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Phenomenally nominal

Watch much NASA TV? If you’re even a little bit of a space geek, you’re probably aware that the word “nominal” is used by spaceflight teams as a way of saying “as expected.” Which is fair enough, but like a lot of geek language, it gets fetishized under the guise of somehow being “precise.” Never confirm with a mere “yes” when you can use “affirmative” or “roger that, will comply.” I like rolling around in jargon as much as the next fanboy, but it generally adds syllables and not illumination. Still, fun is fun.

The curious thing is that the word nominal is used in the space business in a way that is unlike all the standard definitions. The space-centric context of nominal is so odd that it is called out as a final special case. The Oxford online dictionary defines the fourth American form as: (chiefly in the context of space travel) functioning normally or acceptably. I’m guessing it started out long ago as a way of saying a flight parameter is following the named (declared and expected) path. Apparently this usage goes all the way back to the NACA/Langley days. And from there it grew and grew.

Spaceflight is booming these days, so we’re hearing lots of nominals. So many, in fact, that the podcasters over at Spacevidcast.com made a wonderful compilation. They counted the number of times that SpaceX and Orbital Sciences use the word in recent launch coverage videos. The result? SpaceX put in a plucky performance with 31 nominals (one every 23 seconds), but Orbital Sciences trounced them with an astounding 93 nominals by the time the vehicle was in orbit. That’s one nominal every 7 seconds. Is that super-nominal? Meta-nominal? Or perhaps just phe-nominal?

You’ll want to zoom to the 4:48 mark in the program.

At some point, it became so absurd that I felt like I was listening to this instead:

Hey, wait a second! Is that Elon Musk?

Just down the road from me, along Brattle Street on the way into Harvard Square, stands the Dexter Pratt House. Its minor claim to lasting fame is that old Dexter Pratt was the local blacksmith, and one fine day in 1840 as he labored under a nearby chestnut tree, who should walk by but Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Inspiration smote the poet, and he set down these words.

Under the spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands…

The words remain, and so does the house. But the chestnut is gone. In fact, all the American chestnuts, almost without exception, are gone, having been wiped out by a devastating chestnut blight in the first have of the last century. My father, growing up in Crozet, Virginia, remembers watching the line of dying chestnuts march across the mountains. At the time of the blight, chestnuts made up as much as a third of the great forests of the east. Imagine seeing them all struck down in the span of a few years. By a freakin’ fungus.

The American chestnut isn’t quite extinct, but it’s on the doorstep. Other related chestnut species, notably the Chinese chestnut, don’t have the same blight susceptibility, and for years specialists have interbred the species trying to create an American chestnut with blight resistance. They have succeeded in making resistant hybrids, but none of these has anything like the majestic size of the old American breed.

Carl Zimmer, writing on the National Geographic website, has a good summary of more recent work done to save the tree: Resurrecting A Forest

Rather than using heavy-handed hybrid breeding, new genetic tools make it possible to move genes one at a time from species to species. This is allowing biologists to make a chestnut that is almost entirely native chestnut but with with just enough secret sauce to ward off the fungus. The odds are getting better and better that we (or our children) will see mighty chestnuts once again. But what story will we tell ourselves about it? Zimmer does a good job of capturing this puzzle.

If, a century from now, Powell’s chestnuts tower once again over the eastern United States, how will we think of those forests? Will we think of them as nature restored to its former glory, ecosystems thriving once more? Or will we think of them as unnatural, the product of human tinkering? Or both? Given the past century of struggle to save the chestnut, the choice here is not natural versus unnatural. It’s chestnuts versus no chestnuts. “It’s not going to fix itself,” says Powell.

As Longfellow might have written:

Under the genetically modified chestnut hybrid
The village cyborg stands…

The News from Watertown

I live in Watertown, Massachusetts. That’s where the finale played out in our recent unpleasantness here in the Boston area. My house is just across the Charles River from where the big shootout occurred. About a mile and a half, as the Google flies. It happened a little less than a mile from where my daughter goes to school. Bang! Bang! Bang!

