March 30, 2007

Biking in Lund

There are thousands of bikes parked by the station in Lund, Sweden.

Riding, taking picture of handlebars-- the rest of my bike is not this shiny.

The city has gone out of its way to help cyclists. Here is a photo of a bus stop with bike racks under a roof.

Here is the new tunnel under a four lane road, just for bikes!

Biking in Copenhagen

Here are some pictures I took on the bikeride home yesterday.

The ride starts from the indoor bike parking garage under the building where I work. (The picture with flash was more fun than the one without.) The door on this room opens automatically when it sees you coming, lots of fun to roll right through.

Copenhagen is a biker's paradise. There are dedicated bike lanes, separate from the street and the sidewalk, with their own traffic lights. All bikers signal turns and stops. People will call you on it if you don't. The bike lanes are always in use.

Here's where I usually park my bike just outside the train stop. Check out those cool European Don Johnson wannabe's in the Mercedes convertible.

Here comes my train, gotta run!

March 27, 2007

2006 Hurricane season cancelled by African dust

In the spirit of Professor Tyndall

Why were there so many hurricaines in 2005, and then virtually none in 2006? According to predictions including sea surface temperatures, it shoudl have been a killer. A recent article in Science reports that an enormous dust cloud from West Africa blew across the Atlantic in June 2006, the beginning of the hurricane season. After about two weeks sea surface temperatures began to cool, relative to temperatures in 2005. The cooling lead to a shift in weather patters that was less favorable for hurricane formation.

It is interesting that 3-Speed thought I looked like Professor Tyndall, a prominent Irish professor in the 19th century. He was the first to show that gases like carbon dioxide and water vapor absorb infrared radiation (1860s), and linked this behavior to the ice ages.

March 23, 2007


I had a remarkable dream a couple of nights ago. I was supposed to stand up in front of the congregation and read a passage from the Bible. I stood up and opened my Bible (I had marked the page with a post-it) and the page was blank. No text! I started saying something to buy time, and I knew the people in the church were my friends so they would understand. That's the dream.

The dream is a wonderful combination of some classics:
1. Having to take an exam in High School you completely forgot about
2. Having to teach a course you completely forgot about
3. Visiting the place you grew up

This is what I get for reading that book by Dawkins. He's at his best arguing against literalists and fundamentalism, and there's no doubing that evolution is an awesome machine. He describes it as a crane lifting itself up step by step, finally building a mountain, as opposed to the sky hook of intelligent design.

March 21, 2007

Natural Science-- boring or exciting?

Not so long ago the Danish word 'hygge' appeared in Long Burn. It is a relative of our English word 'hug', and means something like comfort, coziness or a good atmosphere. It is what Danes dream of, the highest good. And so it was an honor to see this article about me appear in a Danish newspaper-- the photo caption says 'The glad and 'hyggelige' professor shows a new instrument in the laboratory.' Apparently I have arrived-- I am hygge.

The article continues:
I have decided to find out why it isn't trendy to study natural science. The mission starts with the American Professor Johnson at the University of Copenhagen. Why isn't it a megatrend for young people to study natural science? Is it really that much more fun to study the humanities and analyze texts written by men in the 1800s..? Are there only men with grey hair (and morning hair) in the world of science? In general, is it just gapingly boring in that universe? My mission starts at the ?rsted Institute at the University of Copenhagen. I almost can't wait to have my prejudices confirmed. This place must be full to bursting with dry people wearing brown corderoy pants and hospital charity association eyeglasses. Instead I find Professor M. S. J, a very friendly and accomodating man, who remarkably, most of all resembles an uncle. A completely normal person...
(So they think...)

March 15, 2007

Good Day

A friend of a friend wants to hear a story about the good old days in Owatonna, and so here is a story about one very good day. Dave, Jim and I decided to go fishing and Dad lent me the boat and trailer (and the car). We drove up to Lake Shields outside of Faribault. There was an indescribable feeling of pure joy as we drove through downtown Faribault with the boat. We rolled down the windows. We have a boat! You don't! We're going fishing! We even cracked some jokes about their High School team mascot, the falcon. Sorry about that. We got to the landing and put the boat in the water, got the outboard hooked up and sped off in search of happiness. Dropped anchor by some bullrushes in the sun and we couldn't keep the fish off our hooks. At one point Jim rigged a system of three hooks with worms on a single line to see what would happen, and I'll be a monkey's uncle if he didn't pull up three bullheads at once. Good thing the DNR wasn't there. We had a wire cage and filled it up with the little brown devils-- 113 in all if I remember. I think the idea was to help clean all the junk fish out of the lake to make room for good clean honest God-fearing fish like sunfish, crappies and bass, and to stock up for a big bullhead fry. No it was not as much fun cleaning 'em as it was catching 'em.

