Native Plants, Habitat Restoration, and Other Science Snippets from Athens, Georgia

Sunday: 28 September 2008

Bingo  -  @ 06:53:14
We chose to listen to the first presidential debate on radio, rather than to be seduced by visuals. Well, there's nothing unusual there - without a television for the last 30 years it's always the radio.

And, we chose to play the debate bingo drinking game!

The bingo card was courtesy of Kevin Drum, most recently of Mother Jones. We didn't actually drink all that much, and the competitive bingo aspect quickly diminished. Personally I found some of the bingo choices to be less than compelling and so I made a few changes before the debate - and none after about five minutes into it.

It was entirely by a coin toss that McCain would get pennies and Obama, nickels. It has nothing to do with the fact that I consider Obama to be worth only five McCains. I just didn't have enough quarters.

Mostly I was interested in how many times we'd hear certain points repeated, and by whom. The following tabulations are Obama/McCain:

We did make bingo once!

In the end I found a few interesting things:
By far the greatest number of repeats during the evening came from McCain referencing Petraeus and the surge in Iraq. Only Obama mentioned the need for a surge in Afghanistan (remember Afghanistan?).

I had placed on the card McCain's intensely annoying "my friends" mode of address, but mercifully he only did that once. Maybe one of his "real friends" told him that I wasn't really "his friend."

As well, I was surprised that there were so few, if any, utterances of "going forward," "POW," "change."

McCain repeatedly professed concern that things were "out of control," but didn't show much interest in "ending our dependence on foreign oil."

I'll give both of them credit (if such it is) for fear mongering over Iranian nukes, but North Korea? Not so much.

Almost as annoying as the "my friends" salutation is the phrase "grow the economy." What a shame that Obama used it.

I can't wait to see next week's vice-presidential bingo card! You betcha!

On the matter of radio vs television: I notice that I really do come away with a different impression of things. I think I tend to remember individual points better, and of course I'm not going to notice body language. Apparently body language was a big deal Friday night. I'd have hoped for a more rational approach to coming to a decision, but whatever works, I guess.

Friday: 26 September 2008

Your Thursday Training Opportunity  -  @ 08:51:33
Temperatures broke 50 degF early Thursday morning, for the first time. The last week or two has been extremely pleasant - so moderate that it's hard to say whether it's cool or warm - and most important, very low humidity. Most important to comfort, anyway. Woods conditions are extremely dry, here a day before the start of conventional weapons deer hunting season tomorrow.

Last night we journeyed to Oconee County Station #8 for a training session on powerline hazards. (OCFD comes up with some excellent opportunities for training and is very generous in hosting its neighbors, like us.)

The two-hour training was given by a Georgia Power transmission engineer. He is also a volunteer firefighter on the side, so had a nice perspective on avoiding what is invariably an issue in one form or another at just about any fire call. I want to say his name was Larry Stephens (or Stevens) but I could be wrong about that.

With the caveat that I am passing along info I took in without the vetting or skepticism of expertise, then, here's a few high points that might be generally interesting:

We got a quick course on power distribution. The pylon-supported high lines that run long distances through broad corridors are fed directly by the generating station. Those transmission lines are typically at 500,000 volts. Yikes!

Transmission lines feed into, through, or are tapped by substations - those fenced-in installations that are clearly electrical in nature. Your general neighborhood is supported by a substation of one size or another, and the voltage is stepped down to 12,000-24,000 volts here. Those are distribution lines that you see on the roadside poles that are carrying this stepped-down power.

And then there are the power poles with the cylindrical transformers closer to a structure. These step the voltage down further to the 240 volts that enters your house. Sometimes those transformers are ground installations, not mounted on poles.

In any event, it's the distribution lines (12-24 kv) that are most often encountered by firefighters at vehicle accidents and storm damage. A fire call to a structure will likely involve both the 12-24 kv distribution lines, as well as the 240v structure voltage on the other side of the transformer.

OK, that's the background. It's a typical setup for our area, and I imagine its details can differ elsewhere.

1. It goes without saying that downed power lines are dangerous. Especially when they're *not* arcing, because it's then that the unwary assume they've been de-energized. I'll get this upfront right away and not mention it again though our speaker warned us again and again - never touch a power line.

2. To me, one of the coolest things was the image of the helicopter repair of the extremely high voltage transmission lines. Larry said that it's inevitable that the local 911 will get calls from passersby reporting a helicopter caught on the overhead wires with a little man outside it trying to free it. In fact, there will be a little man outside it, on a platform attached to the landing gear. He'll be wearing a metal-impregnated suit, and will have a little metal monkey tail attached to the overhead wire. He, the platform, and the copter will all be charged to 500,000 volts. And it's ok - weird, very weird sensation, Larry said - but ok. So long as you don't touch ground, and then it's instant vaporization.

3. That's an important concept - it doesn't matter whether you're charged at 0 volts or 500,000 volts, so long as there's nowhere for the current to go. It applies to vehicle accidents involving power lines (or ladder trucks touching power lines). The tires insulate the vehicle from ground, and even if a 24,000 volt line is lying over the car, you're relatively safe - so long as you don't get out of the car.

DON'T GET OUT OF THE CAR! And no one should approach the car, either. Not until the line has been de-energized.

4. Of course it's possible in vehicle accidents that a fire may be involved, and then you really do have to get out of the car. How do you do it? VERY important: you HOP out of the car, landing with your feet together. And then you HOP away from the car until you reach someone who seems to be normal.

