Monday, September 29, 2008


I just arrived in Tallinn, Estonia. My flights here didn't go so well. I had to go through security in Hamburg and they decided to swab my laptop (too many stickers on it?). It came back positive for "TNT". So did the second try. I spent the next 40 minutes standing there trying not to cry while surrounded by German policemen while we all waited for a manager to come clean the machine. After cleaning, they ran some more swabs which came out negative and eventually I was let go, with my laptop!

Note to self..... First stop tomorrow will be to buy an external drive to back this thing up--I'm really bad about keeping on top of that stuff.

While I was searching for more info on false positives, I came across false positives for semen--home infidelity tests! Sad and creepy all rolled into one!

Apparently, cleaning fluids can often be confused for TNT on these airport machines. My apartment was just professionally cleaned, so that's certainly a possibility. The real question, however, is what do I now use to clean my laptop before the next flight. I want to get rid of the old, bad residue, but I don't want to just introduce new, bad residue!! Anyone got any great cleaning tips? Keep in mind I don't speak Estonian!!!!

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Garbage police

Yesterday morning while I was bringing my boxes down to the foyer (in preparation for their trip to the post), the garbage police showed up!

The van says "Schwarz entsorgen ist nicht fair!" which translates to "Illegal disposal isn't fair!" The door says "Kontrolldienst" which means inspection/monitoring office. The adjective "schwarz" literally means "black" and is frequently used here to mean illegal--schwarzfahren is riding the tram without a ticket, etc. I find the substitution a bit creepy because I can't help but suspect it has racist undertones.

I had heard that there were garbage police in Switzerland who would dig through bags of garbage for improperly disposed items (recyclables or hazardous materials) and for something with your name and address on it so they could send you a fine, but I'd always wondered if maybe the tales were just rumor or exaggeration. I know for a fact that your neighbors will dig through your recycling for your name and address and write you a note informing you of what you've done wrong (improperly tied bundles or wrongly sorted materials) and I thought maybe the garbage police were just an out of control exaggeration! I guess they really exist!

So yesterday they pulled up and nabbed a bag of trash on the sidewalk. The old system here was that we put our garbage into official, taxed garbage bags and left it on the sidewalk for pick up on certain days of the week. The new system, starting last spring, was that we carry the taxed bags 0-5 blocks to an official community dumpster. This was a slightly traumatic change for me, but I adapted. A lot of my neighbors either ignored the memo (and I can't blame them since I myself have developed the habit of deleting/throwing away email/mail in German because I just don't want to deal with it--I figure if it's really important they'll write again, or a colleague will tip me off to the content...) or they just don't care, and have been leaving the bags on the sidewalk. Finally the garbage police came, although I'm not sure if it was a random inspection or if another nosy neighbor called in to report the violation. So they swooped in, picked up the bag, and brought it into the van where they have a big sorting table. They opened the bag, dug through it, and appeared to find something with a name and address, then put the bag back together and moved along. I tried to get pictures of them digging through the bag, but I was also trying to be incognito and by the time I got my camera out they had moved the bag out of sight! It was still pretty exciting, though!

And I found a 50 CHF (about $50) bill on the street the other night. It's one of those weeks!


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I self published a book!

But first, we have to talk about paratrooper surgeons. Naturally. During my winter-over at the south pole, one member of our crew became very ill. Now, we had all signed a legal document clearly agreeing to the statement that we understood that there was a real possibility of injury, illness, or death during the winter and that there was absolutely no possiblity of rescue. It's a creepy statement to sign, but the fact is it's just too cold (and dark!) to fly into the south pole between March and October. A couple of years before my winter, Jerri Nielsen was medevaced in early October, a few weeks before the scheduled station opening (most people mistakenly think she was evacuated in the heart of winter--it's as hard to dissuade people from that error as from the idea that penguins and polar bears are at the same pole).

