site that comes up carries a rather plaintive question:

Also, How in the world does one pronounce Dylan?

The next post in the thread (this was in a newsgroup, precursor to blogs) carries the answer:


But shouldn't there be two ells then? But then, the post is on a programming newsgroup. Maybe it's a techie thing to have doubts on how to pronounce the name -- we are, perhaps, too pedantic.

Anyway, I located the Wikipedia entry for Bob Dylan and added the pronunciation. Maybe I should do the same thing for Dylan Thomas (who I'd always thought was pronounced Die-lan Thomas) but I'm not sure if the Dill-an pronunciation is something that this Bob Dylan character originated when he changed his name from Zimmerman.

Adams, Heisman, Football : My Night of Television

One of the things about traveling is that I watch TV, or have the TV going while I work. At home, with 2 young kids, the TV remains mostly off. Thursday night, I had the Boston College -- Virginia Tech game on. Intermittently, I switched over to the PBS documentary on John Adams.

Thoughts from My Night of TV:

(1) Boston College ("A Jesuit, Catholic University") surely are lucky campers. Three consecutive plays in one drive, they fumbled the ball and recovered it themselves. After they punted, Virginia Tech missed a handoff and who should recover that fumble but Boston College!

(2) The US was lucky in its founding fathers -- Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton. Not all new countries are fortunate enough to have thoughtful, honest men who put their country's needs first. India was reasonably provident as well -- even though Gandhi was not able to prevent partition and Nehru was too left-wing, they did forge a nation out of a country that was 15% Muslim even after Pakistan broke away. The third (!) country I consider home -- Liberia -- was definitely unfortunate in its founding fathers. These were returned American slaves, who formed a class-ridden society where the lighter-skinned American former slaves lorded it over the ethnic tribes who already populated the land, paving the way for a civil war that devastated the country in the 1980s and 1990s.

(3) Ryan sure is Heisman potential. Scoring 14 points in the last 5 minutes of a game should qualify him, no matter that it came about because Virginia Tech could not hold onto an onside kick. But the way he did it ... the Boston College offensive line was thoroughly beaten throughout the game, so Ryan scrambled out of the pocket, creating time to find open receivers. If a great player is one who plays above his team's talents, Ryan's last two drives qualified. The game winning pass was a beaut -- he scrambled out of the pocket as 3 Hokie defensive linemen collapsed the entire offensive line and scrambled half the width of the field and yards from the sideline, without even stopping to gain a stance, he threw a long one diagonally across the field to a receiver who'd momentarily gotten open.

(4) Adams would have been a hero if he had done nothing after the American revolution. After all, he was he one who pushed for total independence over the objections of moderates in the continental congress, pushed for French naval help (it turned the course of the war at Saratoga), the one who negotiated loans from the Dutch that kept the war effort possible and the one who negotiated a very advantageous peace treaty with Britain. But Adams came back, and as the second president, kept America from going to war against France -- a war from which a young nation might not have recovered.

(5) One possibility is a Ohio State -- Boston College national championship. Of course, the Buckeyes play Penn State at Penn State and Michigan at Michigan and Boston College may meet up with a VT team that outplayed them for 54 minutes in their conference championship game. Still, I like the chances of a OSU-BC BCS game. And if Ryan wins the Heisman, and the Heisman jinx holds, then all the better! Go Bucks!

Is this still the Artic?

Looks like I'm going to get you ready for Halloween by sharing chilling stories and videos. See this NASA time-lapse loop and tell me that a chill does not run down your spine:

Crosswords around the world

Crosswords in Indian newspapers follow the British tradition of being mostly word plays. This blog explaining the solution to a crossword that appeared in the South Indian newspaper, the Hindu, gives you an idea of how those crosswords work:
Tots rally around an improbable tale (4,5) - TALL STORY
Anagram of 'Tots rally'. 'rally around' is the anagram indicator

The crosswords that appear in American newspapers involve just straight clues -- these are both easier and harder than the UK/Indian word play crosswords. The easier ones are the ones that are plain definitions. The harder clues (for me at least) often require knowledge of pop culture. For example:
Typically green tube (Ans: garden hose)
"Mr. _____," 1983 comedy (Ans: Mom)
Also depending on the newspaper in question, the straight clues are either quite straightforward (e.g. the ones that appear in the Norman Transcript) or quite snooty. How snooty? Look at this blog explaining the results to a New York Times crossword. You are supposed to know that "Sapsago" is a cheese with a greenish tint. And to explain the statement in the blog about it being a "Saturday" crossword, crosswords on different days of the week have increasing levels of difficulty. Mondays are the easiest and Saturdays are the hardest, with Sunday somewhere around Thursday's level.

