Condemnation… HIV-type criticism

Judge not… – Jesus (Matthew 7:1a, NIV)

A tangle of threads from the latter part of last week provide the starting point for some reflections over the past weekend:

- Thursday the world was saddened by the re-emerging story of a 4-year-old Mississippi girl. She’d been HIV-positive when born but thought to have been cured by aggressive therapies during the first 18 months of her life. Recent blood tests reveal the virus has returned. Words can’t begin to capture the grief here.

- News media covered the developing story of House Republican plans to sue the president: we’re told the lawsuit will focus on the administration’s decision to postpone the requirement in the Affordable Care Act that large employers provide health insurance for their workers. An energized House is passing innovative legislation to make this suit possible. Members of the House are also blaming the president for the immigration crisis posed by a sudden influx of undocumented children at our southern border; for warfare in Syria, Iraq, and Gaza; and for more national ills.

- My pre-dawn reading Thursday chanced across some words on the damaging effects of criticism and condemnation.

- A DC-savvy colleague of many years shared later that day that he’d never seen the politics in Washington so polarized, divisive and toxic, and said that it was “going to get even worse before it gets better.”

______________________

First, the Mississippi tragedy. The disease’s return for the little girl stems from the nature of the human-immune-deficiency (HIV) virus, responsible for acquired-immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV has proven resistant to anti-retroviral therapies because it mutates rapidly in response to conventional treatments. Other viruses present less of a moving target to the body’s own immune system and to pharmaceuticals used to attack them. Please hold this thought.

Next, the impact of criticism and condemnation. Dallas Willard, a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California (who also held visiting appointments at UCLA and the University of Colorado) had this to say in his 1997 book, The Divine Conspiracy: rediscovering our hidden life in God:

…what is it, exactly, that we do when we condemn someone? When we condemn another we really communicate that he or she is, in some deep and possibly irredeemable way, bad – bad as a whole, and to be rejected. In our eyes the condemned is among the discards of human life. He or she is not acceptable. We sentence that person to exclusion. Surely we can learn to live well and happily without doing that. [emphasis added]

Mr. Willard expounds on this and its implications for several pages, every last bit of which is worth the read. His bottom line? Condemnation and criticism have terrible effects on us mentally and spiritually, whether we’re on the receiving end or (even) dishing it out. Psychologically, it’s as if we’ve been hit by a virus.

Political analysts and historians remind us of what we know to be true from personal experience: the criticism virus has been infecting those of us in Washington, DC for a long time. The reality is that the disease is not confined inside the Beltway. And it’s not confined to politicians. It infects the commercial world. Scientists – yes, even scientists! – also carry it. We all suffer from the malady. And it’s congenital; like that young child from Mississippi, we’re born with it.

But the state of politics in today’s Washington (the remaining two bullets in the list above) suggests that the virus now epidemic across Washington is a new and especially dangerous strain. It’s more a condemnation virus than a criticism virus; for purposes here, following the practice of our medical brethren, let’s label it the C-2 virus versus C-1.

(With some oversimplification), past political criticism was more about ideas, about policies. It stemmed from political differences about the best ways and means to maintain common values and shared ends. Congressman from both parties left their families back in their home districts, and when in Washington shared dormitory rooms near the Capitol. They played golf together on weekends. They bonded and built inter-personal trust even as they disagreed on policy matters.

Today’s political debates cut far deeper. Social change has members of Congress living with their families (a good thing!), going back to their constituencies on weekends (also good) versus staying here with their Congressional brethren (a tradition that’ll be missed). Trust is in corresponding measure endangered. Compromise is on the wane; combat is on the rise. The combatants (no longer mere debaters) tell us that their opponents are not just wrong-footed; they’re evil. They’re lawbreakers, guilty of pre-meditated crimes and impeachable offenses. They tell us that legislation needs an overlay of litigation.

The C-2 virus has much in common with HIV; by comparison, it makes the C-1 virus look like the common cold or at worst, the flu. Like HIV, C-2 is dangerous in three ways:

Deadly. First of all, C-2 looks to be lethal. Those infected believe that opponents must never be allowed to look effective or be seen to be making progress on any issue, whether immigration, or foreign policy, or health care, or national security, critical infrastructure, or jobs, or education and innovation. Both parties no longer see their task as to work for accommodation and compromise to identify and implement the best middle paths to these issues. Instead they obsess with setting up the party in power for failure (whether that party controls the White House, or the Senate, or the House of Representatives, for in fact this malady is bi-partisan). For example, Senate obstructionists work to ensure that the ranks of executive and judicial branches remain perpetually hollowed out, without a full complement of duly-selected leaders at the top. If that means that the country makes no progress on any national priorities for the next two or four or even six years, then so be it. If that means sacrificing America’s place in the world – as a financial or military superpower, or more importantly as the keeper of certain widely admired values, or even a national neighbor who can be relied upon in time of global crisis rather than tied up in domestic gridlock, then that’s how it must be.

Mutating. The obsession with condemnation is sweeping, and swiftly hops from issue to issue as each comes to public focus. There’s little concern with consistency; leaders of every stripe are criticized for inaction and then, when they do act, are criticized for their action. If they fail to consult, they’re criticized for being unresponsive; if they consult, they’re criticized for waffling or being indecisive. Every national concern, every political issue, is aggressively studied – less with an eye toward how it might be solved, but more in the hopes that it will open a new avenue for condemnation.

