You’ll need a mask

I took this from the EPA site AirNow.

It doesn’t require a sensor to know the air is bad. And it is very bad here in Yreka.

I know we are lucky—so far—as people in nearby communities have lost their homes because of the fires.

We are at the mercy of the winds. In the old days they had Aeolus, the divine keeper of the Anemoi, or Winds. Some Winds were benign, but the Storm-Winds wreaked havoc upon land and sea, so it was up to Aeolus to keep them bottled up. This he did, mostly, but if Zeus ordered them cut loose, so be it.

These days we have windy.com with its entrancing animations. (Warning: serious time sink!) We don’t make sacrifices to the gods the same way, either. Instead of slaughtering a beast and burning offerings on a pyre we build super-computer forecasting ensembles that churn through powerful algorithms. This takes a lot of energy. Not just the human physical and mental energy, but the enormous amount of electrical energy devoted to these tasks.

And important tasks they are!

In geology, aeolian processes are ones involving the erosion, transport, and deposition of sediments by the wind. Winds don’t just affect our weather but also our landscape.

Particulate material from wildland fires can travel across the globe. While we are trying not to breathe in the smoke and ash from our nearby fires, long-traveled micro-debris from fires in other places comes our way as well.

I root for a fresh, cleansing breeze to scour out the valleys and let us breathe again. But I know that firefighters are also at the mercy of the winds, and the best-laid firefighting plans could be scuttled by abrupt changes in wind direction and speed. So, I hope for the best instead.

We all want it to cool down and we all want the rains to come, but it is only September and we have some weeks to go yet.

Stay safe out there!

Aluminum

Here’s a graph. It’s like a lot of other graphs that have to do with natural resources in that it is “going up.” We need a lot of natural resources to live our 21st century lives.

The graphs shows the production and consumption of aluminum, which is expected to reach 65 million tonnes annually. (The graph is in kilo-tonnes, so the 60,000 kilo-tonnes above is the same as 60 million tonnes.) A tonne is a thousand kilograms or about 2200 pounds, so 65 million tonnes is 1.433 x 1011 pounds or 140,330,000,000 (140 billion) pounds. That’s twenty pounds for each person on the planet.

The graph comes from the website of Rusal (Russia Aluminium), the second-largest aluminum producer in the world. (They still call it “aluminium” over there.) It’s the largest company outside of China which dominates the global aluminum market, both producing and consuming more than any other country.

Aluminum is the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust. It is a very reactive metal and is bound up tightly in the rocks. It is hard to separate as a pure metal and the processes require enormous amounts of electricity.

But our lives depend on aluminum. These days we make just about everything out of the stuff.

What’s weird about aluminum is that is has no biological function. Our bodies need lots of metals like iron and calcium. Zinc, copper, cobalt, magnesium—all are found in living systems. Not aluminum. It isn’t particularly toxic to us either as we tend to pass it out readily via our urine and feces. You can cook with aluminum and store food in it, it won’t cause Alzheimer’s or anything like that.

Most of the aluminum in the world is used to build lighter ships, planes, cars, and other transport vehicles. Aluminum is strong for its weight and modern alloys are nearly corrosion-proof. Only steel is used more.

We don’t need aluminum to be alive. But we certainly need it to live.

Caltrop

Perusing Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching I came across a section about how to make a caltrop. A caltrop is an ancient weapon. The Romans called it a tribulus. It looks like this:

Four metal spikes (or two twisted together) in a tetrahedron shape means no matter how you toss it on the ground at least one spike is sticking upwards. Obviously they are for disabling men, animals, or rubber-tired vehicles. Strewn across a road, trail, or pathway they can make life mighty painful or at least terribly inconvenient.

There’s a common plant called caltrop, better known to locals as “puncture vine.” The botanical name is Tribulus terrestris. The fruits of this persistent, ground-hugging, noxious weed are spiky and harden into bicycle tire-hunting demons. They are often called “goatheads.” Anyone who rides a mountain bike can tell you about goatheads. I upgraded to extra-beefy tires and tubes on my bike after too many flats from those things.

The nuisance impact of puncture vine is so great that weevils have been imported and released in order to help control it. The plant originates in southern Europe and the weevils are imported from France as well as India. They lay eggs on the stems and seed pods and the larvae emerge and eat and weaken or kill the plant.

