Tornado near Chickasha on May 24, 2011

This tornado destroyed a mobile home park near Chickasha.

The last time I went storm chasing was, oh, 15 years ago. At that time, we had keep calling back to home base to orient ourselves with-respect to storms. Having 3G coverage and radar data auto-update in the car is a sea-change!

Thanks to G.S. for chasing with me ... A great experience for us, but obviously a horrible one for the poor people who lost their homes. Greg's posted the second part of his video on You-Tube. The voices you are hear are Greg, his daughter and me.

p.s. The tornado was not headed towards Norman -- it was headed towards Moore, but an earlier storm had just taken a hard-right turn, and so we were apprehensive about this one also taking a hard right turn and heading towards Norman. The storm did not turn, and it dissipated so the entire metro area escaped.

p.s2: CNN  has a video of the tornado taken just a little bit earlier to the one above. We were in the parking lot that is shown being taken out i.e. we watched the tornado form and got out of the lot barely 10 minutes before the tornado hit it.

Farewell to Facebook

The internet and social interactions over the internet have gotten better over time, but that doesn't mean that there haven't been dead-ends and backups along the way. Remember newsgroups? My first interactions on the internet (circa 1993) were using newsgroups. However, newsgroups got swamped with spam, trolls and random strangers talking past each other. At some point, I stopped launching my news reader and never missed anything. Newsgroups got replaced by invitation-only mailing lists and extremely focused discussion forums.

Picture from: 
Similarly, although I was an early adopter of Facebook, I'm going to pull the plug on my Facebook account by the end of this week.

Facebook does fill a niche. There is no other way to communicate at large with a bunch of people who are unrelated to each other (by interest, kinship or education) other than that they are all somehow known to you. However, Facebook is trying to be everything and, thereby, it's becoming nothing.  I'm leaving Facebook because friends sometimes assume that I know what they've posted, and, as Facebook tries to become everything to everybody, I increasingly don't.  There are some friends in whose reading recommendations I am interested. There are some friends in whose photos I'm interested. There are some friends that I've lost touch with, but in whose "life announcements" (weddings, babies, etc.) I'm interested. The thing is that these are all different people and I would like to manage my friendships with them separately. It is much easier to do this if I use different applications for different things.

To communicate with individuals, I prefer email. Email is targeted, timely and, unlike the phone (which I hate with a vengeance), can be read at one's convenience. Email is also easily searched (especially if you use gmail), forwarded and extracted. When someone started carrying out a technical communication via Facebook, I quickly redirected him to my email.

I like it when friends post links to interesting content they have recently read. But doing this with Facebook has several drawbacks. (1) My Facebook feed is so active that I miss most of these links. (2) At the time that I log onto Facebook, I may not have the time or the inclination to read any articles. (3) Not all my friends have reading tastes that are similar to mine.  All in all, then, I end up reading few of the items recommended by friends.

A far better alternative to recommend articles (and to read your friends' recommendations) is to use a RSS reader. You probably know that you can use a RSS reader to subscribe to blogs and to newspapers. However, the "Share" feature on Google Reader can be used to recommend content and this itself creates a RSS feed.  So, you can subscribe to the "Shared Articles" feed of those of your friends whose interests match yours. And of course, you are going to be launching the RSS reader only when you have the time to read longish articles. So, this has none of the disadvantages of using Facebook. You can view my shared articles here (there's a link on that page to a RSS feed that you can subscribe to). I will be using this instead of sharing articles on Facebook.

The killer app on Facebook is its photo feature. I don't know of any good replacement for it. Web albums such as Flickr come close and are good enough, however. What you'll lose is the ability to tag photos with people, and to see photos of your friends tagged. I'm not sure that's such a big deal though. In any case, it's not enough of a reason for me to stick with Facebook.