Taxing the immune system. As a result, every celebrity, every corporate leader, every political leader in the public eye with a job to do and a reputation to protect has had to put an increasing amount of his/her resources into building an apparatus for damage control – in effect, building the political equivalent of an immune system. That damage control can’t be confined to print news, or broadcast or cable television, or the internet and its range of social media. It’s got to deal with all the criticism and condemnation, instantaneously, and over the long haul. Small wonder that presidential press secretaries and their counterparts in every other arena experience burnout and walk away.

We’re all into condemnation: you, me, everyone we know, all seven billion of us. We suffer from C-2, we’re carriers of C-2, and we infect others with it. [In the spirit of not adding any further condemnation, let me emphasize: I’m not criticizing this state of affairs; just saying.]

Like HIV (at the moment), there’s no cure for C-2. But like HIV, there is a coping strategy. HIV is held at bay worldwide not so much because of retrovirals but because medical communities and governments have communicated the risk and built awareness of risky behaviors: unprotected sex, sharing needles in drug use, and more: actions that are largely under our control.

In the case of C-2, all you and I have to do is simply commit to not condemning others. Easier said than done, but again, largely under our control. And worth the effort, because when and if we step aside from condemning others, then their condemnation of us loses its control over our lives and spirit. And if we lapse (and we will), no matter; we simply recommit to such tolerance and acceptance, and start anew.

Good news for the rest of the week.

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Saving HAARP.

We value bio-diversity and try to preserve it. What about preserving diversity in innovation?

A news item from the July 2 Alaska Dispatch tells us that the US Air Force has postponed the closure of the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) until 2015.

High_Frequency_Active_Auroral_Research_Program_site

From the article:

The Air Force said it will delay closing the $290 million HAARP site near Gakona until next spring, while scientists hoping to keep it from being torn down argue that the Air Force should leave diagnostic equipment in place.

Deborah Lee James, secretary of the Air Force, wrote to Sen. Lisa Murkowski today that the agency will “defer irreversible dismantling of the transmitter site until May 2015.”

The Air Force planned to close the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program for good last month, but stopped after scientists from the University of Alaska and other research institutions objected to the proposed destruction of the facility. The letter from the Air Force put a new deadline on the shutdown, allowing time for a new operator to be found for the ionospheric research effort.

“We will proceed with removal of government property not essential to operations and seek to reduce maintenance costs through additional storage of equipment and winterization,” she said.

The HAARP work may not be familiar to many LOTRW readers. Here’s some additional background, excerpted from the relevant Wikipedia entry, …HAARP is an ionospheric research program jointly funded by the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, the University of Alaska, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)… [whose] purpose is to analyze the ionosphere and investigate the potential for developing ionospheric enhancement technology for radio communications and surveillance. The HAARP program operates a major sub-arctic facility, named the HAARP Research Station, on an Air Force–owned site near Gakona, Alaska.

The most prominent instrument at the HAARP Station is the Ionospheric Research Instrument (IRI), a high-power radio frequency transmitter facility operating in the high frequency (HF) band. The IRI is used to temporarily excite a limited area of the Ionosphere. Other instruments, such as a VHF and a UHF radar, a fluxgate magnetometer, a digisonde (an ionospheric sounding device), and an induction magnetometer, are used to study the physical processes that occur in the excited region.

The Wikipedia entry goes on to enumerate some of the main scientific findings from HAARP as follows:

  1. Generating very low frequency radio waves by modulated heating of the auroral electrojet, useful because generating VLF waves ordinarily requires gigantic antennas
  2. Generating weak luminous glow (measurable, but below that visible with a naked eye) from absorbing HAARP’s signal
  3. Generating extremely low frequency waves in the 0.1 Hz range. These are next to impossible to produce any other way, because the length of a transmit antenna is dictated by the wavelength of the signal it must emit.
  4. Generating whistler-mode VLF signals that enter the magnetosphere and propagate to the other hemisphere, interacting with Van Allen radiation belt particles along the way
  5. VLF remote sensing of the heated ionosphere

In a word, HAARP is a unique capability allowing scientists not just to observe the ionosphere but to heat it, and then study the effects. HAARP converts a small portion of the ionosphere – a very interesting portion because of its high latitude and associated auroral activity – into a laboratory. The news piece suggests that the Air Force is extending funding of the main heater facility per se, but the associated diagnostics capabilities – essential to the scientific value of the facility – are being removed. Scientists and a range of research institutions and professional societies have been expressing dismay at the decision and seeking alternative sources of support.

Such program terminations are nothing new to science. In a way, scientists, who are in the business of change, shouldn’t be immune to change’s consequences. Better research opportunities arise. New avenues of work open up. Scarce resources can sometimes be better used elsewhere.

But could it be that we terminate scientific research too casually, too quickly? Much is made these days of the benefits of collocating research and business startups in an effort to stimulate innovation. Googling the expression “innovation incubators” offers links to countless such efforts underway around the globe. The idea is that such complexes energize those involved, juxtapose diverse creative efforts, and foster synergies that greatly accelerate the pace and quality of R&D, R2O, and business creation.

high_brown_fritillary

This calls to mind a rough correspondence or analogy with biodiversity and its role in the development and maintenance of ecosystems. Just as meteorologists have suggested that the flap of a butterfly’s wings can affect downstream weather, ecologists tell us that seemingly minor actors in ecosystems (that same butterfly?) can play a role in ecosystem health, and therefore the nature and value of ecosystem services out of all proportion to surface appearances. Biologists have also noted that many seemingly insignificant species may hold the key to pharmaceuticals that may help cure infections or suppress cancers and the like. This knowledge has prompted US and other governments to identify species threatened with extinction and use caution when it comes to pesticide and herbicide use and habitat destruction that might contribute to such extinctions (e.g., the Endangered Species Act passed into law under president Richard Nixon in 1973). Some of the listed species seem to untutored minds to be rather esoteric. We could speak of charismatic megafauna such as the big cats, or a host of amphibians; the lists are extensive. Instead, let’s just concentrate for now on a few endangered butterflies: a quick, unscientific sampling yields the Monarch butterfly, the Karner blue butterfly, the Callippe silverspot butterfly, Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, Florida leafwing and Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak butterflies, the High Brown Fritillary butterfly (pictured above) … there’s much, much more, but you get the idea. (That’s a lot of weather modification!)