The reason for the initial hop out of the car is to avoid simultaneously touching the highly charged car and the ground at the same time. If you complete the circuit, you will be dead. If you hop, then you won't complete the circuit.

The reason for continuing to hop away from the downed wire has to do with ground gradient electricity. A downed wire produces a voltage gradient spreading outward over the ground in concentric circles. Especially if you're close to the center, even the foot or two of a normal stride will place one of your feet at a different potential than the other one, and current will flow up one leg and down the other into ground, and you will be shocked. Keeping your feet together helps to minimize this.

(It's strange to think about getting shocked simply by walking on the ground near a downed power line, but that's how it happens. BTW, this also explains why a squirrel can run along a power line, or birds can perch on one. They're charged to the same potential and no current flows. So long as the squirrel HOPS from the line to the power pole he's ok, but if he steps across, it's goodbye.)

5. Some interesting observations on an increasing problem - folks invading substations and stealing the copper wire out of the transformers. They tip the transformer over and spill out the oil that fills it, then cut out the copper coil and make off. Sometimes they leave a charred hand or two behind, in the process.

(The presence of large amounts of oil is, by the way, one of the main combustibles at a power substation. And sometimes they do catch fire. There was no equivocation here: don't even bother spraying water or foam into a substation - the equipment will all have to be replaced anyway so it's needless, and very dangerous to spray water into an energized substation. Suppress any fire that may be spreading outside the substation, but don't get anywhere near the substation itself.)

6. Over the last few years there has been an increasing availability of portable, gasoline generators that folks like to use for power outages. Improperly connected generators (and this is very common) can "backfeed" from the house wiring, into the transformer, get stepped up, and enter the grid. The danger isn't just to the homeowner, it's to the powerline workers trying to repair a line. From the power company's point of view the line has been turned off, they *think* it's de-energized, but the homeowner's generator is powering it with potentially lethal voltage and current. It wasn't such a problem before, with noisy generators that powerline workers would listen for, but Larry said that with the extremely quiet Honda generators now available, powerline workers cannnot hear them in the vicinity.

I'm guessing that home solar panels similarly connected to the grid could create the same sort of problem.

7. The last video, an amateur video that just happened to be made, was of an automated switching failure. Cherrypicker used by tree surgeon accidently touches power line, but instead of automatically switching out, all switches failed. The transformer blew, and then ten seconds later, the next one down the line blew. And ten seconds after that the third. And so forth. Each house connected was suddenly subjected to 12,000 volts instead of 240v. And *they* blew too - visibly erupting into flames and smoke anywhere there was wiring. The impression as the charge moved down the distribution line was of a ravening, roaring monster passing by houses and igniting them in order. The sound of the beast was unearthly. Very dramatic.

Very cool two hours!

Wednesday: 24 September 2008

Purple and Orange  -  @ 06:56:22
It's been a couple of years since I've seen the beautyberries (Callicarpa americana) putting out a crop of berries as nice as this. Last year most of the berries seemed not to develop. While we didn't have all that much more rain this summer as last (and still way below average), the temperatures were much cooler, the stresses commensurately lessened, and the rain that did fall fell at opportune times.

There was a time when I thought, since beautyberries are so abundant here and the berries (at that time, in my naivete) just a humdrum occurrence, who could want those nasty purple berries? Apparently a lot of things like them. And it turns out this is a very important shrub around here for providing ground cover. Yet, if you take a look at those Very Nice Developments that spring up around here, with their bradford pears and red tips, there's no beautyberries! They've all been removed, to be replaced by trash plants that do wildlife no good at all.

Beautyberries are in the Verbena family (Verbenaceae), and that family is a sister family to the Mints (Lamiaceae), with many of their traits - opposite leaves, verticil inflorescences, and so forth. And as I mentioned here,
American beautyberry fruit is consumed by more than 40 species of songbirds...Brown Thrasher...Northern Bobwhite. Raccoon, Virginia Opossum, and Nine-banded well as numerous rodents.

Well, alright, we could lose the possums and armadillos. But I can tell you that beautyberries grow vigorously under walnuts. Not a lot does. That's pretty exceptional.

Notice the nice developmental series. The flowers at the lower part of a branch open earlier than those ever closer to the tip, and the fruits develop accordingly.

Prowling about on the beautyberry:

At first I thought this might be the usual sort of plant bug, Family Miridae, that we call "red bug", Lopidea spp. But it turns out to be a completely different family entirely. It's a seed bug, Family Lygaeidae.

And it's a Large Milkweed Bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus. The colors can range from more yellow than this one to redder than this one, but the colored and black patterns on the back are diagnostic. As to why it's hanging around beautyberry when its preference is for milkweed, I dunno. Maybe just a coincidence.

Saturday: 20 September 2008

Sanduleak 202a  -  @ 07:05:05
Yesterday's post was of Supernova 1987A, which was first observed as its light reached Earth on Feb 24 1987. It wasn't in my field of expertise, but it was beyond doubt in my realm of interest. I was fascinated. After all, it was the first visible supernova in almost 400 years.

A few days later, examination of data at neutrino observatories indicated that a few hours prior to the optical observation, several short pulses of high energy neutrinos had bombarded us. The neutrinos arrived a bit earlier than the light, the first direct observation of the predicted events that occur during a supernova.