Is this still America?

Read this and tell me that a chill does not run down your spine:

The long and the short of it was that an Egpytian national, Abdallah Higazy, was staying in a hotel in New York City on September 11 and the hotel emptied out when the planes hit the towers. The hotel later found in the closet of his room a device that allows you to communicate with airline pilots. Investigators thought this guy had something to do with 9/11 so they questioned him. According to Higazi, the investigators coerced him into confessing to a role in 9/11. Higazi first adamantly denied any involvement with 9/11 and could not believe what was happening to him. Then, he says, the investigator said his family would go through hell in Egypt, where they torture people like Saddam Hussein. Higazy then realized he had a choice: he could continue denying the radio was his and his family suffers ungodly torture in Egypt or he confesses and his family is spared. Of course, by confessing, Higazy's life is worth garbage at that point, but ... well, that's why coerced confessions are outlawed in the United States.

So Higazy "confesses" and he's processed by the criminal justice system. His future is quite bleak. Meanwhile, an airline pilot later shows up at the hotel and asks for his radio back. This is like something out of the movies. The radio belonged to the pilot, not Higazy, and Higazy was free to go, the victim of horrible timing. Higazi was innocent!

Waiting for a foot bridge

I love foot bridges. The sheer beauty of the bridge when seen from the side, the slight sway as you walk across, the feel of the steel cables as you hang on. An architect showcases some foot bridges on Slate.

How many of those footbridges have you been on? I've walked on the Capilano bridge near Vancouver, the Millennium one that spans the Thames near St. Paul's. I may have walked across the one at Gatwick airport -- who knows?

And I can't wait for the one in Tulsa (shown in the photograph) to be complete. Tulsa has another cool bridge already: an old railway bridge across the Arkansas river repurposed as a foot bridge.

Wish I had written that

I was feeling a bit bored and not quite ready to get back to work, so I started to read a few of my web log entries from a decade ago.

There were a few reviews: of a museum exhibit (the horse is still on campus, and no less of an eyesore) and of a book that bored me with its triviality -- it was so boring that I felt the need to review it twice.

I was already trying to relive my college days through bridge (sound familiar)?  And wistfully recalling childhood in Africa.

Also: telling people not to use "karma" when they really mean "kismet".

All in all, nothing that makes me cringe. But one thing I did notice was that I'd named my columns with no concern for Google. Thus, my entry on karma and kismet is entitled " karm.html" whereas any moron nowadays knows you've got to title it karma_kismet.html so that Google's algorithm ranks it higher.

Not dark and dreary

In Chicago, it's crisp, cool and sunny now. The weather forecaster, normally the most chipper person on a news crew, had me concerned when he predicted on his website that it would be "dark and dreary" (his exact words) all this week. Weather forecasters ... what do they know?

Football players or soldiers?

The basketball arena across the parking lot from the National Weather Center (where I work) was packed yesterday. The arena's parking lot and even the fields around it were all full of cars. Around 5pm, the roads were completely congested as nearly 10,000 people tried to leave, all at the same time. This morning's paper carried the explanation, that it was the send-off ceremony for 2400 National Guardsmen, the largest deployment of the Oklahoma guard since the Korean war.

Today, one of my colleagues noticed that the highway south of our office building had been blocked just after lunch. A police car went screaming by, followed by 3 buses. Most likely, the OU football team leaving to play at Iowa State tomorrow.

Just put yourself in the role of the Norman municipal administration. Which of these events would you budget traffic control for? A few buses carrying the football team to an airport 5 miles away at 1pm? Thousands of cars full of out-of-towners trying to leave a basketball arena at rush hour?