You and I would certainly argue that whatever the merits of preserving such life forms, and whatever the uncertainties attendant on their role in ecosystems and ultimately their importance to human affairs, that science is different. We created facilities such as HAARP; surely we can create them again if and when the need arises.

But here’s a cautionary tale, from personal experience (I was the villain in this piece, which nonetheless had a happy ending). My first management job in NOAA was running the Geoacoustics Research Program Area of NOAA’s Wave Propagation Laboratory in the early 1970’s. Our group developed, maintained and operated microbarograph arrays for the detection of atmospheric infrasound from sources around the world. We were funded by the U.S. Air Force (coincidentally, as is HAARP). The work dated back to the 1950’s. The main goal was to detect the distinctive acoustic signatures of above-ground nuclear tests and locate the sources and therefore the countries involved. Two months after I took over the group, the Air Force eliminated its support for the project; they had decided they could fully rely on the Vela satellites to do the monitoring job from space. We lost two-thirds of our funding and had to downsize the group from 17 to 7 people. We continued the research for years, however, studying the acoustic waves generated by seasonal events such tornadic storms, jet-stream airflow over mountain ranges in the winter hemisphere, and storms at sea (the latter known as so-called microbaroms).

Our data were recorded on old-fashioned analog paper strip charts, which we stored on the premises. Over time, as the mass of the accumulated records grew, civil engineers determined that in the event of a flood (our laboratories were located in the Boulder Creek floodplain), the building might become unstable and collapse, due solely to the weight of our paper (!). The records had to go.

Digital recording was coming into use at the time. I suggested to Al Bedard, the scientist in charge of the work, that he should destroy the paper records (surely no one in future years would be willing to go through the painstaking labor of analyzing the analog data when digital alternative data sets were available). Fortunately Al rejected my advice (closer to an order, actually; in those days I had a misplaced self-confidence about my abilities and role as the Branch Chief). Much as Moses’ Hebrew mother put him in a basket and floated him down the Nile in order to save him from death at the hand of the Egyptians, Al took all of the data – a few tons of it – and stored all the records at the Denver Arsenal (to this day, the image of Al moving all those strip charts into safekeeping interspersed among the nerve gas and the other ugly stuff haunts me still).

Fast forward several years. The nuclear test-ban treaty had put an end to above-ground testing. But some Swedish scientists announced that using their microbarograph array they could detect underground tests from the atmospheric infrasound generated (in the microbarom frequency range) by the associated seismic disturbances. Not long after, folks from certain US government agencies showed up on our doorstep. They asked Al how much it would cost to develop and deploy a new microbarograph array just to confirm or deny the Swedish results. Cost was of no object.

None of that would be necessary, Al said. All they had to do was furnish him the dates and times of underground tests they knew about, and he would do the analysis on the stored records and look for telltale signals. He went back to the Denver Arsenal, retrieved the pertinent strip charts, and in a few weeks confirmed that the Swedish monitoring claims had merit. Saved our government millions of dollars and months if not years of delay and uncertainty. Such geoacoustic monitoring continues at NOAA to this day.

You might be able to supply similar stories, both pro and con. Regardless, experience suggests we should close off avenues of research such as HAARP with reluctance and humility, knowing we’re reducing the diversity of innovation, which may matter to our future every bit as much as biodiversity.

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PREPARE!

Speaking of Hill briefings (LOTRW, July 10), a July 9th briefing on the House side merits your attention. Congress Matt Cartwright (PA-17) took the lead… part of his effort to develop and introduce legislation to build national resilience to extreme events. He’s given his bill the title The PREPARE Act (Preparedness and Risk management for Extreme weather Patterns Assuring Resilience). Congressman Cartwright’s district includes much of northeastern Pennsylvania, which has seen its share of floods over the years, including, notably, Hurricane Diane in 1955[1] and Hurricane Gloria in 1985. The fixed-image below is from that latter event:

TT27Gloria_p2-web

The work itself is in an early, formative stage (Mr. Cartwright is looking to drop the bill toward the end of the month), but there are elements about both the bill and Wednesday’s briefing to like. Let’s begin with the bill. The draft takes as its starting point the latest GAO High-Risk List, discussed in two LOTRW posts in February of 2013, highlighting the financial risk that unfunded, unanticipated disaster losses from extreme events pose to the United States. The bill recognizes that pre-event mitigation versus emergency response offers the biggest potential for payoff. The bill emphasizes federal agency coordination, and proposes a new Interagency Council to accomplish this purpose; perhaps one way to look at this is the Subcommittee on Disaster Reduction currently operated out of OSTP on steroids. But the bill doesn’t stop there; it stresses that public-private partnership at the local, community level is vital to success. It calls for federal agencies to more actively identify and develop working relationships with groups at state and local levels. In many ways this is consistent with Building Community Disaster Resilience through Private-Public Coordination and other recent NAS/NRC studies; and with emerging federal efforts such as the NOAA/NWS Weather-Ready Nation initiative. The American Meteorological Society has written a letter referencing the bill stating that it “strongly supports legislative efforts that will increase the resiliency of our nation to natural hazards of all types.”