The explanation of yesterday's photos require a bit of background, a fascinating story of cosmology. Since its manifestation a bit more than 20 years ago, Sanduleak has continued to provide quality entertainment.

SN 1987A had been observed before, prior to its dramatic end. The progenitor star was given the designation Sanduleak 69o 202a, and was a blue giant. It wasn't precisely in the main body of our galaxy, but rather in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy about 170,000 light years away. Regardless, the conversion to supernova provided us with the brightest such event since Kepler's supernova in 1604, brightest because it occurred so close to us. An invisible star (to us) became a third magnitude star in moments, about as bright as Polaris, the north pole star.

Had Sanduleak been closer, say within the 500 light years that one of the best candidates for the next supernova resides, Betelgeuse, it would have lit up the night sky like daytime, and been visible in the day sky for weeks.

We actually know a fair amount about supernovae, since astronomical observation by space based telescopes can penetrate so far into the universe. Supernovae in other galaxies millions of light years away are easily seen, and in excess of a hundred supernovae are discovered each year now. It's just that they're not so close! And they're rare - it's estimated that a supernova occurs in a given galaxy only once in every two or three hundred years. Supernovae come in two major flavors, depending on what causes them, and Sanduleak became a Type II supernova, caused by the final core collapse of a massive giant progenitor.

Sanduleak was a young star, perhaps 11 million years old, but it was a huge blue giant, 18 times more massive than our sun. Such massive stars fuse hydrogen very rapidly, and run out of it a thousand times faster than a star like ours. It's when the hydrogen runs out that things get interesting.

For about a million years after the hydrogen is used up, the helium and other products will fuse to form heavier elements, especially carbon, releasing vast amounts of energy. In a star as massive as Sanduleak was, the denser elements move to the core and the star contracts. Radiation pressure outward balances gravitational pull inward, and all is stable, for a time.

In the last thousand years, it was carbon that was undergoing fusion to produce neon, and the contraction continued, producing the ever increasing temperatures and pressures to allow further fusion reactions to take place. In its last three years or so, neon fused to produce oxygen, and in the last few months oxygen fused to produce silicon.

The last stage only takes a few days, where silicon fuses to make iron, and iron is the end of the line. At this point the contracted star is like an onion, with a nickel-iron core and outer layers of increasingly lighter elements. Iron can fuse, but it can't do so and produce more energy than it took to fuse it, and the precarious balance between radiation pressure outward and gravitational pull inward vanishes in a split second.

If you could see it close up (not too close!) it would be a strange sight indeed. Most of the outer volume of the star would be blown violently outward, but the inner volume would shrink within a few seconds into something too small to be seen from your vantage point. That would be the core.

The core collapses, the outer layers of the star are blown off, gravitational pressure and temperature go haywire, and a series of reactions occurs in the core to produce a massive pulse of high energy neutrinos. Theory says that 99% of the energy of a supernova resides in these neutrinos. Many escape, and that is what was detected in 1987. Most of the neutrinos are drawn back into the core, though, and their interactions produce a shock wave that propagates outward. It is that compressing shock wave that causes reactions to occur in the escaping outer layers of gas, that in turn is the enormous explosion that we see as a supernova, now emitting tens of millions of suns worth of light.

The shock wave, as it compresses the outer layers of the expanding onion, causes fusion reactions that produce elements even heavier than iron, *all* of them, in fact, and the only reason there are elements heavier than hydrogen here on earth is because some supernova billions of years ago provided them as our sun formed. We are then, each of us, the product of supernova events that took place billions of years ago.

Now for yesterday's images. You can see how it is that the supernova itself occurred, but what about that necklace around the remnants that began to light up within a few years after the supernova itself? Let's look at that image again. In the center of that bright necklace sits unseen what remains of the core of Sanduleak, probably a neutron star now:

It's thought that 20,000 or so years before the supernova event, Sanduleak shed the outer layers of its atmosphere. Stellar wind blew those layers outward, and they formed in an expanding donut around the star. The radiation and hot gas from the supernova 20,000 years later took a few months or years to reach that donut, but when they did they began to energize it, resulting in emissions of high energy x-rays and other radiation. That's what we see happening now, and it's estimated that the brightening will continue, peaking in twenty years or so.

The interesting thing is that scientists had expected this to happen, and were actually watching for it! Their surprise came in how richly concentrated that torus of expelled matter was, and how marvelously it became illuminated as the radiation pulse from the supernova encountered it. The animation about halfway down the AAVSO website supernova page gives you a nice idea of what's going on, along with another explanation of Type II supernovae.

The two red rings, above and below the plane of the necklace, are a bit different. It's still not clear exactly how they're caused, but it seems that there may be either extremely collimated gas jets, or alternatively beams of radiation, emanating from the poles of whatever remains of Sanduleak's neutron star core. These beams or jets are rotating at an angle, like a searchlight, and illuminating another torus of gas surrounding the star at a considerable distance. (About 2/3 of the way down the previous link is another short video showing the geometry of the three-ring circus.)

The Chandra X-ray telescope website provides another page that offers explanation of the necklace, as well as quite a few interesting photos and animations (top of page).

If you imagine the 15 billion years or so since the beginning of the universe, and the possibility that one supernova occurs per galaxy every three hundred years, then in the intervening time in our galaxy alone there must have been 500 million or so supernovae, each producing and expelling all the heavier elements that we take for granted. Sanduleak has now launched its contribution outward. In a few billion years from now there may be someone close by there, perhaps writing about stuff like this, on a planet circling a star that wouldn't have been possible without a supernova in the area, billions of years before.