Blogs are a good way to communicate long thoughts with your network of contacts. Facebook notes are comparable and sometimes better in that you can restrict comments to your network of friends. However, all my Facebook notes were just blog posts anyway. I never subscribed to peoples' notes anyway -- I subscribed to their blog posts. Hence, this is one capability of Facebook that doesn't even need a change in my habits. It also brings with it one benefit:  cantakerous friends-of-friends  have no compunction about making troll-like comments. On a blog, you can delete such comments. On Facebook notes, you have to worry about the reaction of the friend who forms the link between you and the troll.

I'm leaving Facebook, then, because the structure of its relationships bears no resemblance with the structure of the friendships I have in the real world.  Facebook friends: please subscribe using your RSS reader to my blog, to my reading recommendations and to my photographs (according to your interests!).  Definitely, send me an email if something important happens in your life.  Please do let me know when you start a blog or start recommending articles or create a shared web album so that I can subscribe.

Bye, y'all.

P.S. I realize privacy plays no role in my post. It did not play any role in my decision to quit using Facebook since there is nothing in my Facebook account that I would want strictly private.

No kudos after Joplin

In 2005, for the first time ever, there were no tornado fatalities. This was a rare bit of weather-related good news, and NPR interviewed the director of SPC about it.  Was it because tornado predictions were so much better? Joe Schaefer demurred, giving credit to Mother Nature. But I, at least, internalized the unspoken assumption and was terribly disheartened after the Alabama outbreak.

Forget about reversion to the mean -- 2011 has been a drastic swing the other way. Fatalities have also been concentrated outside of what we would normally regard as tornado alley.

The WDSS-II rotation tracks output became so popular during and after the Tuscaloosa outbreak that people took photographs with a printout of the rotation tracks as backdrop. (There's one Congressman, one political appointee and several weather forecasters in the picture, but none of these people are from NSSL or OU)
With the tornado in Joplin yesterday taking out 79 lives, I went back to look at the rotation tracks, and what was there was completely unimpressive. No one's going to be using this data as a backdrop, that's for sure.
We have to analyze it before we know why ... More work to do!

Reading list

The last couple of weeks have been amazing, reading-wise. One good book after another. In the order in which I ripped through them:

1. Battle hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua. I'd heard of this book because of the article by her in the Wall Street Journal that went viral. The book itself is less controversial than those excerpts. It appears that Chua is a hard-driving woman, her kids are even more driven (even the supposedly rebellious younger kid gets superenthused about tennis) and her parenting method has worked well for them. The asides that have all of America riled up ("Chinese parents want their kids to do well in math and music; Western parents want their kids to do well in sport") are humorous more than anything else. In fact, it appears that Chua's parenting style arises more out of fear than out of arrogance. Early on in the book, she talks about her (Jewish) husband's and her differing paths to the Yale faculty. Things came easy to him -- he loves the law (she doesn't care), and comes up with innovative ideas all the time. He landed up in Harvard Law after a couple of years trying to become an actor. She, on the other hand, plodded her way in. Her first interview at Yale went badly and she had to go teach at Duke, away from her husband. She is afraid that her children, like her (she claims), have no native talent and consequently, she pushes them hard. Of course, I would aver that someone capable of writing award-winning books and teaching law at Yale (whether you get the job after one interview or two) is way beyond the ordinary. Her daughters, too, it turns out are extremely talented. The work ethic she inculcates in them comes in handy too. We could never raise our children the way she does, but only because we do not have her motivation and drive.

2. This Time is Different by Carmen Reinhart: a data-rich listing of sovreign debt defaults around the world. She points out that countries declare bankruptcy and stiff their debtors all the time. The markets don't really punish such behavior all that much. Engrossing reading, but after a couple of chapters, I got the idea and moved on to the next book in my list. This book would have been better as a magazine article -- it's about 400 pages too many.

3. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, by Karen Armstrong. This lapsed nun and scholar of religous history points to how central compassion ("treat your neighbor as yourself") is to all the major religions and points out that extending such compassion to people outside one's clan/tribe is relatively new and came about only in the Axial Age. She points out that the Jews who returned from Babylon -- Hillel among them -- essentially reinterpreted much of the Old Testament. The Buddha, of course, upended Hinduism with a similar insight. As did Christ and Mohammed. A nice book, although the 12-step plan on which Armstrong hangs her book is a little too cute.