For the briefing itself, Congressman Cartwright turned to both ends of the political spectrum, as well as the middle, and the private-sector as well as the public sector. His first panelist was Eli Lehrer, President and Founder of the R Street Institute, a think tank promoting free markets and limited, effective government. Richard Eidlin, Co-founder and Director for Business Engagement of the American Sustainable Business Council, was the second speaker. Speaking third was Shannon Sly, Senior Counsel, Marstel-Day, LLC, with a military background both in uniform and as a civilian, who described himself as apolitical. Congressman Cartwright and the speakers maintained an easy dialog as they stressed the importance and non-political nature of the challenge of preparing for extreme events. The Congressman seems to have quite a track record for working across the aisle and it showed in the discussion. Mr. Cartwright stressed at the briefing’s conclusion that the bill is very much a work in progress and invited people to reach out to Jeremy Marcus, his Deputy Chief of Staff and Legislative Director (jeremy.marcus@mail.house.gov), whom he credited with much of the work behind the bill, with requests for more information or for comments.

[1]You can find a video of the Hurricane Diane event here.

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A votre santé!

To your health!

t1larg.hospital.joplin.kfsm

Later today the American Meteorological Society will host a Capitol Hill briefing on healthcare continuity in the face of weather hazards. Look for Dr. Shali Mohleji, senior AMS Policy Fellow, in Room 430 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, beginning at 2:30 (Thursday afternoon, July 10, 2014). Dr. Mohleji will be joined by three distinguished speakers:

Neil Bryant, Vice President Support Services, Community Medical Center, Barnabas Health

Robin Guenther, Principal at Perkins+Will

Thomas Santos, Vice President, Federal Affairs, American Insurance Association

They’ll offer three complementary perspectives on the issue.

The presentations and discussion stem in large part from an AMS workshop held last October with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and summarized in a report:

A Prescription for the 21st Century: Improving Resilience to High-Impact Weather for Healthcare Facilities and Services

Here is some further background, excerpted from the AMS website:

Key Findings:

Healthcare facilities and services provide key underpinnings for a thriving community. Therefore, ensuring their resilience to high-impact weather is critical. High-impact weather events present a challenge in that they disrupt health facilities and services and decrease the ability to provide healthcare at a time when a community’s needs increase due to injuries and illness associated with the event. As more communities will emerge in areas vulnerable to high-impact weather, the need will grow for resilient healthcare facilities and services.

The American Meteorological Society (AMS) Policy Program conducted a workshop to explore ideas on increasing the resilience of healthcare facilities and services to high-impact weather events. In this report, we present a strategy for improving resilience that first understands the risks one faces, then resolves the vulnerabilities of health facilities, and finally, prepares for the continuity of health services. Each of these aspects provides a layer of resilience which, when added together, creates a health system that can remain intact and operational during and after a high-impact weather event.

To improve resilience, one must first understand their risks since increasing resilience essentially involves a series of actions to reduce risk. For healthcare facilities and services, both The Joint Commission accreditation process and property/business insurance serve as vehicles for risk management.

Health facilities can manage their risks through three different approaches aimed at reducing facility vulnerabilities.

1.              Hardening structures

2.              Incremental adaptations

3.              Innovative practices

The continuity of health services is crucial to resilience and requires that facilities have a management plan for their operations in the potential circumstance when capacity and capabilities are limited. Facilities lose their capacity when their resources are reduced such as dwindling medical supplies, pharmaceutical stocks, available beds, food, potable water, and even clean linens. Facilities lose their capability to provide health services when they lose critical services such as power, HVAC, and plumbing or when they have limited staff.

Two key ideas involve new conceptualizations. The first conceptualizes resilience as something that can be improved by means of successful risk management; the second conceptualizes redundant systems as a means to efficacy, not inefficiency.

See you there!

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Let freedom ring!

“In the end, more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life and they lost it all, security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society, but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free.” – Sir Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)[1]

What better sentiment for the Fourth of July?

So in the spirit of the day, as we venture out to the baseball game, fire up the grill, get together with family and friends, and look forward to an evening of fireworks, it might profit us to do two other things. To start, we can remember with gratitude those occasions where Americans before us met their freedom to be responsible… by defending democracy, free religion and speech, and other basic liberties and values in myriad ways, often at great cost. And then, we might reflect on some of the areas where our generation can exercise our own freedom to be responsible, for the benefit of those who’ll follow us.

Here’s a short, entirely notional, and admittedly incomplete list, to stimulate thought, offered in the hope that you’ll comment/make your more salient additions for the rest of us to consider.

The freedom to build responsibly in the face of hazards. As hurricane Arthur roars up the east coast, we can breath a sigh of relief that it hasn’t proven more intense and that it’s struck only a glancing blow. But we don’t have to look back far, to Katrina or Ike or Irene or Sandy, to remember that our historic land use and building codes have given us a freedom to build irresponsibly… in the wrong places and in the wrong ways. And it’s not just hurricanes: earthquakes, flood, drought also reveal additional vulnerabilities. We know how to do better. We’re free to do so.

The freedom to maintain our basic critical infrastructure. The July 4th weekend provides occasion for travel by road and air. The June 28 print edition of The Economist notes that America is underinvesting in infrastructure for both these forms of transportation. Interestingly, it highlights the responsibility of states as well as the federal government to make these investments.