Friday: 19 September 2008

What Is It?  -  @ 06:58:30
I remember, more than 20 years ago, when this happened, 170,000 years ago. As I'm in the Northern Hemisphere I wasn't so placed as to directly observe it, but if I had been I'd have seen a fairly bright star where none was before, a phenomenon no one has seen for over 300 years.

The two images below could have been taken ten seconds apart. (In reality they were taken at least several months apart with the one on the left taken later.)

On an astronomical scale, you look at these sorts of photos and imagine the events might take hundreds of millions of years to occur. In fact, the photo below was taken just last year, so 20 years after the event of the top figure. The event itself began to develop just seven years after that of the top figure and this is what it has achieved in the intervening 13 years. (There are some nice animations of this.)

(In the above photo, the two bright white stars at 1 and 8 o'clock are foreground stars and have nothing to do with the event.)

If you think that this was exciting at the time, and has driven the careers and efforts of a huge number of astronomers and theoretical physicists, you'd probably be right. More later.

Thursday: 18 September 2008

What If?  -  @ 07:16:37
Glenn asked the question, the other day, "What happens if a presidential candidate dies before the election, but after the convention that nominates him or her?" (This may not be the most fascinating question outside of the US!)

Note to Treasury Department: it turns out lots of people wonder about this. Googling this question gets you over a million hits, so it's clearly a legitimate matter of curiosity for a lot of people. Don't get your panties in a wad.

I'm not going to cite every link I've read over to try to synthesize an answer to this, but Wikipedia is a great help, including its treatment of the Electoral College, Amendments to the Constitution 12, 20, and 25, and there is a nice review of the question by Gabriel Malor. Also, this is just my interpetation, and I could certainly be wrong. Anyone who can refine or refute is welcome to do so!

There are two things that complicate this question beyond the possibility of a simple answer: first, there are two important, easily forgotten dates beyond the Nov 4 general election, and before the Jan 20 Inauguration. What would happen inside and outside of those dates depends on who has control of the selection process at the moment.

Second is the fact that control does pass from one entity to another upon certain dates, which this cycle includes the obscure ones: Dec 15 and Jan 6. And to guide you through this, it's helpful to remember that on Nov 4, you are not electing a president. You are electing for your state, a slate of Electors who will themselves actually elect the president and vice president on Dec 15. We call this the Electoral College, and if presidential politics in a representative democracy are confusing to those used to a parliamentary democracy, then the Electoral College must be dumbfounding.

And so a word about that, since it's been awhile since we've thought about the Electoral College. There are 538 members of the College, and each party, in each state, comes up with its own slate of Electors before Nov 4. Then on Nov 4 the general electorate of a state decides which slate, for their state, becomes a part of the Electoral College. For 48 states this is winner take all; Maine and Nebraska apportion their Electors by district. Georgia's will undoubtedly be the Republican slate, consisting of all Republicans. California's Electors will undoubtedly consist of all Democrats.

And even then it's not done, because on Jan 6 Congress must count and ratify the votes of Dec 15, and only then will we have a President-Elect and Vice President-Elect. (Yes, we commonly refer to the winners of the Nov 4 general election as president-elect and vice president-elect, but that's not really the case until Jan 6. I may be overstating this; apparently the Constitution does not adequately define "elect", and when it applies.)

If a presidential nominee dies before the general election, the control of the selection process is still in the court of the political party, and that political party will apparently select a new candidate. This might be the running mate, or it might not. There is a complication though - if the candidate dies very close to the Nov 4 election, like on the weekend before, after ballots are printed, then things could get very messy in a practical sense.

On Nov 4, the voters in each state have elected that state's slate of Electors who will vote on Dec 15 in the Electoral College to elect the president and vice president. Usually this just rubberstamps the electorate's decision made Nov 4, assuming each Elector votes faithfully to his or her party. But more importantly, control over "what if" passes from the party to the Electoral College (the two may not be all that different, in practice).

So if the winning presidential candidate dies between Nov 4 and Dec 15, it's really up to a combination of the winning party and the Electoral College to replace him or her. Again, this might be done with the running mate, but then again it might not be. Party rules would probably apply, but we would probably not get a situation where the two candidates would be of opposing parties.

What's unclear is what happens when a candidate dies after being elected by the Electoral College Dec 15, and before official counting of the votes by Congress on Jan 6. The Electoral College has done its job, and is out of the picture, and Congress has yet to count the votes. There seems to be no entity everyone could agree has control during this period (my amateurish reading of it). And until Congress counts the votes on Jan 6, we aren't clear, constitutionally, whether we actually have a President or Vice President-Elect, remember, and that's the crux of the problem.

The most likely, and somewhat ironic, response is that Congress will go ahead and count the votes anyway on Jan 6, and declare the candidates, including the dead one, as President and Vice President-Elect. It seems that the Constitution doesn't actually require a President-Elect to be alive on Jan 20. Alternatives seem to be very, very messy.

And so on Jan 20, the dead President-Elect would be noted, the Vice President-elect would be inaugurated and would then ascend automatically to the Presidency. At that point the replacement of the Vice President would proceed by nomination by the new President, and confirmation by Congress, as we've seen before, with Gerald Ford in 1974. In that year, with the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon nominated Gerald Ford, House Minority Leader, to be Vice President. The Senate, and then the House, confirmed.