Sounds like I was pretty close to all the excitement, eh? In fact I was more than 3000 miles away. We were on a family vacation to Ireland, so my first hint that something was wrong was when I happened to walk past a TV in the fitness center at the Camden Court Hotel in Dublin. Amid sounds of confusion, the text crawled across the bottom of the screen: Boston Marathon. I hurried back to the room. One of the things I quickly realized was that I had no desire to turn on the TV. At that moment, all I wanted was web access. There’s so little actual information in TV news, particularly when you’re arriving late to a breaking story. Mostly it serves up the same disturbing images over and over. I knew from experience that Twitter, boston.com, and Wikipedia would be my best sources. And so they proved to be.

My wife and I spent the next hour glued to our iPhones, calling out fresh details to each other, fielding emails and texts from concerned family and friends. Then we tried to settle back into vacation mode. It was, of course, strange to fly across the Atlantic only to find Boston at the top of the international news. We started to avoid the “Where are you from?” question because it was such a bummer as a conversation starter. “Sad, so sad. Shame, such a shame.” But even stranger news lay ahead.

Three days later, in the Earl’s Court House hotel in Killarney, I learned that my little home town was the scene of a showdown with the police. Because of the time zone difference, on Friday morning I was reading in real time the first Twitter reports of the ripping blast on Laurel Street, the pop-pop-popping gunfire, the acrid hanging smoke, the vanished bomber. An unhinged bomb-laden terrorist was last seen about a mile from my house, and … and oh look! It’s time for us to go on a carefree ride in a horse-drawn jaunting car by Muckross Lake.


Unbalanced people with deadly weapons and murderous intent are bad. We don’t like those people at all. But here is a very important question: those people, do they look like me? I sure hope they don’t, because that makes this whole hating process so much easier.

Much has been written about this lately, but the crimes of New Town and the crimes of Boston are so close in time and place that it’s hard to avoid. When faced with domestic terror we are able to say, “things like this will happen from time to time.” Shrug. What can you do about crazy people? No countermeasure is likely to make a difference. But terror at the hands of the Other is an abomination for which no countermeasure is too great.

Can’t we find some middle path between these responses? “Keep calm and carry on” is surely the best advice. Things like this will happen from time to time, and we can’t let the immune response be more damaging than the infection.

Being abroad during this storm gave me two gifts. The first was being safe with my family far away from a dangerous event. The second was the experience of being the Other as it unfolded. When you travel abroad, you are apart, the Other. How shall the Other be treated? Countries defined by ethnicity and cultural uniformity are charming, much more charming than the United States. All noise and chaos, America lacks this aligning charm. But this chaos is our saving grace. Shaped by ideas rather than ethnicity, we can embrace the Other as our own. If we are frightened into forsaking the Other, we will have the worst of both worlds. No embrace. No charm. Only a harvest of bitterness.

The Riot of Spring

Happy springtime!

In 1913, Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring premiered to such a hostile reception that forty members of the audience were ejected for first fighting with one another and then flinging things at the orchestra. Radiolab did a nice program on this famous performance, if you’d like to learn more about it.

What was all the fuss about? Some say it was Nijinsky’s bizarro choreography, and some say that bad luck happened to bring in an especially belligerent crowd. But most say it was the music. The shockingly dissonant music. Music that was a violent assault on the unready ears of an earlier age. Just how bad was this music? It sure seems tame enough now. But this animation by Stephen Malinowski can give you a heightened sense of the wild and rich tapestry Stravinsky assembled.

There’s a great story about how Diaghilev, the ballet’s producer, was first listening to Stravinsky play the pounding chords that ultimately sparked the tumult on opening night. Stravinsky recalled:

He was a little bit surprised to see this repetition of the chord so many times. He asked me only one thing: Will it last a very long time? And I said: till the end, my dear.


This towering chord (an E-flat dominant seventh on top and an F-flat triad on the bottom) makes its first appearance at 3:16 in Malinowksi’s animation. It shows up quite a lot after that. You can follow the score on this excellent San Francisco Symphony site. It’s too bad we can’t hear it with 1913 ears.