The Economist article makes no mention of the critical infrastructure supporting Earth observations, science, and services, but Hurricane Arthur reminds us that it could have. Evacuate the coast ahead of the storm? Or stay to see the wild, chaotic beauty it will bring? Such decisions hinge on an ability to observe, forecast and warn, including getting right the risks – all the impacts and the uncertainties. The same logic applies to what policies we should be adopting in the face of the current drought in the west. How long will it endure? How severe and widespread will it be? And what about the threats posed by climate variability and change? Michael Bloomberg, Henry Paulson and Tom Steyer’s recent Risky Business report reminds us that the economic costs of doing nothing will likely prove substantial. On another front, new data show increases in earthquake frequency associated with fracking. What should our response be to that? America has gotten off the farm. We now live in virtual, air-conditioned climates provided by urban centers; in the process we’ve lost our visceral feel for the state of food and water supplies, and environmental conditions. Our information on these matters is now at best second or third hand. In place of that hands-on experience, Earth observations, science, and services have become critical to navigating these issues. We assume this information is adequate and reliable, just as we take highways and air travel for granted. But in both respects, this confidence is unwarranted.

The freedom to innovate. Each generation has both the freedom and responsibility to not only maintain but also reinvent America. The challenge is to preserve those attributes that match our deepest human yearnings while remaking and refreshing them to accommodate history and changed social context. In that regard, both public and higher education need complete makeovers. They should be more affordable, more accessible, more adaptive, and more able to equip large numbers of individuals and nations for the jobs that will be available and for the profound decisions that future publics must make. Health care needs continued reworking. So do our ideas on immigration, as well as our basic understanding of what makes for national security in the face of threats as diverse as the conflicts raging across the middle East, Africa, and the Crimea and other risks such as those posed by public health; food, water, and energy shortages; or even that represented by globalization of commerce and markets occurring against a patchwork quilt of national regulations and policies.

Finally, the freedom to love and respect one another. Happily, Americans come in all flavors. On this July 4th we have both the freedom and responsibility to accept and accommodate each other, and to balance our independence with our interdependence. We have the freedom to celebrate diversity; our culture and heritage doesn’t limit or confine us to any single, monochromatic, narrow, stultifying group.  We have the freedom to give love rather than simply expect or demand it from others – starting within our own families, and extending to the larger society.

Cue some music? For July 4th, how about this number… Land of Dreams, composed by Rosanne Cash (Johnny’s eldest daughter) and John Leventhal, and performed by Ms. Cash with a little help from their friends.

[1] Thinking you’ve seen this quote before? Perhaps it was from the LOTRW Independence Day post of 2011.

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Taming thunderstorm downbursts.

Here’s an anniversary worth marking! It’s been 20 years to the day since a thunderstorm downburst last triggered a commercial jet crash. Mike Smith, Sr. Vice President of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, this morning published a nice guest post on the Capital Weather Gang’s blog, describing the meteorology of downbursts and recounting the history of the memorial event.

Mr. Smith’s vivid and thorough account is worth reading in its entirety. Here’s a smidgen of background, followed by a few additional personal observations. To start, picture a rain shaft from a severe thunderstorm:

downburst

Rain is falling at such a rate it’s as if you pointed a garden hose at the floor. The resulting splat pattern produces outflow in every direction. Under the right conditions, major storm outflow wind speeds can exceed 100 mph. Any pilot/plane entering such a wind pattern, from any compass direction, first experiences an increase in airspeed (speed of the plane relative to the air) of a like amount. In this entry-phase, pilots on takeoff find themselves rising more rapidly than expected. Pilots attempting to land are tricked into thinking they’ll overshoot the runway.

The great temptation is to throttle back. But just as suddenly, as pilot and plane pass through the center of the downburst pattern to the other side (again, regardless of direction, because the downburst pattern is symmetric) and encounter a reduction in air speed of similar amount. Because aircraft at takeoff and landing are flying relatively slowly, at speeds something like 150-200 mph, the speed relative to the air has just dropped, from as much as 250 mph to 50 mph.

But the lift on the plane’s wings is proportional to the square of the airspeed. A drop in airspeed of a factor of as little as a factor of two is a loss of lift of a factor of four. The resultant loss of lift is so great it’s as if the wings had fallen off the aircraft. For turboprop aircraft, this encounter is bad enough. The bumps are horrific; the pilot has to scramble to recover the proper engine and aircraft configuration. But in jet aircraft, the situation is even more dire. Depending on the equipment, the turbines can take 20-30 seconds to spool up again to full power. That’s time that the pilot on takeoff or landing doesn’t have. The plane crashes. As Mr. Smith documents, as jet aircraft became the standard means of air travel, the number of events was significant and sobering. Here’s his list:

  • Continental Airlines Flight 426, Denver, 1975
  • Allegheny Airlines Flight 121, Philadelphia, 1976
  • Continental Airlines Flight 63, Tucson, 1977
  • USAir Flight 179, Dayton, 1982
  • Pan American Flight 759, New Orleans, 1982
  • USAir Flight 183, Detroit, 1984
  • United Airlines Flight 663, Denver, 1984
  • Delta Airlines Flight 191, Dallas-Fort Worth, 1985

Mr. Smith nicely retells the story of the meteorological detective work and action by the FAA and the aviation industry that has reduced this threat over the years.

Social science is receiving more and more attention these days, so perhaps four aspects to the social side are worth mentioning:

Human technological advance created a wholly novel societal threat. Prior to aircraft flight, and jet aircraft flight in particular, downbursts were destructive (as evidenced by the microburst event that hit the Belleview area of south Alexandria on June 18) but not nearly so deadly.