Unrelated to the above question, but which I found interesting, was what happens if there's a tie, or only a plurality, in the Nov 4 election. It is possible that no candidate might get the magic 270 electoral votes, or it could be that there is a tie with two candidates each receiving 270 (or even 269 or fewer) electoral votes. The Twelth Amendment deals with this.

"Immediately" isn't immediately clear, but this (and others) suggest that the date of action can only be Jan 6. This means that on Nov 4, we may have a tie, but when the Electoral College votes Dec 15, the tie may no longer exist (Electors can vote however they wish, although if they become "Faithless Electors", states do exact penalties). Much less likely, but also possible: there might be no tie on Nov 4, but suddenly one appears Dec 15 when the Electoral College votes.

Let's assume that on Jan 6, when Congress ratifies the vote, there is a tie. Now the House and Senate go into session to pick the President-Elect and Vice President-Elect, respectively. And note that this will not be the current Congress; it will be the NEW Congress, inaugurated the first week of January, who gets this job.

If there's a tie, most probably know that the House of Representatives "immediately" goes into session, in order to choose the new President, and the Senate "immediately" goes into session to choose the Vice President. Their choices are limited to the two candidates with the most number of electoral votes.

What most may not know is that for the House and the Presidential pick, this is not done by a majority head count of the House members, but rather by state delegation where each state receives one vote. The state delegations (and there must be 2/3 of states represented) carry out a vote to determine their state's individual choice. The candidate with the most states wins. Polling continues until there is a result.

This means that simply because a party controls the House, does not mean that it will automatically elect the president of its party. It depends on the number of "red states" versus "blue states", each state defined by the composition of its delegation (which, to further complicate things, may not reflect the overall redness or blueness of its general electorate!). Again, it is the NEW Congress that determines this, and we don't as yet know the composition of state delegations that supply one vote per state.

Further, unless I misunderstand, the Senate chooses the Vice President, again limited in its choices between the two vice presidential candidates with the most number of electoral votes. In this case the Senate vote is individually cast in the more familiar manner, and again it's the NEW Senate and not the old one.

So you could in this case have the situation emerge of having a President of one party, and a Vice President of the other party. And so there is a possibility of a McCain/Biden, or less likely, an Obama/Palin Administration.


If the more contentious House election of the President cannot be accomplished by Jan 20, Inauguration Day, then the Senate-selected Vice President takes office as Acting President until a decision can be made. As to how that's done, I'm unclear.

Sunday: 14 September 2008

Ugh  -  @ 05:38:08
I had a nourishing post, on logical fallacies and reasoning, but it takes a little more facility than I have right now to put it together. I'm in the middle of sneezing, coughing, congestion, and medium grade fever, and contemplating the next four nights of work, starting tonight.

But here's something, and my actual knowledge of this is incomplete, but it seems so contrary to reason:

My students, a fair number of whom are exhibiting these same symptoms, and bless them but one of them gave it to me, tell me that the dining halls on campus are now using hand scanners to debit meal plans.

Excuse me? *Hand scanners* mere seconds before you start to eat? I'm no purity maven, but this strikes me as really bad planning. Why not just give them all the same fork? If you wanted to start an epidemic it would be slightly more efficient.

Saturday: 13 September 2008

Risk  -  @ 06:35:40
Hurricane Ike is quite a monster this morning, as it makes landfall at Galveston, and moves on toward Houston. Galveston is in a better position now than in 1900 - it has a seawall now, and most have evacuated. Jeff Masters' blog has all the details - Ike is larger than Katrina or Rita in just about every way except intensity.

Image from NOAA's Environmental Visualization Program, yesterday afternoon: the Gulf of Mexico is barely big enough to contain Ike. Even here we've felt the disturbance, with an inch of rain over the last three days though Ike's business center has come no closer to us than 800 miles.

It seems appropriate to discuss this figure:

You might think that risk management is a topic guaranteed to put you to sleep, and it probably is in concentrated doses. Glenn and I took the Incident Safety Officer training a while back, and at least this part of risk management is interesting in its application.

The graph above is in three dimensions: the X-axis, frequency, relates to how often an operation is performed, perhaps in training or practice. The Y-axis indicates the degree of risk involved in an operation. The third dimension, color, indicates the degree of danger with red the highest hazard and green the lowest.

The neat thing is that this is applicable to anything you want. Want to do something risky? Like ventilating the roof of a house or riding out a hurricane? Maybe undertaking a road trip of 1000 miles in a single day for the first time in your life? You're going to be in the red zone, unless you've done it a lot already.

For firefighters, even a low-risk operation like filling a truck with water from a hydrant has an element of danger associated with it if you fall into the lower left quadrant because you never practice. Things fall off trucks onto heads, for instance, gaskets may blow during filling, and someone who doesn't practice may not see the need for wearing a helmet. Or they're not comfortable in turnout gear, because they seldom wear it, and they slip in the mud around the hydrant.

For any given operation, the position and color the volunteer firefighter occupies is probably never going to be as green as that occupied by a professional, who trains and practices constantly. For many operations professionals operate in the right half of the diagram, while volunteers operate more in the left half.

Of course the upside is that training and practice moves even a volunteer firefighter more to the right side, reducing the red and increasing the green for many operations in the lower half of the diagram.

