Signs of Spring – croci in the backyard.

Winter May Be Ending

As everyone around here agrees, this has been a long winter. And just this week we had warnings of another snow storm on April 1st. Fortunately this turned out to be just a bit of rain here.

crocuses in back yardSo, I turned to the back yard, the parts not run over by backhoes during our sewer project, and found signs that Spring is upon us. It remains a mystery how these plants survive the cold nights. Last week we had temperatures in the teens.

Then, I recall from Cambridge that there are flowers that pop up right in the middle of the snow sometimes at the end of February and more usually in the first two weeks of March. Here are Snowdrops on March 8, 2004 in front of our old house in Cambridge.Snow Drops

DARPA, Ten Red Balloons, & Leveraging the Web’s Social Environment

The other night I was catching up on the latest world news from my prime TV journalists, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Colbert interviewed Riley Crane (take a watch of this six minute clip), an MIT postdoc who lead a team that won a DARPA Network Challenge to find ten red balloons on display at all locations at 10:00AM (ET) until approximately 4:00 PM (local time) on Saturday, December 5, 2009 scattered around the US in the shortest time.

The winning team found all of the balloons in 6 hours 52 minutes. The team used a cascade of financial incentives; they shared the $40,000 prize among those who helped find the balloons. To drive the social network, those who referred those who found a balloon received part of the winnings. Listen to Riley Crane on Colbert Nation and look at the team’s website for more about how it worked.

I think that we need to seize on this social invention to solve some pressing matters in our recent history. For instance, why not use this technology to find, for example:

  • evidence of crimes or egregious unethical behavior committed by Dick Cheney
  • managers of sub-prime mortgage companies who intentionally targeted people who could not financially support home ownership, those who created low-doc and no-doc mortgages.
  • members of the defense and spy establishment who knowingly foisted the WMD strategy on the world to support Bush’s craziness
  • what happened to the $billions in cash disbursed in Iraq during the early years of the Bush War?

How would this work? Well, some ideas will lead directly to real money, others will require some wealthy folks with interest in the question to put up some short change to invent the discoveries. Then, we just sit back and watch the social web work.

There is a problem here, that is fairly obvious and not without some risks. The same social discovery process can be used by anyone with a little cash and access to the web. We will see a tsunami of questions from a less desirable portion of the world.

Greenland and Global Warming

When I looked down into the Grand Canyon for the first time, I paused only for a moment at its immensity and moved right onto a more self-centered thought, “How tiny human history is in all of this, and even further, how much less significant my own life must be by extension.”It is clear that human beings will not outlast Nature.

An article in the January 7, 2002 New Yorker magazine, Ice Memory by Elizabeth Kolbert suggests that Nature will win out in even the shorter run than my earlier musings.
Greenland is about the size of France and 80% covered by ice. The ice sheet or glacier is over ten thousand feet thick. “A hundred and thirty-eight feet down, there is snow dating from the American Civil War; some twenty-five hundred feet down, snow from the days of Plato, and, five thousand three hundred and fifty feet down, from the time when prehistoric painters were decorating the caves at Lascaux. At the very bottom, there is snow that fell on Greenland before the last ice age, which began more than a hundred thousand years ago.”
Starting in 1959 and continuing sporadically to this day, teams from various countries have drilled down through this ice and extracted cores on four or more occasions. At first no one was very interested in the cores, but a clever Danish scientist developed a technique that allowed for an accurate reading of the atmospheric temperature at the time each layer was deposited. This involves the ratio of two oxygen isotopes in rain water that is temperature dependent.
So, what do these ice cores reveal about the earth’s climate?

“Its hard to look much further back in the record, however, without feeling a little queasy. About twenty thousand years ago, the Earth was still in the grip of the last ice age. During this period, called the Wisconsin by American scientists, ice sheets covered nearly a third of the world’s landmass, reaching as far south a New York City.
The transition out of the Wisconsin is preserved in great detail in the Greenland ice. What the record shows is that it was a period of intense instability. The temperature did not rise slowly , or even steadily; instead, the climate flipped several times from temperate conditions back into those of an ice age, and then back again. Around fifteen thousand years ago, Greenland abruptly warmed by sixteen degrees in fifty years or less. In one particularly traumatic episode some twelve thousand years ago, the mean temperature in Greenland shot up by fifteen degrees in a single decade.”

So, over the last hundred thousand years of climate history captured in the ice there have been dozens of episodes of wild swings in temperature. But, taking a longer view, the earth has oscillated through warm periods of ten thousand years followed by ninety thousand years of cold during the last half million years. The warm period we now live in is now ten thousand years old; a cold period should follow.
Although us humans are persisting in all sorts of un-neighborly activities, in the end, we may not have enough time to do ourselves in before Nature catches us.