During my winter, someone got sick in March, just a month after the station had closed for the winter. For several weeks, there was a massive information void while the people at Denver HQ tried to decide what to do about the situation, ranging from nothing at all to trying an actual wintertime evacuation. Now, the south pole is already a special place, where there is far too little to do and far too much idle time on everyone's hands, making for the ultimate rumor mill. One of my favorite "inventions" in that period of unknowing was that they were going to bring in some paratrooper surgeons who would parachute to station in the middle of winter, set up an operating theater, and operate on the crewmember in question. Yeah, paratroopers. In the Antarctic, where it's pitch dark and -90F. Ha ha. Needless to say, that solution did not come to pass. But I love the story of it all because it's such an awesome and larger-than-life example of the rumor mill, and thinking about it helps me keep some perspective on the smaller rumors that come up in everyday life.

Fast forward 7 years. I'm putting the final touches on my thesis, getting through the defense, and trying to figure out all the administrative hurdles I have to clear to graduate. Discussions of thesis printing are frequent. Rumors involving $2000 price tags are common. Really? $2k? For that price, I'll print/bind the damn thing in the US and just ship them back over!

I finally got my act together and went directly to the few printers in town who do this kind of thing. The best quote? $350. Sweet.

So, I've now paid to print and bind several copies of my thesis. It's kind of like self publishing a book at a vanity press!


Monday, September 22, 2008


I just got word that I'm officially accepted in the teaching certification program for spring term! Yay! And tonight I finished taping up all my boxes. I seem to be bringing home a cubic meter---mostly books and yarn, of course. Next week I'm off to Tallinn, Estonia for a little sightseeing. This is the home of the yarn company that makes Evilla and Kauni: oh yes, there will be some buying!


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Knitting roundup

I have actually been doing a little knitting, although after the day's sorting and packing I'm as likely to just veg out and watch a movie without even picking up the needles!

I seem to be a true modern woman, meaning that I've reached that age where all my friends seem to be pregnant, only we're all in our 30s (hence the modern). I made a February Baby Sweater from EZ's Knitter's Almanac. I'm embarrassed to say how difficult I found this, actually. First I hated the garter stitch with variegated yarn. No, zeroth I dug some superwash variegated sock yarn out of my "charity donation" pile so I had to adjust the stitch count quite a bit. Then I found that garter + variegated = [shudder]. I actually found the lace pattern impossible to knit--the two action rows are so similar, yet not identical, that I wound up having to tink every 3rd or 4th pattern row after having gotten off by a couple stitches by doing the wrong pattern early on in the row. I guess I never have to worry about knitting the adult version for me. And of course, all the hard-earned lace just disappears when using a variegated yarn [note to self!]. Then I kept forgetting to put in button holes, so they're "artfully" distributed, and then out of sheer "just get it done"ness I sewed the buttons on with dental floss. Sorry, new-parents, that's the best I could do! It doesn't mean I don't love ya!

For some reason, blogger insists on rotating this image.

I've been trudging away on my hemp tank top. I might even finish by next summer! Ha ha. My gauge swatch was too small to be useful, meaning I cast on waaaay too many stitches. I decreased a ton hoping it would turn into some drapey, flaring action on the hips. I have no idea if it will work, but hemp only gets softer for being frogged, so it won't be a total disaster.

And I knit up a couple of flowers for my Alexander Technique teacher. My last lesson is this week, and it seemed like the kind of professional relationship whose end needs to be marked in some way. I thought these would be fun because she has an endless supply of interesting stuff on rotation in her studio--little interesting things for the eye to rest upon during the sessions. But I'm not so thrilled with them--they just seem a bit homespun and sad. I very rarely knit things to give away--it's not so much that I'm selfish (which I certainly am), but that I always feel a bit ashamed of the things I knit. Not ashamed for me to wear them--I adore the stuff I make myself--but preemptively embarrassed for the recipient getting such an obviously handmade gift when maybe they aren't really into the whole handmade thing. To some people handmade means "too broke to buy storebought". It's so ironic, since handknit actually means "I have a lot of spare time and cash for hobbies, and I spent hours loving you enough to make you this," but those childhood lessons die hard, I guess. In the end, it's the thought that counts and my teacher will know that I mean this as a kind and thoughtful gift, and I'll never know if she doesn't display them!