Hmmm. Deer hunting season starts today, with the insidious, silent bow and arrow. Better take another look at that figure there.

Tuesday: 9 September 2008

Meet 080908m  -  @ 07:47:07
After a couple of weeks without rain (Goodby, Fay) looks like the rain chances increase over the next few days to a week. It's hard to believe it's moving into autumn - the summer has passed swiftly and the temperatures have remained fairly high, lower to mid 90s, though that's going to change.

The Microstegium (Year Six) eradication is proceeding. I've been able to cover territory several times faster, which has presented the temptation to which I've succombed - taking days off. But I'm getting antsy to complete it in the next couple of weeks. Yesterday it was 1300 plants (yes, I counted, what else is there to do?). I see from last year that there were 2600 plants in this area, down from 20,000 in 2006. One of the odd things about this collection was that so many were of the bushy recumbent variety, as opposed to the standing, spindly form. I don't know what that means, but at any rate, they're gone gone gone.

If this fellow had been a snake, it woulda bit me. As it was, if it hadn't've been for his remarkably brilliant coloration, I would never have seen him. He'd burrowed a bit into the leaves with only his head sticking out.

And yes, he's a new one. 080908m, the eighth new, living box turtle discovered this year (not counting rediscoveries), and the sixteenth to join the list. Note: half the discoveries this year, after four or five years of such. That's rather encouraging, though of what I'm not sure.

And in the same general territory as at least four others. I suspect he's beginning to think about burrowing away for the winter, although I've certainly found active box turtles as late as mid-October. More than likely he was doing a bit of a combination of hiding, and cooling off under the leaf cover he himself had arranged, as the morning progressed toward 90 degF temperatures.

The usual documentary thumbnails. He has quite a worn-away, scarred rear carapace:

What began as a mild interest has become a small passion. Eight posts on individuals in just a few months might seem excessive to some, but no, not at all. And to be clear, others seem to understand that there's a reason for all this.

And no wonder. At least around here box turtles are the only animals that occupy and rule a small space for decades - 50-100 years, maybe more, if not threatened by habitat destruction or automobiles. Our area is ideal for habitat - it's protected from destruction, and the nearest roads with the most significant predators (cars) are half a mile and a mile away. There are predators, of course, and I would protect them if I could but the usual methods would require confinement, something I'm not willing to do.

(Lawnmowers. Let's not forget lawnmowers.)

As much as I would like to think that I was the predominant observer and resident here, it's the box turtles who have been here longer than I at this point and many of whom may be here after I'm gone. They are demonstrably individuals who haunt a territory their entire lives, and who would be cruelly confused to be captured and moved. I see a few of them, but they undoubtedly see me pass by far more often. It behooves me to note them, and celebrate them, and then doubly so when I find them again a year or two or more down the line.

I've enjoyed browsing the web's fine resources and accounts of box turtles. But none so much and none so rich in original writing as this post by Marcia Bonta.

Monday: 8 September 2008

For Today  -  @ 05:57:02

Robin and Roger of the New Dharma Bums have found that it was a heavy day for rock flipping.

My fondest farewell to Don, and heartfelt best wishes to his wife, our friend; and their family.

Sunday: 7 September 2008

Hunting Season and Such  -  @ 06:12:27
It's getting to be that time of year now, hunting season, and I spent a little time reviewing a few things about hunting regulations, dates, and legal responsibilities. Not because I hunt, but because of the safety issue. Last Monday Labor Day someone was shooting fairly close by while I was pulling Microstegium. I yelled in their direction several times to no avail. They were clearly trespassing either on our land or that of the neighbor across Goulding Creek. I checked with that neighbor later. I'm reluctant to approach someone with a gun, but I'm not reluctant to dig a bit for my own good.

The official hunting regulations are linked to by the Department of Natural Resources website. Besides googling, your state's DNR may be a good place to start.

The most important ones to us apply to deer hunting, for it extends from Sep 13 to Jan 1 in the northern half of the state. It's the lengthiest, involves the largest number of hunters, and those hunters are often "not from around here." Which means that they often trespass, deliberately or not, and pose a certain hazard.

In Georgia, some version of fluorescent orange vests are a requirement, and not just for hunters either, if you're in the woods. Hunting is permitted from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset.

The dates for deer hunting:Archery: Sep 13-Oct 10.
Primitive frearms: Oct 11-17.
Conventional firearms: Oct 18-Jan 1.

We discovered some interesting things about liability of landowners for injuries sustained by hunters, whether they have been given permission or are trespassing. Of course, IANAL, and this is not legal advice. However people tend to think that landowners are more liable than they actually are, at least in Georgia. And of course, anyone can file a lawsuit, and there's no way to prevent that, but there is a coded degree of protection that helps to ensure such a lawsuit would be frivolous.

Georgia is practically progressive here. I found many of Georgia's official codes at the Secretary of State's website (though not the ones for Title 51), another clue as to where you might find yours. LexisNexis is another source for archiving of state laws and public records. If you own property and are concerned for your degree of liability to trespassers, etc., you might want to do some searches for your state's official code and how it applies.

The normal standard for such things is "duty of ordinary care," and I'd guess this is what you see when owners of restaurants and so forth end up being liable for hot coffee spills and accidents and such. This Georgia Recreational Property Act uses the standard "duty of slight care," which is a lower standard of expectation for landowners.