That would make a good app: iTunes with the 1913 Ears edition. But make sure you don’t have any weapons or heavy objects nearby when you listen.

Stranded in the 21st century

My friend Greg told me about a curious technology-related problem he had last week. While reading a climbing magazine, it occurred to him that it would be fun to watch the old Clint Eastwood film The Eiger Sanction.

Now let’s turn back the clock a few years. You can smoke in bars. The village blacksmith is nearby in case your horse throws a shoe. And (here is the important part) there’s a Blockbuster video store on every corner. In this sepia-toned world, Greg would run to the nearest Blockbuster and rent his movie. Problem solved. But since the passing of that era, here’s what happened. Greg started using Netflix. No more trips to the video store. Hooray! But after a time, he decided he didn’t like the DVD-by-mail option (too slow) or the stream-by-net option (not enough selection). So he stopped using Netflix. But while he was trying Netflix, so was Everybody Else. The world turned its back, and poof! The cigarette machines, the payphones, the blacksmiths, the Blockbusters, they all vanished.

Fast forward to the present, and Greg can’t figure out how to rent a movie. He’s stranded in the modern age, dangling like Clint between the departed past and a future that’s not quite here.


Have you had an experience like this?

I did a few years ago when my cell phone died and I really needed to make a phone call. Have you ever looked for a working payphone? If you walk into a liquor store and ask where the nearest payphone is, you will be treated as if you just rolled in a cat box.

Greg’s tale of First World woe doesn’t stop with Clint. In addition to being a talented software developer, Greg is also a talented musician (who just released a new album). His band performed live on the radio last week (WICN). Before the show, his proud wife texted the news to a bunch of friends. Several replied with words to this effect: “I can’t find a radio in my house! What should I do?” She may as well have been telling them to saddle up the old gray mare.

Now I know, and Greg knows, that there are ways to listen to the radio over the net. But some people don’t. Some of those folks sat in their cold cars because that’s the only radio they could find. It’s a neat illustration of what we might call “kicking away the ladder.” That awkward moment when you can’t quite touch the past or the future. And it may explain why Mad Men is so popular. The men were men, the women were women, and the telephones were massive Western Electric 500s made from shatter-proof plastic and mastodon bones.

By God, I need a bourbon. They still make that, right?

Which weighs more: a pound of efficiency or a pound of inefficiency?

Here’s a fact: an LED requires far less energy than an incandescent bulb to produce the same amount of light. So wherever you can replace filaments with diodes, you’re using less energy, right? Makes sense. But look at this picture.


Last December I was strolling with my family around the Quincy Market buildings in Boston. This is the spectacle I beheld. Those are thousands and thousands of tiny LEDs. A few years ago, they would have been thousands of incandescents. I couldn’t help but think of the Jevons Paradox, which states that “the better you are, the more you eat.” Actually, Wikipedia puts it like this: “technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource.” In this context: more efficient light bulbs equals more electricity consumption. Let’s say that an LED is ten times more efficient than an incandescent (I’m making just this number up), but you get so excited about LEDs that you replace one incandescent with 50 LEDs. You’re using more electricity than ever! That’s what this Christmas light display appears to be doing (though I will confess I don’t have any inside information one way or the other).

Here’s a situation where I do have some data: Across many appliances and consumer gadgets, we are making remarkable improvements in efficiency. Things like furnaces, refrigerators, air conditioners, and water heaters are much better than they were a generation ago. But we’ve brought so many electric gadgets (DVRs, big screen TVs, electronics of all sizes) into our houses that it more than offsets our efficiency gains. Greentech Media: Your Gadgets Are Killing Home Efficiency Improvements. There’s a cold bucket of smugwash, eh? You’re very good, but you’re bad and getting worse.

Steve picked up this article and pointed out a depressing coda to the story. When you burn natural gas in your own house for heat, you’re doing an admirably efficient job of trading greenhouse gases for energetic value you derive. Those hydrocarbons are local workers, doing their dirty work right on your premises. But electricity doesn’t work that way. Electricity just moves the energy from one place to another. Now you’re farming out the dirty work to hydrocarbons far away, and then you’re paying electrons to ship the energy to you. A lot of it falls into the ocean on the way. Boo-hoo.