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Going out with a bang

I am thrilled to announce that I have a "publication" in Nature, one of the two most prestigious journals in the natural sciences. It's just a short comment on another paper (in the "Brief Communications Arising" category), but it is peer reviewed and it is in Nature, so I guess it counts! It's a nice high point to end my academic career on! The peer review process was pretty funny. It was like a parody of the peer review process--we had 4 reviewers and two rounds of review that took about 6 months, all for about 3 paragraphs of text!! The first paragraph is here--access to the full text requires a subscription.

Below I'll summarize (or more likely, expand! actual science content!) what we did, but first I need to define the term "reanalysis". Weather forecasts these days are made by taking all the available observations (from surface stations like at the airport, from "weather balloons" which measure temperature, humidty and wind up through the atmosphere at a given point, and from satellite observations) and dropping them into a computer model which is based on physical principles. The crank is turned and then it spits out a forecast for 0, 6, 12, 18, etc hours in the future. Yes, it actually makes a current situation "forecast" which covers the whole globe rather than just where the observations are. This output is called an "analysis". For a long time in the 80s and 90s the output of these model runs was being saved and people got the idea to look at long term changes in in climate in the output. This was a good idea with a major flaw--the forecasting models get updates all.the.time, so no one was sure if trends in the output were real or just from changing models. Eventually they took the latest model available and started over at the beginning (1948), hence creating a re-analysis. One of the incredibly useful things about reanalysis is that it can span gaps in coverage, so we get output in regions like the north pole where there really aren't many measurements. Of course, such output is obviously not as reliable in these "data sparse" regions.

The original paper, published by Graversen, et al. in Nature (volume 451, pages 53-56, Jan 3, 2008), looked at trends in the Arctic in one of these reanalysis products (the "ERA-40" one). They averaged the data for all longitudes for the summer half of the year and looked at trends from 1979-2001. (They started in '79 because that's when the bulk of the satellites came online, and stopped in '01 when the ERA-40 project ended.) They then did something interesting--they looked at how these temperature trends varied as you move from 30N to 90N, and as you move from the earth's surface up to about 10km up in the atmosphere. This last piece is really interesting (and is what I've been trying to work on for the past three years) because knowing where the warming is happening (at the ground, higher up, throughout the whole atmosphere) can give you a clue about what is behind the warming. Different causes of warming like greenhouse gases, solar variability, urbanization, will all have a "signature" of warming at different heights, so it's another way to help us disentangle what's going on with the climate system.

So, Graversen, et al. found a huge peak of the warming trend over the Arctic Ocean (85-90N) in summer at about 3km above the ground. This result was really puzzling and unexpected, and seemed to indicate that, whatever was going on in the Arctic, it wasn't being driven by greenhouse gases.

Since my phd thesis has been on historical weather balloon data (back to 1932) with a special focus on the vertical profile of temperature in the Arctic, we decided to take a quick look at this. We recreated the problematic figure from the original paper using the ERA-40 reanalysis, but then we took ERA-40 and kept only those locations where weather balloons are ingested and looked at trends from that, and finally looked at trends in the weather balloon data itself. The last two versions matched each other quite well, which isn't surprising given that all the weather balloon data is ingested into the reanalysis, and confirms that where there is data, the output is pretty good. The problem came over the Arctic Ocean and it turns out there are a couple of issues:
  1. We discovered, in the primary reference paper for ERA-40 reanalysis, the discussion of a known problem ingesting satellite temperatures over the Arctic Ocean. It turns out that the data prior to 1996 was ingested with an error and the data after that without the error, leading to a jump in temperatures over the Arctic Ocean right at about 3km above the surface. An upward jump in the middle of a long series of data will give you a trend!
  2. The lack of weather balloons in the area meant that there was nothing to keep the model "on track", allowing this satellite error to dominate the region.

Point 2 isn't so surprising--no one expects the models to be perfect. What I did find really surprising was that the reviewers of the original paper let stand the trends in such a poorly validated region, especially in light of the known error (point 1 above). It seems like a pretty big oversight to me!