Knowing Oklahoma, I'm not surprised that the football team merits special handling. But considering that the patriotism angle also plays well here -- we may not sacrifice much, but we will wear our lapel pins and tell the troops how much they are appreciated -- count me disappointed.

Pregnant or not?

You know the embarrassing situation where you're talking to a young lady who seems pregnant? You're afraid to congratulate her for fear that she has simply put on a little weight ... and yet, you can't just avoid talking about the looming big event in her life.

Well, I encountered the counterpart of that situation this week.  The wife mentioned a few weeks ago that a couple we know were expecting their child.  Yesterday, I happened to see the mother.  I was about to greet her, except she looked decidedly un-pregnant.

What would you do in that situation? Did you really listen to your wife? Was this the person who was supposed to be pregnant? Was the baby born already, or was the baby due 7 months from now? Me, I simply hurried out hoping that she hadn't seen me.

Talking to a mutual friend yesterday, it was confirmed that the baby had indeed arrived a couple months prematurely.

Just in case you need to write a scientific article in Greek

From the department of answers-to-questions-you-never-thought-to-ask, via Thomas:

I use LaTeX and BibTeX to write conference and journal articles. It's easy to just throw all the text and images and have a computer program take care of all the typesetting and formatting involved. One of the nice things is that I can write:
\frac{1 - e^{-\gamma.f(x)}}{1 - e^{-\gamma}}

and the computer takes care of typesetting it to
Pointing and clicking one's way through a GUI would be quite painful. The software package "knows" about different citation formats and journal layout policies and takes care of all that drudgery as well.

But now, the question that you never thought to ask: How do I use LaTeX if I need to write the article in Greek?

Answer here.

A little chicken

Saturday (at the OU-Missouri football game), a couple of Missouri fans showed up in our section which usually contains only OU season ticket holders. These guys were loud enough and energetic enough to grab the attention of the Mizzou band seated three sections (about 50 yards) away.  M-I-Z they'd chant and the band would answer back:  Z-O-U.  The third quarter, when Missouri came back from a 7-point deficit to a 1-point lead (via several OU mistakes) was pretty excruciating. Made me appreciate all the folks who travel to away games -- don't know if I'd be okay with watching my team where 80,000 fans are screaming for the other guys.

It was the OU homecoming game and one of the things about the homecoming game is that band alumni get to march alongside the regular band. I don't know if it was intended to appear that way, but the alumni march turned out pretty cartoonish.  You first saw slim, in-shape, young 'uns marching in crimson-and-cream uniforms in perfect rows and diagonals.  And following them ... a bunch of beer-bellied folks in white polo shirts and navy-blue pants occupying twice the lane width and a little off in space and time.  Another thing I can't see myself doing -- putting myself in a position where physical comparisons with 20-year olds are so facile.

Count me a little scared of competition.

No, not a conference center

If you think this is yet another convention center that sort of looks like a boat (a trend started by the quite spiffy one in Vancouver that looks like a cruise ship):

then obviously you haven't seen the top-down view:

Apparently the owner has a fetish with the things. He plans to launch a World Toilet association and this is his way of attracting attention.

He must have more money than sense.

The presidential dissident

In the 1970s, the Nobel committee made statements about the Soviet menace by giving Nobel prizes to Russian dissidents like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
What's their implication when the Nobel peace prize goes to Jimmy Carter or to Al Gore?  Are we the new menace? Do they feel they have to prop up our dissidents?

While the Soviet dissidents were truly outside the system -- Solzhenitsyn was a physicist who was arrested for bad-mouthing Stalin in private letters -- our dissidents are failed presidents and presidential candidates.  Consider also the very likely possibility that two families will be in the White House for a consecutive 32-year period, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that political power and the ability to be heard is very closely held in America.

And yes, I know the Nobel peace prize is awarded by the Norwegians; the other Nobels are by the Swedes.  So, the organization honoring Al Gore is different from the one that honored Solzhenitsyn (he won in Literature).  But it is all part of the same zeitgeist.

Mt Williams Dr

The wife wanted me to return something she'd picked up at the new Kohl's in Norman. This is the first time I have been to that area after the development started and it was amusing to see a road marked Mt. Williams Dr.