March 13, 2007

The Prisoner's Dilemma

You and your partner in crime are put in separate jail cells. The choice is whether to rat out your partner or not. If neithier of you says a thing, each gets 6 months. If you defect and your partner doesn't, you go free and he gets 10 years (and vice versa). If you both defect, both serve two years.

I like this game's Groundhog Day, No Exit sensibility-- it captures a central element of human behavior: trust.

Computer scientists have tournaments where they let their programs play the game over and over again with the prize going to the best algorithm. The first time around a four-line BASIC program called 'tit for tat' won the tournament: if your partner defected last turn, you defect this turn, and if he or she didn't turn you in last time, then you do the same. However later programs were able to beat tit for tat. The problem is that the partners can get stuck in defect mode-- once trust is lost it can never be regained. A better strategy, shown by computer simulations, is 'hard love': usually tit for tat, but occassionally you forgive your opponent. Hard love starts by trusting your opponent, but it is also willing to punish defection in later rounds, and it uses a 1 to 5% chance of forgiveness.

The prisoner's dilemma comes up in Kim Stanley Robinson's book Forty Signs of Rain. The main character is from California and is stuck working in Washington DC. He hates east coast drivers, defectors, every last one. They cut you off in trafic and punish infringements. Everyone ends up doing time. On the left coast on the other hand drivers are enlightened and have faith in their fellow drivers-- they let people merge and make space if you signal a lane change. I drove in LA for years and its true-- there's a lot of traffic, sure, but everyone does a pretty good job of getting along, an easy sentence.

I am reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I can recommend it-- Dawkins doesn't pull his punches and he knows the terrain. The discussion is ratcheted upwards on every page. Dawkins argues convincingly that there is no need for God the Creator, and a God of the Gaps is on a slippery slope. A double blind prayer experiment showed no difference in the recovery rate of heart patients who were prayed for and didn't know it compared to those who weren't prayed for and didn't know it. Amazingly those who were prayed for and knew it showed a worse rate of recovery; the authors of the study say this might have been from 'performance anxiety': the added stress of not wanting to let the prayers down. The book forces you to be honest about what you believe. And so I wonder if there is room left for a personal God, and the one God I haven't seen Dawkins discuss is the God of the Human Spirit, working psychological miracles through faith, hope and charity, allowing us to trust, grow, forgive, love, overcome.

March 10, 2007

Jimmy Stewart from Mars

Pop quiz: what do I have in common with David Lynch? (Besides that we are both Eagle Scouts and served as ushers at JFK's inauguration.) The answer is that we both gave talks at High Schools in Copenhagen yesterday. David Lynch was there to open the David Lynch program in cinematography and got reviews in all the newspapers. They wrote that he attributes his success to transcendental meditation and that he has meditated twice a day, every day, since the early 70s. Also they wrote that his hands were constantly in motion, that they had a life, energy and animation of their own.

I did not attract any reporters or photojournalists, and I didn't notice that my hands had a life of their own. I talked about global warming and atmospheric chemistry to about 45 students at a school in northern Copenhagen as part of the University's 'Loan a Researcher' program. It was a lot of fun to simply be in a High School again and feel the ambience, and they even let me use the bathroom in the teachers' lounge. The students had a lot of good questions. The biology teacher asked me what the students could do about global warming and I said they could eat less meat (producing meat takes a lot of fossil fuel energy and its inefficient compared to making vegetables and farm animals emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas), and that they should talk to people. Later the teacher told me that the school is going to have a conservation week and whatever money they can save on utilities and food during that week will be put into the class fund.

March 03, 2007

A, B, C and D, or else!

There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following thier position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both. I'm frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me...that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B, C, and D. Just who do they think they are?

Senator Barry Goldwater, The Congressional Record, 16 September 1981

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