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.