Bottom line: efficiency is good, but watch out for old man Jevons. He doesn’t have to climb on your back. But if you don’t pay attention, he probably will.

If I know exactly what I want to write, it’s easy enough for me to sit down as a text editor and bang away. But there’s a certain kind of writing, or rather a certain kind of thinking, that can be difficult to address by sitting down and trying to write a linear document. This kind of thinking proceeds in fits and starts, and you never quite know where it’s going to go. Scraps of related thoughts and notes get collected and scattered and collected again with the hope that they all might fit together into one coherent document. If you’re lucky, and it does come together, it’s amazing how much the final product looks like as if it was the result of a linear process. But of course that’s a lie.

I find it difficult to start this process of emergent thinking, what I call cloud gathering. So I’m always on the lookout for tools that will help me jump start the process. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that it’s often easier to talk through a new idea than it is to type it out. In this respect, the quality of dictation with my iPhone has been liberating.

Here’s a process that I have had good luck with lately: I dictate into an iPhone app, and then I take the words from my iPhone and move them onto my computer for editing. That may sound like a tedious process, but I just started using an app called Simplenote that makes it easy. I open it up and start speaking, and if I have the Simplenote web page up on my computer, or the Simplenote app up on my iPad, the words appear magically one place as quickly as they appear on the other. On their way from phone to computer, the words have taken a quick detour through the cloud and back. but what do I care? I’m collaborating with myself in real time.

Do you have any favorite cloud-gathering apps? In addition to the aforementioned Simplenote, I’ve been playing around with Hackpad and Evernote. I like Hackpad a lot, but I can’t quite make the plunge into Evernote because it seems to demand a sort of religious conversion.

One last note: as a long time WordPress user, I was happy to see that WordPress has acquired Simplenote. Since I took a liking to Simplenote, I worried it was going to fail and go away. Zenbe broke my heart, and I’m currently in mourning for Google Reader. So it’s nice to know that Simplenote has been acquired by stable company.

A trip to Ireland

In April, I’m headed to Ireland on a family vacation. Where should I go? How should I prepare?

I’m availing myself of gamification. This Sporcle quiz is good for learning the 32 counties: Can you name the counties of Ireland? Apparently everybody always forgets about poor old County Longford.

Audible is helping me with my James Joyce classics: Dubliners and Ulysses. I’m not surprised, but it’s still cool to see the various Google Maps-based resources for following Leopold Bloom around Dublin, especially Walking Ulysses from Boston College.

Anybody want to recommend a good book on Irish history?

We’re renting a car, so I’m facing the prospect of shifting with my left hand, sitting on the right, driving on the left. Preparatory to this, I’m using Google Earth and Google Maps to get a feel for the roads I’ll be on. I’m told that the roads are so narrow that most of the time it hardly matters, but to me this seems worse, since you’ll come up on someone and have to remember by to veer quickly to the left, not right. So that should be fun. It would be nice to use the iPhone to help with maps, but I’m not sure if using the international data roaming is worthwhile. Are there temporary plans that make it worth doing?

I should point out that, although I sound completely clueless, I am already relying on the best possible travel resource. My wife researches and plans the trip, and I say “Where are we going today?”

Fertilizers and biomass

Whenever I see harvest pictures like this, I always think about mass redistribution.


That is, this corn is transported to my plate from, let’s say, Iowa. And more corn like it keeps coming every year, harvest after harvest. Every year Iowa gets shaved a little thinner, its sweet abundance getting hacked off and carted away to the four corners of the hungry corn-eating globe. Won’t Iowa eventually be scraped down to a barren parking lot? That corn was originally little seeds in the ground. What did the corn eat so that I can eat it? Is there enough corn food to keep the party going?