4. Long Time Coming, by Robert Goddard. This is one of the best mystery/thrillers I have read in a long time. The bad news is that I had never heard of him before. The good news is that now I have six more books of his to read. Highly recommended.

5. How to read your opponents' cards, by Mike Lawrence. This book is a bridge classic and deservedly so. I kinda knew all the stuff he talks about, but have not systematically incorporated them into my declarer play. If you are a bridge player, you ought to work your way through this book.

6. 1001 Cranes, by Naomi Hirahara. A coming of age novel of a third generation Japanese American in California. Like most such books, this is a sweet, nostalgic look based loosely on the author's own childhood. Highly readable.

Master of complications, clash of sensibilities

Some of the Swiss I met in Geneva were very concerned with the future viability of Swiss industry. "What does Switzerland have ...", mused one army major, "just water, chocolate and watches." Left unsaid was that watches were going the way of the tophat.

So, this sign on the building of a watch maker was funny. Complications are, of course, a horological term that refers to the variety of gears. The more the complications, the more intricate the watch and the pricier it is. Except that with digital watches, one can have all sorts of functions without the need for mechanical movements. Still, Frank Muller is apparently the master of complications.

On the side of the shop was a display window. And what was in the display was the watch maker's attempt at remaining relevant:

The Swiss love of complexity has been applied to an iPhone cover. Talk about a clash of sensibilities ...
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Eating like a diplomat

I was in Geneva to talk at a conference of mostly diplomats. A working lunch at a scientific conference usually means a hurried sandwich, so that's what I had in mind when the conference program listed lunch as a group. Imagine my surprise when every lunch at the conference turned out to be a three-course meal with two types of wine. The courses were quite fancy too: the salad, one day, for example was listed on the menu as "salad asiatique avec crepes legumeries" and this turned out to be a Thai-type salad served on a South Indian dosa. The fish was all fresh-caught, from Lac Leman. And the deserts well presented. The welcoming recption (celery and carrots at a scientific conference) turned out to have foie gras as part of a four-course meal. And the hors d'oevres on another day was duck and caviar. These diplomats certainly eat well.

After 3 days of this, United Airlines' food was a drastic fall to earth.
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Socialist paradise

Man, is Switzerland socialist or what?

Nothing -- and I do mean nothing -- was open at 9.30am. Many of the shops' hours were posted as 2pm to 6pm. A 4-hour schedule! Geneva is practically France, so that might explain it.

When you check in to any hotel, they give you a card that lets you ride public transport within Geneva for free. Obviously that means that the cost of public transport is rolled into the hotel taxes whether you want it or not. But, it's very convenient all the same, to be able to hop on/off any bus you want. No body checks for tickets because the locals all have passes (I suppose) and the tourists get all get "free" tickets. As you exit the airport, there's a machine that dispenses free tickets on public transport to the city center. Because everyone uses public transport, the buses are frquent and quite nice. We can learn something from them.

Should have just dumped the body into the sea

To paraphrase Mark Twain, I would not wish death on anybody, but there are obituaries that I read with relish and the one this morning, of bin Laden, was one of them.

Having said that though, this will probably just inflame things further. As Fabius Maximus remarks, bin Laden was holed up in the mountains and his leadership was quite erratic. With bin Laden as a martyr and possibly better leadership, Al Qaeda might be more of a threat in the coming years, not less.

Like Maximus, I also found the over-use of "I" in Obama's speech jarring:
And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda. Even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle and defeat his network. Then last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain. And it took many months to run this thread to ground. I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice. Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abad Abad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties.
Obama should have stepped back a bit, had the military dump bin Laden's body into the sea and then maintained radio silence.  Studied ambiguity would have been better for the longer term.

As much as it pains me to say this, Bush's speech on capturing Saddam Hussein was much more a model of probity. Notice the complete lack of "I did this", "I did that" there in Bush's speech. The only use of first person is about bringing messages to the Iraqi people and to the American people. A messenger, not a principal player.