I know it's a cliche that developers name streets and subdivisions for the natural features they raze down. Hence all the streets named "Glen" and "Meadow" in Northern Virginia.

But "Mt. Williams Dr." must be a unique occurence -- naming a street after an artificial feature. Because you see, Mt. Williams was just a huge mound of dirt that the Navy (don't ask me why land-locked Oklahoma had a navy base, but they did) used as an artillery target in the 1940s. The developers razed down the dirt mound when the university sold the land for development, but apparently they felt compelled to name a street after it.

Don't get me wrong ... I have fond memories of Mt. Williams. It was right at the exit off I-35 that my apartment was, so I associate the sight of that dirt mound after a long road trip with the feeling of finally being home. Besides, Mt. Williams was one of the features by which one could quickly locate Norman on satellite pictures. And that made it the answer to a trivia question -- what's the largest man-made structure in Norman?

Still, naming a street after an artificial feature is quite lame. Don't give the patriotic argument, that the reason the name sticks around is that it was used for target practice during World War II. Imagine that it was a church that had been razed to make way for a street. Would the street be named for that church? Don't answer that.

A.B.D.s and postdocs: lack of good incentives

Today, before lunch, a colleague (S.) and I were glancing at the profile of one of our aerobics instructors.  She had listed her degrees and on that list was
Ph.D Social Studies (A.B.D)
"What is A.B.D?," he asked me.  "All but dissertation," I told him. Since S. and I had both finished our Ph.Ds the same year, we got to talking about self-motivation, the ability to find an original topic and being able to write when there were no hard deadlines.

As luck would have it, this article on why PhDs take so long showed up on my RSS feed while I was eating lunch.  The article quotes a NSF study to claim that:
For those who attempt it, the doctoral dissertation can loom on the horizon like Everest, gleaming invitingly as a challenge but often turning into a masochistic exercise once the ascent is begun. The average student takes 8.2 years to get a Ph.D.; in education, that figure surpasses 13 years. Fifty percent of students drop out along the way, with dissertations the major stumbling block. At commencement, the typical doctoral holder is 33, an age when peers are well along in their professions, and 12 percent of graduates are saddled with more than $50,000 in debt.

That may all be true, but I would have liked to see a breakdown of these statistics by discipline. I think that including the "soft" sciences exacerbates the problem -- an English PhD who will find it very hard to get a job has little incentive to graduate.  It's quite likely that his student teaching job at the university is more attractive than working at a coffee shop. In science and engineering, where PhDs who graduate can expect to find work doing what they trained to do, the problem is a lot less severe. And  even in science and engineering, a field like theoretical physics (where jobs are scarce) sports extra-long PhDs and an almost-mandatory postdoc.

Now, the prevalence of postdocs in fields where jobs are scarce -- that would be a topic fit for a NSF study.  Postdocs are just cheap labor.  I think that funding for new PhD students should be reduced in fields where graduating PhD have to accept postdoctoral appointments.

This is not rocket science -- the lack of jobs for PhDs in some fields is the reason people take so long to finish.  Add in the incentive of good jobs after graduation, and people will finish their PhDs faster.

My excuse for why this blog is not widely read

Long ago (two months ago to be precise), I suggested to all you stuck-in-the-mud readers out there that you should really be reading this blog through a RSS feed. I use Google Reader, but there are lots of others out there.  It is really a much faster way to get updated content than to browse sites one by one.  Browsing the web is so 1990s.

When I set up Blogspot to serve out the blog via RSS, I had a choice. I could serve out the entire article, or I could serve out just the first few sentences and make you, dear reader, click on the link to read the whole thing. I chose to serve out the whole article.  Why? Well, the whole "do unto your neighbor" thing. But at least on the internet, being altruistic can be its own reward. From an economics blogger, comes another reason.  The folks who use RSS readers tend to be journalists, geeks and connectors -- folks who are influential enough to drive more traffic to the site.  Thus, keeping them happy by serving out full articles is a good idea even though the page view statistics suffer.

This brings us to my excuse for why I had only 400 page views in September -- your use of RSS news feeds undercounts my readership but you folks are not doing your part in driving traffic to my site :)  That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Me have an accent?