Here’s a picture:

You’ve seen this plant on every roadside!

Here’s what it looks like when the goatheads have launched their assault on your tires:

A weed is a plant you don’t want. Most folks consider Tribulus terrestris to be a weed. Farmers and ranchers know it to be a serious agricultural pest. But some folks are interested in caltrop for its medicinal value.

Yes, the lowly puncture vine, it seems, is an aphrodisiac. The leaves and roots have many (supposed) health benefits. Do a search using the botanical name and you’ll find plenty of stuff about it. I’ve taken herbal supplements that had “alfalfa” as an ingredient. It’s a crazy world out there in supplement-land, you never know what you are getting! So if the herbal way is your thing check out caltrop. Me, I’ll avoid ’em.

p.s. I’m not an eco-warrior or anything like that, I just like reading weird stuff. (That’s my disclaimer if the FBI is reading my blog.)

How’s the air?

With wildfires raging across the West many of us are experiencing nasty air pollution, the most obvious being the gray-brown smoke that settles in every valley. But much of the issue with polluted air involves the invisible stuff, the tiny particulates that you don’t see and don’t notice you are breathing in.

The EPA measures these particulates when determining the Air Quality Index for an area. One of the standards involves particles that are less that 2.5 microns in diameter. A “micron” is another way to say “micro-meter” which means 10-6 of a meter (0.000001). So 2.5 micrometers (µm) is 0.0025 millimeters (mm) or about one ten-thousandth (0.0001) of an inch. That’s about the size of a bacterium.

The standard involves expressing a particle density as µg/m3, or micrograms per cubic meter. Something on the order of 35 µg/m3 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, 55 µg/m3 is considered generally unhealthy, and 150 µg/m3 is very unhealthy.

This is just the PM 2.5 standard. The AQI involves other inputs like carbon monoxide and such. But I want to look at just the fine particulates because of this outfit called PurpleAir.

PurpleAir makes sensors that anyone can purchase and begin monitoring their air quality. They also have a network where the data from the sensors can be accessed in real time. I discovered on their map page that my next door neighbors, the Siskiyou County Office of Education, has a sensor installed. In fact, they are installed at schools all over the County!

There’s a circle on the map with a number (PM 2.5 in µg/m3) and if you click on it you get a couple of pop-ups:

There’s a little + sign in the corner of the map that produces this pop-up:

You can use the pull-downs to change what you see as there are twenty different variables measured such as humidity and temperature as well as different particulate standards.

You can see from the graph that the air here in Yreka has improved quite a bit since midnight last night.

There are a number of health issues associated with breathing particulates so it is good that we can keep track of this and use it to make decisions about our activities. Just because you can’t see or smell smoke doesn’t mean you are immune from its effects!

The EPA also has a site where you can enter your ZIP code and get the AQI and they also have a fire and smoke map.

Copper and Gold

For five bucks you can get a pound of copper and will probably get some change, too.

Not so much with gold. A troy ounce of gold goes for about two grand these days. A “pound” of gold would set you back about twenty-five thousand simoleons! I put pound in quotes because gold is not measured in pounds, at least not the kind of pounds we measure ourselves and everything else with. It’s a small point, but a troy ounce is about 31 grams whereas as an everyday common ounce (1/16 of an everyday common pound) is about 28 grams. The everyday common system we use for most things is called avoirdupois.

Gold has its own system, and there are twelve troy ounces to a troy pound which comes out to about 373 grams. An avoirdupois pound (sixteen ounces) is about 454 grams.

So it is hard to compare a pound of gold—twelve troy ounces—with a pound—sixteen avoirdupois ounces—of anything else. Other precious metals like silver and platinum use the troy system, but more pedestrian materials like copper use the pounds we are familiar with.

Now gold is interesting stuff. It is durable. It doesn’t lose its luster. It doesn’t oxidize or tarnish. It can be beat into most shapes including thin foils and it can be drawn into wire. But its too soft to really work with so it has to be alloyed with something like silver, copper, nickel, or zinc. American Gold Eagles, for example are 22 karat or not quite 92% pure (22/24 = 0.91666…).

Eagles are about 3% silver and about 5% copper.