Georgia's Title 51 (Torts), Chapter 3, defines liability of owners and occupiers of land, and it's Article 2 that treats liability of owners toward persons entering for recreational purposes. Here's the key progressive philosophy:
51-3-20. Purpose of article:
The purpose of this article is to encourage owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting the owners' liability toward persons entering thereon for recreational purposes.

I'm not going to post the whole thing (we're talking about OCGA-51-3-20 through 26, if you want to search for them. I found them specifically here, about halfway down. They address situations where owners may or may not charge users, and define owners' responsibilities. Here's the meat (51-3-23):51-3-23. Effect of invitation or permission to use land for recreation
Except as specifically recognized by or provided in Code Section 51-3-25, an owner of land who either directly or indirectly invites or permits without charge any person to use the property for recreational purposes does not thereby:

(1) Extend any assurance that the premises are safe for any purpose;
(2) Confer upon such person the legal status of an invitee or licensee to whom a duty of care is owed; or
(3) Assume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to person or property caused by an act of omission of such persons.

And a further section (OCGA 27-3-1) extends the same protection to situations where a user is charged by the landowner for the privilege of use.

Interestingly, "recreational purpose" includes, but is not limited to, any of the following or any combination thereof: hunting, fishing, swimming, boating, camping, picnicking, hiking, pleasure driving, nature study, water skiing, winter sports, and viewing or enjoying historical, archeological, scenic, or scientific sites (51-3-21(4)).

Saturday: 6 September 2008

Those Damned Community Organizers  -  @ 09:57:23
There was much despair, for me, in listening to the Republican National Convention, but as I drove home from work, late Wednesday night, the nadir came in Rudy Guiliani's speech. At one point he evoked the term "community organizer", and the audience replied BOOOOOOOOOO.

It didn't stop there. Governor Palin, the now-nominee for vice president, did the same thing.

It was a shock - the new "nigger", the new "homo", the new "fear", and utterly reprehensible. I thought of Martin Luther King and Susan B. Anthony, both of whom fit the egregious label of "community organizers", and like nothing else realized how low the Republican Party has come. Hell, throw in Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi if you'd like - they're worth a Republican BOOOOOOOO or two. Not to mention a few hundred thousand others. We actually seem comfortable with sneering at those who work for their communities.

Sarah Palin, who played with this to her advantage too, should take careful note, especially given her religion and her alleged abuse of power in "troopergate" as Governor of Alaska. Here is a meme that has so quickly taken root that I can no longer find the source:
Jesus was a community organizer, and Pontius Pilate was a governor.

When I was a kid, I read an account of Jane Addams, who, despite her handicaps, became one of those nasty community organizers, helped to clean up the slums of Chicago, and was the first American female recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1931. It was so important to me that I recall it now 40 years later. It may well have motivated me unconciously to become a member of the community and to work with it.

Google "community organizers", and you find not only half a million hits, but a great deal of outrage in this latest attempt by the Republican Party to make us all afraid. Any who volunteer and give their time to better their communities should be deeply offended by Guiliani and Palin, and by extension, McCain, who clearly must have approved this message.

A community organizer has very often given up the possibility of a high paying job after years of expensive education that could have otherwise provide him or her with a high income. To reject this in favor of doing their community a service is an act of selflessness that provides an indicator of character that we would hope would apply to a US President. Or a First Lady, for that matter.

Not all of us are heiresses who can afford to wear $300,000 dresses, nor are we married to them, nor do we have access to their private jets to get us around the country. Think about it.

Those who sneer at community organizers, community service, and volunteers, provide me with all the evidence I need that they have no character at all. We've had enough examples of those who have failed as US presidents with no history of community concerns in their background - the current incumbent is one of them, and where has he taken us?

It's hard to think of an act of derision that would better indicate those without character. Beware - those who would do this will come back to haunt you. They're the sort who will harrass city librarians to ban books, which may seem small to you but to me is all revealing.

On Thursday night we had our Wolfskin Volunteer Fire Department business meeting. Several folks independently brought up the excoriation of "community organizers", along with their own outrage. If I thought I might be too sensitive or off the mark, hearing that in a county as red as ours told me I wasn't. I was heartened by that.

Wednesday: 3 September 2008

The Month of August  -  @ 08:49:38
Here is the summary of the month of August, for the United States and Athens, Georgia. The weather proved to be fairly interesting this month, mostly due to tropical storm Fay in these parts. I'm afraid Gustav didn't do a thing for us. In the upcoming few days there's tropical storm Hannah, which has vascillated between hurricane and ts status. Landfall is still uncertain, but the cities of Savannah and Charleston are at risk for a category one or two hurricane. It's been quite a long time since they've had to deal with that, and those two are lovely old towns. They're sort of like southern belles, truly tough and ostentatiously, preeningly fragile at the same time.

From the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center, this is a plot of mean temperature anomalies for the US. That's the difference in the average temperature for this August above or below the average for August over many years, plotted in colors. The anomalies are in Fahrenheit.

In some ways the map looks like July squared. The cooler temperatures in the east became even cooler than normal in August, for the most part. And the warmer than usual temperatures in the west just perpetuated, except along the north Pacific coast and Washington, where cooler temperatures prevailed.