Understanding the science is not enough. Scientists must also act with courage and with social grace if they’re to warn of threats in a way that spurs people to act. Mike Smith and Jason Samenow display these traits today, but the heroes of the downburst story from decades ago are Ted Fujita (whom Mr. Smith appropriately acknowledges) and also John McCarthy, formerly of the University of Oklahoma and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. For a glimpse of Mr. McCarthy’s role, interested readers might check out this article from the New York Times in 2005. While working with the FAA and the aviation sector to cope with this particular threat, Mr. McCarthy also established what is today NCAR’s Research Applications Laboratory. RAL continues to support aviation, but also harnesses atmospheric research for human benefit across a broad array of sectors. (Not coincidentally, RAL is also administrative home to most of NCAR’s cohort of social scientists).

Terminal Doppler Weather Radars are important but not the whole story. Mr. Smith’s guest post hints at this. Even before the TDWR network was fully installed, the accident rate started to decrease, thanks to growing pilot awareness. That’s because Mr. McCarthy and others programmed the downburst wind structure into flight simulators. Commercial pilots trained in the simulators quickly learned after “dying” a few times that they didn’t have the right stuff needed to survive a downburst encounter. Armed with training on identifying the dangerous weather patterns visually, they quickly became adept at detecting and avoiding the threat:

downburst2

We would do well to emulate this behavior in the face of other weather, water, and climate risks. All that is required is the same national will. NOAA’s nascent Weather-Ready Nation program is a step in the right direction.

Happy anniversary!

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Could the culture of science have evolved along entirely different lines?

As reported in the June 14th print edition of The Economist, two major scientific studies, rooted in widely different fields, and each highly touted in recent months, are receiving a closer, more skeptical look:

Some excerpts:

SCIENTISTS make much of the fact that their work is scrutinised anonymously by some of their peers before it is published. This “peer review” is supposed to spot mistakes and thus keep the whole process honest. The peers in question, though, are necessarily few in number, are busy with their own work, are expected to act unpaid—and are often the rivals of those whose work they are scrutinising. And so, by a mixture of deliberation and technological pressure, the system is starting to change. The internet means anyone can appoint himself a peer and criticise work that has entered the public domain. And two recent incidents have shown how valuable this can be.

The first concerns pluripotent stem cells, the predecessors of every other body cell. Pluripotent cells interest doctors and biologists, who hope to use them to investigate diseases, test drugs and, eventually, regrow patients’ damaged body parts…

The second claim came from cosmology. On March 17th researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, led by John Kovac, held a press conference at which they announced that they had discovered interesting patterns in the cosmic microwave background, a type of weak radiation left over from the universe’s earliest moments. They said they had spotted the signatures of primordial gravitational waves, ripples in space formed just after the Big Bang.

The Economist article (worth the read in its entirety) goes on to describe how in each instance the papers in question have prompted a spate of analysis and critique following formal, peer-reviewed publication. Seems it’s been the latter body of analysis and reanalysis, much of it communicated through web-based networks, that has proved most penetrating.

Peer review undoubtedly prevents publication of a lot of bad science and error, but it’s by no means perfect. As science grows more complex and expensive, both the possibility of error and the difficulty in finding error grow. De facto, what’s happening is that following publication, as scientists try to build on that work, they occasionally encounter difficulties that ultimately point back to previously undetected shortcomings and limitations.

Well and good. Clearly it’s not a matter of either/or. As science advances, it’s almost certainly a good idea to maintain peer review and at the same time welcome post-publication critique of scientific work.

But it does make one wonder. In his book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist, Talking Substance in an Age of Style, Randy Olson, a Ph.D. oceanographer/academic turned filmmaker/communicator, contrasts the scientific process/mindset with that of actors in improv. The key in improvisational theater, in which actors don’t work from a script but string together stream-of-consciousness chat, is to always say yes, to never say no — to build on, not contradict what’s said before. The rule is inviolable. To say no is to kill the flow of the conversation. So, when speaker A says, “It’s too bad that pigs can fly,” speaker B can’t say, “pigs don’t fly!” He or she has to follow with something supportive, such as “yeah, all that airborne pink messes up the blue color of sky that I prefer.” Interestingly, sources as diverse as Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey and card-carrying social scientists have suggested that this maxim is a good rule for living life itself, not just making theater.

(It might even be argued that the web itself provides a kind of peer review of ideas of all sorts, not just the science kind. Seven billion people are innovating on the internet daily, but only a handful of each day’s ideas go viral, become real game changers. It’s not that people are conducting extensive peer reviews of new web-based efforts so much as they’re quickly attempting to build on new things, and finding out equally quickly that only a minority of ideas are fertile with respect to such extensions.)

Mr. Olson advises that scientists learn to adopt this tactic when talking with journalists, policymakers, and other publics.

Which leads to a speculation: suppose scientists going back to Newton and Galileo had adopted this “just say yes” approach not just with respect to science communication, but science itself? Would the progress of science have been slowed? And by how much? Or would efforts to build on science, even bad science, succeed essentially as quickly in uncovering flaws in earlier work?

And here’s a companion question: if we had such a alternative culture underpinning science, would scientists now find themselves drawn into controversies over climate change, evolution, and many other issues? Or would science be more mainstream, more seamlessly integrated throughout modern life and more broadly accepted?

It’s not hard to imagine that we’d better off than with the status quo.