Copper is the only other colored metal besides gold. Colored other than silvery-grey, that is! Copper is incredibly useful. In fact, our entire modern world could be said to be built on copper since it is required in all electrical devices and all electrical wiring. Think about your complete immersion into the electrical world. Don’t worry, you are not alone. We are all there with you. Our lives are entirely dependent on our electrical system. No copper, no electricity. No electricity, no modern civilization.

Gold has messed with the minds of men for millenia. I live in the Golden State, and that does not just describe the color of our sunsets or of our sun-baked grasslands. Driving the back roads of the county this morning we encountered tailings piles that would take an army of dump trucks to move that were washed off the hillsides 150 years ago. El Dorado infected more than just the conquistadors.

Copper, like gold, is found in its native state, that is as a pure metal and not as a compound. Iron has to be extracted from ore, for example, as does aluminum. Ancient peoples knew all about copper. Copper dulls over time, as do bronze and brass, the well-known alloys. Patinas on bronzes, for example can be part of their charm. Copper kitchenware and things like brew kettles have to be cleaned and buffed to keep their shine. I particularly like the reddish cast of copper and the so-called “pink” or “rose” gold alloy is usually 18-karat and thus 75% gold with 25% copper (18/24 = 0.75).

Gold gets a lot of attention these days. In times of uncertainty people invest in gold. Or hoard it!

But copper is deserving of a place in the pantheon. We can live our whole lives and never need an ounce of gold. The average American, to live at his or her preferred standard of comfort, will require about thirteen pounds of copper per year. Over a lifetime of 85 years, that’s 1105 pounds. Just think, a THOUSAND POUNDS or half a ton of the stuff!

Good thing it’s only five bucks a pound.

Not-so-wild flowers

People go wild for wildflowers. It’s understandable. I’ve waded into meadow streams to get a close-up look at a tiger-lily, for example, or scrambled over boulders for a dermatitis-inducing encounter with a desert bluebell.

But what about those lowly flowers we see on our walks around the neighborhood? I don’t mean the cultivated ones. Those are just “garden-variety” flowers! I mean the weedy ones that grow along the roadsides, or the edges of parking lots, or in the abandoned lots.

We see this one all the time:

That’s chicory, a member of genus Cichorium. The local species is probably C. intybus, but I don’t really know. Locals call almost any showy blue flower a “bachelor’s button” but that common name is usually reserved for a thistle (Centaurea cyanus) with clusters of small flowers making up the head of the plant. The cultivar, the one the home gardener plants, is called blue cornflower

Chicory flowers are sometimes called “blue sailors.” The plant is often known as “coffeeweed” because the roots of some varieties are roasted and used to flavor drinks. An ersatz coffee can be made from them as well.

Chicory is a noxious weed in some places and forage for livestock in others. It’s an alien, originating in Europe, and like our cattle and horses probably came over with the conquistadors. I’m a descendant of aliens (my grandparents were immigrants), so I can appreciate a hardy survivor.

And these plants are hardy. It’s hot and dry, very hot and dry, during their flowering season. And the rest of the year it’s cold. And dry. Did I mention dry? As in arid?

Cichorium intybus is a relative of the dandelion, the daisy, and the sunflower. The family is called Asteraceae by botanists. “Aster” is Greek for “star.” It’s the largest family of plants, worldwide, with over 23,000 known species. When I took botany (in 1980!) the official name was Compositae, which described the bunching of little florets into one flower, much like you see in a sunflower.

Next time you are near a road cut, embankment, verge, weedy field, or other disturbed area, look for chicory. Those blue sailors came a long way to put on a show for us.

Trumpet-creeper

We call it trumpet-vine but according to Jepson the common name is trumpet-creeper. Botanically it is Campsis radicans and is a member of the Bignoniaceae or Bignonia family which includes catalpa and jacaranda.

Here’s a snap from today, on the southwest corner of the house:

You can see the bee on one of the petals. The spectacular flowers always attract bees and of course hummingbirds. They are a little harder to photograph!

You can’t kill these plants and you don’t have to water them. In fact, they seem to thrive on abuse. They are perennial and you have to cut them back as they will quickly take over if there is something to climb on. They stick to walls and can damage the paint.