K., a colleague from work, is also in DC this week. So we met at a Spanish restaurant near Chinatown, in downtown DC last night.  After dinner, I went looking for green tea ice cream (I love green tea ice cream) but Washington DC's Chinatown is too gentrified. No green tea ice cream. They did have moon cakes though, although it was sized for American appetites and I didn't feel like pigging out.

Anyway, this morning, I told my class that I'd gone to a Tapas restaurant yesterday and that the place was surprisingly lively for a Thursday evening. "A very happening place," I informed them.

A student in the back looked at me with a horrified look.  "Where did you go again?," she asked.

"A Tapas restaurant," I repeated, "you know a Spanish restaurant."

"Oh," she sighed in relief, "I thought you said 'topless' restaurant".

My accent's not that bad.

London to Sydney, by bus

When I first heard about a bus service between two islands (England and Australia), I thought it was an obvious way to reel the suckers in.  But, no, a mostly overland bus route exists and takes 12 weeks to make the entire journey.  I've been to several places on that journey -- London, Vienna, Delhi, Kuala Lumpur and Sydney, but oh the places in between: Prague, Gallipolli,  Corbett, Kathmandu, Bali, Ayers Rock.  That, I think, would be an awesome way to spend 3 months.

No sputtering

"Fr. Briggs" (there's a story behind that name, but don't want to bust his privacy here) asks me what I replied to the 5-year's question about what we were praying to. Nothing inspired, I am afraid.

This is of course not the first time that I've sputtered. Usually, though, I can come with a better answer days after the moment has passed. In this case, though, sputtering is still the only thing I can come up with.

Incidentally, on the national anthem before ball games thing, I don't know if you've seen this video:

The adult doing the class act in that video is Philadelphia coach and former hall-of-fame player Maurice Cheeks. Mo Cheeks was inspired -- he knew exactly what to do at the moment when it mattered.

Praying before the game

I took the 5-year old to the OU football game on Saturday.  This is the first time he's had to stand up while the national anthem is being played, so I had to tell him what to do. "Put your hand over your chest," I told him, "and look to your right, towards the flag." There were three flags being raised, so that kept his interest until the end of the anthem.

"What are the three flags?," he asked after the crowd had chimed in with "Sooners" where the anthem ends "land of the brave" (don't get me started).

"The one in the middle is the American flag," I told him, "the blue one to the right is the Oklahoma flag and the red one to the left is the OU flag."

He processed that for a while.

"And which one were we praying to?", he finally asked.

Common sense on the Iraq surge

It often takes a really wise person has pointed out the obvious.  Obama does it here (YouTube video).  Count me impressed by his judgment, especially considering that Congress still can not see the big picture for the bloviation.

The surge has had some impact as suggested ... I would argue that the impact has been relatively modest given the investment ... The improvement in the situation in Anbar has nothing to do with the surge .. the reason for the improvement of the situation in Anbar is political ... we have not seen any improvement in terms of the central government's performance.

The only improvement in the situation in Iraq is in Anbar province where we are paying the Sunni tribes to keep from attacking our troops. It has nothing to do with the surge. In Baghdad, where the surge has been concentrated, the situation is still bad enough that our president stayed away from the city on his last visit there.

Beijing woes

Several people I know are directly involved in the meteorological support for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.  Algorithms developed by my group will be operated by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology in Beijing, so even I am indirectly involved.  It is a daunting task -- much more daunting than the Atlanta or Sydney Olympics, where there were also
forecast demonstrations organized by the World Meteorological Organization.