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An historical vignette. Not long after the telegraph was invented in the 1840’s, people started experimenting with submarine cables, crossing the Red Sea, the English Channel, and other small bodies of water. All this took place prior to the development of Maxwell’s equations and any idea of the wave propagation responsible for the signal transmission. Instead physicists used a diffusion model, which predicted that there would be no hope of transmitting a telegraph signal across an extensive body of water such as the Atlantic Ocean. So, did no one give this a try until Maxwell’s theories were developed and accepted? Quite the contrary. Cyrus Field went ahead and laid such a cable… and of course it worked, until the insulation failed under the harsh challenges posed by the submarine environment. All this has been described by Vary Coates in a 1979 retrospective technology assessment. Readers can probably think and/or offer countless similar examples of the progress of science and technology unburdened by peer review.

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Unlimited resilience.

“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” – Jesus (John 4:34, NIV)

Nations struggle to provide a meagre resilience with respect to hazards for their people, let alone a just resilience – resilience that maintains or even augments social justice – resilience for all in equal and fair degree, regardless of age or health or wealth or heritage or position in society. In the United States, the call for a Weather-Ready Nation, Great ShakeOut earthquake drills, and other measures to build preparedness all find the social-justice dimension a challenge. Disasters have a way of aggravating pre-existing social inequities. What’s more, sessions earlier this week at the 2104 Natural Hazards on legal issues posed by hazards mitigation at all stages of preparedness, emergency response, and recovery made one thing clear: the law is a blunt instrument for dealing with social justice… and too often capable of taking us in other directions.

Given that top-down, command-and-control approaches to this problem offer so little reason for hope, it’s natural to consider help from another direction… from a perspective that you and I are accustomed to call the spiritual. We could adopt many starting points. But for illustrative purposes here, let’s center on Christianity, for three reasons. First, it allows us to be concrete. Second, it’s the faith I know best (though not particularly well). Third, its founder, Jesus Christ, asserted a special level of authority among the major religious leaders. He didn’t just claim to be a good person; he claimed to be the Son of God. (Please chime in with your own comments on what other faiths have to say about just resilience! It would really enrich the discussion.)

During his time on earth, Jesus was all about social justice. He spoke of God’s special love for the poor and disenfranchised, for women, for Gentiles, for children, for the sick and infirm, tax collectors, prostitutes, and countless others. He proclaimed that everyone, including everyone from all these groups, had access to the kingdom of God, which he said was not remote or distant or obscure, but present, at hand, even inside us.

And he claimed that this kingdom, by itself, was sufficient. That God and his indwelling love was and is and will always be everything we need. He said that he fed on this food, that people who drank from this well would never thirst, and more. He used every metaphor and parable and image he could think of, all to say that we should allow, happily allow, everything else to be stripped from us, and that if we did we would find that we still have all the requirements of a meaningful, satisfying life at our disposal.

Everything stripped from us? Sounds like what we experience in the aftermath of a disaster. Jesus asserted that even in such dire, calamitous circumstances, we are, at the core, just as equipped and ready as we were prior to the earthquake or flood or hurricane. Before the disaster we were so caught up with material stuff and life’s busyness we just didn’t realize it how unnecessary those trappings were.

Sounds like tough love, but hazards experts and practitioners know this to be true. In as many circumstances as possible, they work to give disaster survivors an active role in response and recovery, starting with serving in soup kitchens and in shelters in a range of roles, and extending to contributing to the planning and the actual rebuilding throughout the recovery phase. It’s all participatory, not a spectator sport. Here’s the magic: from the first moment following a disaster that you and I pick ourselves up and start assisting others, helping those around us, encouraging them, working with them, we send ourselves a message that we ourselves are resilient on the most fundamental, personal level. (This in part is the message from Rebecca Solnit’s marvelous 2009 book, a Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster.) Shown below, a church shelter following typhoon Haiyan.

People_take_shelter_in_a_parish_church_in_the_Philippines_after_Typhoon_Haiyan_swept_through_the_area_Credit_Caritas_Manila_CNA_11_11_13Looking inside, to the depths of our being, for the source of resilience in time of disaster, seeing just resilience as something we can each individually offer rather than something we should passively demand of others?

Might be worth a try.

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A “Bill of Rights”for people living on a dangerous planet

The 2014 Natural Hazards Workshop is underway; it’s the 39th in a distinguished series, and remarkable in several respects. Held in Broomfield, Colorado, it brings together researchers from the natural sciences and social sciences. It then mixes these two groups with practitioners – emergency managers and county and local officials, representatives of indigenous peoples, and others who are building community resilience on the ground, day-to-day. It is international. It is by invitation only, and yet every year a third of those participating are first timers. It’s an incubator for new ideas on reducing the risk from hazards of every type. As a four-day experience, there’s nothing to match it.

This Wednesday I’ll be part of a panel in a breakout session entitled “Just resilience.” Here’s the thumbnail, and a list of the panelists: Resilience is not static (although some may treat it as such). Because resilience must be dynamic and contextual it calls into question relationships of people to people, place to place, people to places, systems to systems, and values to values. The consequences are injustice and the usual ethical rationales do not address the justice issues. This panel will look at real, concrete, and pressing resilience issues through the lens of ‘the just’. The panel will suggest directions the resilience community can take to create just and lasting resilience.