They have a disheveled appearance and the confusion of shoots and branches makes them hard to prune artfully, but they produce these remarkable flowers in big clusters regardless.

California is mostly desert, and even in the rainier and snowier spots of the state the summer rainfall is next to nothing. Plants that can thrive in drought conditions in the full, harsh glare of the sun are special creatures.

Campsis radicans is native to North America and it was originally confined to New England and the Midwest but has now become established in the West. In the warm, wet South it is a tenacious pest and has to be controlled. We don’t have that problem in our arid corner of the country! The name, by the way, means “flexible root.”

The Border

Don Winslow is the spawn of an unholy alliance between Mickey Spillane and Tom Clancy. He writes thrillers with the astonishing verisimilitude and obsession to detail of the latter, and the lean, macho, karate-chop style of the former.

I highly recommend it.

Winslow’s The Border is the final act in a three-part tragedy that began in 2005 with The Power of the Dog which was followed by The Cartel in 2015.

The subject of the novels is the Mexican drug trade. Or, more properly, the American response to the American drug problem. We import the goddamn stuff, it is entirely our fault that Mexican drug cartels exist, but we like to think it is Mexico’s problem. It is, sadly, Mexico’s problem. Their country is overrun by these ruthless fucking gangsters, but they are only rich and powerful because of America’s insatiable hunger for the drugs they export.

It is also true that the American powers-that-be are perfectly happy to let drugs into the country. Because the drugs make junkies and addicts and users and all of them can be rounded up and placed in some sort of detention. That industry employs thousands of deputies, policeman, border patrol officers, prison guards and whatnot. The pushers and dealers and mid-level brokers get collared as well and they fill our penitentiaries up and keep them in business.

Drugs are big business, and the business of America is business, right? We’ve spent one TRILLION dollars in the last fifty years in this country fighting the War on Drugs. It’s all a joke. It’s just a big make-work program for law enforcement. Drugs are not only cheaper and more available, they are also far more potent.

We’ve lost the war. The defeat is so resounding and complete that we pretend the War never happened. Assholes like Benito Mussolini (I cannot type the name of the current occupant of the White House so I use an historical parallel) continue to spew their Old Testament jive of “get tough and lock ’em up” which never worked, doesn’t work, and won’t work in the future.

Don Winslow is not for the faint of heart. The Border is a grim and savage tale. There’s a thin string of hope, of course, Winslow is too good of a story-teller to leave us defeated. And he raises too many good points about the War on Drugs to ignore. This continued folly—our misguided public policy on drugs—is the central message of the trilogy.

It’s also just damn good crime fiction that’s impossible to put down.

It takes energy to make energy

Chevron Corporation is one of the biggies. The California-based company has over 60,000 employees and revenues around $200 billion. They supply a lot of the gasoline that Californians burn in their automobiles.

Much of the crude oil that Chevron refines into gasoline comes from their holdings in Southern California, in particular the Lost Hills Oil Field in Kern County. Many Californians are not aware of the long oil history in their home state. Vast deposits of petroleum remain underground, as well as offshore, despite decades of extraction.

Pump jacks are a familiar sight in the Central Valley and Los Angeles Basin. Those big bobbing levers run all day and all night, sucking up the oil and sending it to pipelines. They are machines, so they require energy to run.

Chevron has the solution: solar panels!

That’s right, Chevron, the oil major, is using solar electricity to run its pump jacks at Lost Hills!

That’s sort of like the Kentucky Coal Museum installing rooftop solar, right?

Funny, but in a good way. Southern California is a good place for solar. Lots of sunshine and lots of flat ground and open space. So, it is smart of Chevron to do this. Not to mention they’re likely getting carbon credits for doing it! See, that’s how to make pumping oil “carbon-neutral,” just use solar energy.

Economics and politics aside, it’s a good illustration of A Really Important Idea In Physics, namely, it takes energy to make energy. In fact, that may be the most important physics concept for everyone to understand.

It takes energy to make energy. The energy we actually use, from the food we eat to the diesel that powers the delivery trucks to the gas turbines that generate electricity, is refined, in a sense, from another form of energy. And every step in the conversion process is wasteful. Energy is lost in the sense that it can’t do any more useful work. It just becomes waste heat.