There’s plenty of Iowa to go around, but still, something is getting sent away. What is it? The good news is that water and carbon, two of the heaviest parts of the crop, come straight from the sky in the form of rain and carbon dioxide. But there are some other things that are sucked out of the soil and not replaced. What are they?

Fertilizer bags tell the story. Each bag is labeled with three numbers, say 20-5-10. These three numbers correspond to the amount of nitrogen, phosphate, and potash (potassium) in the mix. Fertilizer is, and is carefully designed to be, Gatorade for soil. It replaces what the soil sweats away every harvest. Stop fertilizing and your farm productivity would crash. You might think that nitrogen, also being abundant in the atmosphere, would be easy enough for plants to suck from the sky like carbon dioxide. But sadly no plants (without some bacterial help) have ever figured out this trick, so humans have to spend fantastic amounts of energy putting atmospheric nitrogen into a “fixed” form that the plants can eat. Potassium is easy enough to come by, but it turns out that our phosphate supplies are petering out.

I know, it’s yet another alarmist peak-this or peak-that story. But we shouldn’t really be surprised by the Peak Phosphorus story. The earth’s population is so large that we have to keep a very big food-making machine running at top speed all the time. It can’t break down, and every year we have to make it run faster still. A lot of things have to work just right; there’s always going to be a weakest link. As long as we have adequate energy, we’ll have fixed nitrogen for our plants. But phosphates need energy and phosphate rocks, and if we’re not careful we can run right through our supplies. Science News has a recent article on this: Salvage Job.

Sensing an opportunity for profit, farmers sought more fertilizer to nourish their fields. But high oil prices had increased the cost of processing phosphate rock, which provides a key ingredient in fertilizer. With rising demand and tight supply, phosphate rock prices leaped from about $45 per metric ton to $80, then $135, then $367 — a roughly 700 percent spike in just one year.

All those bags of fertilizer have to come from somewhere…

On failure

Many years ago, while browsing at Wordsworth Bookstore in Cambridge (long since shuttered, which gives you an idea of how many years ago) I came across The Education of a Speculator by Victor Niederhoffer. The book fascinated me in a horrifying kind of way because the author of this autobiography was so unbelievably, so nauseatingly arrogant. Harvard graduate, five-time U.S. champion squash player, absurdly wealthy Wall Street speculator. The hubris was so over the top that I wished bad things would happen to him.

Bad things did happen to him.

In 1997 Victor Niederhoffer had a spectacular fall from financial grace. The market turned against him and he was crushed. His business closed, he mortgaged his house and sold his antique silver collection. I cried tiny tears.

But really, this only made him more interesting. It certainly made him more sympathetic. Love him or hate him, this is a guy with some stories to tell. Over on Slate, Kathryn Schulz has interviewed him, and sure enough, he’s a great talker: Hoodoos, Hedge Funds, and Alibis: Victor Niederhoffer on Being Wrong.

It got me thinking about success, failure, and heroes. What does failure really teach us? We can admire the ones who make good decisions and prosper. But our heroes? Our heroes are the ones who make bad decisions and get away with it. For this we lionize them, not for their wisdom or their prowess but for their luck. For the fact that the gods smiled on them even as others were swallowed whole. This is the spark we long to touch. To be beautiful without effort. To sin and be loved.

In the end, life is just one damn thing after another, and we put our own purpose to the chaos, threading improbable stories through the wreckage. Pretending that causality is more than just the funny places where the holes line up and the sunlight filters through.

I’ve always had a distaste for the cautionary “don’t do what I did” tales of the penitent felon or the recovering drug-addled rock star. “Look here!” I want to say. “I’m reading your damn book because you did what you did.” But I am drawn to these lurid stories as much as the next person. It’s the nature of pornography. The rock star in remission says “Kids, don’t take the drugs that I took.” But he’s really saying, “Take these drugs and maybe you too will write a best-selling memoir!”

Mister, we paid you to take those drugs. You would have failed us not to brag about it. But please don’t be pious in your reform. Your contrition on the far side of debauchery is the song of a siren. It serves you, but it does not serve your audience. Guns always sell best after a massacre.

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