From the (click through to the monitoring maps from the left sidebar) National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center, this is a plot of mean precipitation anomalies for the US over the month of August:

The US midsection continued its sixth month of normal to above average rainfall in August (grrrr). There was continued improvement in drought conditions in the southwest, although pretty much the entirety of California experienced much lower than average rainfall. The northern midwest to northeast states were drier than July, but the southeast is a swatch of bright green, much due to Fay toward the end of August. Fay really did out did it for a persisting tropical storm! In contrast, Gustav, fortunately, was kind of a wimp, although locally severe.

For Athens:

After remarkably average temperatures and rainfall during July, we had a spate of high temperatures in early August. But the meanderings of tropical storm Fay informed the rest of the month, and much of the last week of the green line below shows that effect.

Here is my plot of high temperatures for the month of August in Athens. As usual, the black dots are for the 17 years 1990-2006 (black dots), 2008 (green line), and 2007 (red line).

Even though things seemed much cooler during August, our actual average highs were 2.3 degF above normal. This seems incredible to me, because things seemed so cool, but perhaps the highs are not the thing to look at: the mean temperatures were less than a degree above normal. We were more than one standard deviation above the mean high daily temperatures on 7 days in August, compared to an average 4.9 days per August, and that's pushing significance. Perhaps what tilts the scale is that we had 7 days with lows more than one standard deviation below the average. We've had wonderfully cool nights.

I should point out the red line on the plot above. That was our l'August terrible, of last year, in which we had 23 days more than one standard deviation above normal, nine record-breaking high temperatures, and the hottest month in 87 years of record keeping here. This August was a comfort, this year.

Even the rain was comforting, with certain caveats. We did not actually achieve normal levels and but for Fay we would have only had 0.5 inches of rain, compared to 3.78 inches normal. But with Fay, the Athens report was for 2.79 inches. Out here at Wolfskin we actually got 3.52 inches, considerably more than the Athens report would indicate. None of that excess came from Fay - Wolfskin and Athens came within 0.06 inches of each other on that score. The excess came from our great fortune out here in having several thunderstorms earlier in the month that Athens did not get.

Nonetheless, we were still below average for the month, continuing a trend begun in 2006:

The green line shows our actual rainfall, the red shows the average accumulation expected. The black dots are rainfall over the last 19 years, the vast river of peach shows the standard deviation. It's unusually broad because in this month and surrounding months we either do or do not get rain from tropical storms.

We were way below normal throughout the month, and only ended closer to normal because of Fay. It's really amazing how tropical storms can have an effect here, 300 miles inland.

August marks the end of summer, and so it's appropriate to view a quarterly update of the decline in rainfall over the last three years. The decline has not abated. The blue line tells it all. The green line shows that we continue to depart from the normal expectation since 2006, despite Fay:

We are now 25.32 inches below normal levels since Jan 2006, a half year's worth of normal rainfall.

I'll continue to link to this neat prognosticator in which you can get variously timed precipitation and temperature outlooks. It currently predicts (for us) that below average temperatures and above average rainfall will continue for the next month, considerably easing the drought. That still doesn't take us out of severe to extreme drought, though. Much depends on what tropical storm Hannah does over the next few days.

NOAA's weekly ENSO update tells us that sea surface temperatures in the central and east equatorial Pacific have returned to ENSO-neutral regions. ENSO-neutral conditions are expected to prevail through spring 2009.

Finally, and to reiterate the link way above, NOAA has a neat State of the Climate product. By clicking on the year, such as 2007, you can get to monthly and even weekly reports and zero in on regional descriptions that are much nicer than my own.

Monday: 1 September 2008

Giant Swallowtail and Dead Turtle  -  @ 06:46:14
This Labor Day (the US version, of course) is going to be a difficult day for a lot of folks. Hopefully Gustav will not inflict the degree of damage Katrina wrought almost exactly three years ago. Best wishes to everyone along that area of the gulf coast.

Saturday evening Glenn noticed this solitary butterfly, and I chased it around for awhile trying to get some photos. While we're used to seeing the black-on-yellow of the tiger swallowtails, it was startling to see a yellow-on-black swallowtail.

It was not inclined to pause except for the briefest of moments, so the photographs are not the best. But they reveal our first Giant Swallowtail, Papilio cresphontes.

We've seen the caterpillars, photographed here Aug 12 2005. And I saw a number of them this year as well, always on the Common Rue, Ruta graveolens. They're the ones that look like bird poop.

It's probably not that surprising that we haven't seen any adults before. They're nectar feeders, and perhaps we don't offer the food sources along those lines. But it's interesting that this one detected and pestered the common rue here. It was only after the fact that I realized that it was probably planning on laying eggs. The larvae that result from that will most likely papate and overwinter.

I notice from the Lepidopteran HOSTS database that there are several other caterpillar food plants, almost all in the Rutaceae, the citrus family. Hercules' Club, Zanthoxylum clava-herculis, is fairly common around here, and we also have a lot of Common hoptree, Ptelea trifoliata.

Yesterday while doing the Microstegium thing, I ran across this empty box turtle carapace:

It's not all that uncommon to occasionally discover one of these carapace remains. Often they're older and whitened with the thin pigmented plates having come off. But when they've been relatively fresh I've checked them against my documented turtles. Up to this point I've not found a match, but this time I did, 080512m, documented last May 12.

At the time I noted that the poor guy didn't look well at all. His eyes were swollen, and he clearly had respiratory problems, with bubbling at the nose. I found him yesterday perhaps 100 feet from his May 12 location, across the creek. He may have gotten there of his own accord before dying, or scavengers might have provided transportation.

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