We know the solution to the climate crisis is to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions. But we know the only way to do this is to reduce our use of fossil fuels. That’s not going to happen fast enough. Alternative energy sources can’t replace many applications of fossil fuels, unless of course you include nuclear fission. That may be high on the energy density chart but it is low on the public acceptance chart.

So, solar panels pumping oil is not a bad notion. It may seem perverse, or ironic, that Chevron can improve its “green rep” by doing this, but since it takes energy to make energy, I’m all for it.

The signal and the noise

I like “Ask Marilyn.” She usually has an interesting take on a simple question. Last week in Parade magazine she addressed the phenomenon of pareidolia, which is seeing or hearing things that aren’t there.

I will often think I am hearing a song or a radio commercial when there is no source for either. When I track the sound source down it is often something like the hum from fluorescent lights or a ceiling fan. Even the rumbling of a refrigerator’s compressor will do the trick. Somehow my brain is creating a signal out of the noise.

It’s sort of like seeing a giraffe in the clouds or a dragon in an aurora. We do it all the time. Humans like patterns and we like to make meaning out of the sensory barrage we experience. Unfortunately we experience a lot of noise, that is, a lot of random stuff. We don’t like random stuff, we like order and structure, so (apparently) our minds supply the missing pieces and give us a meaningful picture or sound instead of a mess.

In radio telephony the signal-to-noise ratio is a comparison of the strength of the desired information (signal) to the background interference (noise). Think of the signal as what you desire to hear or otherwise interpret and the noise as the rest of the crap that you have to filter out.

We do this in a crowded bar when we focus on our neighbor’s words and tune out the cacophony produced by the rest of the patrons.

But pareidolia is the opposite. In this case we are supplying the signal. It’s not there! All that’s there is noise but we are determined to make sense of it and so we plug in some kind of hallucination.

Gamblers do this. Lousy gamblers, anyway. They see a randomly generated sequence like throws of the dice or fall of the cards and imagine a pattern emerging. Then they bet on an expected outcome based on that pattern. The pattern isn’t there, of course, that’s why Las Vegas casinos make so much money. Assuming the roulette wheel is “fair,” that is, every number has an equal probability of having the ball land in its slot, there is no pattern to the results. No one can guarantee the wheel is perfectly random, but it can be made random enough so that the outcomes are indistinguishable from pure randomness.

Even random number generators are just approximations of randomness. “True” randomness would have to be something natural, or perhaps I should say something physical. These days “natural” is too loaded, making one think of hand-churned butter or turd-fertilized tomatoes.

From RANDOM.ORG:

A really good physical phenomenon to use is a radioactive source. The points in time at which a radioactive source decays are completely unpredictable, and they can quite easily be detected and fed into a computer, avoiding any buffering mechanisms in the operating system. The HotBits service at Fourmilab in Switzerland is an excellent example of a random number generator that uses this technique. Another suitable physical phenomenon is atmospheric noise, which is quite easy to pick up with a normal radio. This is the approach used by RANDOM.ORG.

These folks are looking for the noise! That’s un-natural, man. People are much better at seeing the signals.

I think we all like to believe that there are meaningful patterns in things that are really closer to being random. I like crime fiction and cop shows and a well-worn trope in both is the grizzled vet who always says “there are no coincidences” or something similar. The problem is that in real life there are heaping piles of coincidences. Things that are mostly just luck (random chance can be good or bad) take on significance because of nothing more than coincidence. A quick look at the probabilities of each (independent!) event would make the coincidence just that, something remarkable but not otherwise meaningful.

I like baseball. Baseball fans attach significance to almost everything. A batter is 60-for-300 on the season but gets a start against a pitcher because he went 5-for-11 against him last season. A guy gets six hits in two games and he’s “on a hot streak” and you just know he will get three more hits in today’s game. It turns out that if you make a chart of a guy’s hits, like hash marks on a calendar each day, it will be indistinguishable from one generated by a computer that knows the player’s batting average. You could even simulate it with dice rolls. The “patterns” created by the human player won’t look any different from the “patterns” in the simulations. They will differ in the details, but overall you won’t be able to pick out a chart made by dice or by a real hitter.

So I say beware of the signal and the noise. It is hard enough to sort out what you want from the background of everything else, and now we know that our brains don’t help because they like to make shit up!