Forecasting rain is going to be very important.  Something like 60% of the days in August, it rains in Beijing.  But it's going to be hard to forecast that rain.
  1. China is deploying new S-band radars (i.e . very good ones), but as in India (where I visited a couple of installations as part of a USAID project this year), the radars are placed right in the middle of cities. The way these radars work, there is a huge blind spot right above the radar, which means there will be poor to non-existent radar data right over Beijing.
  2. The topography around Beijing is challenging in other ways for radar siting.  There are mountains just to the west. The radar beam will be blocked by those mountains, so the radar can not see very far to the west.
  3. The climatology does not help either. Storms initiate on the mountains immediately to the west of Beijing and drop all their rain. Nowcasting thunderstorms depends heavily on extrapolation but there will be nothing to extrapolate.
The air pollution in Beijing is of course what every one talks about.  Word is that gray skies are the norm and that visibility of 30 feet is common. A few weeks ago, the Chinese authorities tried to run an experiment where only even-numbered cars would be allowed on the streets on even-numbered days. Apparently, it didn't help all that much.  With all that pollution, weather forecasting is not going to be driven by just rain and wind. There will be other factors that will affect athletes. But my point is that even rain and wind are going to be hard to predict. Let alone the effect of Beijing air on unaccustomed athletes and spectators.

Overestimating food

On Sunday, during the long weekend, we went with some Indian neighbors to Roman Nose state park.  There's a nice, cold stream (55-degree water) that runs underground and cascades out of a cave at one point -- the kids really enjoyed it.

Like any Indian gathering, there was a lot of food.  We'd decided to take a quick tour of Red Rock Canyon, which was only about 10 miles off our return route to Norman. It got late in the canyon, and everyone was hungry, so we decided to snack on the leftovers of our lunch. Except that the "leftovers" were enough to feed us for dinner too. We had not just overestimated the food that we'd need -- we'd overestimated by a factor of two.

Don't use credit cards abroad

It used to be that when traveling abroad, paying with a credit card was the smartest way to avoid paying outrageous currency conversion charges.  The currency conversion places at airports were, and still are, a ripoff -- often you'll lose 5-10 % of your money when you exchange dollars for the local currency.  This is because those places hit you in two ways: (1) you pay a commission to change money (2) the rate you are offered is much worse than the market rate.  The credit card companies, on the other hand, would charge no fees or commissions. And to make things better, they do the conversion at the interbank rates -- the best rates possible.

Now, though, credit card companies charge 3% "foreign transaction fees" which alter the balance significantly.  For example, a $9.85 purchase in Australian dollars was converted to $8.42, and we were charged an additional 3%.  This brings the cost of each Australian dollar to 88.05 cents. A better deal is what I got with my ATM card. Because I bank at a small bank which has no ATM fees, the $300  I withdrew at an ATM cost me $257.27, meaning that the effective rate was only 85.76 cents.  There were no extra fees or surcharges.   I save $3 on every $100 I spent using cash (from the ATM) rather than using my credit card.

Bottom line: When traveling abroad, use your ATM card to withdraw cash in the local currency. Then pay for everything with cash.  From now on, I'm going to use my credit card only for things like hotels where I can not pay with cash.  If your bank charges for ATM usage, just withdraw a lot of money at once, so that you pay the surcharge only once.  For example, if your bank's ATM surcharge is $3, you come out ahead as long as you withdraw more than $100 U.S. dollars at a time.

Custom compression algorithms: worth the cost?

I am in San Diego at a conference on satellite data handling and compression.  This is not really my field, but the conference chair emailed me a few months ago asking if I'd be willing to come and give a talk on how radar data are compressed for storage and transmission.

"Are you sure," I emailed him, explaining that the radar program uses only off-the-shelf compression techniques because custom compression techniques provided only a 10% improvement over off-the-shelf solutions such as bzip2.  He replied that this was fine.

This morning, my talk was sandwiched between 6 other talks on compression.  Each of them demonstrated a 5 to 15% improvement over JPEG 2000. So, you can imagine how the thrust of my talk -- that custom compression techniques that provided only incremental improvements were not cost effective -- carried over.

"What would be the threshold at which it would cost effective," one of the members in the audience asked, "would 100% be enough if the space agency would maintain and release compression and decompression software for use by anyone?"

"Maybe,:" I replied, digging the hole even further.  "Remember that this code needs to be maintained, and updated for new languages and platforms.  This would cost at least 150,000 dollars per year.  You have to justify that the saved storage and transmission costs are sufficient to overcome that hurdle."

I'm just not that popular here today.