Richard Krajeski, Natural Hazard Mitigation Association - Moderator

Kristina Peterson, Lowlander Center - Panelist

William Hooke, American Meteorological Society - Panelist

Rosina Philippe, Grand Bayou Village – Panelist

Tyronne Edwards, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana – Panelist

Our moderator, Richard Krajeski, is an ordained Presbyterian minister, as is his wife, Dr. Kristina Peterson, who is also a nationally-known hazards researcher. Rosina Philippe is a Native American, a member of the Atakapa-Ishak tribe. She hails from Louisiana and is one of the most compelling voices on the impacts of hurricanes and oil spills on Gulf communities and their way of life. (Want a sample? Click here and chose any of the many video clips available. And a note to scientists who are communicator-wannabes. When we see experts on television and other media, we often see them quoted in 15-30-second sound bites. That seems to be the longest time interval over which we’re capable of coherent expression. And many of those who coach us coach to that reality. But many of Ms. Philippe’s clips show her speaking uninterrupted for several minutes at a stretch. She’s a marvel.)

Back to the panel discussion. As you can see, it focuses on social-justice aspects of the resilience issue. These are big topics and many people have thought and written eloquently on the subject. This post and the next will preview my own (minor) additions to the Broomfield discussion.

To start, let’s ask ourselves what the founding fathers might have had to say on the subject. Among other contributions, they’ve given us the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights. In that spirit, what might a notional bill of rights address in light of the world’s natural hazards? Here’s a speculative set, for you to improve upon.

The right to life (in the face of hazards). In the real world we live on, this can’t be guaranteed, but it ought to be an aspirational goal. Perhaps it could be softened to mean the right to a warning. This was beyond the technological means of the 17th-18th century world, but rather within our capabilities today for virtually all meteorological hazards and even some landslides, volcanic eruptions, and, to a limited extent, even a few seconds heads-up with respect to earthquakes, depending on the circumstances. Of course, to be effective, warnings should be accompanied by recommended options for action, which implies provision of shelters and other means for taking cover.

Home should be the safest place to be. In America, when it comes to many hazards such as hurricanes and flooding, home has come to mean little more in such circumstances than the point of embarkation for evacuation. But home should be defensible/offer the option of sheltering in place. This is a big issue from a social justice standpoint. To meet this standard requires adequate policies with respect to land use and stringent building codes. Many countries, including the United States, fall short. The poor and disenfranchised are instead consigned to homes on unstable slopes, in floodplains, on hazardous coasts, or surmounting earthquake fault zones. Brazil’s favelas (pictured) famously come to mind.

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A job to return to once the hazard has come and gone. One element of “disaster” is that the community disruption persists long after the hazard has receded. Often this is because workplaces have been shuttered either by out-and-out destruction, or by failure of one or another critical infrastructure. Since most families live paycheck-to-paycheck, loss of work quickly puts an end to any hope of return to normal routine.

Natural disasters should remain “natural.” To see the challenge, take floods as an example. Rising water is by itself problematic; but the reality is that the flood quickly becomes a slurry of sewage waste, animal carcasses, and toxic chemicals. Under the right circumstances, such “floodwaters” can even catch fire.

It would be possible to continue in this vein. Perhaps a society grown dependent upon critical infrastructure should formulate a “right” to that infrastructure and so on. An attractive feature of a list such as this is that the finger points at everyone. Those of us providing Earth observations, science, and services see the warning challenge. Builders, developers, and local public-sector officials have a job with respect to land use and building codes. The private sector can best see the path forward to business continuity in the face of hazards, and so on. None of us is a spectator.

That brings us to two final points. First, given that our planet conducts much if not most of its business through extremes, it’s unrealistic to expect any of these rights to be realizable in practice. Second… and far more fundamentally… the flip side of “rights” is “responsibilities.” For each of us, the real need is find and then master the balance between these notions as responsibilities we must shoulder, for ourselves and our families, and as rights that we’re entitled to demand.

In the next post, a look at just resilience from a spiritual perspective.

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Shawn Achor’s happiness advantage.

One malady that afflicts most young professionals is the idea that if and when they “succeed,” they will be happy.

This is an illusion! When we “succeed,” the very act raises the bar for how we define success. The result? We never get there. Get good grades? You need to get better grades. Admitted to a good college? You should strive to get into a better graduate school. Got a good job? You need to work toward that even better one. And so on.

Don’t take my word for it; the idea (down to those particular examples above) certainly isn’t original with me.

Psychologist Shawn Achor, for one, tells us that we have the idea backward. Success doesn’t lead to happiness. Instead, it’s happiness that fosters success. He argues this in a compelling TED video. It’s three years old now, but I saw it for the first time about three weeks ago. Since then, I’ve been promoting it to everyone I know, and have yet to find the first person who’d already seen it and knew all about it.

So here’s the link, provided for your remedial viewing:

http://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work9a4f068a323fb9fa5c90f3c002fd3ede1356a2b1_800x600

The video is twelve minutes long. The first ten minutes are all humor, but bring you towards the point, which takes up the final two minutes. Mr. Achor actually offers a solution for achieving the happiness you’ll need to be a success at whatever you do.

Some of you will find the message merely affirming… you’ve been doing the right things or something close to them all along. Others may find something new. Whatever your circumstance, you’ll get the Bill-Hooke guarantee; it won’t be the poorest use you’ve made of twelve minutes of your professional life.

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A postscript. Regardless of field of specialty, there’s not the professional or knowledge worker alive who couldn’t benefit from Mr. Achor’s TED talk. However, from the standpoint of this blog there is one special audience… those engaged in one or another aspect of the special business of real-world living: developing food, water, energy and other resources; building community-level resilience to extremes; and protecting habitat, biodiversity and environmental quality. This community is currently populated by professionals who aren’t that sanguine about the world’s future prospects. However, as discussed in the previous post, reasons for reality-based hope (as opposed to delusion) are there to be seen. And all seven billion of us need that community above all others to benefit from, and put to work, the happiness advantage.

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