An expensive reminder

A couple years ago, when we bought our house, our mortgage was underwritten by Countrywide. We went with them because they matched the best rate I found on the Internet.  While sitting in their office, signing all the paperwork, I remember reading one of their brochures where they said they kept 98% of their mortgages and that did impress me quite a bit.  The mortgage on our first house got transferred around between banks quite a bit, so I had to keep track of which company to send the next month's payment to.  Stability would be a good thing.

So, when the sub-prime market cratered, taking Countrywide along with it, I thought it was a typical market over-reaction. If they kept 98% of their mortgages, then obviously they would have taken care that the loans were sound. Care they wouldn't have taken if their plan to was to bundle the loans into securities and sell them off. So, I went out and bought some shares last week at the low prices on offer.

Yesterday's (Sunday's) New York Times had an article on Countrywide and how it, too, was caught up in the sub-prime mess. One in four of its sub-prime loans, the article says, is in default. And the article indicated that Countrywide sells a huge fraction of its loans too.  Oops. Had I misremembered something?

I had misremembered all right, but I was naive in not noticing the exact words used by the brochure. The crucial distinction seems to that Countrywide continues to service the loans that it packages and sells. It's responsible for collecting payments, and the brochure was simply saying that I wouldn't have to send payments to a different bank every few months. But Countrywide does sell many of the loans, thus divesting itself of some of the risk.  The investors who buy the loans pay Countrywide to take care of collecting the mortgage payments, so even though 98% of its customers wouldn't know it, Countrywide sells a majority of its loans. This of course means that they wouldn't be all that careful when making loans. Most of the time, it would be someone else's problem if the customer defaulted.

Another reminder, if I am ever in doubt again, that it is extremely hard to beat the market with publicly available information -- it's been factored in already. An expensive reminder.


Not only is the streak well and truly ended, last night we came in dead bottom.  Poor play, especially on defense sank us.

At what price cheap stuff?

Like every parent of young children, I have been reading with a sinking feeling in my stomach about the lead paint that was used by Mattel toys. Our kids do not have that many toys, but the ones they have they put in their mouths. A lot. And pretty much every toy is painted.

I doubt that the problem is limited to Mattel or to toys that were made in China. Even the toys that we bought at craft shops were probably painted or stained using cheap paints and chemicals, and cheap paint is likely to have been made in a developing country.  With little in the way of regulation of dangerous compounds.

Now comes an article by a pediatric cardiologist at U. Mass. saying that the industry essentially got politicians to torpedo stricter lead controls starting in the 1980s (The Reagan and the two Bush administrations are implicated) and that the 10 mcg/dl limit that is suggested as safe by the CDC would actually result in 7 lost IQ points.

At what price, cheap stuff? And at what price industry profits?

Finding overshooting tops

One of my colleagues has long wanted me to create an algorithm to find overshooting tops in satellite imagery. There were a couple of things holding me back -- one administrative and the other technical.

The first was a lack of funding to pursue that work. But all of a sudden, in the last six months or so, I have gotten funding (from NASA, NESDIS and HPCC) to work on satellite data. In the past few years, none of these guys would fund us. This year, they all did -- when it rains, it pours. Anyway, we have the funding, so I have the time. That's how science works. Administratively at least.

The second reason was techical. The first signature I tried to find on satellite data was v-shaped notches on infrared imagery which was at 4km resolution and came every half hour. The temporal and spatial resolution was too poor to do anything worthwhile (as a comparison, radar data is at 1-km resolution every 5 minutes). But recently, my colleague got his hands on 1-km visible data combined from the GOES east and west satellites at 1 minute intervals and suggested that I try to find overshooting tops which are indicative of strong updrafts which themselves are indicative of severe weather.

To find overshooting tops, I wrote an algorithm to look for areas with high spatial variance (taking to care to avoid using parts of the image that are unlikely to be clouds in the variance computation) and that was it! As it turned out, given 1km visible imagery, you don't even need a sequence for quality control (In many algorithms, one way to avoid lots of spurious detections is to correlate things across time).

In the image to the left, the red contours are drawn by the automated algorithm that results. Since the 1-minute temporal resolution is not required, and because 1km visible imagery is available during daylight hours in realtime, we should be able to run an overshooting tops algorithm in real-time. As the newpapers say, watch this space.